Thousands of innocent South Ossetians as well as Georgians and Russia’s have lost their lives in recent days as a result of a strategic miscalculation by Georgia’s leader which triggered a massive counterattack by Russia’s powerful armed forces.
After coming to power in 2004, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made no secret of his intention to return to Georgian rule, by force if necessary, the three breakaway regions of Ajaria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moreover, he sought to remove his country from the Russian sphere of influence by aligning Georgia with the West and NATO. In the spring of 2004, Pres. Saakashvili succeeded in reincorporating the autonomous region of Ajaria into the Republic of Georgia, without firing a single shot. Since then, he has tried to bring under his government’s control the two remaining regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Russian leadership resented Georgia’s attempts to realign its military and political relationships away from Moscow. It was only a matter of time before Russia would take advantage of an opportunity to try and bring Georgia back into its fold or at least reduce the U.S./Nato influence in the country.
In my judgment, Pres. Saakashvili, expecting political, if not military, support from the West, miscalculated badly Russia’s devastating reaction when he initiated last week’s surprise attack on South Ossetia. This breakaway region not only borders Russia, but its inhabitants are citizens of Russia, giving the Kremlin ample reason to intervene and carry out Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s declared intent “to punish” Georgia’s President.
When Georgian troops started bombing South Ossetia’s capital, causing not only the deaths of over 1,000 innocent civilians but also a dozen or so Russian peacekeepers stationed there, Moscow felt it had to act quickly and overwhelmingly. Oblivious to Western condemnations of its counterattack, the Russian military embarked on widespread bombing of Georgia’s airbases and seaports beyond the immediate war front. The crisis could escalate further, should the Russian Air Force bomb the recently completed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines that carry Azerbaijani oil and gas through Georgia and Turkey to Western Europe. The Russia’s may have decided to use a massive show of force not only to repel the Georgian attack, but also to bolster South Ossetia’s de facto independence from Georgia. Furthermore, Russia may take similar measures to ensure that Georgia gives up on any plans to bring under its control Abkhazia, another self-declared independent state.
Despite several days of emergency sessions, the U.N. Security Council has not been able to come up with a mutually agreeable resolution to the conflict. As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia can veto any unfavorable resolution submitted by the United States at the request of its Georgian ally. The United States, already bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and led by a lame duck president who had gone to China to watch the Olympic Games, does not seem to have much leverage over Russia to the chagrin of Pres. Saakashvili. Making matters worse for the White House, Georgia withdrew its 2,000 soldiers from Iraq – the third largest foreign force after the U.S. and U.K. – in order to confront the Russian military at home.
Meanwhile, these are anxious days for Armenia, Georgia’s Southern neighbor. Given Armenia’s close relationship with both Russia and Georgia, Armenian officials have simply called for a quick stop of the bloodshed. Armenia neither wishes to antagonize its long-standing Russian ally nor risk the cut-off of its vital supplies brought in through the Black Sea ports of Georgia. Already, the Russia’s have bombed the Georgian coastline and prevented ships from unloading their cargo, some of which is destined for Armenia. A prolonged closure of Georgia’s ports could have a devastating impact on Armenia’s economy.
Another major concern for Armenia’s worldwide is the safety and well-being of several hundred thousand of their kinsmen residing in Georgia. So far, there have been no reports of any Armenian casualties in this conflict. The normally restive Armenian inhabitants of Javakhk–the Southern region of Georgia located north of the Armenian border — who have been subjected to discriminatory treatment by Georgian authorities, have remained calm during the current war. Meanwhile, the Armenian government has safely evacuated several thousand citizens of Armenia who had been vacationing on Georgia’s coastline.
The most serious concern for Armenia, however, is the danger that neighboring Azerbaijan may draw the wrong conclusion from Georgia’s surprise attack on South Ossetia and decide to invade Artsakh (Karabagh). Such an attack could engulf the entire Caucuses region causing great loss of life on all sides and risk the stoppage of the flow of oil and gas to Europe through the Baku-Ceyhan pipelines, which are within striking distance of both Armenia and Artsakh.
The most important issue at the moment, however, is neither oil supplies nor political calculations, but protecting the lives of tens of thousands of civilians on all sides of the Russian-Georgian-Ossetian conflict and preventing its expansion into the neighboring states.