Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Russia, Georgia Clash Over Breakaway Province --- Nations on Brink of War; U.S. Calls for Ceasefire

The Wall Street Journal, 9th August 2008 11:47

By Marc Champion and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW -- Russia and U.S. ally Georgia were on the brink of war Friday after Moscow sent troops and tanks into Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia, in a dangerous escalation of a long-simmering conflict in the strategically important Caucasus.

Sandwiched between Russia and Georgia, South Ossetia has a population of just 70,000. The pro-Russian region first sought to break from Georgia in the early 1990s in the tumult that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Russia said it was responding to a major attack by Georgian troops on the largely Russian enclave the previous night. Georgia said its forces moved in "to restore constitutional order" after Moscow-backed separatists in the self-proclaimed republic shelled Georgian territory. It was impossible to verify that claim independently.

War in South Ossetia would have wider and potentially serious geopolitical implications. Mr. Bush has cultivated Georgia as an close ally, calling it "a beacon of freedom" in the former Soviet Union. He has backed those words by providing Tbilisi with military advisers and supplies. This has angered Russia, as has Georgia's ambition to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance, an aspiration that Moscow views as a challenge to its influence in an area it considers its own backyard.

Georgia is also important to the global economy. It is a key transit route for oil heading west from the Caspian Sea. That transit route is seen as an important counterweight to Russia's influence in European energy markets. Oil pipelines have been unaffected by the fighting and don't cross South Ossetia.

The trouble hit the Russian stock market, with the benchmark RTS index closing down 6.5% at 1,722.7 -- its lowest level since November 2006. Rating agencies, meanwhile, moved to downgrade Georgia's long term credit and debt ratings.

Several things remained unclear Friday evening, including which side had the upper hand by day's end. Georgia said its troops had control of key roads and much of South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, while Russia said Georgian forces had been mostly driven out of the city. Casualty reports couldn't be independently verified, with estimates from officials and witnesses ranging from dozens to more than 1,000.

In the Kremlin, President Dmitry Medvedev said an unspecified number of Russian peacekeepers stationed in the region had been killed in the fighting. Russian commanders said 12 soldiers were dead so far and 30 more were wounded. That report could not be independently confirmed. Mr. Medvedev said he was compelled to intervene because many South Ossetians are Russian citizens holding Russian passports.

"I, as president of Russia, am obliged to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens," he said in televised remarks. "We won't allow the death of our compatriots to go unpunished."

In Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, President Mikhail Saakashvili said he was preparing to declare marshal law and that his country was under attack. "We have Russian tanks moving in," he told national television, ordering troops to mobilize. In a series of international TV interviews, he said the conflict was a struggle between the Western values he espouses and Russian aggression.

Witnesses said Tskhinvali had been badly damaged, with many buildings hit by bombs. Images broadcast on Russian TV showed shell-ravaged buildings, burnt-out Georgian tanks and bodies strewn in the streets.

Friday's events marked a dangerous escalation of tensions in the oil-rich Caucasus, a region dotted by separatist conflicts. These have taken on new vigor since the unilateral declaration of independence earlier this year of Kosovo from Russian ally Serbia, in the Balkans, a move that also angered Moscow.

"Now Russia is putting its troops behind its rhetoric, and that's quite worrisome," said Charles Kupchan, a former director for European affairs at the White House's National Security Council.

The U.S. struggled to support Georgia on Friday, an ally which has sent troops to Iraq, without damaging its relations with Russia. The head of Georgia's National Security Council, Alexander Lomaya, said the country wants to withdraw some 1,000 troops it has stationed in Iraq to bolster its forces in South Ossetia.

A U.S. envoy was to be dispatched to the region, the State Department said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a statement calling on Russia to halt aircraft and missile attacks and withdraw its forces from Georgia.

"The United States is working actively with its European partners to launch international mediation," said Ms. Rice late on Friday. "We urgently seek Russia's support of these efforts."

The United Nations Security Council began a meeting at 3 p.m. Friday to discuss the crisis, the U.S. permanent mission confirmed, but decided to put off until Saturday efforts to agree on a call for an immediate ceasefire. NATO, the European Union and many others called for a halt to hostilities.

No request from Georgia for assistance had been received by mid-afternoon Friday, a Defense Department spokesman said. The Pentagon also confirmed the safety of 130 American trainers who had been in the country to support Georgian troops preparing to deploy to Iraq.

In China, at a lunch for leaders attending the Olympic Games, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin discussed the issue, the White House confirmed, without giving details of what was said. In remarks broadcast on Russian state TV, Mr. Putin said the situation was out of control. "War has started," he said.

Publicly, the White House called for "restraint," in a message echoed by both the major party presidential nominees. "The United States supports Georgia's territorial integrity and we call for an immediate cease-fire," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.

The Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, used almost identical language. "Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full scale war. Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected," he said in a statement.

Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate, also called on Russia to "immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory."

Tensions between Russia and Georgia have been flaring on and off for years. At their height, these arguments have led to military skirmishes and a Russian trade embargo on Georgia. Most of the tension has been about South Ossetia and another Russian-backed territory, Abkhazia.

Both broke away from Georgia in bloody conflicts following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The two territories have since sought independence, but so far no country has recognized either one. Russia, though, has backed their wish to remain separate from Georgia by providing financial, political and military assistance, including peacekeepers.

Georgia accused South Ossetian troops of breaking a ceasefire offered Thursday night by Georgian President Saakashvili, after which Georgian forces launched a major offensive. Georgia also accused Russian aircraft of bombing the Georgian town of Gori, where Georgian forces were grouping.

Some analysts have described this and other so-called "frozen conflicts" as the front line in a new Cold War, driven by Moscow's determination to ensure that its neighbors and former Soviet satellites remain in its sphere of influence and don't join NATO or the European Union.

The U.S. has strongly supported Georgia's bid to join NATO. Late last month, the U.S. conducted joint military exercises that included 1,000 U.S. troops and 600 Georgian troops just outside Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The exercises were called "Immediate Response."

Both the Georgian and the Russian sides have been upping the ante of late. Moscow in April persuaded Germany, a NATO member, to block Georgia's bid to start membership talks, in part because of the unresolved disputes with Russia and separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But NATO also set a date in December to review the question.

Since then, Russia has taken a series of provocative steps. They include offering legal recognition to Abkhazia's separatist government, sending additional troops into the territory, and shooting down a Georgian drone aircraft. Georgian officials have said these moves amount to a creeping annexation.

Russian and separatist allies within Georgia, meanwhile, have accused the Georgians of pursuing a military solution to the territorial dispute, citing heavy Georgian military spending and troop movements.

Though there have been numerous skirmishes between Georgian forces and the separatists in recent years, Friday's fighting was far more serious.

In a sign that the conflict could be spilling into Georgia proper, Georgian President Saakashvili said he had personally witnessed Russian jets bombing civilian areas far from South Ossetia. The report couldn't be independently verified, and Russia denied responsibility.

Georgia also said Russian jet fighters had bombed two of its military bases, inflicting casualties and destroying military aircraft. A senior Russian diplomat said that was "misinformation."

"We are being attacked because we want to be free," President Saakashvili told CNN. Separately, he told a news briefing that Russia's actions flouted Georgia's sovereignty. "One hundred fifty Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles have entered South Ossetia," he said. "This is a clear intrusion on another country's territory."

Russia said it would suspend flights between Moscow and Tbilisi as of midnight Friday. In Moscow, pro-Kremlin activists demonstrated outside the Georgian embassy, chanting "Sakaashvili is a fascist." They also gathered outside the U.S. embassy, accusing Washington of propping up Mr. Saakashvili's government. Meanwhile, volunteers massed in North Ossetia, a Russian republic that borders South Ossetia. Many told state TV they were ready to go and fight against Georgia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the Georgians of driving people from their homes. "We are receiving reports that a policy of ethnic cleansing was being conducted," he said in televised remarks from the ministry. Georgia accused Russia of "Nazi-like propaganda."

Mr. Saakashvili said his country was faced with an unfair fight. "Russia is waging war against us on our own territory," he told CNN. "And we are defending ourselves against our big and powerful neighbor."

A three-hour ceasefire was agreed Friday afternoon to allow civilians to flee South Ossetia's shell-ravaged capital. After that, hostilities appeared to ease a little. However, there were contradictory reports of where things stood. Speaking on national TV, President Saakashvili said that Georgian troops were in control of major roads and much of Tskhinvali. He hailed his army's performance as relatively successful, though he said 30 Georgian troops had lost their lives.

But Russian state TV presented a different picture. It said Georgian forces had been mostly driven out of the capital and had taken up positions on elevated ground around the city. It said regular Russian forces were fighting with the Georgian army on the city's edge. None of these claims could be independently verified.