Leading article: A small war in the Causasus which has huge implications

The Russia-Georgia conflict will not be settled by force of arms

Share
Related Topics

Much remained unclear last night about the precise situation on the ground in Georgia after a weekend of fast-moving and often bloody events. But the broad outlines of what had happened seemed to be these. On the eve of the opening of the Beijing Olympics, Georgian troops entered the pro-Russian enclave of South Ossetia, with the aim of establishing Georgian government control. Russia responded by sending troops and bombarding targets in the nearby Georgian city of Gori – which, incidentally, has Stalin as an infamous son. Amid a ferocious war of words, Russia extended its bombing to the Black Sea port of Poti and a small – Georgia-controlled – corner of a second, pro-Russian enclave, Abkhazia. There have been civilian casualties on both sides, though how many is disputed, as is a great deal else.

Georgia says it entered South Ossetia to stop the escalation of border skirmishing initiated with Russian backing. Russia says Georgia breached a unilateral ceasefire it had initiated. Georgia says that Russia bombed indiscriminately. Russia says it focused on military targets.

What does seem true is that Georgia was yesterday in the process of withdrawing from South Ossetia. If this is so, then the essentials for a ceasefire may be in place, even before a joint US-EU delegation arrives in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, today. In effect, Georgia's retreat constitutes a return to the status quo ante – the precondition Russia set for negotiations.

The difficulty is that the status quo ante helped precipitate the violence that erupted so suddenly last week. In one of several disputes "frozen" since the collapse of the Soviet Union, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are inside Georgia's borders, but not under its control. Their mainly non-Georgian populations see Russia as their protector, and Russia – for reasons of its own self-interest – has been only too happy to oblige. This infuriates Georgia but is not easy to change peacefully if the local populations do not agree.

What this confrontation shows is that resorting to arms is no solution either. Georgia's forces may be trained and equipped by the US and have combat experience in Iraq, but they are no match for Russia's military, even in its current debilitated state. Georgia may insist its withdrawal from South Ossetia was no defeat, but the truth is that it made an unsuccessful military gamble which will drive the South Ossetians and Abkhaz even further into Russia's camp. Any negotiated solution will be more difficult. Which poses serious questions about the judgement of President Saakashvili – and could in time destabilise his rule.

Georgia may also have a price to pay in terms of its ambitions to join Nato. Had Georgia's preliminary application been accepted earlier this year, Nato could have found itself bound to go to Georgia's aid in what – for all Georgia's efforts to present it as a war for Western values – is a bilateral dispute with Russia. For Nato, is this perhaps a treaty obligation too far?

As for Russia, its swiftness to confront force with much greater force rather than solicit outside mediation sends the clear message that it is not prepared to cede any more power than it already has in what it regards as its own backyard. Georgia's view that a Russia nostalgic for the Soviet empire will do anything to prevent Georgia's integration into the West may be exaggerated, but it should also serve as a warning. The southern fringe of the former Soviet Union is a volatile place. It is not somewhere either the European Union or the US should have to rely on for its energy – or any other – security.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile App/IOS Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC)

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Mobile App/IOS...

Front End Developer-JavaScript, Angular J.S, HTML, CSS, ASP.NET

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front End Deve...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Only a game? Far from it

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi speaking at the Grand Mosque in Mosul  

The al-Baghdadi doctrine: leading British Muslims offer their response

Independent Voices
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil