As Russian forces attack the Caucasian republic of Georgia, many in the West are no doubt puzzled. While many might be familiar with Georgia, fewer will have heard of South Ossetia before Russia sent tanks into the region on Friday. Although this remote dispute is taking place in an unfamiliar area, its repercussions will undoubtedly impact global security. In order to understand, a discussion of the conflict's background is in order.
Georgia is a former Soviet republic that gained its independence during the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Since then, the Georgians have been pro-Western, and somewhat confrontational with their Russian neighbors. Like the Ukraine, Georgia aspires to NATO membership, a policy that Russia opposes to the point of threatening both countries. (Jamestown, AP, Spiegel) The Georgians have not only deployed troops to Iraq, but sent more as part of a sort of "Georgian surge" (AP, BBC) - this is in direct contrast to countries such as Italy, Spain, Australia, and Japan, who have all discontinued their operational involvement in Iraq. The United States recently concluded a training evolution with Georgian troops outside Tbilisi.
Within the recognized borders of Georgia itself are two breakaway regions that have enjoyed relative autonomy for years: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Remember the Beslan school massacre in 2004? That attack by Chechen terrorists occurred in North Ossetia, which remains part of Russia. (Interestingly enough, the North Ossetians attacked the Russian military during the December 1994 invasion of Chechnya.) These two regions have engaged in low-level separatist operations for more than a decade, involving occasional skirmishes and regular political actions against the Georgian government.
When Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia in 1992, the declaration resulted in a conflict that ended with a Georgian withdrawal and ethnic cleansing of Georgians, Greeks, Armenians, and Russians by Abkhaz militants. In November of 2006, South Ossetia held a formal referendum in which nearly all voters favored South Ossetic independence. (Global Security, BBC, AP) The referendum was formally dismissed, or ignored outright, by the international community - save for Russia.
Russian involvement in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been extensive. Whether out of legitimate concern for the Ossetians, or out of a desire to set an example for the West while punishing the obstinance of a former subject, is subject to interpretation. Russia has garrisoned so-called peacekeepers in both regions for years, and the Russians have been known to make regular aerial incursions into Georgian airspace.
The Georgian military flies regular surveillance missions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia using unmanned aerial vehicles. In April, a Russian MiG 29 aircraft was caught on video over Abkhazia in the process of shooting down a Georgian surveillance drone. (BBC) As a result, analysts spoke of the possibility of war between Russia and Georgia over Abkhazia. (Guardian, UPI) The diplomatic conflict continued through July and into early August. Last week, the Israeli government discontinued drone sales to Georgia in a bid to limit Russian support for Iran's nuclear program. (Jerusalem Post, Wired)
Fighting broke out earlier this week between the Georgian military and South Ossetia's rebel forces. Despite an initial ceasefire agreement, fighting flared back up, eventually resulting in Georgian forces shooting down two Russian aircraft. (Guardian, Times). The Russian military responded by sending tanks into South Ossetia and bombing Georgian air bases. The Russian incursion has allegedly escalated to air attacks on Russian cities outside South Ossetia. How this incident will end, and what its impact will be, is anyone's guess.
While this is a conflict between Russia and Georgia, the international overtones are obvious. De