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South Ossetia At Front Of New East-West Conflict?

  • Brian Whitmore

A column of Russian troops on the march to Tskhinvali on August 9


In an effort to prod the West to Tbilisi's side in its rapidly escalating armed conflict with Russia, President Mikheil Saakashvili is invoking the ghosts of Cold War battles past -- Moscow's suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan in 1979.

The Georgian leader's strategy is clear. Tbilisi's small army is no match for the Russian military machine. Saakashvili's only chance of success in his bid to regain control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, therefore, is to globalize the conflict and turn it into a central front of a new struggle between Moscow and the West.

"What Russia has been doing against Georgia for the last two days represents an open aggression, unprecedented in modern times," Saakashvili said in a televised address on August 8. "It is a direct challenge for the whole world. If Russia is not stopped today by the whole world, tomorrow Russian tanks might reach any European capital. I think everyone has understood this by now."

So far, the West has not taken the bait. The United States and the European Union are sending envoys to Georgia to try to broker a cease-fire and Western leaders have issued predictable statements calling on both sides to show restraint.

Most European leaders, wary of antagonizing Moscow, have strived to come across as more or less balanced in the conflict. And even Georgia's closest ally in the West, the United States, has thus far offered little more than rhetorical support.

Speaking in Beijing on August 9, U.S. President George Bush stepped up Washington's criticism of Moscow calling for a halt to the shelling of Georgian targets.

"Georgia is a sovereign nation and its territorial integrity must be respected," Bush said. "We have urged an immediate halt to the violence and a stand-down by all troops. We call for an end to the Russian bombings and a return by the parties to the status quo of August 6."

Trying To Moving West

Since coming to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has relentlessly sought to move Georgia into the Western orbit and out of Moscow's sphere of influence. In order to do that, however, the Georgian leader needed to resolve the standoffs over the pro-Moscow regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke from Georgia with Russian assistance following wars in the early 1990s.

Prior to Saakashvili's rise, Russia was the only international player in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with troops in both regions under a CIS-sanctioned "peacekeeping" mission.

"Saakashvili has been trying to internationalize the conflicts in Georgia since he has come to office," says Sabine Freizer, the Europe program director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. "It has been very much his strategy to make this an international conflict between the traditional West and Russia, speaking in language of the Cold War and saying that this is really the last frontier. He's been racking up those kind of expressions in the past few days, but this is really nothing new."

The United States has been largely receptive to Saakashvili's efforts, championing Tbilisi's attempt to join NATO, helping to train Georgia's armed forces, and offering diplomatic support on the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts.

Europe, on the other hand, has been largely divided. Frontline EU members like Germany and France, wary of antagonizing Moscow, have been reluctant to offer Georgia anything more than lukewarm support. Newer member states like Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states, with fresh memories of Soviet domination, have been more forceful in support of Tbilisi.

Georgia moved into South Ossetia on August 7 in a large-scale operation to regain control of the Moscow-backed separatist region, following days of clashes in which both sides exchanged gun and mortar fire. Each side accuses the other of initiating the hostilities. The offensive sparked a furious reaction from Russia, which sent troops, military aircraft, and tanks to repel Georgian forces. It was the Russian military's first offensive outside its borders since the 1991 Soviet breakup.

It came as no surprise that the strongest European condemnation of Russia's incursion into South Ossetia thus far came from Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitekunas, who said Moscow crossed "red lines" and committed "aggression and an outrageous violation of international law." Poland, likewise, has called for an emergency summit on South Ossetia.

Some analysts say that with the West divided, Saakashvili may have felt the need to try to resolve the conflicts in Georgia's favor quickly, before the Bush administration -- which has been a very strong supporter of Tbilisi -- leaves office:

"Why precisely now? What made Saakashvili decide that this was the right moment politically? In my opinion, one of the reasons is that Mikheil Saakashvili believes the current U.S. administration has certain obligations toward him and the next presidential administration -- particularly if this is a democratic administration -- won't feel it has any these obligations and may modify the overall stance on Georgia," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the Moscow-based journal "Russia in Global Affairs," told RFE/RL's Russian Service in a recent interview.

If that is indeed the case, he appears to have badly miscalculated by failing to anticipate Russia's robust response. And now that the long-simmering confrontation has escalated from a diplomatic and political clash into armed conflict, the West's options are increasingly limited.

"I really think he [Saakashvili] has taken it a step too far because if we were really going to push back the Russians, you would need something like a military intervention and that is not going to happen," Freizer says.

Analysts say the West does have some leverage over Russia. The EU, for example, could suspend negotiations over a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Moscow; the NATO-Russia Council could be dissolved; Russia could be prevented from joining the World Trade Organization, or even kicked out of the Group of Eight.

But its energy wealth, and the influence that buys, will likely prevent anything more than a mild rebuke. Moreover, the United States and the European Union badly need Russia's cooperation on issues like curbing Iran's nuclear program.

But in the end, Moscow's efforts to be viewed as a responsible global player will certainly suffer a serious blow due to the conflict.

"Russia's image is going to take a battering," Freizer says. "Russia has been trying increase its international legitimacy as a defender of international law, not only in the Caucasus, but also we've been seeing this in the Balkans as well with the positions Russia has been taking on Kosovo. It is going to be more difficult for them to stand in front of the Security Council as the big defender of international law while they're bombing civilian targets and Georgian cities."

RFE/RL's Georgian and Russian services contributed to this report
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