The recent fighting in South Ossetia is one small part of a proxy war between the United States and Russia. The country of Georgia has, since gaining independence, become three groups within one border, with the central government losing effective control over both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And while the United States has courted Georgia as a partner in the Global War On Terror and as a possible future member of NATO, Russia has effectively subverted this growing alliance through continued support to the separatist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Conflict in Georgia, and the prospects for resumed armed conflict there, will not end until the United States and Russia have settled their issues and ended their war by proxy.
On 01 August 2008, Georgia launched combat operations against separatist forces in Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway territory of South Ossetia. The Georgian government claimed that rebels there, with or without support from Russia forces in the area, had conducted attacks against Georgian military forces outside of South Ossetia, and that the Georgian military was acting in response to aggression. The separatist forces in South Ossetia made the same claim. The dispute deepened and the crisis grew less than one week later when Russia deployed additional forced to South Ossetia, cited attacks on its forces and the need to prevent the genocide of the Ossetians living in Georgia. At war with Russia and the separatists, Georgia withdrew its combat forces from Iraq in order to better defend the country while the international community called for a ceasefire.
While the dispute at hand may have ended, the crisis in Georgia has not passed and the conflict and instability in the region continues. All of these ? the dispute, the crisis, the conflict, and the instability ? exists on numerous levels. All of these also all but guarantee that fighting will return to Georgia in the near future, and that fighting elsewhere in the region should be expected in the near future.
The Ossetians were driven south to the region by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, after they largely though not exclusively converted to Christianity in the 12th century. The Ossetian tribes settled primarily into what is today North Ossetia, in Russia, but they also settled south into what is now Georgia.
Ossetians in Georgia have opposed the rule of the central government there since Georgia was created as a state in 1918. When Georgia sought independence after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Ossetians took up arms and sought independence. This conflict ended onto in 1922, with the Soviet occupation of Georgia and Russia?s subjugation of Georgia. While Georgia lost to the Soviets, the Ossetians won, with the Soviets creating the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast that effectively granted the Ossetians autonomy in what is today South Ossetia.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Georgia obtained its independence and immediately sought to end the autonomy granted to the Ossetians in northern Georgia. The Russians and the Georgians both countered efforts by Ossetians in the two countries to unite their autonomous regions and form an independent nation. Bloodshed and the declaration of a state of emergency brought an end to the independence movement, and a border again divided the Ossetians of Georgia and Russia.
The crisis in Georgia, though, is not limited to just the dispute over Ossetia or the Ossetians. It is also about Abkhazia, another autonomous region within Georgia. A second enduring dispute there is fueling the overall crisis in Georgia. Russia has the same affinity for the citizens of Abkhazia as they do for those in South Ossetia, granting them Russian passports and providing them limited support. The situation in Abkhazia is almost parallel to that of South Ossetia, ranging from the recent fighting there, to their history of declaring their independence.
Georgia has a third autonomous region, Adjara. While it has not been party to the recent fighting, Adjara has maintained an active separatist movement and has actively sought to gain its independence. The central Georgian government has cracked down on separatism there as equally as it has in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the only difference being that Adjara is comprised mostly of ethnic Georgians.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili must also deal with a long Georgian history of disputes with Russian, and an equally long history of conflict. Georgia?s history is a tale of occupation by outsiders, ranging from the Mongols to the Persians, from the Ottoman Empire to the neighboring Russians, with modern Russian subjugation of Georgia dating to 1800. Yet at every turn, the ethnic Georgians have sought to establish their independence. And at each juncture, these same issues of autonomy and ethnic differences have caused a crisis.
With this long history with Georgia, Russia considers Georgia to be within its sphere of influence. Modern Georgian efforts to foster closer relations with the West and with the United States, started with Eduard Shevardnadze and continued by President Saakashvili after the 2003 Rose Revolution, have been met with increased Russian support to the autonomous regions of Georgia. Russian support has ranged financial to consular to military support, and has undermined the efforts of President Saakashvili to pursue reintegration of these three autonomous regions, one of his stated objectives as President. Russia sees this support as an indirect means to influence Georgian policies by destabilizing the central Georgian government.
But Russian interest in Georgia isn?t just about influence. It?s also about rubles. During the Soviet era, Azerbaijan shipped its oil to market through Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Azerbaijan built and operated the Baku-Novorossiysk Pipeline pipeline. However, after a standoff over natural gas, Azerbaijan started work on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline through Georgia and Turkey. A tandem pipeline would also carry natural gas, effectively cutting Russia out of involvement in exporting Azeri oil. Georgia also benefits from the Baku-Supsa pipeline, which moves Azeri oil to the Black Sea for export to Western markets. US involvement with and support for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the Baku-Supsa pipeline, and a proposed Trans-Caspian gas pipeline for natural gas form Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, has only compounded Russian resolve to re-inject itself into oil and gas exports form the region.
Russia is also seeking to use the conflict in Georgia as a tool for countering Western influence in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and other Western countries have been actively courting better relations with countries that were part of the Soviet Union or what had close or integrated relationships with the Soviet Union. These efforts have eroded Russian influence and impacted Russian economic recovery from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and are a political and diplomatic setback for post-Soviet Russia.
Russia partly sees this expansion of Western influence as being an economic threat. Russia benefitted greatly from membership in and its leadership role in the Soviet Union, with the vast Soviet empire offering assured access to necessary raw materials at beneficial prices, and guaranteed buyers for anything the Russian produced, regardless of marketability. But the collapse of the Soviet Union, market reform, and fair market practices have diverted a lot of Russia?s buyers elsewhere, for better products and better prices. Russia has fought back with economic reform, changes in business practices, nationalization of or government investment in key businesses, and active government advocacy of Russian economic interests.
Yet in addition to losing political influence over former partner and ally nations, Russia has watched as the West has fostered closer military ties in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region. Until just recently, Georgia was the third largest contributor of combat forces for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The US military has expanded its military training with and in Romania and Bulgaria, extending the American reach to the Black Sea. For Russia, it lost security and influence with the end of the Warsaw Pact, losses that have been compounded by American and Western gains through cooperation, partnership, and NATO expansion.
But in 2007, Russian protested again US plans for a Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System based in the Czech Republic and Poland, and suspended its agreement to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. With this, simmering differences and issues moved to the forefront of US-Russian diplomatic relations, both publicly and privately.
Russian erosion of security and its standing in the world is also bringing additional changes within Russia. Prime Minster Putin, having just served the maximum of two consecutive terms as President of Russia, handed over the title of President of Russia to his hand-picked successor, but does not appear to have handed over the role or the power that goes with it. This recent fighting in South Ossetia, in addition to the ongoing dispute with the United States, Putin continues to showcase for his role as the leader of Russia.
Many expect that Prime Minister Putin will return to being the Russian President after this term is over. This expectation is tied to the growing desire within Russia for it to remain strong and to regain its global position. Doing so, though, requires confrontation with the United States and the West; re-exertion of influence or dominance over countries in the area; suppression of separatism or rebellion within Russia; and a return of economic and political might.
Russia, though, might be alone in making change. The government in Georgia, having ushered the country through their Rose Revolution just 5 years ago, has not been able to bring about positive change to the country. Indeed, with the internal fighting, growing separatist movements, and outside influence, Georgia appears to be in more dire straights than it was five years ago. Calls to reintegrate the autonomous regions have only been met with opposition, violence and outside influences, with little or no action being taken by the government to address the core issue fueling the calls for autonomy or independence.
Likewise, Georgia is no more economically sound than it was five years ago. The same can be said for the autonomous regions. All are relying on the aid and assistance of others to keep them economically viable, and to help to provide the basic necessities for their people. This will only get worse if there is more conflict and fighting in the area.
The recent fighting has also done nothing but further divide the ethnic groups. The fighting in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is again driving ethnic Georgians from the autonomous regions. This is leaving the ethnic Ossetians and Abkhazians further isolated with less chance of reintegration into a greater Georgia and less like to do so if or when fighting resumes.
These issues, when combined, indicate that the conflict in and dispute over Georgia are not done. The multidimensional political issues include the US-Russia conflict; the Russia-Georgia conflict; the Russian-Ossetian conflict; and the Georgian internal separatist movements. These are going to continue to be fueled by each other, with the prospect of political peace coming only with first the US and Russia ending their proxy war in the region and begin to giving support to the government of Georgia in making the reforms necessary to truly integrate the autonomous regions and their peoples. If that proxy was is not addressed, it will likely expand elsewhere in the region, to places like Moldova that likewise have interests and issues on which the US and Russia have differing views.
As long as Georgia remains the minor player in this US-Russian proxy war, the Georgian government will likely continue to try and use force or coercion to reintegrate the autonomous regions and people, instead of seeing to make changes to draw in their willing reintegration. Military strength, security forces, and intelligence serve growth will continue until the Georgian government understands that resolution won?t be found in force and in strength, but in responsiveness and in change. But that lead will come from outsiders, from the US and Russia, who will need to do the same to set the stage for allowing the government in Georgia to pursue this as an option.
Until then, the fighting in Georgia can be expected to resume. The separatist movements in Georgia will continue, with support from each other and from outside support from Russia. Georgian reconciliation and reintegration of its differing ethnic groups won?t happen without the support of the US and Russia, and their willingness to support internal reform in Georgia. The result of not doing so will be the continued loss of life in Georgia.