Georgia’s takeover bid backfires

It has always been hard to work out who fired the first shot in any of the many conflicts that have broken out in the Caucasus. Ever since June 1992, when the tiny mountain enclave of South Ossetia won the first round of its bid to detach itself from Georgia, the two sides have been intermittently at war. But the flare-ups in the last decade have been skirmishes, and for a while it looked as if peace had broken out.

The weapons used on August 8 made the fighting qualitatively different. Observers had little doubt the operation to take South Ossetia back under Georgian control bore the hallmarks of a planned military offensive.It was not the result of a ceasefire that had broken down the night before. It was more a fulfillment of the promise the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, made to recapture lost national territory, and with it a measure of nationalist pride.

The assault appears to have been carefully timed to coincide with the opening of the Olympic games when the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, was in Beijing. Tom de Waal of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and an expert on the region said: “Clearly there have been incidents on both sides, but this is obviously a planned Georgian operation, a contingency plan they have had for some time, to retake [South Ossetia’s capital] Tskhinvali.

Possibly the Georgians calculated that with Putin

in Beijing they could recapture the capital in two days and then defend it over the next two months, because the Russians won’t take this lying down.”

If Georgia calculated that Russia would be inhibited by Putin’s absence, it soon backfired. Within hours, the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, chaired a session of the security council in the Kremlin, ordering units of 58th Russian army to retake Tskhinvali.

The Russians are far from blameless. They have a long and dirty history of dividing and ruling, fomenting strife to weaken opponents in a critical frontier zone. But Russia could claim in the UN security council to be defending its own citizens and its own peacekeepers. Sabine Freizer, Europe programme director of the International Crisis Group said: “Russia should not be blamed for the fighting, but Russia should now be pressured not to go beyond its peacekeeping mandate, and to ensure that armed militia do not cross the border into South Ossetia.” Events may have already overtaken this.

A proxy war risks becoming an open conflict between Russia and Georgian troops, not just in the tiny enclave of South Ossetia, but in another breakaway statelet of Abkhazia.

Gen Mamuka Kurashvili, a Georgian military officer in charge of operations,

said on Rustavi 2 TV that Georgian forces were moving “to establish constitutional order in the region”, an ominous phrase used in the past by the Russians to justify its two wars to crush the separatist movement in Chechnya.

But it was this situation that Russia warned of, when America, Britain and most EU governments recognised Kosovo. It was also why the French and German governments were so insistent on thwarting US attempts to give Georgia a so-called membership action plan at this year’s Nato conference in Bucharest.If Georgia now were a member of Nato, as Saakashvili has pushed for, the military organisation would have a duty to rush to its defence. — The Guardian