In a move which has put it squarely on a collision course with Putin’s Russia, Georgian troops continuing their campaign against South Ossetian separatists are reported by the BBC to be nearing Tskhinvali. Russia had called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council in New York a few hours before midnight Thursday, EST. Reuters reported the Security Council decided to take no action on a Russian request to call on Georgia to halt military operations against the “Republic of South Ossetia” which has not been diplomatically recognized by the either the UN, EU, or members of NATO. In the fighting that has ensued two Russian combat aircraft are reported down, Georgia has mobilized its reserves and Vladimir Putin has ominously said that “war has started”. Georgia has appealed for help in repelling what it now calls an invasion from Russia.
Moscow’s support for South Ossetian separatism, in part a reaction to Georgia’s efforts to get closer to the West potentially puts Russia and NATO on a collision course. After taking power, Georgian President Mikaheil Saakashvili sought NATO membership and other ties with the West. Russia, already humiliated by the loss of many of its former satellites, decided to strike back at Georgia after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. The IHT reported that
Tensions escalated when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February and was subsequently recognized by several Western countries. Russia, an ally of Serbia, had vowed to increase its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia — a poor, mountainous territory between Georgia and Russia’s southern border — in retaliation.
The geopolitical shadows lengthened after President Saakashvili accused Russia of bombing several Georgian villages while Mowcow claimed Georgian forces had killed at least 3 Russian peacekeepers who were earlier stationed in the area to supervise a ceasefire. The Guardian quoted the Georgian President as saying:
“A full-scale aggression has been launched against Georgia,” he said, before urging Russia to immediately stop the bombing. “Georgia will not yield its territory or renounce its freedom,” he said.
While Georgian troops exchanged fire with convoys carrying volunteer fighters over the Russian border to support the separatists, planes, tanks and artillery shelled the regional capital, Tskhinvali.
At least three Russian peacekeepers and 15 civilians have been killed and many of the city’s buildings are ablaze, according to the latest reports.
Speaking from China, where he is attending the opening of the Olympic games, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, said today that “aggressive” action by Georgia in its breakaway region of South Ossetia would incur a “response” from Russia.
Large scale ground clashes between the two countries will be impeded by the towering Caucasus mountains, which form a barrier between southern Russia and Georgia. The Caucasian region is among the most volatile areas on earth, populated by Abkhaz, Circassians, Dagestanis, Chechens, Ingushetians — and Russians among others.
In this forbidding terrain, airpower will play a key role. The Russians may rely in the short term upon air transportation and support to keep its proxies in the fight. The Georgian Air Force is predominently equipped with Russian designed aircraft, with the exception of a version of the SU-25 ground attack aircraft developed in cooperation with Israel. In any real clash with Russian airpower the Georgian Air Force could not long survive. But a strong Russian response would raise the risks of involving the United States. The Georgians have contributed troops to the US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Georgian military has been rebuilt by US military trainers.
About 200 Georgian troops were deployed in the Kosovo (KFOR) in 1999-2008, 70 were deployed in Iraq (OIF) in 2003 and 50 in Afghanistan in 2004 (ISAF). From 2004 in Iraq were 300 Georgian troops. From 2005 approximately 850 troops were serving under Coalition Command (OIF and UNAMI). On July 2007 Georgia sent an extra 1,400 troops to Iraq; that brought the total number of troops in Iraq to 2,000 (Inf. Bde). Their preparedness and training skills are evaluated on high level by international experts.
The extent of the US-Georgian mililtary connection was underscored by the recently concluded exercise Immediate Response 2008, which “finished at the military base Vaziani, which is located 25 kilometers from the Georgian capital Tbilisi, on Thursday. The exercises Immediate Response, which began on July 15, handled “scenarios of interaction in peacekeeping operations in Iraq”. The maneuvers were held under NATO’ program Partnership for Peace. The US financed the exercises, such maneuvers are held every year for the US’ ally countries.”
The geopolitical value of South Ossetia, a remote region in the foothills of the Caucasus, is negligible. It is hardly worth a serious conflict between Russia and Georgia, still less between Russia and NATO. But a wounded Russian pride and American responsibility towards a loyal ally make it a volatile situation worth watching.