A Key to the Caucasus Conflict

An uneasy truce now holds sway between Georgian and Russian forces in the region, following Georgia's attempt to take over the tiny breakaway state of South Ossetia last week.

Each side has accused the other of aggression, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

To help shed light on the events of the last week, and on the complicated underlying tensions at play, a Q & A on the conflict follows.


Essentially, it's about the future status of South Ossetia, the tiny breakaway state (population 70,000) on Georgia's northern border with Russia that has had virtual autonomy from Georgia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, offered autonomy to South Ossetia within a single Georgian state in 2004. The South Ossetians refused and, in 2006, voted in a referendum for complete independence from Georgia.

On Aug. 7, on the eve of the Olympics, Georgia attacked South Ossetia using ground and air forces. Russia sent thousands of troops into South Ossetia and, within days, occupied the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.


Georgia claims that Russia is the aggressor, saying that Russian fighter jets entered Georgian airspace last month and also that Russia shot down Georgian unmanned reconnaissance planes.

Russia says it is acting as a peacekeeper in South Ossetia. Half of its citizens have taken up Moscow's offer of a Russian passport and all consider themselves to be ethnically distinct from the Georgians. Saakashvili considers South Ossetia to be an integral part of Georgia and seeks to restore its "territorial integrity."

But Georgia did launch an all-out attack on the capital of South Ossetia on Aug. 7 at a time when it thought the attention of the world in general, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in particular, would be on the Olympics. Russia promptly bombed Georgian military bases and sent tanks and troops into Georgia itself.


South Ossetians want to join up with their ethnic brethren in North Ossetia, which is an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. The Ossetians comprise a distinct ethnic group, of Russian stock, originally from the Russian plains south of the Don River.

Russia considers South Ossetia to be within its sphere of influence, along with the breakaway state of Abkhazia, in the western corner of Georgia. Georgia wants to join NATO and has been cultivating ties with Western Europe, and this infuriates Russia, given its distrust and concern about the expansion of the alliance to countries along its borders.


Abkhazia is another self-declared independent state between Georgia and Russia, on the east coast of the Black Sea. Its population is about half Christian, half Muslim.

Georgia believes that Abkhazia, like South Ossetia, should be part of Georgia. Russia has reportedly sent 9,000 troops into Abkhazia during the recent crisis, as "reinforcements for Abkhazian separatists."


While the South Ossetians are of Russian stock and therefore European, the Georgians are part of Southwest Asia, in the Caucasus region. The two groups have a common religion, both being Orthodox Christians (and both hosting Muslim minorities).

But Georgians have a distinct national as well as ethnic identity, having been a unified Kingdom in the 11th century, and again between 1918 and 1921, before they were forced into the Soviet Union. Georgia became an independent nation once more in 1991, with the collapse of the USSR.


Georgia's army is less than 10 percent the size of the Russian army, with only 32,000 men (Russia has almost 400,000). Georgia has eight attack aircraft; Russia has 1,800. Georgia has 128 main battle tanks, Russia has 23,000.

The Georgian army virtually collapsed in the face of Russian retaliation last week, and Saakashvili accepted the conditions of a European Union peace plan calling for an immediate cease-fire, medical and humanitarian aid and the controlled withdrawal of forces from both sides.

Russia is stalling on the withdrawal of forces, saying that until "law and order is restored," the minorities in South Ossetia and Abhkazia could be in danger. Earlier this week, President Saakashvili appealed for international intervention to prevent what he called the annihilation of Georgia by Russia.


Very slim. It is hard to believe that NATO or the United States would be drawn into a direct military conflict with Moscow, having avoided it for so long. Western Europe depends on Russia for 25 percent of its oil and 50 percent of its natural gas.

The construction of a key pipeline through Georgia (from Baku, Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, to Turkey on the Mediterranean) is an attempt to break European dependence on Russian oil. The pipeline, featured in the James Bond film "The World Is Not Enough," has been attacked by Russian fighter jets.

According to Georgian officials, they missed. The next time they might not.


Membership in NATO is a key objective for Saakashvili. It's possible that he thought that he could draw NATO into a conflict with Russia, and also that the United States would back him militarily. (He was educated in the United States.)

Instead, he may have set back his country's chances of joining NATO for years.

It is also true, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today, that Russia may have set back its relations with the West for years, if it does not "step back from its aggressive posture." But Gates also said pointedly that in this messy little war in the Caucasus, "I do not see any prospect for the use of force by the United States."

For many analysts, Saakashvili has turned out to be a reckless gambler. He twisted the tail of the Russian bear, and ended up with bombed-out cities, a tide of displaced people and hostile foreign troops on his country's soil.