While it is still not clear whether it was Georgia that escalated the conflict first, or Russia through its local puppets and mercenaries who provoked Tbilisi, the basic fact remains that the fighting is taking place exclusively within the internationally recognized borders of Georgia. Despite the Western media’s persistent description of the Russian military in South Ossetia as “peacekeepers,” they are and have always been nothing but an occupation and invading force.
In fact, Russia has used the same method for years elsewhere. In Transnistria, a secessionist area of Moldova, Russian “peacekeepers” have kept the local gang of unreconstructed Stalinist smugglers since the early 1990s, and in Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian territory, it is the same “peacekeepers” and mercenaries who have ethnically cleansed the Georgian majority and de facto annexed the area.
The pattern has been the same in Abkhazia and South Ossetia – Russia has unilaterally granted citizenship to the secessionists and then, when Georgia has tried to recover its territorial integrity, claimed that it has the right, and duty, to defend its “citizens” - a claim repeated on August 8th by President Dmitry Medvedev, and reminiscent of the old Soviet “struggle for peace” in places like Afghanistan.
What is Russia’s interest in controlling these regions? The economic value of these small areas is close to zero – they are too poor to survive without Moscow’s subsidies and, more to the point, without all being criminal black holes – Mafia ruled havens for smuggling and trafficking of arms and drugs to the mutual benefit of the local thugs and their Russian military overseers.
Transnistria specializes in the traffic of weapons, South Ossetia on drugs, cigarettes and weapons; Abkhazia alone has anything resembling a local economy, mostly based on Russian tourism. Ultimately, with Moscow paying the salaries, pensions and various subsidies to the local puppet “governments” in Tiraspol, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali (the capitals of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia respectively) they are an economic drain – but a valuable political and strategic tool.
Domestically, the war in Georgia serves multiple purposes to the Putin-Medvedev regime. It gives satisfaction, and something to do, to a newly vocal military, throws an ideological bone to the ultra-nationalists in the Duma (who have already voted to recognize the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), and divert the attention of restive Muslim, and increasingly Islamist minorities in Northern Caucasus. The fact that Russia’s North Ossetia, the only mostly Christian and loyal to Moscow region in that area has a direct ethnic stake in the developments to its south, may also explain, in part, the decision to invade South Ossetia.
On a wider scale, through its control of Transnistria (and oil supplies), Moscow has transformed Moldova into an obedient annex; its activities in Georgia has not only mutilated that country’s territory, but ensured that NATO membership, desired by most Georgians, will not become a reality.
Indeed, the Europeans, especially Germany, are naturally reluctant to admit a new member involved in a long term conflict with Russia. That means that Georgia will remain vulnerable to Russian threats for the foreseeable future – and that its fate would be anxiously watched, and remembered by Ukraine, another former Soviet colony seeking strategic independence from a resurgent Russian imperialism.
It should be remembered also that a cowed Georgia will also mean the strengthening of Moscow’s control over the energy supplies of Europe. The only major pipelines for Caspian Sea oil and gas not controlled by Russia, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku – Shupsha, will come under the indirect control of Putin & Co.
Not surprisingly, the West’s response to the developments in Georgia has been unimpressive. Washington and various European capitals have expressed alarm and demanded a cease fire, as well as the withdrawal of Russian troops from that country - something they have demanded for years, without noticeable results. The United Nations, as usual and as could be expected, has taken notice and the Secretary General made the usual demands for a peaceful resolution, etc. – while everybody remains fully aware that the Security Council, the only body with any influence on the matter, will go nowhere, given the Russian veto.
What the world should keep in mind is that the present conflict is not over the 3,900 square kilometers of mostly barren South Ossetian mountains but over the fate of Georgia as an independent state and, even more importantly, over the West’s ability, or willingness, to take a stand against the blatant revival of historic Russian imperialism.
If Georgia loses the current fight, and part of its territory, both of which are likely, in the longer term the main loser will be the United States and its credibility as a friend. At the very least, Washington, NATO and the European Union should make it clear that, by its behavior in Georgia, Russia has proven that it is a security threat and should be treated as such. That may mean a rapid re-arming of Georgia, even security guarantees against further Russian aggression, Moscow’s removal from the (mostly symbolically relevant) G-8 Group and, most importantly, the shedding of all illusions that Russia is, or could be a “partner” on anything but trade.