Saturday, August 9, 2008

How Georgia-Russia conflict may spin out of control

A Russian Jotman reader responds to my recent posts about the Russia-Georgia conflict:
. . . oil doesn't explain everything. Yes, it is playing its role there, but the conflict is essentially ethnic. You have got the ethnic group of Ossetians (also known as Alanians) torn between Russia and Georgia - a remnant of the dysfunctional ethnic policy in the USSR, where they were split into two "autonomies" divided between the two Soviet Socialist Republics (RSFSR and the Georgian SSR) which planted seeds of the deep resentment in the Ossetians towards the Georgians.

As I wrote in my brief commentary to The Economist report, the issue could have been sorted out by giving the Ossetians both North and South their own nationstate of Ossetia-Alania. This is something that could only happen in the ideal world. . . .

Your headline "Russia invades Georgia" is not entirely correct. If you are speaking of South Ossetia, they have been stationed there for years. Saying "Georgia invades South Ossetia" would not be correct either. For now it appears that although the conflict buildup was mutual, the critical fracture has occured from the Georgian initiative but then quickly went out of control. Mikhail Saakashvili appeared genuinely desperate to initiate a ceasefire. Russians (according to the Russian press) so far appear to be shocked and confused.

In the Russian press there are careful mentions of the Russo-Georgian war, yes. And the Ossetians themselves are calling the conflict "war" openly. But a "Russo-Georgian war" is something historically and culturally inconceivable to any educated Russian or Georgian. If this a war, this is madness.

Russians have all the resources to avoid a full-scale conflict - in any case the territory is too small - and manage the war by proxy. The South Ossetians although apparently less capable than the Georgian regular army, can rely on volunteers from highly capable, well-trained Abkhaz fighters (for whom Russians will provide a safe passage), also on their numerous relatives and supporters from North Ossetia, and most likely mercenaries from places like Chechnya, Dagestan etc., many of whom may invent reasons to dislike Georgians. This is something that the Russians apparently have been exploring, but this is also the way the conflict can quickly go out of anyone's control and there will be another realm of warlords on this planet.
Map: The Economist

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