When Conflicts Thaw: South Ossetia

This one is breaking fast — as I was writing an earlier version of this post, Georgia’s president Mikhail Saakashvili said at a press conference that Georgian forces had downed two Russian planes that had breached Georgian air space. Local media are reporting that Georgia has taken most of Tskhinvali, the breakaway region’s capital. The assault began last night, after a week of escalating sniping and shooting across the ceasefire lines that had been reasonably stable since the early 1990s.

One of the reports I read today (can’t find the link, grr) held that the Georgians were claiming to have headed off a “column of mercenaries” coming down from the north, i.e., Russia. This is just plausible — Russian railroad troops have been busy the last week in Georgia’s other breakaway region of Abkhazia — but also sounds like a pretext. At any rate, the Georgian leadership has decided to unfreeze the conflict by bringing it to a boil.

First reports indicate a military success for the Georgians: control of most of Tskhinvali, which seems to be the only significant prize in the region. We’re nearly 90 minutes into an announced three-hour ceasefire and “humanitarian corridor,” which seems to be about giving people time to get out of town and any wavering fighters time to change into civvies and melt into the background. After that, it’s implied, Georgian forces will be cleaning up the rest of Tskhinvali. Given the operation so far, I think they’ll succeed, and with that formally claim that South Ossetia has been reintegrated.

That’s where things get interesting, as there are several open points. First, what will Russia’s leadership do? It was willing to have Russian planes violate Georgian airspace last week during the escalation, and reports have it that one bomb each fell near the Georgian cities of Gori and Kartveli. On the other hand, this looks like a gesture — if the Russians wanted to have bombs fall on Gori and Kartveli, they jolly well would have. Escalation by the Russian side is of course possible, but Saakashvili’s government has bet that Russia won’t be all that put out about 70,000 South Ossetians. The ruble and the Russian stock market, however, both had big drops today, apparently on the theory that you never know about escalation.

Second, what will the Americans and EU do? A senior State Department figure was here in Tbilisi last week, and I would expect that the Georgian side at least hinted very broadly about what was up. He would have to deny that, of course, in the way of these things. We can assume that the Americans did not warn them off. The German foreign minister was also here, with a plan for Abkhazia. It’s slightly less likely that he was clued in, but the topic of his visit points to the next item on the reintegration agenda.

Abkhazia has always been the biggest and least tractable of Georgia’s conflicts, and the one most important to Tbilisi. Adjara went peacefully; South Ossetia is now doing things the hard way. Sooner or later, Tbilisi seems to be saying, Abkhazia will have to make its choice. Recent increased Russian activity may have led the Georgians to think that it was time to wrap up Ossetia and leave just one item on the menu.

UPDATE: Reported Russian bombardment of military airport just outside Tbilisi, details as they become available.

UPDATE 2: Wu Wei is also based in Tbilisi, and updating more regularly. Like him her, I am also getting news from Civil.ge. Internet, cell and electricity are all holding up well (all also occasionally go out during normal times), though, weirdly, I cannot access Google. Reports of Russian air power bombing two military air fields, Vaziani (just outside Tbilisi) and Marneuili, south of Tbilisi.

18 thoughts on “When Conflicts Thaw: South Ossetia

  1. Unfortunately……….. you were wrong.Witness(includung an AFP reporter claim to have seen tanks going south from North Ossetia.

  2. Sorry Vaske. Fixed now. You’d think I could have clicked on the “about” button…

    Send me a cite, ZI, and I’ll see about an update.

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  4. Handelsblatt is reporting that the Russian army has moved into South Ossetia; The Guardian agrees, quoting Saakashvili practically begging for US assistance.

    Le Monde is practically liveblogging, describing a Russian move in to South Ossetia, a Georgian statement that part of this place has been lost again, Sergei Lavrov accusing Georgia of “ethnic cleansing”, NATO demanding a stop to it all, Lech Kaczynski shouting at the Russians..

    NYT quotes the Georgians putting the Russian force at 2 battalions and claiming an Su-25 strike on the convoy. Russians say it was a convoy of humanitarian supplies (naturally).

    Der Standard says much the same, with some video.

  5. Both sides acknowledge column. Registan has a link to a timesonline story on it.

    I don’t know who started it, both sides claim it was the other. I have a hard time believing either, but one must be right, right?

    I have been watching lots of Russia Today, a 24 hour English-language news station. They make CNN look like a straight news organization. I have lots of blog posts about it.

    The Russian Foreign Minister is saying Georgians are engaged in ethnic cleansing, Georgians are attacking civilians, Georgians are executing wounded Russians, there’s no end. Since he couldn’t possibly know himself, I am most suspicious of him.

    Oh, and Wikipedia has a absolutely great page on South Ossetia. If you see better, tell me!

  6. Just in from Dutch Teletekst:

    Georgia is withdrawing its 2,000 troops in Iraq to fight the Russians. The Russians have taken part of Tschinvali.

    Russians mention ten casualties, South Ossetia talks about 1,400 casualties because of “Georgian aggression”.

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  8. The Russian forces are probably drawn from the 19th Motor Rifle Division in Vladikavkaz. The figure of 150 armoured vehicles would suggest one of its three regiments is so far in use.

    Civil.ge is down, but when I last checked the Georgian root was operational, and with a bit of tiddling about with dig I could resolve the name. The server responded to ping and traceroute (via TurkTel) but wasn’t serving pages; just what you’d expect if they were buried under requests.

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  10. I don’t understanf what the Georgians were thinking. Georgia’s entire GNP is half the budget of the city of San Francisco, its economy is heavily dependent on remittances from Georgians in Russia, the US and NATO give it lip service support but won’t let it in, and certainly won’t engage in a fighting war with Russia.

    I guess Saakashvili’s goverment is getting desperate with internal political pressures and gambled it could seize control on the ground quicky enough to leave the Russians with only the option of air strikes or a full-fledged invasion. They badly miscalculated the resolve of the thugs in the Kremlin. Putin has no regrets about Chechnya, why would he blink at the idea of smashing the poor Georgian forces?

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