Archive for August, 2008

First Thoughts on South Ossetia

Friday, August 8th, 2008

First thoughts on South Ossetia

My overwhelming impression of events in South Ossetia is the enormous difficulty of sorting out what’s actually going on from conflicting accounts coming out of Georgia and Russia. Everything said below is highly preliminary and based on fragmentary information.

For example, Russian media are claiming 1) a failed Georgia effort to take Tskhinvali, the capital, and a number of burned-out Georgian armored vehicles in the streets of the town 2) Ossetian militia clearing the town of Georgian troops 3) Russian armored vehicles in Tskhinvali itself 4) the presence of large numbers of Russian “volunteers” on the Russian Federation-Georgian border, and Putin’s declaration that Russia may not be able to restrain them. Western media, however, report a proclamation by the mayor of Tbilisi Gigi Ugulava of a temporary cease-fire and a corridor to allow civilians to evacuate Tskhinvali, alongside occasional and unconfirmed claims that Georgian forces have taken the town

Several things strike me about this: first, why is the mayor of Tbilisi announcing the cease-fire and evacuation corridor for Tskhinvali? No question that Ugulava is personally close to Georgia President Saakashvili, but it seems quite odd that Ugulava would be taking this particular role, and suggests some disarray in governmental function. Second, on practical grounds allowing a corridor for refugees to get out would also allow a corridor for Russian troops to get in, and seem highly unwise. Pausing for any reason only allows more time for Russian aid to arrive and keep South Ossetia out of Georgian hands–as a result, this sounds a bit fishy to me. Third, the claim of burned-out Georgian armor is backed up by photographs, and would be in keeping with the experience of Russian army facing rocket-propelled grenades in Groznyi. The claim that Georgia informed Russia that it was acting to restore constitutional order in Tskhinvali suggests a major push, not merely retaliation for border incidents with South Ossetia.

On balance, then, based on highly incomplete evidence, this sounds to me like a Georgian attempt to take Tskhinvali (just inside South Ossetia, quite close to areas under Georgian control) that has failed in ways quite similar to the way that Russian efforts to take Groznyi failed, or at the very least took losses in ways similar to Groznyi.

Next, I wonder about timing. There was lots of speculation in the mass media about a Taiwanese declaration of independence during the Olympics, at least before Taiwanese politics shifted. Did Georgia plan on a coup de main while Putin was busy cheering on Russian athletes in Beijing? If that’s the case, and if the effort to take Tskhinvali has indeed failed, and if Russian armor is now arriving in force, this has backfired badly. I find it difficult to imagine circumstances that would get those Russian tanks out again.

Both sides have been claiming attacks on civilians. A couple things to note: the Georgians have particularly mentioned Russian bombing of the city of Gori. This is, of course, Stalin’s birthplace. At least when I was there in 1992, it had a still-standing Stalin statue and the hovel where Stalin was born surrounded and covered by a Greek temple. Gori is also, however, the gateway to South Ossetia, and the route by which Georgian troops would get there.

The Russians for their part have played this game exceedingly well. In addition to claiming to defend Russian citizens (and lots of South Ossetians have Russian passports), one of the first accusations out of Russian spokesmen was “ethnic cleansing,” and I am certain that was not accidental. In earlier posts here and here, I predicted baleful consequences from recognizing Kosovar independence, and I see those here. To pose rhetorical questions, what possible right could Russia have to send troops uninvited into the territory of a sovereign state and bomb populated areas? Well, the justification the Clinton administration used against Serbia over Kosovo was precisely “ethnic cleansing,” an accusation now leveled by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov against Georgia. In the wake of Western recognition for Kosovo, the West will have a hard time making a consistent case against Moscow.

I note that Georgian government websites appear to be down or overloaded. It will be fascinating to see if Georgia has come under the same sort of electronic attack that Estonia suffered a couple of years ago.