Moscow's Dangerous Game in Georgia

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Gleb Garanich / Reuters

A Georgian man cries over the body of his relative after a bombardment in Gori

Although Georgia on Sunday announced that it would withdraw its troops from the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, it remains uncertain whether the hostilities between Russia and Georgia will end anytime soon. Indeed, they could continue to spread as Russia continues to launch air strikes on Georgian targets. And Russian warships sank a Georgian missile boat within a couple of hours of Georgia's withdrawal announcement.

Fighting broke out late last Thursday after Georgia sent its military to reclaim control of the territory, which has enjoyed de facto autonomy under Russian protection since 1992, and Russia launched its own offensive against Georgian forces. And as of Sunday, it appeared that both Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had painted themselves into a corner. The Russians face the dilemma over how far to push their "punishment" of Georgia for its attack on South Ossetia; the Georgian leadership faces the reality that the stated objective of its military operation — to recapture the breakaway region — is unlikely to be achieved.

The population of South Ossetia — and the wider Caucasus region — now finds itself trapped between the reckless adventurism of Saakashvili and what President George W. Bush called Russia's "disproportionate use of force."

When Saakashvili unleashed a massive artillery-and-rocket barrage on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali last Thursday night, the Russian response was all too predictable: having jealously guarded the territory's autonomy from Georgia as a point of leverage against Tbilisi's desire to join NATO, Moscow launched an offensive of its own, fighting Georgian forces inside South Ossetia and bombing cities inside Georgia proper. Meanwhile, separatist forces in Abkhazia, another Moscow-backed separatist Georgian province, opened a second front against Georgian forces, while Russia's Back Sea Fleet sailed from its base in Ukraine to impose a naval blockade along Georgia's coast.

Since the early 1990s, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been an integral part of Russia's strategy to preserve its traditional spheres of influence following the collapse of the Soviet empire. The two territories broke away from Georgia for the same ethnic-nationalist reasons that Chechnya wanted out of Russia. But while Moscow relentlessly and bloodily suppressed Chechnya's secessionists, it fully supported their Ossetian and Abkhazian counterparts as a tool against Georgia's tilt toward the West. Moscow issued Russian citizenship to over 90% of the population of both entities and deployed "peacekeeping" forces sympathetic to the separatists to police the de facto lines of secession. So when Saakashvili turned his artillery on Tskhinvali, killing hundreds of civilians and over a dozen Russian peacekeepers, "Russia had to move in, if only to save face," contends Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center. The Russian offensive to recapture the city finished the job started by Saakashvili — Tskhinvali lies in ruins.

Still, Moscow remains uncertain of its next step. "Should Russia confine its efforts to South Ossetia, it still might emerge out of this mess as the power who moved in to stop bloodshed," says Malashenko. "Should Russia move further into Georgia, it will be deemed the aggressor."

But Russia's outlook on the events in Georgia will be shaped by its refusal to fully accept Georgia's independence. Russia has long sought to re-establish influence in Georgia and prevent it from joining NATO (a move Russia sees as part of a hostile encirclement by the West), and also to prevent the oil pumped to Turkey from Azerbaijan and elsewhere in Central Asia from bypassing Russian control. Georgia claims that Russian planes have in recent days bombed the strategically important oil pipeline that transits Georgia. The pipeline actually had been inoperative since Aug. 6 as a result of a fire in its Turkish segment, and Azerbaijan instead kept supplying oil through two Georgian ports. As these ports were also heavily bombed by the Russians, Azerbaijan has suspended oil shipments through Georgia.

Besides suspending the oil shipments via Georgia, Russia's military campaign has clouded the prospects for Georgia joining NATO anytime soon. (The carnage of recent days will probably reinforce the reluctance of European NATO members to induct Georgia as a member, despite strong U.S. support for Georgian membership.) And by extending its offensive into Georgia — dozens of civilians are reported to have been killed in Russian air strikes on Georgian cities — Moscow has also fired a warning shot at Ukraine, another former Soviet territory that shares Georgia's ambition to join NATO.

The Russian move could backfire, however, by reminding former Soviet territories and satellites just why they might want NATO protection. Azerbaijan will resume pumping oil across Georgia as soon as hostilities there end. Ukraine, angered that the Russian navy used bases in Ukraine to launch its naval blockade against Ukraine's ally and sink one of its ships, may step up its efforts to ease out the Russian military presence on its soil before 2017, when the current leasing treaty for bases expires. And the bloodshed in Georgia may spur Ukraine to intensify its own efforts to put its national security under the NATO umbrella. The former Soviet satellites already in NATO will also most likely respond to the display of Russian might in Georgia by forgoing their own misgivings about deploying U.S. missile defenses and other facilities on their soil.

The mounting ethnic, religious and clan tensions that riddle the Caucasus, moreover, are now likely to make the region even more unstable, and not necessarily to Russia's advantage. Some in the region may take courage from the fact that while the 35,000-strong Georgian army was no match for Russia's military juggernaut, it put up a level of resistance the Russians had never expected.

"The Georgian army today is a modern, well-mobilized force, armed with the state-of the-art weapons," Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff Anatoli Nagovitsin told the Interfax wire agency Sunday. That seemed to be a roundabout way of excusing the fact that in three days of fighting, the Russians may not have met all of their military objectives.