Sunday, August 10, 2008

What now for Georgia?

It's hard to say where things are going to go from here. Georgia wants a ceasefire, and has pretty well withdrawn from South Ossetia. But Russia has landed troops in Abkhazia (another breakaway region of Georgia), and has bombed targets in Tblisi. The Russians seem to be in control of Tskhinvali, which appears to have suffered major damage, and the Russians claim as many as 2,000 dead there as a result of the Georgian offensive that began Thursday. This is most likely an exaggeration, and the Russians have killed Georgian civilians as well as a result of the bombing missions they have carried out.

The roots of this conflict are now becoming clear, or at least less opaque than they were two days ago. Russia has consistently undermined the Georgian state over the past decade, hitting them with trade boycotts and cutting off gas supplies, and fomenting separatist movements in places like Abkhazia and S. Ossetia. This is a culmination of those efforts, aiding by some spectacularly stupid decisions by Georgia's president, and also some hubristic actions by the US.

The population of South Ossetia numbers about 70,000 in total. Most of these people favor independence from Georgia. There isn't much an economy to speak of, mostly limited to organized crime, with almost the entire population living in the provincial capital, Tskhinvali. The idea that such a region could form a viable independent country is laughable. Douglas Muir describes it thusly:

Couple of things you need to grasp if you’re going to understand South
Ossetia. One is, it’s not very horizontal. It’s all mountains, with just enough
flat ground for one modest-sized town. Almost all of it is over 1000 meters up,
about a third of it over 2,000 meters.

Two, it’s not that big. There are only around 75,000 people in South
Ossetia. In both area and population, it’s the smallest of the frozen conflicts.

Three, it’s poor. Really poor. I mean, Transnistria is one of the
poorest corners of Europe, but Transnistria is Switzerland compared to South
Ossetia. It’s basically 75,000 people living on rocks. Okay, okay, not rocks,
but this is a region whose traditional economy consisted of driving sheep uphill
in spring and back down again in autumn.
There’s no industry to speak of. About
one-third of the state’s income comes from charging tolls on the single highway.
South Ossetia doesn’t export much but timber, sheep and people. Well, and there
was a big counterfeiting operation making US $100 bills a couple of years back.
But anyway, point is, not much there.

But Russia has been busy, putting these people on the fast track to Russian citizenship, installing "peacekeepers" in the region (obstensibly to protect S. Ossetia from Georgia, but lacking any international mandate), and riling up separatist sentiment.

Meanwhile, Georgia accepted Western military aid and training, and transformed their army into a small but competent and well-equipped force, ready to deal with domestic insurgency....or be accepted as a member of NATO.

NATO membership has long been a primary goal of Georgia's government, which they no doubt assumed would help them resolve any outstanding disputes with Russia, and give them a freer hand to deal with separatists. The significance of this was not lost on Russia, who also saw other former SSRs like Ukraine talking about joining NATO and/or the EU. The US promoted these efforts, and both Ukraine and Georgia sent military forces to help in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In retrospect, it may have been a grave error for the US to cultivate these relationships, encroaching as they were on what Russia still views as its own region of influence. Russia has taken this opportunity to aggressively push back against these unwelcome developments.

This guy seems to know what he's talking about, and this is how he describes Russia's aims in Georgia:

As in the good old days of the Cold War, this has also been a testing ground
between Western doctrines and arms against their Russian counterparts, and to
state the obvious, the former has come off very badly. True, the Russians came
in greater numbers, but the lesson for a lot of the other post-Soviet republics
is clear - fancy Western military aid and training doesn't mean you can stand up to the Bear,
so it may be prudent to avoid antagonising the Bear by forming military (or any
other) relationships with the West in the first place. So kiss goodbye to a lot
of our influence in the post-Soviet space.
Hilzoy also has a good post up on the situation, with lots of links to further reading, for anyone interested.

The question now is how far will Russia go? Will they confine their operations to South Ossetia (and now, Abkhazia), or will they push into Georgia proper? Will they only be satisfied with the removal of President Saakashvili?

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