Background of the Russo-Georgian War
This article describes the background of the Russo-Georgian War.
- 1 Participants
- 1.1 South Ossetia
- 1.2 Abkhazia
- 1.3 Georgia
- 1.4 Russia
- 1.5 Other significant actors
- 2 History
- 3 References
The Ossetians are an Indo-European ethnic group descended from the Alans, one of the Sarmatian tribes, and speaking the Ossetian language which is an Iranian language similar to the Pathan language spoken in Afghanistan. The timing of the Ossetian arrival in the Caucasus is debated. One prominent theory holds that the Ossetians settled the area intermittently during "the first thousand years AD", while other historians contend that they settled there during the 13th and 14th Centuries AD after being driven there by Mongol invaders.
Historically, Ossetians and Georgians have lived together more or less peacefully and often intermarrying. Furthermore, Ossetians were well assimilated with the Georgians. Within South Ossetia, Georgian and Ossetian towns were mixed; roughly one half of the families were of mixed nationalities. Many Ossetians are fluent in the Georgian language, and speak it better than other minorities living in Georgia.
The Ossetians first came into contact with Tsarist Russia because of their proximity to the main southerly route through the Caucasus. Geography and religion have since given the Ossetians a pro-Russian orientation (the Ossetians were the recipients of the fertile Prigorodny region when their Muslim neighbors, the Ingush, were expelled from the region by Stalin in 1944).
The Soviet Georgian government established after the Red Army invasion of Georgia in 1921 created the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast in April 1922 under pressure from Kavburo (Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party). Some argue that the autonomy was granted by the Bolsheviks to the Ossetians in return for their assistance in fighting against a democratic Georgia and favoring local separatists, because this territory had never been a separate principality before.
South Ossetians and Georgians side by side for centuries without extensive friction. However, during the Soviet time, the region preferred to interact with the Soviet leadership in Moscow and lacked personal ties to the Georgian leadership. In fact, in a vote held on January 22, 1992, 99% of the voters of South Ossetia (the Georgian minority abstaining) demanded to join the Russian Federation.
The Abkhaz are an ethnic group related to the Circassian groups of the North Caucasus. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Abkhazia shifted between Bolshevik and Menshevik control before finally being conquered by the Bolshevik-controlled Red Army in 1921. In 1922, the Bolsheviks agreed to designate Abkhazia a treaty republic within the Transcaucasus Federation, granting the region considerable autonomy. However, in 1931, Abkhazia was downgraded to the status an autonomous republic within Georgia. It was during this decade that a severe policy of Georgianization, apparently at Stalin's whim, was enacted. Political posts were given to Georgians, and mass immigrations of non-Abkhaz peoples ensued, diluting the Abkhaz community to a meager 18% of Abkhazia's overall population by 1939.
Fortunately for the Abkhaz people, their region's comparative wealth enabled them to extract considerable concessions from the Soviet governance. Although the Soviets repeatedly refused to grant Abkhazia separation from Georgia, they did give the Abkhaz increased autonomy and economic credits to improve their infrastructure. During the 1970s the Abkhaz gained increasing control of Abkhazia's administration, the control of ethnic Georgians likewise decreasing, and by the 1980s the Abkhaz filled 67% of the government's minister positions and 71% of the Oblast committee department head positions. Considering that the Abkhaz minority within Abkhazia had by 1989 fallen to just 17.9%, this would indicate that the Abkhaz held a disproportionate share of the high-level administration.
Growing prominence of the Abkhaz people angered Georgians living in Abkhazia who claimed they were being denied privileges. This rift precipitated the so-called "ethnic battles" of the 1970s and 80s which, although fought between different ethnic groups, were largely economic in nature. The Abkhaz viewed the Georgians as would-be defectors from the Soviet Union, whereas the Georgians criticized for supporting the Soviet Union. The other ethnic groups living in Abkhazia tended to prefer maintaining the status quo, and thereby the Soviet Union, and thus tacitly supported the Abkhaz factions.
The conflict remained frozen until 2003 when Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in Georgia's Rose Revolution, which ousted president Eduard Shevardnadze. In the years that followed, Saakashvili's government pushed a programme to strengthen failing state institutions, including security and military, created "passably democratic institutions" and implemented what was viewed as a pro-US foreign policy. One of Saakashvili's main goals was Georgian NATO membership, which Russia opposes. This has been one of the main stumbling blocks in Georgia-Russia relations.
Restoring South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgian control has been seen as a top-priority goal of Saakashvili since he came to power. Saakashvili proposed a new peace accord, under which South Ossetia would be given "a large degree of autonomy" within a federal state, but leaders of those areas are instead demanding full independence. Another point of interest for Georgia is the strategic position of South Ossetia along the border with Russia, as the Roki Tunnel, which passes through the Greater Caucasus Mountains, is one of few road routes between Georgia and Russia and would be a critical component in any plan to control the border.
In 2007, Georgia spent 9.2% of GDP on its military and had the highest average growth rate of military spending in the world. However, earlier low spending meant that its total military spending as a proportion of GDP in the 10 years preceding the war remained below Russia’s.
According to the 2007 report of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Georgia had the highest average growth rate of military spending in the world. Military expenditures accounted for 5.6-6 per cent of GDP in the last two years. South Ossetian leadership expressed its concerns with Georgia's military build-up however Tbilisi claimed that it was not aimed at the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. MP Givi Targamadze attributed this to the country's desire to bring its military closer to NATO standards. According to the 2008 budget of Georgia defence funding accounted for slightly over 19% of all state spending, with a further significant increase approved in an extraordinary parliament session on July 15.
During Saakashvili's rule, according to Freedom House, Georgia made only temporary and slight improvements in democracy and freedom compared with the situation under Eduard Shevardnadze. However, the same organisation ranked it consistently better than Russia on all counts.
In 1994, Georgia joined the Partnership for Peace, a NATO program aimed at fostering ties between NATO members and the other states of Europe and the former Soviet Union. In November 2002, Georgia declared before the NATO Summit in Prague that it intended to secure membership in NATO and as part of this promise sought an Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP). After Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003, the Tbilisi government placed integration with the West, especially NATO and the European Union, as top priority.
Georgia seeks membership in NATO for reasons of both security and its own development as a state. Georgia's Deputy Defense Minister Levan Nikoleishvili stated in an interview in 2006, "we look to NATO as a club and as an organization, which will not only be a guarantee for security but will also be a guarantee for development for us." However, to join NATO, Georgia was required to update its military to the organization's standards. To perform such reforms, it was estimated that Georgia had to increase its military spending to 2% of its GDP.
Cooperation with the US
Georgia maintained a close relationship with the G.W. Bush administration of the United States of America. In 2002, the USA started the Georgia Train and Equip Program to arm and train the Georgian military, and, in 2005, a Georgia Sustainment and Stability Operations Program to broaden capabilities of the Georgian armed forces. These programmes involved training by the United States Army Special Forces, United States Marine Corps, and military advisors personnel.
In July 2008, Georgian Armed forces jointly with USA conducted a military exercise Immediate Response 2008.
Historically, Russia has long been involved in the South Caucasus. It considers the region to be an area of vital importance to its national interests and foreign policy.
Protection of Russian citizens
Reuters describes the South Ossetian separatist government as dependent on Russia, which supplied two thirds of their annual budget, and reports that "Russia's state-controlled gas giant Gazprom was building new gas pipelines and infrastructure worth hundreds of millions of dollars there. Moreover, Russian officials already had de facto control over South Ossetia's institutions, including security institutions and security forces, and South Ossetia's de facto government was largely staffed with Russian representatives and South Ossetians with Russian passports who had previously worked in equivalent government positions in Russia.
The majority of the residents of South Ossetia are Russian citizens holding Russian passports. According to the BBC and Deutsche Welle, most South Ossetians hold Russian passports. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated that he would "protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are".
Since the 1991–1992 South Ossetia War, Russian, Georgian, North Ossetian and South Ossetian soldiers have been stationed in and around South Ossetia as peacekeepers under the terms of a 1992 agreement. They were monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission in Georgia. The Russian defense ministry said more than 10 of its peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia had been killed and 30 wounded in the initial Georgian offensive. Russia describes its intervention as a peacekeeping operation to protect its citizens and peacekeepers, and to enforce their peacekeeping mandate in South Ossetia. Dmitry Medvedev said that it aimed to force Georgia to accept peace and restore the status quo, and that it is acting within its peacekeeping mission in South Ossetia, and in line with the mandate issued by the international community. The Russian defense ministry said reinforcements for Russian peacekeepers had been sent to South Ossetia "to help end bloodshed."
Military presence in the Caucasus
According to The Daily Telegraph, in 2007 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans for a £100 billion arms program over the next seven years for the financing of new, modern weapons and ordered military chiefs to 'strengthen the battle-readiness of the army and navy'. Russia's defence budget rose 22% in 2007.
Concurrently with the Georgia/USA military exercise Immediate Response 2008 the Russian forces conducted their own exercise, Caucasus Frontier 2008, where they practiced rapid response to the terrorist incursions through the Russian southern border. Both sides claimed that the exercises were unrelated to each other. Later Dale Herspring described the Russian exercise as "exactly what they executed in Georgia just a few weeks later... a complete dress rehearsal."
In an air-strike on August 10, 2008, Russia seemingly attempted to disable the British Petroleum-owned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which transports one million barrels of oil (or 1% of the world's oil needs) daily, from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean. Although the strikes (of which local police recorded 51) failed to disable the pipeline, the event lends credence to the belief that Russia has a vested interest in preventing Western companies from becoming involved in the transport of oil to Europe. As Stephen Blank, professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the United States Army War College, contends, Russia sought to deter Western investment in the BTC pipeline. Blank also notes that "Russia retains the capability to threaten the pipeline again." Russia, which has used oil as a tool of foreign policy (see Russia-Ukraine gas disputes) is weakened politically by the BP pipeline.
Russian woes about potential NATO expansion into Georgia
In June 2008, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that the conflict between their two respective states would be deepened if Georgia were to join NATO. Russian fears of NATO expansion into the Caucasus had been growing over the years; in 2006, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that the "possible accession of Georgia to an unreformed NATO would seriously affect Russian interests," especially its political, military, and economic interests, and "would have a negative impact on the fragile situation in the Caucasus". Russia's concerns over NATO expansion derive, in part, from the belief held by most Russians that NATO is primarily a military alliance. According to official Russian military doctrine, the presence of foreign forces near Russia's territory, including in the former Soviet space, constitutes a threat.
As Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer contends, countries such as Poland, the Baltic states, and Georgia all seek to join NATO "to have a guarantee against the Russians." As Felgenhauer notes, "that makes NATO and Russia basically enemies. In a sense they are on a collision course. So a real partnership is hardly possible and any expansion of NATO is seen, in Russia, in Moscow, as a threat to our interests."
Other significant actors
Other actors, although not directly involved in hostilities, played a part in shaping the events leading to the August 2008 war.
|Source: Central Election Commission|
NATO members have in the past disagreed whether to enlarge the alliance further eastwards to include Georgia. To build up a case, Georgia conducted in 2008 a Georgian NATO membership referendum, 2008. It was a non-binding, advisory referendum on whether to join NATO and was held in Georgia on January 5, 2008, at the request of the Georgian President, together with an early presidential election and legislative election date referendum. This was announced in a surprise move on November 26, 2007, shortly before Mikheil Saakashvili resigned as President of Georgia for the early presidential elections. The only question of the referendum asked: "Do you want Georgia to become a member of NATO?" According to the official results of Georgia's Central Election Commission, 77% of voters were in favor, and 23% voted against it.[better source needed]
However, at the 2008 Bucharest summit, to the great disappointment of Georgia, the alliance did not offer a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia or Ukraine, largely due to the opposition of Germany, France and other European NATO-members who pointed out that Georgia's territorial integrity was de facto not enforced (namely in Abkhazia and South-Ossetia). However, NATO pledged to review the decision in December 2008. Even though Georgia was not offered a MAP, it welcomed the decision and said "The decision to accept that we are going forward to an adhesion to NATO was taken and we consider this is a historic success". Russian President Putin was also pleased about the alliance deciding not to invite Georgia and Ukraine to the Membership Action Plan at least for the time being.
When 2008 South Ossetia war started, it seems to have provided ammunition both to the Franco-German argument, that Georgia solve its minority problems in the two provinces peacefully and prior to any NATO application, and, to the US arguments in favour of a speedy accession of Georgia. It complicates NATO's relation with Russia, which has peacekeeping troops in both regions, which are internationally recognized as Georgian territory, but which seem to have no intention to be integrated into Georgia proper. The South Ossetia War has further diminished the likelihood of Georgian accession to NATO in the near future.
However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during the meeting with Russian president that the promise made to Georgia in Bucharest is still standing. However, she did not indicate a time frame, nor did she take back the earlier insistence of Germany and France, that Georgia must resolve its internal problems prior to any NATO membership. The USA and Europe (EU) support the territorial integrity of Georgia, while Russia supports self-determination of the two provinces. The fragile nature of both positions is highlighted by NATO and Russian policies on Serbia, which also faces rebel province Kosovo with different ethnic composition. NATO supports self-determination for Kosovo and Russia insists on Serbia's territorial integrity.
Although Georgia has no significant oil or gas reserves of its own, its territory hosts part of the important Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline transit route that supplies western and central Europe. The pipeline, supplied by oil from Azerbaijan's Azeri–Chirag–Guneshli oil field transports 1 million barrels (160,000 m3) of oil per day. It has been a key factor for the United States' support for Georgia, allowing the West to reduce its reliance on Middle Eastern oil while bypassing Russia and Iran.
U.S./Israeli interests in Iran
Russian officials have on multiple occasions accused the United States and Israel of having invested interests in the region related to Iran. Russian envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin says the United States could have plans to use Georgian airfields to launch air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. Rogozin said that Russian intelligence had obtained information indicating that Washington had plans to use the Georgian military infrastructure for a war on Iran, stating that the US had already started "active military preparations on Georgia's territory" for such a strike and that the "reason why Washington values Saakashvili's regime so highly" is that he has given permission to the US to use its airfields. The Russian envoy's remarks follow a UPI report that "a secret agreement between Georgia and Israel had earmarked two military airfields in the south of Georgia for use by Israeli fighter-bombers in a potential pre-emptive strike against Iran."
In December 2010, The New York Times reported, in light of the WikiLeaks cable releases, how the United States had relied heavily on Tbilisi's own accounts of the events leading up to the August 2008 war. This casts some doubt on the Bush administration which largely ignored cable from Moscow while those from Tbilisi were accepted "largely unchallenged."
Soviet dissolution leads to conflict
During the collapse of the USSR, Georgia’s first post-Soviet leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, emerged. The platform, known as "Georgia for the Georgians", projected ethnic Georgians, who made up 70 percent of the population, as the country’s true masters. A longtime anti-Soviet dissident, he derided South Ossetians as newcomers, saying they had arrived only 600 years ago and as "tools" of the Soviet Union.
Georgia had three autonomous territories in Soviet times: Abkhazia, Ajaria, and South Ossetia. Only with Ajaria, populated by Muslim Georgians, was there a pronounced religious difference. However, Ajars and other Georgians share a common language and in fact many common elements of identity with the exception of religion. This seems to have been a factor in the prevention of the escalation of conflict between Tbilisi and Batumi. On the other hand, South Ossetians and the majority of Abkhaz are Orthodox Christians, whereas all the other determinants of ethnic identity separated them from the Georgians. Despite this fact, the conflicts between the Georgian central government and these territories were severe and violent.
Events in South Ossetia
Amidst rising ethnic tensions, war broke out when Georgian forces entered the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali. The city was shelled almost nightly from the Georgian-held highlands, and more than 2,000 people are believed to have been killed. The separatists were helped by former Soviet military units, who by now had come under Russian command. During the war several atrocities occurred on both sides. Approximately 100,000 Ossetians fled Georgia and South Ossetia, while 23,000 Georgians left South Ossetia. The war resulted in South Ossetia, which had a Georgian ethnic minority of around 28,500 out of the total population of 98,500 in 1989, breaking away from Georgia and gaining de facto independence. After a cease-fire in 1992, Tskhinvali was isolated from the Georgian territory around it. Russian, Georgian and South Ossetian peacekeepers were stationed in South Ossetia under Joint Control Commission for Georgian-Ossetian Conflict Resolution (JCC) mandate and monitoring. The 1992 ceasefire also defined both a zone of conflict around the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and a security corridor along the border of South Ossetian territories.
Events in Abkhazia
In February 1989 the ethnic Abkhaz population of Abkhazia gathered in the village of Lykhny to declare their demand for separation from Georgia and inclusion in the Russian federation.
Like the South Ossetians, the Abkhaz strongly favored the continuation of the Soviet Union and distrusted the Georgian leadership; 99% of the Abkhaz voting in the referendum voted in favor of maintaining the Soviet Union. Growing tensions between the Abkhaz and the Georgians led to a mass Abkhaz rally in March 1989. Gamsakhurdia's pro-Georgian movement responded with counter-demonstrations of its own, as the region splintered over ethnic ties. On August 25, 1990, the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet declared itself a union republic within the Soviet Union, a move which Tbilisi immediately rejected.
In August 1992, just days after the signing of the Sochi Agreement, war broke out when the Georgian national guard invaded Abkhazia's capital, Sukhumi, seizing government buildings, dissolving the Abkhaz parliament, and looting the city. Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia's president, was reluctant to condemn the national guard's commander, Tengiz Kitovani, who allegedly led the invasion into Sukhumi unauthorized. The Georgian national guard, however, was less than prepared to fight, and so the war lasted for over a year until Russia negotiated a ceasefire in July 1993 by amendment of the Sochi Agreement. However, the ceasefire was broken in September of that year as the Abkhaz stormed and overwhelmed Sukhumi and drove the ethnic Georgians out of Abkhazia, finally ending the war. One month later, a CIS peacekeeping force composed entirely of Russians was sent to Abkhazia to maintain the status quo.
Since the early 1990s, both the Georgian-Ossetian and the Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts have remained in a frozen state. With the exception of occasional hostilities, both regions have remained largely free of conflict although neither dispute was actually resolved.
Emboldened by the success in restoring control in Adjara in early 2004, the Georgian government launched a push to retake South Ossetia. Intense fighting took place between Georgian forces and South Ossetian militia between 8 and 19 August 2004. According to researcher Sergei Markedonov, the brief war in 2004 was a turning point for Russian policy in the region: Russia, which had previously aimed only to preserve the status-quo, now felt that the security of the whole Caucasus depended on the situation in South Ossetia, and took the side of South Ossetia.
Georgia accused Russia of the annexation of its internationally recognized territory and installing a puppet government led by Eduard Kokoity and several officials who previously served in the Russian FSB and Army.
From 2004 to 2008, Georgia has repeatedly proposed broad autonomy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia within the unified Georgian state, but the proposals have been rejected by the secessionist authorities, who demanded full independence for the territory. In 2006, the Georgian government set up what Russians said was a puppet government led by the former South Ossetian prime minister Dmitry Sanakoyev and granted to it a status of a provisional administration, alarming Tskhinvali and Moscow. In what Sergei Markedonov has described as the culmination of Georgian "unfreezing" policy, the control of the Georgian peacekeeping battalion was transferred from the joint command of the peacekeeping forces to the Georgian Defence Ministry.
In 2006 Georgia sent police and security forces to the Kodori Gorge in eastern Abkhazia, when a local militia leader there had rebelled against the Georgian authorities. The presence of Georgian forces in the Kodori Gorge continued until the war in 2008.
In 2006 Tbilisi issued a resolution demanding the removal of all Russian peacekeeping troops from the Abkhazia. However, the Russians remained firmly in place.
President Saakashvili promised to bring the breakaway regions back under Georgian control during his re-election campaign in 2008.
In mid-April, 2008, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Russian PM Vladimir Putin had given instructions to the federal government whereby Russia would pursue economic, diplomatic, and administrative relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as with the subjects of Russia. In May 2008, there were about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia, and about 1,000 Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia under the JCC's mandate.
There are also analysts citing Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence as a reason for the Russo-Georgian imbroglio. Dr. Walid Phares suggested that a process that will result in a referendum in South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be established. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, should they decide to stay as autonomous regions inside Georgia, an international mechanism to oversee the negotiations should be established. If, on the other hand, they wish to separate they too should be granted that wish and helped to achieve independence. Pope Benedict XVI's words were also invoked where he said the strongest pillar in international relations must be reciprocity. In the same vein, using the Kosovo model, this could be achieved elsewhere.
According to the Austin, Texas based intelligence company Strategic Forecasting, the decision by Europe and the United States to back Kosovo’s separation from Serbia was important to Russia's decision to move into South Ossetia. According to Stratfor the principle of Europe since World War II was that, to prevent conflict, national borders should not be changed; however, this was violated in the case of Kosovo, thus setting a precedent for other demands, by various regions, for independence. The Russians publicly and privately asked that Kosovo not be given formal independence, but to continue its informal autonomy. Russia’s requests were, consequently, ignored.
A UN Security Council diplomat also said: "Strategically, the Russians have been sending signals that they really wanted to flex their muscles, and they’re upset about Kosovo." The New York Times continued this in saying, "the decision by the United States and Europe to recognize Kosovo may well have paved the way for Russia’s lightning-fast decision to send troops to back the separatists in South Ossetia." NYT also cited a meeting in Brussels this year where Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister had warned Condoleezza Rice and European diplomats that if they recognized Kosovo they would be setting a precedent for South Ossetia and other breakaway provinces.
The Canadian National Post also saw similarities with Kosovo. They called this Ossetian crisis similar "except in a more dangerous setting." Accordingly, the role the late Slobodan Milosevic played is taken over by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in this conflict, while Vladimir Putin is playing the role of former British prime minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Further, the global community recognizes South Ossetia as being part of Georgia, just as Kosovo was seen as part of Serbia. The Ossetian majority in South Ossetia wants to secede from Georgia to become independent, or join North Ossetia, just as a majority in Kosovo wanted to break away from Serbia to become independent or to join Muslim Albania.[better source needed]
In March 2008 Time magazine also predicted that "by splitting... the wider international community, the U.S.-backed declaration of independence by Kosovo has given Russia an opening. Countries concerned with separatist problems of their own... have been unable to follow the U.S. lead in recognizing Kosovo's breakaway from Serbia. And Russia has sought to exploit the gaps that have emerged as a result." They went on to say "Russia... tacitly supported [the] breakaway provinces...Moscow has also granted Russian citizenship to some 90% of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian populations, giving it grounds to intervene whenever Russia deems it expedient, on the basis of ensuring the security of its citizens."
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