South Ossetia is Russian for Kosovo
OK, in my previous post I gave the background to the developing crisis in Georgia. Now that all hell has broken loose, what is going on? In a nutshell, a few hours before the Olympic opening ceremonies, Georgia launched an all out military assault on South Ossetia. The timing can hardly be a coincidence, it takes time to plan and prepare a military attack on this scale. No doubt they hoped that with the world’s attention on Beijing, they could make preparations for their attack and catch the Ossetians and the Russians off guard. And the Georgians agreed to a cease fire the day before their attack, further hoping for a surprise attack I expect. The Russians apparently weren’t caught too badly by surprise, and responded almost immediately by sending troops to South Ossetia and launching air strikes in Georgia. Fighting is raging in South Ossetia, with reports saying that Tskhinvli, their capital city, is in ruins with hundreds of civilians dead. Thousands of Ossetian civilians have fled north into Russia.
Now the Georgians are saying that their attack is in response to Ossetian separatist attacks on Georgian villages, and while that may be true, it doesn’t change the fact that Georgia is clearly the one who escalated these clashes to major military action. Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, claims that his forces are defending themselves against Russian attack, and that the Russians have struck civilian targets in Georgia. Russia claims it’s forces are going into South Ossetia to protect the Russian citizens living there, since many if not most of the South Ossetians hold Russian citizenship. Reports of Russian attacks on Georgia proper appear to have been exaggerated, though Russian air strikes almost certainly struck some civilian buildings in Gori, a Georgian town very near South Ossetia.
Many Russians for their part regard this situation as very analogous to the situation in Kosovo, where NATO launched massive air strikes on Russia’s ally Serbia to force them to accede to Kosovar demands of independence from Serbia. If it’s OK for NATO to attack a Russian ally to force them to grant independence to a rebellious province, why shouldn’t Russia be justified in doing the same in Georgia? And frankly, they’re right. This was one of the many things I found appalling about the NATO attack on Serbia, major powers chopping up smaller countries to suit their needs is a medieval concept, no matter what the flowery humanitarian language used to justify it. Kosovo set a terrible precedent, and the only thing surprising is that it took so long for someone else to use it to justify the same.
Now in my readings some have claimed that of course this isn’t the same thing, but their arguments seem to consist of “Russia is the bad guy trying to conquer territories, NATO are the good guys trying to free people, so of course it isn’t the same.” This argument doesn’t hold water, heck, it doesn’t hold air, and is an excellent example of how even intelligent educated people internalize their government’s propaganda and project it on the world. Russia and Serbia = bad, NATO and Georgia = good. Snort. The truth is vastly more complicated, and the hard truth is that neither NATO nor Russian politicians give a rat’s ass about anyone’s desire for self determination unless it suits their needs. Russia’s actions in Chechnya demonstrated that nicely, and NATO’s refusal to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence makes mincemeat of their claims to support democracy and self determination.
The big question is what happens now? The Russians are moving troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia and are clearly determine to prevent them from being occupied by Georgian forces. The Georgians are claiming that Russia is at war with them and intends to seize ports and the important BTC oil pipeline, as well as overthrow the Georgian government. At this juncture it seems that Georgia is hoping that the USA will get directly involved, it was quite a gamble to launch a major military operation against territory Russia had sworn to protect. If they thought they were calling the Russian’s bluff to defend South Ossetia, clearly Russia was not bluffing. Georgia’s president Saakashvili is playing with fire.
I see two broad possible outcomes at this point. The one possibility is that Russia will move substantial military forces into Abkhazia and South Ossestia, beat the crap out of the Georgian military, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia will become effectively independent under Russian protection. NATO and the USA may make a lot of noise, but it seems unlikely they want to tangle with Russia over what in the greater scheme of things are two very small areas, with a total population of only 250,000 or so. The other possibility is that Russia will indeed launch much broader attacks against Georgia proper, along the lines of the NATO air war on Serbia. Or even a Russian invasion of Georgia proper. In that case at some point NATO and/or the USA may decide they have no choice but to intervene. Very bad things could follow in this scenario.
At this juncture, neither side is backing down, and Russia and Georgia are exchanging charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing. In fact the latest breaking news is that Russia has explicitly stated that they won’t even talk to Georgia unless Georgia declares a cease fire and withdraws to its original lines. I can only hope that cool heads prevail, but some of history’s largest wars have started over much smaller incidents. God help all the innocent civilians in Georgia: Georgian, Abkhazian, and Ossetian alike.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. Credit: Xinhua/Reuters Photo. I could have chosen any number of more graphic or more military photos, but this one shows what war really is to civilians in war zones…people fleeing for their lives. Which means more displaced people, which plants the seeds for future conflicts. Thrillsville.)