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.