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August 10, 2008

Ossetia War Update: Georgia Still Calling for Ceasefire, Russian Forces Close In

I probably should have included a map earlier. This one, borrowed from the CIA World Factbook, marks all the areas of interest, including the breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia; the capital Tbilisi; Gori, which has seen bombing of civilian targets; and Poti, Georgia's main port and oil terminal, which has also been bombed. Georgian officials say that Russia's Black Sea forces are blockading the coast near Abkhazia and that Zugdidi is being bombed. The Ukrainian foreign ministry has threatened to prevent the Black Sea fleet from returning to its base in Sevastopol, something that could spread the conflict.

Georgia has almost entirely withdrawn from South Ossetia now and continuously asks for a ceasefire. Yesterday, an official with the Russian foreign ministry responded to CNN anchors asking about the prospective cease fire: "I haven't heard of a ceasefire proposal." Alexander Darchiev, of the Russian Embassy to the U.S., says that the conflict will end when Georgia gives up any claim to South Ossetia.

Meanwhile, Russian attacks outside of the disputed area continue. Civilians just outside of South Ossetia are fleeing on the belief that Russia will not be content with South Ossetia. Certainly, Russia intends to see Abkhazia take the same route to secession, but so far Russia has only made air attacks outside of South Ossetia. Its troops have so far stayed inside the disputed area.

Five things must be emphasized. First, this is not just about South Ossetia, as the Russian activity in Abkhazia and the Black Sea show. Russia is looking for an excuse now to exert control over the rest of Georgia, and it's waging a successful PR campaign designed to placate Western sensibilities. Russia says that it is merely protecting the the Ossetians from ethnic cleansing. It casts itself as procuring freedom for an oppressed people. But its actions do not comport with that image. At the very least, it is getting in some free licks against Georgia's infrastructure and military. At worst, Russia is softening Georgia up for an all-out invasion.

More under the fold.

Second, South Ossetia was not, before this started, as unified as it has been portrayed on TV and in some web commentary. Separatists declared independence in 1991 and created their own government. However, they never controlled the entire region and Georgian government continued to control a substantial part of the territory. It is not like the Kosovo-Serbia situation, where Serbia had lost all governmental control prior to the Kosovar declaration of independence.

Third, you know that the U.S. has for the last several years been helping Georgia develop a modern, NATO-compliant military. They fight with our tactics, often wearing surplus U.S. Army uniforms and body armor. This means that our credibility is at stake. The Georgian people are pro-West, owing to their boundless hate for Russia. More than that, they are largely pro-American. If we do nothing to help them, that is all gone. Strategically, we lose an ally in a region where we obviously need a greater presence.

Fourth, the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline was shut down before Russia's attack on it yesterday because of an explosion and fire in Turkey. Is this a war for oil? I don't see it. The Russians have more oil than they can pump right now and the BTC pipeline gets them nothing unless they seize Georgia. Even if they do, they still get nothing without the cooperation of Azerbaijan, which perhaps not coincidentally blamed the Russians for the explosion in Turkey. The PKK, Turkey's fractious Kurdish rebels, have already claimed responsibility.

Fifth, the Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists are not motivated by religion. I'm mentioning this here because there is persistent scaremongering in the comments that this situation is about Muslims trying to set up their own state. For the record: South Ossetia is majority Orthodox, though it does have a minority Sunni population. These Sunnis are in no way like Arab Sunnis. The separatists, which are led by an Orthodox Christian, are motivated by their ethnicity, not their religion. The Ossetians and Georgians are ethnically distinct, as are Abkhazians.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 11:23 AM

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