Russia and Georgia Come to Blows

Georgian forces are withdrawing. Russia presses on. How will all this end?


9:00 AM EST:
Some of the rhetoric that the U.S. and NATO bandied about in 1999 to justify the Kosovo operation may be coming back to haunt us in the wake of the 2008 Ossetian war.

Russia has claimed that its mandate from the 1992 Sochi agreement to "keep the peace" gives it the right to take whatever measures are necessary to secure South Ossetia. But this can be interpreted to mean that Russia has the right to strike targets in Georgia proper on the grounds that Georgia's warfighting abilities must be degraded-similar to the NATO rationale in 1999 for hitting targets in Serbia itself, not just Serbian units in Kosovo.

Russia is also utilizing the "loss of sovereignty" argument that was advanced against Serbia in 1999-that Georgia's attack on South Ossetia which seemed to target civilians has produced such a negative reaction among Ossetians who claim they can no longer live under Georgian rule. So, the argument is that Tbilisi has forfeited its right to exercise sovereignty over South Ossetia just as Serbia supposedly lost its sovereign rights over Kosovo.

And whether the West, and particularly the U.S., buys this or not is no longer the issue. Moscow doesn't seem to care whether we accept these comparisons, just as we didn't care about Moscow's opinion on Kosovo final status. We can either try to fight it-which we don't seem to want to do-or we will have to accept it de facto-which is where things seem to be headed, at least given the tenor of the French peace mission, which wants a restoration of the August 6 status quo-which for all intents and purposes is a Russian victory and a Georgian defeat.
A final and sobering note of comparison. The 1999 Kosovo war soured U.S.-Russia relations and prevented cooperation that might have nipped al-Qaeda in the bud in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. The Ossetian war today is going to torpedo any effort to restart the U.S.-Russia partnership-and what consequences might result?



12:30 PM EST
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili upped the ante this afternoon when he called for American support. "We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack," he said in an interview to CNN. This follows the arrival in South Ossetia, on the heels of "volunteers," of regular Russian military forces whose apparent mission is to re-establish the status quo as it stood earlier this week: a division between Georgia proper and a South Ossetia which still proclaims its right to separate. In order to accomplish that, however, Georgian forces would either have to withdraw to the previous lines of control, or they would have to be compelled by force. The latter is what is happening-and the danger is that the fighting will spread beyond Ossetia if the Russian forces decide they must target Georgian military forces elsewhere in order to achieve this purpose.

With television screens across Russia displaying the destruction of Tskhinvali and reports circulating of hundreds of civilian casualties, it is becoming difficult for the Kremlin to back down, given that most residents of South Ossetia are Russian citizens.

Tbilisi, which feels it may be on the verge of "solving" the Ossetian secession once and for all, is not going to meekly accept a return to any status quo ante bellum.

The West, and particularly the United States, which poured on the rhetoric of support for a "democratic Georgia," may now find itself trapped by those honeyed words. Does President George W. Bush want to be accused, as was his Republican predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower, of abandoning a "freedom loving people" to Russian tanks? (It does help that, like Eisenhower in 1956, there is a major ongoing Middle Eastern crisis to distract attention, in fact there are three!)

So far, the response from official Washington is a mix of reaffirming support for Georgia's territorial integrity with calls for an immediate cease-fire and the dispatch of an as-yet unnamed envoy to the region. Senator Obama focused on the need for fresh negotiations on all sides to seek a diplomatic solution.

Senator John McCain went further. He said, "We should immediately call a meeting of the North Atlantic Council to assess Georgia's security and review measures NATO can take to contribute to stabilizing this very dangerous situation. Finally, the international community needs to establish a truly independent and neutral peacekeeping force in South Ossetia." Left unsaid, of course, is what those measures might consist of, who would supply the forces and material (since Afghanistan, a much more pressing mission, remains undersupplied), and, of course, whether such action by NATO would terminate Russian assistance to the alliance in transporting men and material to Afghanistan, especially when the future of the Pakistan-based supply routes is unclear-not to mention what might happen if other key NATO allies didn't see things his way.

The real danger, and we've seen it in the last twenty-four hours, is that the pattern of escalation/counter-escalation has taken over. If not interrupted, the conflict will worsen.
Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, summed up the West's dilemma in comments to The Guardian: "There is considerable sympathy for Georgia among western governments such as the US and London. It is clear that the Russians have fermented the separatist movement for a particular strategic purpose. "There is also however an enormous amount of frustration with the reckless behaviour of the Georgian president at this moment."