Georgia’s geographical position makes it vital in a regional game of great power politics. The control of Georgia gives access to the oil and gas rich areas of the Caspian Sea and former Soviet Central Asia. It allows firming up control over the Turkish Straits, a critically important shipping point. And further, it reduces Russia and its influence in some critical areas such as the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
These considerations have driven the United States’ involvement in Georgia’s affairs, and the indirect assistance it has given to Georgia since hostilities commenced on Friday. What’s known for a fact is that United States Air Forces (8 transport aircraft) assisted in redeployment of Georgia’s 2,000 contingent from Iraq back to the country to take part in fighting. Reports suggest some were taken directly from the aircraft to the battleground. Further:
- US provides Georgia with open political and economic support (from what I know they have provided US$ 250,000 in immediate aid);
- The US military logistical support from Iraq included moving 11 tonnes of military cargo; and
- There are unconfirmed reports that US military instructors were involved in the initial assault on Tskhinvali.
That represents indirect military assistance and has not escaped Russia’s attention. “It is a shame that some of our partners are not helping us but, essentially, are hindering us,” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said.
Through this prism, the recent conflict in the Caucasus can not be seen as a war between Georgia and Russia. This is a conflict of two great powers over an area that is equally important to both of them.
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This is how it unfolded. On the night before the opening of the Olympics in China, Georgian armed forces launched a massive artillery strike on its breakaway province of Southern Ossetia, particularly its regional centre Tskhinvali. After hours of intensive shelling, which also involved the use of 122-mm BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, Georgian Air Force executed several bombing raids in Tskhinvali and several other Ossetian settlements. Under cover of combat aircraft, several Georgian battalions reinforced with tanks raided villages and stormed the capital of Southern Ossetia. The battalion of Russian peacekeepers stationed in Tskhinvali was one of the first to come under intensive bombardment.
After just two days of this campaign, over 1,600 civilians were killed; an excess of 35,000 refugees fearing for their lives fled to Russia. Georgian forces were accused of multiple atrocities against non-combatants. The Russian response was swift and hard. Elements of the 58th Army based in Southern Russia crossed the border and advanced on Tskhinvali; Russian Air Force attacked Georgian positions and several targets across the country; the Russian Black Sea Fleet deployed a taskforce in the vicinity of Georgian coastline.
On Sunday 10 August, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili publicly declared a ceasefire and announced that his country was pulling forces back from a war zone. Despite these announcements, the Georgian military continued to shell Tskhinvali throughout Monday 11 August with no intention of reducing the level of fighting, let alone stopping it. Also, Georgian forces blew up a major water reservoir outside of Tskhinvali, flooding town basements where locals were seeking refuge from artillery shelling and aerial raids carried out by the Georgian military. Russian citizens in Georgia were denied the right to leave the country.
As well as the US interests at play in Georgia, many regional factors have led to the eruption of violence. After Georgia declared independence in 1991 its new leaders officially proclaimed a policy of nationalism (Georgia is for Georgians) as the new state ideology, thus triggering separatism in several enclaves largely populated by ethic minorities that do not comprise Georgian ethnos. Southern Ossetia was one of them. It intended to reconcile with its northern part (Northern Ossetia, which is part of Russia), and the socio-economic incentives (the standard of living in Russia is much higher than in Georgia) led to a situation when over 90% of South Ossetians were granted Russian citizenship. This fact alone gave the Russians a reason to intervene militarily.
However, Russia’s reaction can be explained not just by protecting its citizens and peacekeepers (Russia has received a mandate to run a peacekeeping operation in Abkhaziya and Southern Ossetia in 1992). Historically, Georgia and the Caucasus was one of Russia’s traditional spheres of interest and influence, not just economic and political but more importantly, cultural. Both the Georgians and Ossetians share the same faith as the Russians — Christian Orthodoxy. These strong cultural ties explain Russia’s presence in the area: the nation acted as the guarantor and protector of the local Orthodox Christians against the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
These considerations brought Mikhail Saakashvili to power in November 2003 during the orchestrated “Revolution of Roses” (effectively a planned regime change). When you add Georgia’s ambitions of joining NATO sooner rather than later and its close ties with the United States, you can start to understand Georgia’s actions in Southern Ossetia and the US reaction to Russia’s counter-attack.