Gwynne Dyer: Georgia's huge South Ossetia mistake
This article was updated on August 13, 2008, at 9:03 a.m.
The war in South Ossetia is essentially over, and the Georgians have lost. This was Georgia’s second attempt in 18 years to conquer the breakaway territory by force, and now that option is gone for good. So are the country’s hopes of joining NATO. Yet sections of the western media are carrying on as if the Russians started it and are now threatening to invade Georgia itself.
U.S. President George W. Bush has condemned Russia’s “disproportionate and dangerous” response. Much is made of Russian air attacks on targets inside Georgia, and especially of the inevitable misses that cause civilian casualties, but the vast majority of the 2,000 civilians allegedly killed so far in this conflict were South Ossetians killed by Georgian shells, rockets, and bombs. Some shooting and bombing will continue until all the Georgian troops are cleared out of South Ossetia—including the 40 percent they controlled before the war—but then it will stop.
Meanwhile, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is playing on old Cold War stereotypes of the Russian threat in a desperate bid for western backing: “What Russia is doing in Georgia is open, unhidden aggression and a challenge to the whole world. If the whole world does not stop Russia today, then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital.” Nonsense. It was Georgia that started this war.
The chronology tells it all. Skirmishes between Georgian troops and the South Ossetian militia grew more frequent over the past several months, but on August 7, Saakashvili offered the separatist South Ossetian government “an immediate ceasefire and the immediate beginning of talks”, promising that “full autonomy” was on the table. Only hours later, however, he ordered a general offensive.
South Ossetia’s president, Eduard Kokoity, called Saakashvili’s ceasefire offer a “despicable and treacherous” ruse, which seems fair enough. Through all of Thursday night and Friday morning, Georgian artillery shells and rockets rained down on the little city of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital, while Georgian infantry and tanks encircled it. Russian journalists reported that 70 percent of the city was destroyed, and by Friday afternoon it was in Georgian hands.
The offensive was obviously planned well in advance, but Saakashvili didn’t think it through. He knew that the world’s attention would be distracted by the Olympics, and he hoped that Russia’s reaction would be slow because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was off in Beijing. Given three or four days to establish full military control of South Ossetia, he could put a pro-Georgian administration in place and declare the problem solved. But his calculations were wrong.
There was no delay in the Russian response. A large Russian force was on its way from North Ossetia (which is part of the Russian Federation) by midday on Friday, and Russian jets began striking targets inside Georgia proper. By the time Putin reached the North Ossetia–Alanian capital of Vladikavkaz on Saturday morning, the Georgian forces were already being driven out of Tskhinvali.
By Saturday evening, Georgia was calling for a ceasefire and declaring that all its troops were being withdrawn from South Ossetia to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe”. Saakashvili’s gamble had failed—and, as Putin put it, the territorial integrity of Georgia had “suffered a fatal blow”.
Not just South Ossetia has been lost for good: Georgia’s hope of ever recovering its other breakaway province, Abkhazia, has also evaporated. On Saturday, the Abkhazian government announced a military offensive to drive Georgian troops out of the Kodori Gorge, the last bit of Abkhazian territory that they control.
How much does all of this matter?
It matters a lot to the 300,000 Georgians who fled from Abkhazia and South Ossetia when the two ethnic enclaves, which were autonomous parts of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in Soviet times, declared their independence after the old Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Georgia’s attempts to reconquer them in 1992-93 were bloody failures, and after this second failure it is clear that the Georgian refugees will never go home.
It is a reason to rejoice for most Abkhazians and South Ossetians. Although they are Orthodox Christians like the far more numerous Georgians, they are ethnically distinct peoples with different languages, and they always resented Stalin’s decision to place them under Georgian rule. Whether they ultimately get full independence or simply join the Russian Federation, they will be happy with the outcome.
The Bush administration’s bizarre ambition to extend NATO into the Caucasus mountains is dead. Russians are pleased with the speed and effectiveness of their government’s response. And nobody else really cares.
There is no great moral issue here. What Georgia tried to do to South Ossetia is precisely what Russia did to Chechnya, but Georgia wasn’t strong enough and South Ossetia had a bigger friend. There is no great strategic issue either: apart from a few pipeline routes, the whole Transcaucasus is of little importance to the rest of the world. A year from now, the Georgians will probably have dumped Saakashvili, and the rest of us may not even remember his foolish adventure.
For an unpdate on this story, see Gwynne Dyer's No Cold War return over Georgia.