Russia Invades South Ossetia, Georgia Shoots Down Russian Planes
Russian tanks have moved into the disputed Caucasus region of South Ossetia, dramatically escalating already high tensions with Georgia.
The development comes hours after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned Georgia that its attack on South Ossetia will draw retaliation.
Channel 1 television showed a convoy of Russian tanks that it said entered South Ossetia. The convoy was expected to reach the provincial capital, Tskhinvali, in a few hours.
This is still a holdover from the breakup of the Soviet Union. South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia in the early 1990s and has de facto sovereignty over large parts of its territory. While neither Georgia nor the international community recognizes the secession as legitimate, Russia has been sympathetic.
Tensions came to a head with Kosovo’s declaration of independence and the push to offer Georgia a membership action plan and eventual inclusion into NATO. Russia immediately began throwing its weight around in both South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia. It appears that Russia is now making its play.
Given that NATO all but promised Georgia eventual membership at its Bucharest summit mere months ago, ignoring Russia’s move here is unthinkable.
UPDATE: Georgia claims it has shot down two Russian planes.
Georgia’s Interior Ministry spokesman says that Georgian forces have shot down two Russian combat planes. Shota Utiashvili says the planes were downed while they were raiding Georgian territory, but wouldn’t give their type or any further details.
Russia’s Defense Ministry denied an earlier Georgian report about one Russian plane downed. It had no immediate comment on the latest claim.
Georgia launched a massive attack Friday to regain control of South Ossetia, using heavy artillery, aircraft and armor. Russia’s television reported that a convoy of Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia.
This is getting ugly, fast.
UPDATE: It has.
Georgian troops launched a major military offensive Friday to regain control over the breakaway province of, prompting a furious response from — which vowed retaliation and sent a column of tanks into the region.
More than two dozen were reported dead in the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won defacto independence in a war that ended in 1992. Ten Russian peacekeepers were killed and 30 wounded when their barracks were hit in Georgian shelling, said Georgia alleges they back the separatists.spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov. Russia has soldiers in South Ossetia as peacekeeping forces but
The Times of London‘s headline says it all: “Georgia says Russian tanks mean ‘war’ in South Ossetia.”
In the most serious regional crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, at least 50 tanks — and possibly many more — rumbled through the Roki tunnel, which cuts through the Caucasus mountains separating South Ossetia from the Russian province of North Ossetia.
“One hundred and fifty Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles have entered South Ossetia,” President Saakashvili of Georgia told reporters in Tbilisi. “This is a clear intrusion on another country’s territory. We have Russian tanks on our territory, jets on our territory in broad daylight.”
The feeling is mutual:
We cannot allow the deaths of our countrymen to go unpunished. The guilty parties will receive the punishment they deserve,” President Medvedev of Russia told a meeting of his security council in the Kremlin. “I am obliged to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, no matter where they are located.”
More as things develop…
UPDATE (Dave Schuler)
The Russian language press is reporting that two Russian tank columns have begun shelling Georgian positions near the town of Tskhinvali.
Update (Dave Schuler)
The online Russian language press is just full of this story. The prevailing take is that Russian forces are hurrying to defend the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, ten or more of whom have been the victims of Georgian aggression.
UPDATE (James Joyner): CNN is reporting, “The U.S., NATO and European Union have all called for an end to the fighting. U.S. President George Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday discussed the conflict in Georgia, the White House confirmed.”
Meanwhile, Joshua Keating argues, “However this ends, Georgia’s bid to join NATO is now effectively dead. In that sense, Russia has already won and the months of ratcheting up the pressure in the breakaway province seem to have paid off.” I don’t know whether that’s true; indeed, it could shame recalcitrant European governments into backing Georgia.
One thing’s for sure, though: While NATO is many things in the post-Cold War environment, it is first and foremost a military alliance committed to the mutual security of its members. If the U.S. and Western Europe aren’t prepared to use force upon the invasion of Georgia by Russia, then we’ve got no business even considering inviting them to join the Alliance.
The upshot here is that 1) this has been coming to a head for years and recent events have stoked them and 2) military power is fungible. The U.S. is rightly impressed with the amazing pace of reform Georgia has achieved under President Saakashvili and we have been supplying them with arms and equipment in order to get them up to speed as an ally.
Officially, SSOP was supposed to prepare Georgians for service in Iraq. But Georgian trainees I spoke to in 2006 at the Krtsanisi training range saw things a bit differently. A female sergeant told me: “This training is incredibly important for us, because we want to take back Georgia’s lost territories.”
In fairness, Russia has helped stoked regional tensions, backing separatist governments in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And the Russian media have done a fair job of demonizing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and raising the general level of hysteria (the word “fascism” gets thrown around a lot). Clearly, a Georgia that aspires to NATO membership — and that does not bend to Moscow’s will — irritates the Kremlin to no end.
Quite right. I think Russia’s wrong on that front; NATO has moved on and countering Russia is simply not its aim these days. But, given its history, it’s not hard to understand why Russia feels otherwise.
FINAL UPDATE: More discussion in future posts, including this morning’s Kosovo and South Ossetia.
Per John Cole’s request in the comments, more background below the fold.
Also, while this disclaimer is always true and is listed in the About section of the blog, I should especially emphasize on this post, given its controversial subject matter, that views expressed in this post are strictly those of the post authors and do not necessarily convey any endorsement by their employers.
Escalating tensions between Georgia and its breakaway province of South Ossetia have erupted into serious fighting.
The separatist administration in South Ossetia has been trying to gain formal independence since breaking away in a civil war in the 1990s.
Russia has troops in the region, on a peacekeeping mandate. But Moscow also supports the separatists.
What is the status of South Ossetia?
South Ossetia has run its own affairs since fighting for independence from Georgia in 1991-92, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It has declared independence, though this has not been recognised by any other country.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to bring South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, back under full Georgian control.
Why do Ossetians want to break away?
The Ossetians are a distinct ethnic group originally from the Russian plains just south of the Don river. In the 13th Century, they were pushed southwards by Mongol invasions into the Caucasus mountains, settling along the border with Georgia.
South Ossetians want to join up with their ethnic brethren in North Ossetia, which is an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation.
Ethnic Georgians are a minority in South Ossetia, accounting for less than one-third of the population.
But Georgia rejects even the name of South Ossetia, preferring to call it by the ancient name of Samachablo, or Tskhinvali, after its main city.
What triggered the latest crisis?
Tension has risen since the election of President Saakashvili in 2004. He offered South Ossetia dialogue and autonomy within a single Georgian state – but in 2006 South Ossetians voted in an unofficial referendum to press their demands for complete independence.
In April 2008 Nato said Georgia would be allowed to join the alliance at some point – angering Russia, which opposes eastward expansion of Nato. Weeks later, Russia steps up ties with the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In July Russia admitted its fighter jets entered Georgian airspace over South Ossetia to “cool hot heads in Tbilisi”. Occasional clashes escalated, until six people were reportedly killed by Georgian shelling. Attempts to reach a ceasefire quickly collapsed.
Could Russia become directly involved in war?
Russia insists it has been acting as a peacekeeper in South Ossetia, rejecting Georgian accusations that it has been supplying arms to the separatists.
However, it has vowed to defend its citizens in South Ossetia – of which there are many. More than half of South Ossetia’s 70,000 citizens are said to have taken up Moscow’s offer of a Russian passport.
Russia may view limited military intervention as less risky than recognising South Ossetia’s independence, which could lead to all-out war with Georgia.
What about Georgia’s links to Nato?
President Saakashvili has made membership of Nato one of his main goals. Georgia has a close relationship with the United States and has been cultivating its ties with Western Europe.
There are those who believe that Mr Saakashvili may be hoping to draw Nato into a conflict with Moscow, making their alliance a formal one.
But analysts say it is difficult to perceive Nato allowing itself to be drawn into a direct conflict with its Cold War rival, when it managed to avoid that for so long.
Reuters offers some scenarios:
* Georgia, whose army and reservists total around 18,000 soldiers, swiftly completes its assault on breakaway South Ossetia before Russia can mobilise a major military response.
A Georgian victory could spark an exodus of non-Georgians to Russia. The majority of the breakaway region’s roughly 70,000 population feel close to Russia and are ethnically distinct from Georgians.
Should Georgian troops quickly establish control over the territory it could prove more difficult for the Russians, diplomatically, to seize back control of the province by sending in its own forces.
* Failure by Georgia to quickly establish full control over South Ossetia could allow Russia, which has a peacekeeping mandate in the region, time to launch a counter-offensive, arguing that it needs to protect its own peacekeeping forces as well as civilians, most of whom have Russian passports.
Georgian officials say Russian armour is already pouring into the region from across the border. Hundreds of volunteers from Russia and another Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, were reported to be making their way to South Ossetia.
* If Georgian troops fail to retake South Ossetia, Tbilisi could be vulnerable to political and diplomatic pressure from the United States and Europe to halt its offensive. The European Union is wary of antagonising Russia, one of its main sources of energy. Some European members of NATO, also wary of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s record in clamping down on opponents, have resisted moves to put Georgia on a fast track to membership. Russia fiercely opposes NATO membership for its former Soviet satellite.
* Outright defeat for Georgian forces, with a retreat to pre-conflict positions, would be a humiliation for Saakashvili. He has made it a priority to win back control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another rebel region on the Black Sea. Defeat could also boost his domestic opponents and raise doubts about Georgia’s pro-market reforms and drive to align itself more closely with the West.