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Associated Press/Photo by Dmitry Lovetsky

In the jaws of the bear

Georgia | With a weak allied response, Russia extends its reach into Georgia

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

As Russia continued to escalate the conflict with the West over its invasion of Georgia, words seemed to fail. "Russia recognizes breakaway Georgia regions" is how most wire services headlined the Aug. 26 vote by Russia's parliament to, in effect, begin a process of annexation of the pro-Russia regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. The Associated Press called them "rebel regions."

By unilaterally declaring independence for two regions within another country's borders, the Russian government began yet another advance: to negotiate a separate peace with these areas and to continue supplying them while Georgia proper faces $1 billion in damages from Russia's five-day invasion and a Russian blockade on aid. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Moscow's decision to claim independence for the two enclaves "extremely unfortunate." Later she said Moscow's actions were "regrettable."

Western leaders are at a loss for words to deal with what is arguably a crisis nearly a month after Russia's surprise invasion of Georgia and over a week after Moscow failed to comply with terms of withdrawal contained in a signed ceasefire agreement. Instead, in a page from the satirical Onion-which famously reported, "in other news . . . an earthquake wiped out much of Etchasketchistan"-the West seems resigned to see Moscow erase parts of Georgia's borders. Russian occupation of Georgia's Black Sea port at Poti forced U.S. naval vessels loaded with humanitarian supplies twice, on Aug. 24 and Aug. 27, to dock south of war-damaged areas at Batumi.

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And Russia's August march into Georgia now seems more premeditated than ever: Its forces quickly subdued Georgian units in South Ossetia and it launched a three-day aerial assault on Kodori Gorge, giving Abkhaz troops an opportunity to seize the agriculture-rich region that is the gateway to Abkhazia. Along the way Russian forces managed to hamper or shut down Georgia's oil and gas pipelines.

Summarizing the helplessness many feel in Eastern Europe and among the former Soviet satellites, an editorial in a Latvian newspaper concluded: "Russia took what it could take."

Experts on the region, however, point out that the start of Russian designs in Georgia extend well back of its Aug. 8 invasion. Georgia is the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, and the Communist leader long ago redrafted Georgian borders and forcibly mixed the area ethnically as part of his plan to make a new nation of "Soviets." Abkhazia, in fact, is now majority Armenian run by a small minority of pro-Moscow Abkhazians. South Ossetia, meanwhile, is at least one-fourth Georgian (and many human-rights groups remain unsure of their present status after Russia's military blocked the region last month from monitors and journalists).

In 1991-93, with Georgia asserting its independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union, Moscow officials showed up in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to dispense Russian passports, according to Yuri Maltsev, economics professor at Wisconsin's Carthage College and a leading researcher at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow before he defected in 1989. "They carried Polaroid cameras to make issuing passports easy," he said. That was the first step to sowing seeds of strife within Georgia. Later the UN also upped the tension by giving to Russia a mandate of providing peacekeepers to the-not surprisingly-restive provinces. "That is the same as giving a goat a mandate to protect a cabbage," said Maltsev. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has used that mandate to keep "peacekeeping" troops on the ground in Georgia beyond an Aug. 16 truce.

What's next? Maltsev says Abkhazia and South Ossetia will now apply for membership in the Russian Federation. With Russian troops in control of both areas, it could remain difficult if not impossible for outsiders to assess the fate of residents in the two regions who lack Russian citizenship or other ties to Moscow.

And faith-based groups in the region are feeling pressure to keep quiet also. Wheaton-based Russian Ministries has worked among Ossetian churches, but spokesman Jean Zatulovsky told WORLD last week: "Because of the sensitivity of the situation we are unable to give information about the situation or our work there."

Western leaders are similarly hamstrung. "All of the West has been so busy post-9/11 with how to address asymmetrical warfare. Suddenly we are faced with a conventional threat and our capacity to meet it has suffered," said Sally McNamara, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

"What you are seeing is a huge divergence between Old Europe and New Europe," said McNamara. Central and Eastern European countries of New Europe "see the real threat" of Russian aggression, she said, but Western European nations, with backing from the United States, put intervention off the table weeks ago. Both U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with Russian troops still occupying Georgian cities, ruled out military action in mid-August. Said McNamara: "One thing that has become very clear is that countries like Russia are willing to engage in something very old-fashioned-military confrontation-and European military capacity is degraded to the point it cannot respond."

Key dates in the Georgia-Russia crisis

Aug. 7: Georgia launches an offensive to seize control of South Ossetia, a province that broke from Georgia in the early 1990s.

Aug. 8: Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says most of South Ossetia has been "liberated." Russia sends tanks and troops, promising to defend its peacekeeping troops and residents with Russian passports.

Aug. 9: Russian warplanes bomb targets in Georgia including the Black Sea port of Poti. This is followed by aerial assaults on the city of Gori and near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline. Russia also launched a three-day air attack on Kodori Gorge, linking the territory of Abkhazia to Georgia.

Aug. 10: After claiming control of most of South Ossetia, Russia starts bombing areas near the Georgian capital Tbilisi for the first time, targeting a military airfield. Georgia admits losing the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

Aug. 11: President George W. Bush condemns the Russian offensive against Georgia, calling it "unacceptable in the 21st century" and urges Russia to "respect Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty."

Aug. 12: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says he has decided to cease Russia's military operation against Georgia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokers peace accord with Russian and Georgian leaders. UN reports 100,000 people displaced by conflict.

Aug. 15: Georgia signs a French-brokered ceasefire agreement. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates rules out a U.S. military intervention in the stand-off.

Aug. 16: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signs the truce deal but Russian troops dig deeper into Georgia and advance closer to the capital Tbilisi.

Aug. 18: Russia announces the start of a withdrawal from Georgia but Tbilisi accuses Moscow of stalling and reneging on the ceasefire.

Aug. 19: Russia and Georgia exchange prisoners. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promises to complete the troop withdrawal in three days.

Aug. 20: The parliament in Abkhazia votes to ask Russia to recognize it as an independent state. Russia suspends military cooperation with NATO and recalls its ambassador to the organization.

Aug. 22: Russia announces completion of troop withdrawal, but widespread reports show Russian forces in key Georgian cities and manning checkpoints at the Black Sea port of Poti.

Aug. 26: Russia formally recognizes the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Russia threatens to cut off supply lines to NATO troops in Afghanistan but a day later agrees to allow them to continue.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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