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Soldiers Clash as Georgia, Russia Vie to Assert Power

August 8, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Tensions between Georgia and Russia escalated Friday as Georgia sought control over the breakaway South Ossetia province and Russian tanks moved in to defend the pro-Russian enclave. Two experts explain the conflict.

JEFFREY BROWN: Georgia has been at odds with its much larger neighbor since gaining independence amid the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Set on Russia’s southwestern border, Georgia has a population of 4.5 million. And since the early ’90s, it has struggled to rein in two of its own smaller regions that felt a stronger allegiance to Russia – Abkhazia, on the Black Sea coast, and South Ossetia, which has a population of 70,000 and for more than a dozen years has functioned as a semi-autonomous region.

Peacekeeping forces from both Georgia and Russia have been deployed there in an attempt to keep a lid on long-simmering tensions.

We get a more in-depth look at today’s fighting with a report narrated by Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN MILLER: War in the Caucasus. Dramatic escalation today, and now the threat of conflagration, too.

Within the past couple of hours, Russian military commanders confirming that tank units belonging to Russia’s 58th Army are now directly engaging Georgian forces with artillery inside breakaway South Ossetia.

Georgia’s president accused the Russians of invading sovereign Georgian territory. Russia says it’s moved to protect its citizens. The Kremlin dished out passports to South Ossetians who are mostly loyal to Moscow, not Tbilisi.

“The citizens of Russia are dying,” this Russian commander says. “The city is on fire.”

There are Russian soldiers dead and injured in the rebel capital Tskhinvali tonight. And amid claim and counterclaim about who did what first, unconfirmed and as yet unconfirmable reports that many civilians have been killed, too.

Tonight, terrified families sheltering in bunkers the second night running.

The Russian foreign minister blaming Georgian aggression for what he brands the ethnic cleansing of the ethnically distinct South Ossetian people. This convoy of Russian tanks is expected to reach Tskhinvali about now.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV, President of Russia (through translator): In accordance with the constitution and federal law, and as president of the Russian Federation, I must protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are. We will not allow the deaths of our compatriots to go unpunished.

JONATHAN MILLER: Up against Russia’s military might, Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-European president of Georgia…

MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI, President of Georgia: Right now, I can state that Georgia is in full regime of self-defense against full-blown, unfounded, and totally illegitimate aggression from the Russian Federation. Our troops are attacked by thousands of troops coming in from Russia.

JONATHAN MILLER: These are Georgian fighter aircrafts striking separatist positions. Today, the Georgian president claimed Russian planes had attacked towns inside Georgia outside the conflict zone. There are unconfirmed reports that two or more of these have been shot down.

An independent cameraman has been filming for Channel 4 News since hostilities first broke out a week ago. He’s been with Russian-armed South Ossetian rebel forces. It’s been pretty violent and intense.

Today, world leaders sought to persuade all parties to step back from the brink, and they called for talks.

CITIZEN (through translator): You can see there’s been fighting here and over there, too. It’s really terrible. There’s grief on both sides. We should sign a peace agreement at once.

JONATHAN MILLER: By the look of it, there’s not much hope of that tonight. Georgia has ordered a full-scale mobilization of reservists. For five years, its president has ruled a state with two rebellious regions backed by the Russians. He’s always said he wants them back.

But it’s quite a fight he’s picked. The separatist government of Abkhazia, the other rebel region, has mobilized its troops today and moved them to the de facto frontier to counter fears of Georgian attack.

The Caucasus, long a restive region through which a strategic pipeline runs, is once again caught up in a conflict right on the front line of what had until today been the latest chapter in the Cold War between Russia and the West. Tonight, it’s hot and getting hotter.

Factors behind the fighting

Celeste Wallander
Georgetown University
There have been a series of attacks and counterattacks at a very low level over the past couple of weeks between the South Ossetian forces and local Georgian forces.

JEFFREY BROWN: And more on the place, the players, and the fighting now from Lincoln Mitchell, an assistant professor of international studies at Columbia University. He served in Georgia for the National Democratic Institute from 2002 to 2004.

And Celeste Wallander, a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. Both of our guests were last in Georgia earlier this summer.

Well, Ms. Wallander, tensions have been in this area for a long time. Is it clear what set off this new fighting?

CELESTE WALLANDER, Georgetown University: Well, there have been a series of attacks and counterattacks at a very low level over the past couple of weeks between the South Ossetian forces and local Georgian forces, not necessarily military forces, but also engaging police officers, Georgian police officers.

And just a few days ago, six Georgian police officers were killed in a roadside bomb attack. And so the Georgian forces reinforced nearby in the villages surrounding this region, and that set off a series of mortar attacks, artillery attacks from both sides, the South Ossetian and the Georgian attacks.

And then, just yesterday, Georgian military forces, regular military forces moved in to reinforce and got involved more directly in the fighting. And then today we found that Russian forces were moving across the border.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fully engaged?

CELESTE WALLANDER: Fully engaged, moving in, armored forces, upwards of 150 tanks or armored personnel carriers crossing the border and moving down into South Ossetia.

Regional interests in South Ossetia

Lincoln Mitchell
Columbia University
To think of this as a conflict between South Ossetia breaking away from Georgia I think leaves Russia out of it in a way that's not entirely accurate. Russia is a party to this and is a player in this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lincoln Mitchell, back up a little bit and help us understand this place and the people a little better. Who are the South Ossetians? And what exactly is their relationship to Georgia and to the Russians?

LINCOLN MITCHELL, Columbia University: Well, Ossetia -- South Ossetia and North Ossetia, South Ossetia is in Georgia; North Ossetia is in Russia. This is -- that mountainous part of the Caucasus is a part of the world where there's a lot of different ethnic groups who have lived together in relative degrees of peace over the years.

South Ossetians are ethnically distinct from Georgians, who, of course, are distinct from Russians. Having said that, South Ossetia was part of Georgia for a long time, particularly, you know, during the Soviet period and before that.

When the Soviet Union broke up, South Ossetia, backed by Russia, broke away from Georgia in the early and mid-1990s. And, again, this is a very small place. We're talking 50,000 to 60,000, 70,000 people, tops.

And its autonomy from Georgia -- and to be clear on that, that means that it is -- the Georgian government really exercises no administrative ability in South Ossetia. They don't deliver services; they don't teach in schools; they don't pick up the garbage; they don't ensure security. None of that is done by Georgia, with the exception of a few Georgian villages in South Ossetia.

But that independent -- that autonomy of South Ossetia was protected and guaranteed by Russia. So to think of this as a conflict between South Ossetia breaking away from Georgia I think leaves Russia out of it in a way that's not entirely accurate. Russia is a party to this and is a player in this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask Ms. Wallander. How do you weigh -- what do the Georgians want here? We heard in our taped piece about their president, when he came into office in 2004, he made it pretty clear that he wanted to resolve this and get the region back. And then the Russians that you just heard, what is their interest?

CELESTE WALLANDER: The Georgian interests are very clear, and President Saakashvili has made this very clear. He made it part of his platform when he ran for president and then ran again for re-election.

He's staked his presidency, his credibility, his political future on regaining control of not only South Ossetia, but the separatist region of Abkhazia. And he has a lot of support from the...

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, within his country?

CELESTE WALLANDER: ... from Georgian population, absolutely, strong support. And this is a matter of national interest, territorial integrity, and sovereignty, just the basics of how countries operate.

The Russian motives are a little bit more murky and more complicated. Certainly, some argue that Russia seeks to break off South Ossetia and join it to North Ossetia to make South Ossetia part of the Russian Federation.

In my view -- and I think sort of the view of many -- what Russia has in mind is to kind of have a veto on Georgia's relations with the outside world.

JEFFREY BROWN: With the West?

CELESTE WALLANDER: Particularly with the West, but in general by -- as long as Georgia's territorial integrity is in a sense unsettled, because of these separatist conflicts, it makes it more difficult for Georgia to build relationships with -- and not just military relationships, but economic relationships, political relationships with Europe, with the United States, and more broadly with the outside world.

And so Russia's stake in this is showing that it's the major player, that Georgia can't get around Russia. It has to deal with Russia, whether it wants to or not.

U.S. interests

Celeste Wallander
Georgetown University
Georgia is important for U.S. national interests, first of all, because it one of the countries that has been moving on the democratic path, still on the path of democracy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that how you see it, Mr. Mitchell, that Georgia's interest in the West and Russia's attempt to stem that?

LINCOLN MITCHELL: I would agree in general. I would make two caveats.

First of all, I would say that the Russian interest in South Ossetia is -- more concretely, it's a place from which to create problems for Georgia, not just with regards to the West. It's a place where smuggling can go on, where other criminal activity can go on that has negative influence in Georgia.

The current government of Georgia, I believe, has worked very hard over the last four years to make Georgia a less corrupt place, a less criminal place. And South Ossetia remains a problem in that regard. So that's the first thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what's the -- oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead.

LINCOLN MITCHELL: And the second thing I would say is that, if you talk to Georgians -- and by Georgians, I mean the president and people in leadership positions, but also ordinary Georgians -- they see both the South Ossetia conflict and the Abkhaz convict as part of a broader context of Russia -- of broad Russian discomfort with Georgia, Georgia not just because of its wanting to have a pro-Western orientation, but ultimately wanting to be part of NATO, but also Georgia as an independent, sovereign state on Russia's border that's not in Russia's sphere of influence.

And I think they want to use South -- I think there is the likelihood that they want to use South Ossetia as a point of leverage to make that difficult for Georgia to reach the aspirations...

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ms. Wallander, what is the U.S. interest here? Why is Georgia and this area of the Caucasus generally so important?

CELESTE WALLANDER: Well, Georgia is important for U.S. national interests, first of all, because it one of the countries that has been moving on the democratic path, still on the path of democracy. There are questions about most recent elections in Georgia.

But democracy is a process. It's not necessarily an endpoint. And Georgia is one of the countries in which the citizens have made a commitment to democracy and the leadership has, for the most part, been willing to stand for election, has been willing to follow that lead.

And that is part of, you know, how the United States sees a progress in security conditions in the world, that democracies are good for stability, for development, for economic engagement with the international system. And Georgia is one of the countries of the former Soviet Union that was on that path.

In more kind of traditional security terms, the Caucasus is in a just geostrategically important part of the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's oil, for one thing, right?

CELESTE WALLANDER: Well, there's oil not in Georgia itself, but in the Caspian...

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, the pipeline.

Destabilizing the regime

Lincoln Mitchell
Columbia University
My fear is that Russia won't stop until it achieves what it wants, which is more than just South Ossetia, but really destabilizing this government and this regime which... is trying to move Georgia in the right direction.

CELESTE WALLANDER: Exactly. There's oil in the Caspian and natural gas, and also in Central Asia. And one of the transit routes for that energy to get to global markets -- and, in particular, to European markets -- is across the Caucasus.

And also keep in mind that, you know, the United States is engaged militarily in Eurasia now, and the Caucasus is just north of Iraq and Iran. It's just west of Central Asia, which involves Afghanistan.

So all these regions are areas in which the United States is militarily engaged because these are where the security challenges of the 21st century are.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so given that, Mr. Mitchell, if I can just ask you in our last 30 seconds here, how serious is this? What are the chances of this escalating even further?

LINCOLN MITCHELL: I think this is very serious. I think it's particularly serious for Georgia, because somebody, somehow has to get Russia to stop.

And my fear is that Russia won't stop until it achieves what it wants, which is more than just South Ossetia, but really destabilizing this government and this regime, which -- and this Georgian regime, which, as my colleague points out, is trying to move Georgia in the right direction.

And I think they want to destabilize that, and that's very serious. And I think the West and the United States has to find a way to stop that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Lincoln Mitchell, Celeste Wallander, thank you both very much.