When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Georgia as one of the constituent republics declared independence. The problem is, Georgia, like the other republics, had a substantial Russian population living within it.
This is exacerbated in the Georgian case by the fact that Ossetia as a region is divided into North and South Ossetia. North Ossetia is in the Russian Federation and South Ossetia is within Georgia. The Ossetians regard themselves not exactly as Russian but as a nationally distinct entity separate from Georgians, and the South Ossetians are keen to link up with North Ossetians.
The Russians was clever enough however to cultivate the South Ossetians as a worrier for Georgia by, firstly, broadcasting loudly their support for South Ossetian autonomy, and secondly by offering them Russian passports, which was quite provocative. It’s estimated now that half the South Ossetian population has Russian passports.
On the one hand you can see this as altruistic — the Russians sticking up for an oppressed minority. On the other, Russia has a ready-made issue there for worrying the Georgian regime. The message is, “You are oppressing our citizens within your border and we are going to take steps to stop it.” All of this could be seen as an oppressed minority in Georgia standing up for itself.
But of course, it takes place in a much broader geopolitical context of problems between Russia and NATO and, behind NATO, the United States. NATO and the US have given strong support to Georgia.
Georgia is located right up against the Russian Federation, which is not very happy about having a strong NATO member on its border. Georgia has applied to join NATO and NATO has said in the last year that Georgia’s admission is not a matter of if but when. Russia finds that threatening. It finds other ex-Soviet republics joining NATO threatening. It finds the US deployment of a collective missile defense system threatening, and what happened over the weekend can be seen as Russia pushing back somewhat.
On the question of timing, if anyone is trying it on while the world’s attention is on the Olympics, it is the Georgians. There were talks between the South Ossetians and the Georgian government ongoing from April, the upshot of which was the Georgians saying they were looking at granting South Ossetia autonomy. But after saying that they have sent troops in to try and take the capital.
In the process of doing this, they came into conflict with the peacekeeping force which is there under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States, whose troops are overwhelmingly Russian. Some of those troops were killed and of course the Russians retaliated. In terms of who made the first move here, it was the Georgians.
What exactly the Georgians thought they were going to get away with here is very hard to see. In terms of the military machine, the Russians have an enormous advantage. It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened had Georgia already joined NATO. Under the treaty any attack on a NATO country warrants full scale retaliation from the organisaton. Georgia isn’t a member having had its application turned down earlier this year, but will clearly be looking to NATO for some kind of response.
In terms of where this is headed, at this point the Georgians are seeking a ceasefire and peace talks and the Russians are not. Given the military imbalance, that makes some sense. If the Russians maintain their presence in South Ossetia, there’s a possibility of sporadic guerilla fighting against the Russians. If the Russians were forced to back off, there would be an ongoing conflict with the population of the area. In terms of ending the conflict quickly, the status quo needs to be restored.