The conflict being waged in Georgia is an extremely complex affair, involving Russia, Georgia, separatist groups, breakaway provinces, oil pipelines and other competing groups, factions and ideas. From everything I’ve read about the region and the conflict, what’s happening right now goes something like this:
Georgia gained it’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 when the USSR collapsed. Shortly after, in 1992, the Georgian province of South Ossetia declared it’s independence from Georgia, but their secession was unrecognized by the international community.
Since then, South Ossetia has enjoyed a certain level of independence and autonomy, though they were still considered a part of Georgia and were subject to Georgian rule. Complicating this is the fact that South Ossetia has extremely strong ties to Russia–some Ossetians use Russian currency and hold Russian passports, and there has been a sizable separatist movement in South Ossetia that has received tacit support from Moscow.
In 2006, South Ossetia held an election on a resolution for independence, which passed with nearly 99% of the vote. Despite the resolution’s success, once again South Ossetia’s independence went unrecognized internationally.
The current war began because the Georgian government began cracking down on the South Ossetian separatists–Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has stated that he intends to reassert Georgian control over the region, as he successfully did with another independent province, Ajaria , in May of 2004.
On August 7th, the Georgian military entered South Ossetia to put down the separatist movement. Supposedly, they shelled the village of Tskhinvali as part of their offensive, a strike that several Russian peacekeepers got caught up in. In response, Russia invaded South Ossetia, citing the protection of their peacekeepers and a desire to end the violence as reasons.
Russia has since moved beyond Ossetia into surrounding towns such as Gori and Senaki. In addition, Russia has taken over Abkhazia, another breakaway province.
What’s the endgame? Russia has indicated that they’re likely going to try to topple Saakashvili’s government; the logical result of that would be the installation of a pro-Russia government in Georgia.
I don’t think Russia would attempt to take South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but it’s conceivable Moscow will either recognize those regions’ independence or allow them to operate autonomously.
It’s worth mentioning that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline–which provides 1% of the world’s crude oil–passes through Georgia, not far south of the South Ossetia region. By installing a pro-Russian government in Tbilisi, Moscow could assert de facto control over the pipeline and solidify their hold on more of the global oil market.
I think part of this is Russia flexing it’s muscles, trying to gain some of the relevance they’re been hemorrhaging since the fall of the USSR. In addition, it’s clear Moscow is trying to solidify their control over former Soviet republics and intimidating their neighbors into submission. Though Georgia can’t be held blameless in this, Russia’s overwhelmingly disproportionate response in dealing with the situation in South Ossetia is a disturbing development that needs to be dealt with.’
UPDATED: Fred Kaplan weighs in:
Regardless of what happens next, it is worth asking what the Bush people were thinking when they egged on Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s young, Western-educated president, to apply for NATO membership, send 2,000 of his troops to Iraq as a full-fledged U.S. ally, and receive tactical training and weapons from our military. Did they really think Putin would sit by and see another border state (and former province of the Russian empire) slip away to the West? If they thought that Putin might not, what did they plan to do about it, and how firmly did they warn Saakashvili not to get too brash or provoke an outburst?
It’s heartbreaking, but even more infuriating, to read so many Georgians quoted in the New York Times–officials, soldiers, and citizens–wondering when the United States is coming to their rescue. It’s infuriating because it’s clear that Bush did everything to encourage them to believe that he would. When Bush (properly) pushed for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, Putin warned that he would do the same for pro-Russian secessionists elsewhere, by which he could only have meant Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin had taken drastic steps in earlier disputes over those regions–for instance, embargoing all trade with Georgia–with an implicit threat that he could inflict far greater punishment. Yet Bush continued to entice Saakashvili with weapons, training, and talk of entry into NATO. Of course the Georgians believed that if they got into a firefight with Russia, the Americans would bail them out.
UPDATE II: Then there’s this:
Moreover, by preparing Georgian soldiers for duty in Iraq, the United States appeared to have helped embolden Georgia, if inadvertently, to enter a fight it could not win.
This is part of the price of a couple of decades of policy towards Russia. There is no love in Russian political circles for the US, and very little for the EU. There is even less love for NATO. Nearly 20 years ago Gorbachev agreed with George Bush I not to use the Red army to crush dissent and rebellion in the Warsaw Pact states. Let there be no doubt that the Red army was perfectly capable of doing so. In exchange George I agreed that NATO would not expand to former Warsaw Pact countries.
NATO, the US and Europe broke their word. They expanded NATO further and further, into what Russia considers its buffer states, states which cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of potential enemies. Russian geopolitics has been obsessed with controlling those states for centuries (along with getting a warm water port). This is not a short term, minor issue. It is at the heart of what Russia believes it needs to be defensible—lots and lots of space.