Caucasus Violence Took Europe by Surprise
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Russian tanks surge into South Ossetia to protect Russia's citizens and peacekeepers after the Georgian Army attacked the breakaway region this week, killing over 1,400 civilians. Georgia has claimed South Ossetia as its territory since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1992, while South Ossetian separatists have sought independence and perhaps union with North Ossetian compatriots in Russia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev: "In accordance with the constitution and federal law, I, as president of Russia, am obliged to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are located. We won't allow the deaths of our compatriots to go unpunished."
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin: "War has started after a well-planned invasion." Putin appealed to world leaders for help.
Spokesman for President George W. Bush: "Russia and Georgia should cease hostilities and hold talks to end the conflict."
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili: "Most decision makers have gone for the holidays. Brilliant moment to attack a small country."
Russia Blog: Our view is that it's not polite to start a war during the Olympic Games - a tradition that has celebrated peaceful athletic competition between nations since ancient times. The Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili decided to send his army into South Ossetia while major world leaders were attending the opening ceremony of 29th Olympiad in Beijing - after reassuring European Union chief envoy Javier Solana on Thursday that he had called for a unilateral ceasefire.
If Saakashvili and his advisors believe that being a strong U.S. ally means that they have a "green light" from Washington for these rash moves, they are sorely mistaken. A few hours after the fighting started, President Bush and Prime Minister Putin were discussing the crisis face to face at the Olympics.
Republic of Georgia and the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia
Caucasus Violence Took Europe by Surprise
By Hans-JÃ¼rgen Schlamp in Brussels
European diplomats have been trying to maintain peace in Georgia with financial incentives and promises of partnership. But now that bombs have started to fall, no one in Brussels, Berlin or Paris quite knows what to do. At 6 p.m. on Thursday, the mood in Brussels was still positive: The fire in the Caucasus appeared to be under control.
For days Georgian troops and fighters in South Ossetia had been exchanging fire. And on Thursday morning, Russia -- which backs the South Ossetians and is present in the region with a 1,000-man "peacekeeping" force -- openly warned that Georgia was preparing to wage war.
But when chief European Union diplomat Javier Solana telephoned with Mikhail Saakashvili on Thursday afternoon, the Georgian president sought to calm him down, saying he had just called a unilateral cease-fire. And, Saakashvili reportedly said, of course he shared Solana's opinion that every possible step to stop the violence should be taken, and that the problem could only be solved at the negotiating table.
A few hours later, though, heavy fighting broke out. Bombs fell on civilians. A Georgian general spoke of "retaking" South Ossetia. The developments caught Europe by surprise.
Helplessly, Solana said the European Commission and the French government -- which is currently the rotating president of the 27-member club -- were "deeply concerned." German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier didn't miss the chance to call the Georgian president from his vacation spot in the Alps around noon on Friday to express his "concern." Just days earlier, Steinmeier had visited Saakashvili, who had given him assurances of his desire for peace. Of course, NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer didn't want to be missing from the list of senior European officials expressing their "serious concern," either.
But the truth is that in Brussels -- both at the European Union and NATO headquarters -- leading personalities are concerned because no one actually knows what's going on. How did the shooting start? Who escalated it? With what intention? There's been a clueless shrugging of shoulders.
For some time now, relations between the EU, NATO and Georgia have been steadily intensifying. As the gateway to the Central Asian oil and gas fields, the former Soviet nation has huge strategic importance to Europe. Pipelines are planned that will pass through Georgia to help reduce Europe's energy dependence on Russia.
The EU has pumped more than â‚¬500 million ($754 million) into aid and development programs in the country. And European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner of Austria has sought to integrate Georgia as a central part of the EU's "circle of friends" program, which aims to ensure the region of countries in Europe's backyard are both relatively prosperous and politically stable. The last time the Brussels emissary visited with Georgian Prime Minister Vladimir Gurgenidze, the politician defined his country's political course by saying: "We want free trade with you, simplified visa procedures and EU membership."
But overnight, it appears, the country has fundamentally shifted course Georgia may want to improve its strategic position ahead of the coming peace negotiations, and take back a bridge or a hill here or there. Or else the South Ossetians saw their chances of independence slipping away after Russia signaled that it might wash its hands of the whole problem. According to this theory, the South Ossetians have decided to reach for their weapons and heat up the war. But there may be some truth to a story by a journalist who knows the region well that the new conflict is nothing but a flare-up of "seasonal" violence.
NATO was also surprised by the fighting. Until very recently (from July 5 to 30), around 1,000 American soldiers were on maneuver in the region with the Fourth Infantry Brigade of the Georgian army in a training mission called "Immediate Response 08." The goal was to train Georgians for a stint in Afghanistan, where Tbilisi is soon set to send 400 soldiers.
For now, the EU and NATO have to restrict their responses to lofty rhetoric in diplomatic communiquÃ©s, because both bodies are deeply divided on Georgia. Within NATO, Germany and other Western European countries are holding back to avoid straining relations with Moscow. The situation in the EU is similar: Newer members in Eastern Europe would like to see Georgia join up, but the old heart of the EU has been stubborn. When Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet recently called for the deployment of European peacekeeping troops at the start of new hostilities in South Ossetia, EU administrators in Brussels seemed to collectively wince. A mission would only be conceivable, they said, if all parties in the conflict -- Russians, Georgians, and Ossetians -- welcomed the Europeans and put down their guns. Those conditions, for now, look all but impossible to fulfill.
Click here to read the original article over at Der Spiegel online.
Russia, Georgia Clash in Breakaway Statelet
After weeks of escalating skirmishes with South Ossetia, Georgia moved to regain control of the enclave. Russia responded by sending in tanks.
By Fred Weir and Paul Rimple | Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor (from the August 9, 2008 edition)
MOSCOW; and Ergneti, Georgia - The diplomats may still be talking of peace, but from the front line deep inside the pro-Moscow breakaway republic of South Ossetia, a long-feared war between Russia and NATO-leaning Georgia appears to be under way.
At stake are Russia's already strained relations with the West, which backs Georgia, as well as Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili's hopes of leading his country into the NATO alliance within the next year. An extended conflict might also hit global energy prices, if a crucial pipeline that carries Caspian oil and gas through Georgia to Western markets should be threatened.
After weeks of escalating skirmishes along the frontier between Georgia and South Ossetia, Georgian forces launched a full-scale invasion on Friday. By nightfall, they claimed to have occupied the capital, Tskhinvali, and about 70 percent of the rebel republic's territory.
A Georgian military spokesman said the fighting would go on until "constitutional order" was restored, meaning Tbilisi's full control. South Ossetia's rebel president, Eduard Kokoity, was quoted by Russian state TV as saying that 1,400 civilians died Friday in the Georgian military offensive.
But hopes of a swift Georgian victory -- on a day when the world's attention was diverted by the opening of the Beijing Olympics -- disappeared when armored elements of the Russian 58th Army poured through the Roki Tunnel, which separates the Russian republic of North Ossetia from South Ossetia, and Russian fighter planes began pounding Georgian positions in and around the rebel republic.
"During the whole day, Russian jet planes have been continuously attacking Georgian towns," President Saakashvili told journalists in Tbilisi. "They have been continuously attacking the town of Gori, in the middle of Georgia, which has nothing to do with South Ossetia."
Both sides blamed the other for starting the conflict.
Moscow has long supported South Ossetia and another Georgian rebel statelet, Abkhazia, and maintains a contingent of peacekeeping troops in both. The two republics won de facto independence through bitter civil wars in the early 1990s, and have since lived in legal limbo, unrecognized by the world community, which supports Georgia's claim of sovereignty over the whole territory of Soviet-era Georgia.
But two key developments have pushed these formerly "frozen conflicts" into the spotlight in recent months. The West's backing for Kosovo's independence from Serbia earlier this year, over Russian objections, created what Moscow calls a precedent for other breakaway territories. And the US-backed push to expand NATO into the former Soviet Union, taking in Ukraine and Georgia, has met ferocious resistance in Moscow. For Russia, the existence of breakaway territories in Georgia is a prime argument, frequently repeated by Mr. Medvedev to Western leaders, against Georgia's admission to NATO.
"Russia cannot allow Georgia to solve the South Ossetia problem by military means," says Irina Zvigelskaya, an expert with the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies in Moscow. "Of course the deaths of Russian peacekeepers and the destruction caused by the invading Georgians is an important reason why Medvedev has ordered Russian forces to intervene in the conflict. But there are bigger strategic reasons behind that. Moscow cannot let Saakashvili succeed in his gamble."
Zurab Totalidze, a watchman near the Georgian city of Gori, says he witnessed an alleged Russian plane drop bombs on a telephone installation. "It happened so fast, I didn't have time to be scared," he says.
Information from the conflict zone was contradictory and sketchy, but Russian media were reporting Friday night that Georgia may have blinked in the conflict and begun pulling its forces out of Tskhinvali.
Western news agencies quoted a South Ossetian website as saying that Russian armored vehicles were inside Tskhinvali and the Georgian forces were starting to retreat.
Saakashvili called on the Georgian Army to mobilize up to 100,000 reservists, while the chief of Georgia's security council, Kakha Lomaia, said that Georgia plans to withdraw its 1,000 troops currently serving with the US-led coalition in Iraq to meet urgent national security needs at home.
"It is absolutely clear that this was a long-planned offensive by Georgia against South Ossetia, not a spontaneous action," says Ms. Zvigelskaya. "But the entry of Russian forces into the conflict is a worst nightmare scenario. Georgian leaders may have thought they could achieve a quick fait accompli, but now we are looking at the specter of a long conflict with much destruction and many victims."
State Department spokesman Gonzago Gallegos said Friday that Washington has sent its own representative to the region to press for an immediate cease-fire in the fast-escalating conflict. "We call on all sides, including Georgians, South Ossetians, and Russians, to bring tensions down to avoid [bringing about] a conflict," he said.
In an interview with the BBC Friday, Saakashvili accused Russia of provoking the conflict by massing its troops along the border for the past several months.
"They have been calling it training exercises, but they have not been concealing the fact that they are training these troops for use inside Georgia,: he said.
"The way the escalation went was, we came first under extensive artillery barrage from the separatists, but in the end, I was told that Russian armored vehicles started to cross the Georgian border," he said. "And that was exactly the moment when I had to take this decision to fire back."
Russia denies Saakashvili's version, and has accused Georgia of breaking nonviolence agreements made after South Ossetia won its war of independence against Georgia in 1992. President Dmitri Medvedev, emerging from a meeting of the Kremlin's secretive Security Council on Friday, said he was appalled by the reported deaths of 10 Russian peacekeeping soldiers and scores of South Ossetian civilians -- about 90 percent of whom hold Russian passports -- in the course of the day's fighting. "It is my duty as president of the Russian Federation to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they may be," Mr. Medvedev said.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, in an emotional speech, accused Georgia of committing atrocities against the ethnic Ossetians who inhabit the territory. "It was absolutely unacceptable to see residential quarters shelled, to see a humanitarian convoy that was trying to reach the people in need bombed from the air," he said. "Many villages, including those outside the zone of conflict, are being attacked by the Georgian troops using artillery and tanks".
Read the original article online at The Christian Science Monitor website.