South Ossetia – The Path To War(globalsecurity.org)

South Ossetia – The Path To War

On February 18, 2008 the United States recognized the independence of Kosovo. The United States had long held that each separatist conflict anywhere in the world is unique. The United States took the view that the situation in Kosovo is a special case and did not serve as a precedent for other regions, including the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia. UN Security Council Resolutions on Georgia that have been issued on a regular basis since 1993, including most recently UNSCR 1781 of October 2007, reaffirm the commitment of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, and all Security Council members to the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders.

In early March 2008, German chancellor Angela Merkel began publicly to oppose NATO Membership Action Plans (MAP) for Georgia and Ukraine. Only countries that don’t suffer from internal conflicts should get on the membership track, she argued, citing Tbilisi’s unresolved conflicts with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was more blunt, saying his reason for opposing the MAPs is Russia: The conflict with Russia over Kosovo has shown, he said, « that we have reached a limit in our relationship with Russia. » Steinmeier also referred to the recent internal conflicts in Georgia, which he said indicated that the country « is still not on a secure democratic path. »

On 03 April 2008 NATO members meeting at a summit in Romania decided to postpone offering the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine the chance to join the alliance’s Membership Action Plan (MAP). Georgia was told that it must first resolve ithe frozen conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia to join. NATO did not relished the prospect of being embroiled the hook for ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus. NATO had long existed to keep Russian troops off the territory of its members, and did not wish to admit a new member that had a significant part of its territory subject to Russian occupation.

At the NATO summit in Bucharest, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states joined the United States in pushing for Georgia and Ukraine to be given a Membership Action Plans (MAP), a key step before full membership. But they were unable to sway larger members like Germany and France, who were wary of antagonizing Moscow, which staunchly opposed membership for the former Soviet states.

Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze was upbeat, calling the text adopted in Bucharest a « truly historic achievement and a breakthrough in Georgia-NATO relations…. For the first time ever, it is absolutely openly and clearly stated — the alliance has made a decision that Georgia will become a NATO member, » Bakradze said. « For the first time, it is clearly formulated that the alliance supports Georgia’s attaining of the candidacy status, as a route towards [eventual] membership. »

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Georgia and Ukraine were « shamelessly » being pushed toward joining NATO, and he accused the United States of « infiltrating » ex-Soviet states.

In April 2008, the Russian government took a number of actions which increased tensions with Georgia over its separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These included the Russian government’s unilateral withdrawal from Commonwealth of Independent States economic and military sanctions; April 16th presidential instructions increasing Russia’s relations with Georgia’s separatist regions; and Russia’s unilateral decision to deploy a large number of Russian forces and equipment to the peacekeeping mission in Abkhazia.

On 16 April 2008 President Vladimir Putin instructed Russian officials to directly cooperate with de facto authorities in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali without the permission of their Georgian counterparts. By cooperating with that de facto regime, the Russian Federation was formalizing its relations Abkhazia and South Ossetia. President Putin’s 16 April decision envisaged legalizing documents issued by the de facto separatist regime, recognizing legal personalities of legal entities registered under the so-called legislation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and legally cooperating in civil, family and criminal cases, Mr. Alasania said. Further, local representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Krosnodar district and the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania were assigned consular functions to assist people permanently living in Abkhazia and the Tskhinavli region, and there were plans to consider additional proposals to strengthen cooperation in that direction.

Secretary Rice met with President Saakashvili, the Foreign Minister and members of the government, and with opposition and civil society figures during her visit to Tbilisi, July 9-10, 2008. Secretary Rice stressed that Georgia needs to continue to develop a strong parliament, strong independent media, a strong civil society, and an independent judiciary. The Secretary also said, “We need to elevate (talks on Georgia’s frozen conflicts). … We need (to talk) more intensively and at a higher level.”

On 14 July 2008 Georgian and U.S. troops started a joint military exercise amid growing tensions between the ex-Soviet republic and Russia. About 1,200 U.S. servicemen and 800 Georgians trained for three weeks at the Vaziani military base near the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. On the same day, the Russian Defense Ministry started a military exercise in the nearby North Caucasus region. Ministry spokesman Yuri Ivanov said the drill had « nothing to do » with the Georgian-US maneuvers.

On 14 July 2008 the United States government expressed concern over the recent escalation in violence in the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and called upon all sides to return to direct negotiations and resolve their differences peacefully. The US was « deeply troubled » by Russia’s statement that its military aircraft deliberately violated Georgia’s internationally recognized borders by flying over Georgia’s region of South Ossetia. Such actions « raise questions about Russia’s role as peacekeeper and facilitator of the negotiations and threaten stability » throughout the entire region. The US urged all members of the international community, including Russia, to support Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, as called for by numerous UN Security Council resolutions, including, most recently, USNCR 1808 in April 2008. The United States said it « fully supports » and is actively engaged in the Friends of the Secretary General process and believes that the efforts of the Friends group will lead to a settlement of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

On July 29, Ibragim Gaseev, the South Ossetian deputy minister for defense and emergency situations said that the Georgian side had opened fire against the South Ossetian villages of Andisi and Sarabuki. The conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia intensified on Friday 01 August 2008 when Georgian forces shelled the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, leaving six South Ossetians dead and another 15 wounded. Sporadic shelling and skirmishes continued through the week.

On 05 August 2008 the President of the Republic of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity held a conference with the chiefs of Ministries, Departments, Republic power structures and the Heads of regional and Tskhinval administrations. In connection with evacuation of children to North Ossetia, the President mentioned at the conference that « this is a forced measure and there are no any preconditions for panic. We are not going to give up our positions or to make any aggressive actions but we intend to protect our citizens, provide their security and in case of emergency protect our Republic… If Georgian Government not be wise and in near future not withdraw its detachments from the territory of the Republic of South Ossetia, including occupied territories we will take measures. We have to put an end to this matter; it is time to stop to torture our people and to live in uncertainty ».

The South Ossetians may have decided that the best form of defense was attack, and that if they escalated attacks against Georgian positions, Russia would step in and help strengthen their position.

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