(Given that I do not know Georgian, Russian, or Ossetian politics from my ass or a hole in the ground, I have called on a guest writer to say something intelligent. It seemed to work last time. What are the odds that I could find someone who studies Georgia? Scientists used Deep Blue to calculate them at 1 in 1,730,265. Well, suck it, science. I don't just know someone, I live with him. Without further ado, Mr. Scott "Aqua Velva Man" Nissen.)
Despite the media’s insistence that the political future of John Edwards (and, one assumes, his illegitimate child) and the vacation habits of Barack Obama are the most salient issues in the world today, a much more troubling event has been ongoing in a largely ignored region. On August 7th, the Russian military invaded South Ossetia, a small region in northern Georgia with separatist goals.
Before getting to the consequences of this action for Americans and the rest of the world, a little background is in order. Following the collapse of communism, the force that kept many separatist groups in check disappeared. Without the unifying force of communism (and the threat posed by the Red Army), many of the new states that emerged from Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were unable to placate the separatist aspirations of many ethnic groups. As seen in Chechnya, Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh (I did not make that one up), the result has been some of the most savage conflicts in the post-Cold War era. Conflict erupted in South Ossetia almost immediately after Georgian independence in 1992, ending with a tense cease-fire that was maintained by Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian peacekeepers.
South Ossetia was largely peaceful until 2004, when the new Georgian government, brought to power in the Rose Revolution, cracked down on illegal activity in the region. This led to sporadic fighting between Georgian and South Ossetian troops, who were believed to be backed by the Russian military. American and limited European acknowledgement of Kosovo’s independence in February 2008 further destabilized Georgia's hold on South Ossetia. Recognizing separatists in Kosovo set a precedent, reducing the authority states have over breakaway regions. Needless to say, the tensions in South Ossetia have run high and increased significantly in recent years.
Everything came to a head on August 1st, when Georgian troops in South Ossetia were shelled by South Ossetian troops. The Georgian military responded by invading the region to quell the fighting, encountering intense resistance. Russia denies that the incident on August 1st occurred. A week later, the Russian military began bombing raids, first in South Ossetia and eventually on other targets in Georgia including an airfield near the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. As of today, it appears that Georgia is vacating the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali while Abkhazia, another separatist region within Georgia, may be taking advantage of this situation by attacking Georgian troops within Abkhazian borders.
What remains unclear is Russia’s rationale. Two motives have been widely speculated. First, Russia may have annexed South Ossetia to reunite it with North Ossetia, which is already part of Russia. They claim that approximately 90% of the people who live in South Ossetia carry a Russian passport and use Russian currency. Second, Moscow is troubled by former Soviet republics joining the EU and NATO. The three Baltic States have already joined both organizations while Ukraine and Georgia have received commitments from NATO about their future with the security organization. Russia may be trying to destabilize the Georgian state and military with the intention of making them ineligible for NATO membership.
It is important to note that Russia also has separatist problems of its own, most notably in Chechnya (which also borders Georgia). Although this conflict has cooled off in recent years, it does not make much sense for Russia to embolden Ossetian separatists in Georgia while trying to suppress Chechens a mere 200 miles away. Additionally, Russia’s standing in the international community has taken a big hit in recent years due to Vladimir Putin’s backsliding toward repression. Invading Georgia, which is significantly weaker, perceived to be a strong democracy, and a staunch ally of the West, can’t do much to help Russia’s tattered international image.
Why should we care that Russia is essentially steamrolling over an obscure country – besides the obvious loss of life and possibility of ethnic cleansing that comes with any armed conflict? There are three underreported ways in which this conflict might impact Americans directly. First, after the US and the UK, Georgia had the largest force in Iraq – roughly 2,000 troops on the ground. With the continued deterioration of the situation in South Ossetia, the Georgian government has asked that the United States airlift these troops back to Georgia. Unfortunately, this means that the military of another coalition partner (read: the US or UK) will, at least temporarily, have to fill that gap.
Second, oil markets will be further destabilized. A major pipeline links Central Asian oil fields with Western ports on the Mediterranean via Tbilisi. The Georgian government has said that the Russian Air Force is targeting the pipeline, a claim not yet substantiated by independent observers. However, the mere notion that the pipeline could be targeted may be enough for oil speculators to drive the price of oil to new record highs.
Finally, and this goes out to all of us enjoying the Summer Olympics in Beijing, guess where the 2014 Winter Olympics are being held? That’s right, Sochi, Russia, only about 150 miles from the newly demolished city of Tskhinvali. While I’m sure that the Russian government will be able to put on a wonderful show for the rest of the world, the specter of violence, instability, and the current conflict is likely to remain the region for many years.
Unfortunately, this conflict is getting the short shrift in the MSM even though we, and the region, may be feeling the consequences of it for some time. It may take the Russian army marching on Atlanta instead of Tbilisi for many Americans to actually take notice.
(Scott was compensated with a post-dated out-of-state bad check for $1,000 which stands no chance of being honored by any legitimate financial institution.)