Aug 8th 2008
A war between Russia and Georgia appears to be under way
GEORGIAN soldiers, tanks and fighter-planes struck Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway (Russian-backed) region of South Ossetia, on Friday August 8th. Parts of the city were reported to be burning as Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, declared that his forces had "freed" much of the area from separatist control.
The immediate cause of the fighting is unclear as claim and counterclaim abound. But what is clear is that a conflict which has been simmering for years, has at last erupted. What happens next will depend almost entirely on Russia's response: 150 Russian tanks were reported to be entering South Ossetia on Friday. Georgia's government says that Russian planes have dropped bombs outside of South Ossetia including on the edge of Tblisi, the Georgian capital. Alexander Lomaia, the secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, told The Economist on Friday that "this is an open military aggression and we are now at the state of undeclared war with Russia. What else could you call it?". He also said that Georgia had announced a ceasefire in South Ossetia from 3pm on Friday.
Mr Putin may also want to deal with Georgia in good time before Russia hosts 2014 winter Olympic games in Sochi, a Black-sea resort town only few miles from the Abkhaz border. A military conflict in Georgia will also derail for a long time Georgia's aspiration to join NATO---something that Russian finds deeply unpalatable.
Russia's broader aim may be to try to roll back the advance of pro-Western forces in its "near abroad" by highlighting the West's inability to help Georgia. The hotting up of Georgia's conflicts coincided with Kosovo's declaration of independence, recognised by much of the West, and American pressure for the expansion of NATO to Georgia and Ukraine. That move has been stymied, mainly by Germany; Georgia was promised eventual NATO membership but no firm plan. Though Georgia has become a vital corridor for oil and gas exports to Europe, this has not brought the support that its leaders had expected. A lame-duck American administration has been able to do little, though Georgians hope a presidential-election victory by John McCain, an ardent supporter, may change their fortunes. The country's strong-willed and idiosyncratic president, Mr Saakashvili, is not seen by all European leaders as quite the paragon of legality, freedom and reform that he claims to be. Georgia's image was severely dented in November last year by a crackdown against the opposition.