The conflict in South Ossetia has produced a cloud of rhetoric that seems to have grown in inverse proportion to the intensity of fighting on the ground. Once the outcome became clear – a crushing Russian military victory – Cold War imagery flooded the Western press. Far more than the status of a tiny mountainous enclave in the South Caucasus was said to be at stake: not only was Georgia’s territorial integrity imperilled by Russian tyranny, but the future of democracy was under threat. In the Washington Post of 11 August, Robert Kagan asserted that the conflict will be seen as ‘a turning point no less significant’ than the fall of the Berlin Wall. Given this ‘much bigger drama’, ‘the details of who did what to precipitate Russia’s war against Georgia are not very important.’

The key fact the verbiage obscures is that it was the Western-allied government of Mikheil Saakashvili that effectively initiated the conflict, after weeks of provocation from the South Ossetians and their Russian backers. The territory has been in dispute with Tbilisi since the late 1980s, when nationalist mobilisations across the USSR generated a momentum that contributed greatly to the Soviet collapse. The majority of Ossetians – Indo-Iranian in ethnic origin – live in Russia, in the autonomous republic of North Ossetia; according to the 1989 Soviet census, Ossetians formed 66 per cent of South Ossetia’s population, with Georgians accounting for 29 per cent. The two communities have lived alongside each other, and intermarried, for centuries.

As the nationalist upsurge gathered pace in Georgia – for instance, an August 1989 decree made the use of Georgian compulsory in the public sector – the South Ossetians sought to assert their autonomy from Tbilisi. The region had been an Autonomous Oblast within Georgia, but in September 1990 moved to seek incorporation into the USSR as an Autonomous Republic (one rung higher in the Soviet constitutional hierarchy). The new Georgian government, under the nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia, responded by dissolving the territory altogether. Technically, therefore, Georgia doesn’t even recognise the existence of South Ossetia, which it divides between four Georgian regions. In December 1990, Gamsakhurdia dispatched troops to take control of the enclave, and fighting (in which militias were heavily involved on both sides) continued, along with the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of villages, until a ceasefire was agreed in June 1992. By this time Georgia was in the grip of civil war – Gamsakhurdia had been toppled by an alliance of warlords and racketeers – and soon to embark on another failed attempt to regain control over a second separatist territory, Abkhazia.

The situation in South Ossetia remained static until Saakashvili took power in 2004. A key part of his appeal, alongside his promises to fight corruption and align Georgia with the West, was his promise to restore the country’s territorial integrity. (In this respect, there is a similarity between him and Putin; there were also echoes of Yeltsin’s 1994 invasion of Chechnya in the announcement by the head of Georgian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia that this was an ‘operation to restore constitutional order’.) In May 2004, Tbilisi reasserted control over the Adjara region on the Black Sea coast, run as a fiefdom by the Moscow-backed Aslan Abashidze. Saakashvili made his first moves in South Ossetia soon after, by forcibly closing the Ergneti market – a hub for trade in contraband goods that pulled in an estimated $35 million per year. Much of this went into the pockets of the separatist administration, headed by the former wrestler Eduard Kokoity; it also received funds from Moscow which provided the region’s inhabitants with pensions and benefits.

Since the ceasefires of the early 1990s, Moscow has acted as guarantor of the de facto autonomy of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, though it did not recognise them de jure – perhaps noticing the flagrant contradiction with its argument against Chechen independence. After 2002, it started to hand out Russian passports to the Abkhaz and South Ossetians – a ‘soft’ annexation that gallingly illustrated the limits of Tbilisi’s influence.

The arrival of Saakashvili changed the picture considerably. His push for Nato membership, and the funds and equipment supplied by Washington, gave military substance to his determination to regain control of the two territories. Georgia’s military spending went from $84m in 2004 to $339m in 2006; in July 2008, the Georgian parliament approved a budget which raised it to $1bn. Since 2004, Saakashvili has alternated between conciliatory offers of autonomy within Georgia and implicit threats to resolve the situation by force. The Ossetians were offered autonomy in 2005, but rejected it, and in 2006 voted for independence in a referendum Tbilisi did not recognise. Instead, in spring 2007 Saakashvili set up a parallel pro-Georgian government in South Ossetia – copying the Kremlin’s policy in Chechnya in 1995 and 1999. Retaking either territory by force, however, was still militarily unfeasible.

What, then, explains the Georgian willingness to go on the offensive this August? The spring and summer had seen increased tension in both regions: in April, a Russian plane shot down a Georgian drone over Abkhazia; in late June, bombs exploded in the Abkhazian town of Gagra and its capital, Sukhumi, and there were exchanges of fire between South Ossetian and Georgian troops throughout June and July. But the August assault on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, wasn’t a knee-jerk response to Russian prodding. On 7 August Saakashvili publicly announced himself ready to negotiate with South Ossetia, before ordering the shelling of Tskhinvali that same evening. Noting that there were undoubtedly provocations from Russia, the Economist nonetheless quoted a Saakashvili ally as saying: ‘He wanted to fight.’

Saakashvili seems to have reasoned that, given Georgia’s good standing with the West, Russia would not respond with force to an attempt to retake what is still internationally recognised as Georgian territory. Further, in the wars of the early 1990s, though Russia had armed both the Abkhaz and Ossetians, it had not officially dispatched its own troops to fight the Georgians. Saakashvili perhaps also thought that, if Russia did retaliate, Nato or at least the US would ride in to his rescue. These were all dreadful miscalculations.

But if the initial assault was the product of errors in Tbilisi, the timetable for it was shaped by an escalation of tensions between the US and Russia. The Kremlin has three major complaints against the West: the recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty, Nato expansion, and the siting of installations for a US missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russian spokesmen warned, angrily and often explicitly, that if any of these things went ahead it could make trouble in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Kosovo declared independence in February, and the Nato summit in Bucharest in April decided that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually join the organisation, with December set as the earliest start date for Membership Action Plans. Within a fortnight of the Bucharest summit, Russia had established official links with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatist authorities – a first step towards diplomatic recognition – and increased the number of its peacekeepers in Abkhazia by 50 per cent, to 3000; it also sent 400 men to repair the Black Sea coastal railway line. Large-scale military exercises in the North Caucasus were planned for late July. The Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in Novaya Gazeta that the Russians decided in April to go to war: they were just waiting for a pretext.

The measures Russia took were clearly intended not only as provocations to Tbilisi, but as signals to Washington. The White House responded by pursuing the missile shield more intently: in early July, Condoleezza Rice travelled to Prague to sign a deal on radar facilities. On 9 and 10 July, according to the State Department’s press office, she was in the Georgian capital to ‘discuss Tbilisi’s Nato bid and the separatist conflicts’. Did she and Saakashvili discuss a possible invasion of South Ossetia or Abkhazia? US officials have protested that Rice counselled him against any rash moves, and it is possible that Saakashvili simply lost his head a month later.

Possible, but unlikely. US allies in sensitive regions rarely move without a nod from Washington. It is well known, for example, that Saddam Hussein received a green light for his invasion of Kuwait from America’s Baghdad envoy, April Glaspie. Could Rice have done the same for Saakashvili and South Ossetia? South Ossetia was certainly the softer military option, because the Abkhaz forces alone represent a considerable challenge, whereas the Georgians could – and did – make short work of South Ossetia’s militias, before the Russian tanks rolled in. Intimations of support from America would also help to explain why Saakashvili began a conflict that he could not hope to win on his own; that no one came to his aid is the measure of how misplaced his trust in the West was.

So why would the US approve a military adventure it had no intention of materially supporting? Not every development is part of an infernal neocon conspiracy, but it is nonetheless clear that the White House would make palpable gains from the Georgian crisis, whatever the outcome. If Saakashvili succeeded in retaking South Ossetia, he would have faced down Russia and demonstrated Georgia’s increasing readiness for Nato membership. If, on the other hand, Russia defeated Georgia, it would re-emphasise to Eastern Europe the need for US security guarantees. Sure enough, within two days of the start of fighting in Tskhinvali, Poland and the US finally reached agreement on the missile shield. Georgia itself appears all the more in need of US backing, and several politicians and commentators have suggested that the crisis is grounds for the country’s immediate admission to Nato. It could also justify the US increasing its military presence in Georgia, from a mere 100 Special Forces troops to, say, a long-term base. Moreover, the war has created ample opportunity for ramping up the discourse of a New Cold War – considerably improving the electoral prospects of John McCain, whose foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann worked for Saakashvili until May this year. All this, in exchange for a short war the US didn’t have to fight.

The outcome for Russia, meanwhile, has been negative: not only has it been demonised, but it has suffered alarming capital flight – $16.4 billion in the week after 8 August alone – and its bid for WTO membership, already subject to Georgian veto, has been derailed for the foreseeable future. The image of Russia flexing its military muscle in its ‘near abroad’, sobering enough for the Ukrainian elite, only reveals all the more starkly its lack of any ideological attraction for its neighbours, to whom it can offer only cheap gas and retribution. Medvedev’s surprisingly speedy recognition of Abkhazian and Ossetian independence, although a forceful riposte to the West over Kosovo, presents the Kremlin with difficulties, given the precedent it sets for Russia’s North Caucasian territories – not least Chechnya. There the ‘humanitarian’ motivations for Russia’s invasion of Georgia can only provoke bitter laughter: a country which fought two wars to strangle Chechen aspirations to sovereignty – killing as much as 10 per cent of the population in the process – now stands up as the defender of a small Caucasian country’s rights, and has announced it will file a case against Saakashvili in The Hague for his ‘genocide’ of the South Ossetians.

Washington’s protests over the use of force against a sovereign country are, of course, sure to meet with derision after its invasion of Iraq; as is its defence of ‘democratic’ Georgia, given the long list of dictators it has lavishly funded and, more recently, its backing for the 2002 attempt to topple Chávez and the 2004 coup against Aristide. The old Cold War brought a nuclear ‘balance of terror’; the rerun seems to have begun with a rapid stockpiling of hypocrisies.

29 August

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences