I’ve refrained from writing about the Georgia crisis until now, because although I have had an interest in Russia, and had been sensing a growing wariness about Russia among the rarified field of foreign policy experts, I did not have an immediate sense of what was going on in that conflict.
Although it was clear that Russia was increasingly attempting to dominate it’s near-abroad, the timing of the conflict seemed to indicate that it was Georgian President Saakashvili who had most to gain.
In my discussions with others about the matter, there seems to be a great deal of confusion – and narratives and counter-narratives driven by propaganda have dominated these discussions. So, as a preliminary step, and for backwards refences, I am constructing here a timeline of events and a list of the players.
Georgia has been part of various Russian empires since the 1800s. After Communists took over in 1917, Georgia declared independence. By 1921, the Soviet Union had attacked and subjugated it again. As the Soviet Union began to crumble in 1989, Georgia again began to push for independence. This led to the massacre of Georgian citizens by the Soviet army at an unauthorized but peaceful demonstration. By 1991, Georgia was again independent. But ethnic tensions soon led to two civil wars taking place – with Russians supporting the forces that opposed the central Georgian government in both places.
One of the civil wars took place in Abkhazia, where Russian supported the minority Abhkaz who sought to ethnically cleanse their part of the country. A 1989 census reveals that just under half of the country’s population was ethnically Georgian (239,872) and under 20% was Abkhaz (93,267). Fourteen years later, The Abkhaz made up over 40% of the population with only a small rise in total population (94,606) while ethnic Georgians now accounted for just over 20% of the population (45,952). The Georgian population in Abkazia decreased by almost 200,000 over this time. Of course, these statistics do not tell the entire story. The Abkhaz minority had opposed the Georgian attempt to achieve indedependence from Russia and both sides had used ethnicly directed violence in the civil war in the early 1990s. See the Human Rights Watch report on the conflict. (PDF). Russian peacekeepers have been deployed in Abkhazia since the end of the violence.
The other Georgian civil war took place in South Ossetia. South Ossetia has been considered part of Georgia for some time – and was incorporated into the Russian empire as part of Georgia in 1801, and was part of Georgia when it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1917 and 1991. However, in both instances, the South Ossetians opposed breaking from the Soviet Union – and took up arms with the support of the Russians against the central Georgian government. The Soviet Union’s most prominent leader, Josef Stalin, was, in fact, from the country of Georgia, and an ethnic Ossetian. When Georgia declared independence, the South Ossetians opposed this and boycotted elections. After Georgia established it’s independence, a civil war broke out with some 25,000 ethnic Georgians fleeing the region with ethnic violence being used by both sides. By 1992, a peacekeeping force led by the Russians, but including both Ossetians and Georgians was able to enforce a peace agreement. There was relative peace in South Ossetia until 2004 when tensions began to mount. The Russians had continued to build up their peacekeeping force in the region, and had been supplying the South Ossetian army with large caches of weapons. They had allowed free reign to various criminal gangs operating out of South Ossetia (including one that attempted to sell nuclear materials to a joint US/Georgian sting operation.)
Russia considered the American alliance with Georgia (as well as American alliances with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuiania, Ukraine, Poland, Kazakhstan, and other former Soviet colonies) to be a regional challenge to Russian dominance. When America and Europe recognized the independence of Kosovo (a part of Serbia, a traditional ally of Russia), Putin declared that he would begin to push for independence for the two disputed regions in Georgia. Russia – with it’s peacekeepers in each region and supply of arms to local militias and militaries – already exercised de facto control over these regions. Moreover, inundated with a mountain of cash from it’s sale of oil and natural gas, Russia has begun to act more assertively in international affairs.
America saw the small democracy of Georgia as a natural ally. America supplied arms and training to the Georgia military. Since the Rose Revolution of 2003 in which the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, took power, America has grown closer to Georgia and recently pushed it’s membership in NATO. Aside from it’s democracy, Georgia is also seen as useful from the American perspective because it can be used as a counter to increasing Russian influence in the region.
From 2004 to 2008, tensions between Russia and Georgia mount.
- The Ukranian Orange Revolution and the Georgian Rose Revolution, both of which involved attempts to steal elections by the more pro-Russian force being turned back by peaceful and mass demonstrations of the public, take place. Russia is not happy.
- The Russian government accused the Georgians of supporting rebel Chechens in the Second Chechen war, though the evidence is inconclusive.
- Russia also opposed Saakashvili’s efforts to crack down on seperatism in Georgia. Shortly after taking power in the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili began to pressure the autocratic leader of the independent region of Adjara to resign and allow the central government a greater role in the region. Under great pressure from internal demonstrations and international pressure, Adjara’s leader resigned and fled to Moscow before he was indicted on various charges of embezzlement, misuse of office, and murder. Adjara maintains it’s autonomous status, but is becoming further integrated into the Georgian polity. Russia had sided with Adjara’s leader during the conflict and had wanted to maintain a military base in the region. So this further escalated tensions. Russia is not happy.
- Georgia began a military build-up in the regions outside of Abhkaz and South Ossetia. Russia continues to increase it’s peacekeeping force and to arm those opposed to the central Georgian government. Neither side is happy.
- Georgia pushed for and America supported Georgia’s bid to become a member of NATO, a military alliance originally created to oppose the Soviet Union. Russia is not happy.
- Russia’s power and wealth is increasing as it has become Europe’s main source of natural gas and a major exporter of oil. Russia is happy and more powerful.
August 8, 2007: Georgia claimed that a Russian jet violated it’s airspace and fired a missile, which did not explode. American and European countries urged both countries to ratchet down the rhetoric.
In March 2008, things began to escalate. America recognized Kosovo as an independent nation. Kosovo was part of Serbia, a traditional Russian ally, and the Russian opposed the independence of Kosovo. Russia threatened to take steps to escalate the situation in South Ossetia and Abhkazia.
Later in March, Russia took diplomatic steps to further the process of recognizing these two regions as independent states.
In April 2008, the Georgian government accused the Russians of shooting down an unmanned drone in Georgian airspace. Russia denied this. A United Nations report later backs up the Georgian version of events. The rhetoric escalates on both sides as they both accuse the other of attempting to escalate the conflict.
May 2008 sees Russia inceasing it’s peacekeeping force in Abhkazia. Seperatists in Abhkazia claim to have shot down Georgian drones operating over Abhkazia. Georgia denied having any drones operating there. (The Georgians are probably lying about this.)
In July 2008, Russian fighter jets flew over South Ossetia, into Georgian airspace. Moscow claimed it violated Georgia’s territory in order to “cool heads” in Georgia’s capitol. Georgia withdrew it’s ambassador to Moscow in protest.
Meanwhile, mixed messages are being sent. The United States continued to express strong support of Georgia and Saakashvili in public and to caution him in private to avoid taking any steps to escalate the situation. At the same time, Russia’s peacekeepers are allowing various criminal gangs to operate out of South Ossetia, and periodic attacks by Ossetian seperatists into Georgia are overlooked.
August 1, 2008: Fighting between Georgian and South Ossetian forces breaks out. Georgia accuses the South Ossetians of shelling nearby Georgian villages. The seperatists deny this.
August 5, 2008: As ethnic South Ossetians begin to evacuate into Russia, the Russian ambassador declares that Russia will defend South Ossetia against Georgia.
August 7, 2008: Georgian President Saakashvili orders a ceasefire, but fighting still intensifies. Later in the day, in a televised address, he orders Georgian forces to remove what he calls the “criminal regime” in South Ossetia.
August 8, 2008: Russian troops storm South Ossetia with massive force pushing back the Georgians, and launching attacks deep into Georgia to entirely destroy it’s military infrastructure. Russia claims that Georgia had killed thousands of Ossetians in an effort to ethnically cleanse the region. Human Righs Watch is unable to find any evidence of this, finding only 45 civilian deaths in South Ossetia. However, they find massive evidence of ethnically motivated attacks on ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia and widespread looting by seperatists.
August 9, 2008: Russian-backed seperatists in Abkhazia launch an attack on the region still controlled by ethnic Georgians who wish to remain part of Georgia.
August 10, 2008: The Russians move SS-21 medium-range ballistic missile launchers into South Ossetia, weapons which could potentially be nuclear.
August 11, 2008: Russians deploy paratroopers in Abhkazia to raid Georgia proper.
August 13, 2008: Georgia withdraws all of it’s forces from the disputed territories. Despite a ceasefire order by the Kremlin, Russian forces occupy the country’s main highway and attacks the city of Gori, splitting the nation in two.
Human Rights Watch issues a report documenting the burning and looting of ethnic Georgian villages as well as the restraint of the Georgian army in South Ossetia.
August 15, 2008: Human Rights Watch reports that Russia used cluster bombs on the civilian population of Georgia.
August 16, 2008: Russians occupy the Georgian port city of Poti and several other strategic positions within the nation and advance within 34 miles of the Georgian capitol of Tblisi. The Associated Press reports that ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia have been drafted as forced laborers under guard by Russian and South Ossetian troops.
August 17, 2008: The Russian President Medvedev announces that Russian troops will begin to pull out of the undisputed territory of Georgia on Monday.
Edit: August 18, 2008: In a report meant to sum up the human rights violations in this conflict to date, Human Rights Watch reports that the Georgians’ used “indiscriminate force during their assault on Tskhinvali and neighboring villages on August 7-8, [caused] numerous civilian casualties and extensive destruction.” The report mainly describes:
Russian military’s use of indiscriminate force and its seemingly targeted attacks on civilians, including on a civilian convoy. The deliberate use of force against civilians or civilian objects is a war crime. Human Rights Watch has also confirmed the Russian military’s use of cluster bombs in two towns in Georgia.
Ian Traynor of Britain’s The Guardian and Michael Dobbs in the Washington Post each had insightful columns this weekend analyzing the conflict with clarity.
Dobbs summarizes the war:
Saakashvili’s decision to gamble everything on a lightning grab for Tskhinvali brings to mind the comment of the 19th-century French statesman Talleyrand: “It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.”
Michael Walzer in the liberal Dissent magazine also has a good piece.
But the single most important insight came in a column by this blog’s nemesis, Paul Krugman, last Friday:
By itself, as I said, the war in Georgia isn’t that big a deal economically. But it does mark the end of the Pax Americana — the era in which the United States more or less maintained a monopoly on the use of military force. And that raises some real questions about the future of globalization. [My emphasis.]