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Georgia 2008 Path To War

Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy noted that "In Georgia in 2008.... Putin called the West’s bluff about standing by its friends—which is what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that the West would do during a visit to Tbilisi shortly before the August war. From Putin’s perspective, given all the emphasis the Bush Administration put on Georgia in its foreign policy, he thought this meant that the United States was prepared to fight militarily, not just rhetorically, for Georgia. Moscow was steeled for a possible fight with NATO. Many Russian officials in private meetings with the authors related the tension in Moscow security circles in August 2008. They talked of the fear in the Russian military that the U.S. and NATO would strike back, and that they might then have to face a NATO force in some form, not just the Georgian army. When the United States and NATO did not come to Georgia’s aid militarily, and the European Union, with then French President Nicholas Sarkozy out in front, rushed to broker a ceasefire, there was a sigh of relief in Moscow. NATO was still a formidable conventional fighting force, of course, but it did not have the political will to fight for partners outside the alliance... The West wanted to contain Russia on the cheap in Europe and Eurasia. The United States, NATO, and the EU would do everything they could to head off another major military confrontation, a “World War III,” in Europe. "

Russia sent tanks and troops to South Ossetia and Abkhazia after Georgia launched a major military offensive to reclaim the breakaway republics. This was the culmination of months of escalation by both sides. Russia saw the events in South Ossetia in the larger context of a widening confrontation with the West, and in particular the United States. Russia sought this confrontation for a variety of reasons, including providing an appropriate context for a resumption of spending on military hardware, which ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Asked whether the fighting will influence the pace of Russia's army modernization, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the General Staff said on Thursday 14 August 2008 that the country would "draw serious conclusions" from the events.

By late August 2008 Russia was digging in to stay in Georgia, its troops setting up outposts deep inside Georgian territory, far from the scenes of the recent conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia had seized on a key loophole in the French-mediated cease-fire agreement, contained in its fifth "principle," which allowed unspecified "additional security measures" to be implemented in the vicinity of the conflict zone. Russia established a wide perimeter around both provinces where it said it had an obligation to prevent a military buildup by Georgia. Near Abkhazia, Russian troops are maintaining two large checkpoints on the roads around the Black Sea port of Poti. Otside South Ossetia, they held positions near Gori, overlooking the strategic highway from Tbilisi to the west.

Military experts were evaluating the expediency of deploying Russian military bases, particularly in the Abkhazian towns of Gudaut and Ochamchir and in the South Ossetian town of Dzhava. According to preliminary estimates, some 15,000 Russian military servicemen could be deployed there. The town of Gudaut could be used for the deployment of assault troops, air force and air defense detachments, as it already has a military airport, while Ochamchir could host a naval base and allow the relocation of Russian Black Sea Fleet vessels from Ukraine's Sevastopol, and Dzhava could be used as a location for deploying a motorized infantry brigade.

Russian officials and Russian commentators magnified the significance of this conflict to a scale greatly exceeding Western perceptions. While the full extent of the fighting was unclear, Russian reports of thousands dead and massive destruction could not be reconciled with available annecdotal evidence of vastly less death and destruction. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, meeting with South Ossetia refugees who had fled across the border to the Russian city of Vladikavkaz, described Georgia's actions as "complete genocide" - further raising the stakes of the contest. While Western commentators and officials tended to regard this conflict in isolation, Russian officials and commentators were quick to link the affair to Kosovo independence, NATO enlargement, and American designs to contain Russia.

Russia has opposed NATO membership for Georgia. Georgia's application for NATO membership was deferred in April 2008 due to the unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. By exacerbating these conflicts, Russia rendered Georgia an un-appetising candidate for NATO membership. A decisive defeat for Georgia could also be seen as a defeat for the United States, and result in diminished American influence in the region.

The United States aims are to deny Russia full sway over its back yard. By providing Azerbaijan and Georgia an independent oil pipeline and natural gas pipeline to the West, they deny Russia complete dominance of this region that has been their play land for 200 years. A major issue that makes both Georgia and Azerbaijan a security priority for Washington is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. The pipeline is a conduit for Caspian energy to the Western market via Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. During the Russia-Georgia war, Russian forces bombed near the pipeline, demonstrating its vulnerability. Many in the West saw the action as a clear message that Moscow, not Washington, determines whether the pipeline operates or not.

The EU was divided into two blocs over how to deal with Moscow. One bloc favored negotiations based on shared interests, as championed by France, Italy and Germany. The other is more confrontational, as championed by some of the Eastern European members. Possible sanctions include not letting Russia into the WTO and boycotting the Winter Olympics 2014 in Sochi. In 1980 the U.S. boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow, as a response to the Soviet Union entering Afghanistan.

2004-2007 Saakashvili

Georgia's long-time leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, was peacefully overthrown in November 2003 following a contested parliamentary election. Georgia's new President Mikheil Saakashvili was innagurated on January 25, 2004, and made promises to tackle Georgia's internal corruption and its endemic poverty.

Russia appeared concerned that the US would use its alliance with the Westward-leaning Saakashvili to increase the US presence in the region. Saakashvili tried to placate Russia in speeches but was firm about his insistence on keeping breakaway provinces from seceding to Russia. Saakashvili could weaken separatist elements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which might discourage Russian intervention.

On 3 February 2005 Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania died due to an apparent gas leak in an apartment. Zhvania was one of Georgia's most urbane, intelligent, astute, and experienced politicians. There had been periodic alarms that he was a possible assassination target for his uncompromising criticism of Moscow's policy towards Georgia. Those rumors fueled speculation about the somewhat bizarre circumstances of his death.

On 27 September 2006, Georgian-Russian relations deteriorated further when the Georgian government detained four Russian military officers on charges of espionage. Both nations engaged in a back-and-forth series of shows of military and diplomatic force. These included the surrounding of Russia's military headquarters in Georgia, the withdrawal of the Russian diplomats, and reprisal raids against each other's business interests. On 6 October, the Russian Duma ratified a treaty that would guarantee a withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgian territory and assure Russian access to Armenian bases via Georgia. On 29 November, the Georgian and Russian presidents met unofficially in a meeting described as "useful."

Notwithstanding progress on democratization since the Rose Revolution, Georgia had work to do, and the events this past fall marked a setback for democracy in Georgia. Large segments of the Georgian public expressed serious dissatisfaction during protest rallies in September, October, and November, 2007. This dissatisfaction stemmed from a combination of continuing poverty and unemployment, a sense the Georgian government had grown disconnected from certain segments of society, and anger over a political system that seemed to be structured to prevent the development of a vibrant opposition.

On 07 November 2007, Georgia's Ministry of Internal Affairs forcibly dispersed protestors camped out in the vicinity of Parliament and later that day the government imposed a State of Emergency. In several confrontations that day police clashed with protestors elsewhere in Tbilisi. The U.S. government condemned the imposition of a state of emergency, the closure of the independent Imedi television station, and what appeared to be the use of excessive force by the Georgian government against protestors.

President Saakashvili addressed the crisis by taking an unusual step, calling for a snap presidential election on January 5 that shortened his term by a year. The conduct of the presidential election, in which incumbent President Saakashvili narrowly won a first-round victory, was regarded by OSCE and other observers as an improvement over previous elections, but flawed, and thus did not fully restore Georgia's democratic reputation. Georgian leaders and citizens will long argue over whether irregularities skewed the outcome of the election.

Georgia expressed its desire to join NATO, part of its overall effort to join the European and transatlantic family. As it has done so, Georgia has been subjected to unremitting and dangerous pressure from Russia, including over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and, to a lesser degree, South Ossetia. Georgian political mistakes in the early 1990s led to conflicts in these regions, and the separatists, with Russian military support, won.

Russia suggested that a Kosovo solution involving independence would constitute a precedent leading to the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained potential flashpoints even if Russia in response to Western recognition of Kosovo did not follow through with its implicit threat to recognize the two regions as independent.

2008 - Renewed Fighting

Moscow intensified political pressure by taking a number of concrete steps toward a de facto official relationship with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russian peacekeeping forces had been deployed since the early 1990s - up to 3,000 in Abkhazia, and 500 Russians plus 500 North Ossetians in South Ossetia. In March 2008, Russia announced its unilateral withdrawal from Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) sanctions on Abkhazia, which would allow Russia potentially to provide direct military assistance (though the Russian government has offered assurances that it will continue to adhere to military sanctions). On 16 April 2008, then-President Putin issued instructions calling for closer ties between Russian ministries and their Abkhaz and South Ossetian counterparts.

Moscow also was making more use of its strengthened armed forces. A growing number of exercises with foreign militaries and an increased operational tempo in the North Caucasus Military District, often focusing on potential Georgian contingencies, were designed primarily to demonstrate regional dominance and discourage outside interference. Russia's North Caucasian Military District (SKVO) was ready to provide assistance to Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia if needed, a Russian military commander said on 10 July 2008. "The major tasks for SKVO in the event of an escalation or the launch of combat action between the conflicting sides are: the provision of assistance to the peacekeeping troops so as to separate the forces of the conflicting sides; the provision of humanitarian assistance to the population residing in the conflict zones," RIA Novosti news agency quoted Colonel General Sergey Makarov, the commander of SKVO, as saying. He said that recent military exercise involving SKVO units aimed at "working out actions" required in the event of a flare-up in tensions in the Georgian conflict zones.

The increase of Russian pressure against Georgia came in the context of Georgia's transatlantic aspirations, particularly its attempt to secure a Membership Action Plan (MAP) from NATO. The United States and most NATO members strongly supported a MAP for both Georgia and Ukraine at the April 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest. Although there was no consensus at Bucharest for a MAP invitation, NATO's leaders stated flatly in the final communiqué from the summit that Georgia and Ukraine will become members.

On 05 July 2008 Russia began large-scale military exercises in several regions of the Southern Federal District, which includes highly volatile North Caucasus republics. The exercise, dubbed Caucasus Frontier 2008, involved 8,000 servicemen and 700 pieces of military hardware, including units of the North Caucasus Military District, mainly the 58th Army, the 4th Air Force Army, Interior Ministry troops, and border guards. The active phase of the multi-stage exercise was held through the second week of July. On 16 July Paratroopers from Russia's 76th Airborne Division arrived in North Ossetia to participate in the active stage of large-scale military exercises in the North Caucasus. The paratroopers will make a forced march to the assigned zone of operation in the mountains, where they will conduct a series of tactical exercises, including live-fire drills. The Pskov paratroopers were later joined by units from an air assault regiment based in the Volga region, which were transported to the Krasnodar Territory by rail and conduct a forced march to the exercise zone.

Givi Targamadze, chairman of Georgian parliament's defense and security committee stated on 27 July 2008 that Russia was resorting to deliberate provocative measures to engage Georgia in an armed conflict. Recently "the talks have concerned not only provocation, but a real threat of military aggression in the Kodori Gorge or anywhere else. In such a case, Georgia will have to respond properly," stated Targamadze. Tbilisi said that a session of the UN Security Council held on 21 July 2008 demonstrated that the international community was taking Russia's aggression in the conflict zones seriously. As for Georgia's reaction to the perceived Russian threat, Targamadze said, "Certainly concrete military action plans are not yet being considered, but we will do our best to protect territorial integrity of our country."

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Page last modified: 18-04-2016 20:03:47 ZULU