Firstly, the conflict and how it started. The Georgians are saying Russia launched a “full scale invasion”. Russia is saying Ossetia is defending itself against Georgian aggression. Who do I believe right now? Georgia. The volume of Russian units entering Georgia is significant and pre-planned. It’s also mid August, a perfect time for action given the intensity of the Georgian winter in the northern mountains. The news wires simply report that Georgia tried to retake the whole province, and Russia reacted.
Saakashvili was just on Bloomberg, his “favourite channel”, explaining the situation. Georgia has shot down “eight Russian planes” (AP say two). Georgia is now in full scale defensive mode. He said it is mobilising its entire armed forces in defence, and that the simple situation is that Georgia is defending herself. Saakashvili looked rattled to say the least. Georgia will always say it is defending its territory when it comes to Ossetia, because it sees the province as its own. So Russian operations within Ossetia are considered aggressive by default.
Russia is playing the usual game. Putin is saying he’s very sad that Georgia has started a conflict on the day of the start of the Olympics, a day “when guns should be silent”. The timing is certainly curious, the news agenda is directed at China today of all days. If it had been any other day, Georgia would have gotten all the coverage.
But just going on the television pictures of Russian Frogfoot (which incidentally are manufactured in Georgia), BMP-2/3, BTR-60s fighting and entering Ossetia, this was well planned. The conflict has been going on for some days, but it has just recently escalated. There are also pictures of large convoys of Russian T-80s entering Ossetia.
Apparently the Georgians have captured the capital of Ossetia, Tskhinvali, and Russian troops are going in that direction.
Medvedev is saying the “Georgian assault” is a violation of international law. Saakashvili is saying the same about Russia. Of course the Russians are also saying the US is behind the conflict.
Who do you trust though? Neither of them really, but the rhetoric of Russia strikes me as disingenuous at the least. Georgia’s story seems more plausible.
What happens next? Russia is pouring tanks and troops into Ossetia, and Georgia is mobilising its entire armed forces. Anything could happen.
Worst case? The entire caucuses, a melting pot of ethnic tensions is plunged into conflict. As you can see from this map, it is a mess of various rival ethnic groups. Some of the conflicting borders don’t feature on this map either.
Update 13.16: Russia is reported to be bombing an airbase just outside Tblisi. If true, it means we are in a de facto state of war.
Update: 13.17: Saakashvhili is on CNN saying that “this is the worst nightmare one can encounter”, and Russia is refusing to enter talks. Troops have been amassing at the border for 3 or 4 months, undertaking military exercises, and have now decided to cross the border. What should the West do now? “Wake up!”. It is interesting to note he is flanked by the Georgian flag on one side and the European flag on the other. He is even pointing out the timing of the attack, to coincide the Olympics. He denies trying to retake South Ossetia. “We would be suicidal to initiate anything on our own.” “Last night Russian APCs crossed the border…”. What would you ask Bush to do? “We are in the same situation Finland was in 1939, same as Afghanistan in 1979…”
13.41: It is interesting to watch the wire agencies catch up with this story. I timed the pictures from Russia Today of T-80 columns entering Ossetia, it took about 45 mins for news agencies to realise Russia was essentially invading.
14.25: I just got off the phone with a Georgian friend. He is a critic of Saakashvili and blames him entirely for the escalation. He reckons he miscalculated in an effort to retake South Ossetia and that Russia is reacting naturally to the situation. By his estimation the conflict will die down within days, if not hours, as Georgia gets punished for its misbehaviour. “It all depends on what happens in the next 24 hours,” he said. He lambasted Saakashvili for breaking his own ceasefire this morning.
14.52: Richard Holbrooke is on BBC News, in hawkish terms. “This is a very sad day for the Western alliance.” He said it amounted to the annexation of South Ossetia. He also pointed out that Russia make this opportunity to move on the other region, Abkhazia (That region is a far more close to the hearts of Georgians than Ossetia. The war in 1993 was hard fought in Abkhazia). “The future of Russia’s relations with the West are involved, this is a very big deal.”
15.01: The Economist, which has some of the best coverage of Georgian affairs, has an update.
15.17: Reports of 100s of civilians killed. This could easily get out of hand. It’s important to remember that just about every household in Georgia have at least one AK-47, and they are not afraid to use them.
15.38: Russia Today (very very biased), in quotes from Russian officials, are using words like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing”. They are also reporting 1,000 civilians killed. This rhetoric will only fuel things.
15.43: Saakashvili is on BBC News. Rice called him “several times”. Sarkozy called him. “Sarkozy had a tough conversation with Vladimir Putin.”
Saakashvili using words like annexation. “Georgia wants peace and development, the last thing we need is trouble.” “If we get attacked, democracies have to defend itself (sic)”. Points to Holbrooke’s words earlier, says he understands the situation. “It is not about us anymore”… it is about freedom and democracy.
18.42: Georgia has said they are withdrawing 1,000 troops from Iraq to redeploy in Georgia. They say they now control most of South Ossetia. Up to 30 Georgian troops have been killed.
22.19: Bloomberg are reporting that Putin has said “war has started”. There are reports of heavy street fighting in the Ossetian capital. Georgia is saying civilian infrastructure is being bombed.