Thursday, 31 May 2012

An Overview of the Russo-Georgian Conflict

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September 25, 2008
Georgia was a constituent republic of the former USSR. In 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the independence of Georgia. In turn, the autonomous regions of Georgia, namely South Ossetia and Abkhazia, attempted to break away from Georgia, resulting in civil strife in the early Nineties. These conflicts were settled with Russian involvement with the United Nations Mission in Georgia deploying in a peacekeeping role in Abkhazia and a Russian peacekeeping force deploying under a Joint Control Commission in South Ossetia. This is the background to the conflict that suddenly broke out in the Caucasus while the Olympics were in progress in Beijing.
The political context of the conflict was the ascendance of Mr. Saakashvili in Georgia. He had risen to the presidency in the aftermath of the Rose Revolution of late 2003. He is pro-American and has been linked with the billionaire George Soros' democracy mission. He followed a policy of reassertion of Georgian control over areas that had attempted to break away. He had earlier managed to regain control of Ajaria in the south west and had sent troops into the Kodori gorge in Abkhazia. Georgia was eager to join the NATO and perhaps the ploy of a threat from Russia, heightened by the war, was to serve to hasten the process. In the event, the strategy backfired badly, with expansion to include Georgia being seen by the NATO as an avoidable risk.
However, the international context is the more important aspect leading to the outbreak of hostilities. Russia had seen an eclipse in power in the Nineties under Yeltsin. In the Putin era, it has managed to regain some vitality with additional oil and gas revenues coming its way due to discoveries, operation of pipelines and the rise in prices. It has therefore been wanting to reassert itself in face of the steady expansion of NATO in its vicinity to include states of the erstwhile Warsaw Pact and even former Soviet republics. The immediate perceived affront was the recognition by the US and its allies of Kosovo, a breakaway autonomous province of Serbia, as an independent state. Russia saw a chance of returning the compliment received in the Balkans in the Caucasus. Two other causal factors not gone into here are the oil and pipeline politics in the region and US interests with respect to the current crisis with Iran.
The conflict began with an artillery and rocket bombardment of South Ossetia by Georgia on August 07, 2008. Georgia captured Tshinvali, the capital of South Ossetia by the next day. In this about 1500 people were reportedly killed including ten Russian peacekeepers. This led to the Russian military response by August 11, 2008. Within five days Russian troops were in control of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia and were on the doorsteps of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. A ceasefire was negotiated on August 15, 2008 and Russian troops had withdrawn by August 22, 2008. Russia recognised both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states on August 26, 2008.
Georgia has a military strength of about 27,000 and has Soviet-era equipment interspersed with fresh purchases from the US. These troops are US trained with a training team of about 127 trainers deployed for the purpose in Georgia. A joint exercise had just been completed with US troops of its European Command in July so as to prepare a brigade for deployment in Iraq to replace its brigade of 2000 troops already there. In the event, those deployed in Iraq were speedily flown back in US transport aircraft during the conflict. However, the brigade that was readying to deploy to Iraq and was ostensibly being trained by the US for the purpose was instead employed to capture South Ossetia with another brigade in reserve. A third brigade was employed to gain Abkhazia. Clearly, there appears to have been some prior preparation for this attack with US awareness of the same.
Russian aims were to secure both regions while weakening Georgia at the same time, and through this to send a wider message of the re-emergence of Russia. Russian muscle flexing also served the purpose of sensitising the US of the vulnerability of its BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) oil pipeline that had been built for the express purpose of bypassing Russia. Towards this end, it also appears to have made prior preparation, having conducted Exercise Caucasian Frontier in July and having trained troops readily at hand for immediate response. Russia had issued passports to people in South Ossetia and when Georgia tried on August 7 to reassert its control by use of force, Russia responded with military means for protecting Russian citizens.
The two pronged Russian onslaught was through both regions. It involved about 18,000 troops of 58th Army and supported by 4th Air Army. Air operations were conducted against Tbilisi airport and elements of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, based at Sevastopol in the Crimea on lease from Ukraine, conducted operations for the capture of Poti port. However, despite the victorious showing, Russian military actions have come in for some critical scrutiny in terms of preparedness. Interestingly, the use of cyber war was witnessed for perhaps the first time with Russia-based computer networks targeting Georgian servers in ‘botnets’ and ‘DDOS’ attacks. Apparently, the website of the Georgian president under fire had to be shifted to a Polish server. Eventually, the Russians retreated into a security zone around South Ossetia ending the conflict that resulted in 2000 dead, 30,000 refugees and 160,000 displaced people.
The US response was to condemn Russian actions. It sent humanitarian aid by air and through ships of its Sixth fleet in the Mediterranean and is reported to have helped Georgia with military advisers from the training team in location. It may have helped precipitate matters by giving Mr. Saakashvili signals that he could go ahead with his adventurist enterprise of a military takeover in the hope of testing newly elected Russian President Medvedev. In this context the visit of US Secretary of State Rice to Georgia in July is notable. It has cut off the US-Russian nuclear deal that was under discussion and it has signed a missile shield deal with Poland.
The international response was swift in trying to bring the conflict to a close. The UNSC was not very effective since Russia is a member of the P5. However, the EU under the French presidency drew up a ceasefire agreement that came to fruition after a few problem areas were sorted out. Divisions in Europe came to the fore on the approach to be adopted towards Russia. The EU has suspended talks on EU-Russian partnership. NATO was divided over supporting Georgia since its major members are dependent on Russia for oil and gas. However, it has held in abeyance the planned joint exercises. While Georgia pulled out of the CIS, there was no avid support witnessed for Russia from among countries of its ‘near abroad’ that comprise this grouping. The SCO has also not been very forthcoming in its support. Most states with Russian ethnic population, such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan, are worried by the Russian reason of support to its citizens as casus belli.
The war itself was a minor one and on that account may vanish into military history. However, there are a few issues that it has helped flag that should receive requisite attention. First is the problem of overlapping ethnicities. South Ossetia has a population of about 100,000 people of Persian origin, who differ from their Georgian neighbours but have affiliation with the North Ossetians who belong Russia. This is indicative of the intricate and overlapping nature of problems in areas such as the Balkans and Caucasus and indeed elsewhere, not excluding South Asia. These are subject to being manipulated by external motivated forces. Recognition to statelets as independent states such as has occurred with respect to Kosovo in February and with South Ossetia and Abkhazia now would make the world order unstable. Second is the well noted point that Russia has unmistakably arrived back on the strategic scene. Lastly, there are grave implications of the increasing resort to military means by states for UN Charter norms regulating the use of force in the international system.