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Georgia And Russia Collide In South Ossetia

In an apparent bid to recapture South Ossetia, Georgia launched a surprise military offensive against the breakaway region, prompting an armed response from neighboring Russia while threatening to further fray U.S.-Russian relations.

Sandwiched between Turkey and Russia, Georgia may have timed the gamble to coincide with the opening of the Beijing Olympics. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has long aspired to regain control of South Ossetia, and the decision to initiate military action now may have been designed to maximize operational surprise afforded by the international community’s focus on the Olympics. Whatever the reason, Russia responded forcefully, reportedly bombing Georgian military facilities and dispatching an armored column to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali presumably to augment Russian “peacekeeping” forces already station in the breakaway region.

The fighting has now raged for a second day. According to a Boston Globe article:

It was unclear which side controlled the provincial capital of South Ossetia by Saturday evening. Russian military commanders claimed they had driven Georgian forces out of Tskhinvali, which Georgia’s Presiden Mikhail Saakashvili denied. Smoke rose from the city, and intermittent artillery shelling and sporadic gunfire continued.

Georgia’s status as a U.S. ally further complicates matters. Approximately 130 American military trainers are presently stationed in the country, and upwards of 1000 Marines and soldiers had billeted at the Vaziani military base in July to train Georgian troops. Meanwhile, a contingent from Georgia is currently serving alongside allied forces in Iraq.

Given the stakes, the United States has called for a moratorium on all armed hostilities. In a statement issued by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. urged “an immediate ceasefire to the armed conflict in Georgia’s region of South Ossetia” and for Russia “to cease attacks on Georgia by aircraft and missiles.” Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, Vasil Sikharulidze echoed Rice’s plea to Russia. “We are asking our friends, and the United States among them,” the Sikharulidze said, “to somehow to try to mediate and try to persuade Russia to stop this military aggression and invasion of Georgia.”

Such calls may fall on deaf ears. Awash in oil revenues and eager to resume a prominent position on the world stage, Russia has demonstrated a strong inclination in recent years to readmit former Soviet states like Georgia into its sphere of influence. In addition, the region contains significant strategic value to the Russian state. “Strategically, Abkhazia {Georgia’s other breakaway region} is the southern terminus of the Sukhumi Military Road and South Ossetia, the Georgian and Ossetian Military Roads,” explained a Russian military expert. “All are traditional strategically vital Russian (Soviet) ground routes across the High Caucasus Mountains into the Trans-Caucasus Region. Russia will never relinquish them, whatever the cost.”

Assuming a cease-fire cannot be brokered in a timely fashion, the United States would be forced to confront and reconcile a pair of competing strategic interests: the desire to assuage Russian concerns over U.S. encroachment and dampen the simmering tensions between the two nations on the one hand, and the desire to support an ally in a vital geo-strategic region against an unhelpful world actor and former enemy on the other. And if abandoning Georgia is unacceptable in lieu of that nation’s cooperation with the United States in Iraq, risking the possible military stand-off with Russia is equally so.

At the moment, the United States must seek a compromise settlement. First, Georgia must be reigned in from military incursions against the separatist government in South Ossetia. The U.S must make clear that its support does not extend to land grabs, particularly one which seeks to incorporate a region that is home to so many ethnic Russians. Secondly, the Russian sphere of influence must be respected but not regarded as sacrosanct especially in light of Russian cooperation with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. The Soviet Union has collapsed, and with it Moscow’s diktat to exercise complete control over the affairs of former states. Russia must be reminded of this inconvenient truth.

Finally, the United States should continue engaging Russia. From the threat of Islamic extremism to China’s military build-up, the self-interests of the United States and Russia intersect. Neither country should lose sight of this.