Update August 10th: Russia now pushing for regime change in Georgia. Updated post HERE.
The unmitigated barbarity and brutality which characterized Russian behavior in Chechnya during the 1990s is being put on public display once again. At least Chechnya was somewhat defensible in the sense that it is unquestionably Russian territory.
Not so in South Ossetia, which is officially a part of the Republic of Georgia. Russian troops poured into South Ossetia on Saturday August 9th, 2008 as fighter jets unleashed bombs across the entire country, including parts of Georgia OUTSIDE of South Ossetia, ratcheting up fears that a war has begun on Europe's border. Russian airborne troops reached Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia, where fierce fighting was reported and both sides claimed to have "liberated" the city. Russian state media reported some 100 military transport flights were planned to bring more units to the fray. Full story published August 9th by McClatchyDC; additional reports from CNN. Also read Edgar Steele's analysis; while pessimistic, he offers a plausible scenario for an escalation into a general war if everything goes wrong (or right, depending on your purview). And it now appears that an additional 10,000 Russian troops have been brought in to step up attacks on Georgia, according to Reuters.
It also appears that Russian-backed "separatists" in the other disputed Georgia province of Abkhazia have taken advantage of the situation. The separatists reportedly launched rocket strikes at Georgian military targets.
Earlier in the day, Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that about 1,500 people had been killed in the fighting. But the Russian ambassador to Georgia, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, has now upped that figure to 2,000. However, those figures have not been confirmed, and are considerably higher than estimates by Georgia's government. In addition, at least 15 Russian peacekeepers had been killed and some 150 injured, according to Russian authorities. The Russian military also confirmed to state media that two of its planes had been shot down over Georgia; Georgian officials asserted the real number was between five and 10.
This latest round of conflict was triggered on Thursday August 7th by Georgian troops who tried to seize Tskhinvali in South Ossetia in order to end the long-standing conflict between the country's government in Tblisi and the breakaway region. Russia, which backs the South Ossetians, scrambled troops in response. RIA Novosti provides a complete chronicle of the Georgia situation since 1991 HERE.
On Saturday, the Georgian government said it was in a "state of war", which permitted Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to declare martial law. However, the Georgian government stopped short of issuing a formal declaration of war against Russia. But President Saakashvili accused the Russians of a widespread bombing campaign that has included towns, military bases and a seaport far outside of South Ossetia. Among the towns was Gori, between Tbilisi and South Ossetia, where a Russian bombing run reportedly hit residential apartments and killed dozens — footage from the scene showed dead bodies, bloody and twisted, sprawled across the ground.
To stop the Russian attack, Russian officials have demanded that Georgia withdraw all its forces from South Ossetia and sign a non-aggression pact. But such a move would have the effect of forcing Georgia to relinquish any claim to South Ossetia and granting them de facto independence. And it would be done at gunpoint. This, in effect, would be a mugging, not unlike some guy forcing a woman to give up her purse at gunpoint. And it is unlikely that South Ossetia would choose to be independent, because the Russians have occupied the area for years, granting many of the residents Russian passports. More likely is the possibility that the residents of South Ossetia would choose to unite with North Ossetia, which is a part of Russia. Thus Russia would, in effect, be biting off a chunk of Georgia.
How is that any different than German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler biting off a chunk of Czechoslovakia as a result of the 1938 Munich agreement, which transferred the Sudetenland to the German Reich? History repeats itself, but in a different location.
In Beijing, U.S. President George W. Bush said the fighting was "a dangerous escalation" and pointedly called for Russia to end its bombings and support peace efforts launched by Europe and the United States. "Georgia is a sovereign nation and its territorial integrity must be respected," Bush said. "We have urged an immediate halt to the violence and a stand-down by all troops."
On Saturday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Vladikavkaz, which is in North Ossetia just over the Russian border from South Ossetia. The fact that Putin made a surprise visit there from Beijing, where he had been attending the Olympic Games the day before, underscored how seriously Russia is taking the matter. Putin is widely viewed as the heavier hand of the government, a man more suited than "President" Dmitry Medvedev at delivering a crushing blow. [Ed. Note: Correction; the so-called "President" Medvedev is widely perceived as a puppet of Putin. Putin handpicked him, ran interference for him during his so-called "campaign", extracted a promise from him to appoint Putin prime minister, and ensured Medvedev's "victory". Putin is the real ruler of Russia.]
To firm up their military situation, Georgia is withdrawing its 2,000+ troops from Iraq as soon as transportation is arranged, which they've asked the United States to do, said Georgian commander Col. Bondo Maisuradze. The U.S. Air Force would be well-advised to send fighter escorts to accompany any transports carrying Georgian troops back to Georgia, in case any Russians or Georgians decide to create an "incident".
According to another CNN story, an unidentified senior U.S. official said that Russia's use of strategic bombers and ballistic missiles against Georgia's civilians outside of the South Ossetian conflict is "far disproportionate" to Georgia's alleged attack on Russian peacekeepers.
Russia's use of its potent air weaponry signals a "severe" and "dangerous escalation in the crisis," the official said. "For the life of me, I can't image that being a proportionate response to the charge that Georgia has attacked Russian peacekeepers," the official said. "It's hard for us to understand what Russia's plan is here." The official believes Russia is probably trying to destabilize Georgia politically to kill its chances of joining NATO.
But the offical acknowledged that Georgia bears some of the blame for the fighting over South Ossetia. Recently, the United States has had "very blunt exchanges with" Georgia, telling its leaders that they have no chance of winning a war with Russia and that they should stick to a path of diplomacy. Nevertheless, the official said European allies have told the United States that Russia has "crossed a line of unacceptable behavior" and should "expect international condemnation."
Those interested in news coverage a bit more proximate to the region can view the media outlets listed below:
- Russia Today: A Russian broadcast service which seems to be relatively non-partisan.
- Pravda: Pro-Russian bias, rewrites events to provide a pro-Russian spin. Still useful to provide additional perspective.
- RIA Novosti: Pro-Russian editorial bias, but generally presents facts as facts. Can be considered reliable.
- Hurriyet.com: An English-language Turkish news service. Relatively unbiased, but Turkey itself is likely to be more sympathetic to Georgia due to its own historical rivalry with Russia.
- Interfax: A Russian news aggregation site. Considered unbiased.
This Russian action needs to be viewed within the context of recent Russian behavior. Russia has assumed a much more assertive and aggressive role during the past two years, somewhat reflecting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's vision of a united Slavic state consisting or Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, minus the Central Asian Republics. Consider Putin's record of increasingly assertive and aggressive behavior:
(1). The budding Sino-Russian alliance known as the Shanghai Cooperation Association acquired a military character for the first time last summer when Russian and Chinese troops conducted joint exercises.
(2). Russia's resumption of aggressive probing bomber flights.
(3). Putin's offhand remark to Bush about the Ukraine, claiming that "the Ukraine isn't even a state".
(4). Putin's renewed romance with Cuba, although he claims he does not intend to make it a military alliance.
This would be a good time to read some of Joel Skousen's assessments of Russia's true intentions, HERE and particularly HERE.