Diplomatic negotiations towards a permanent peace agreement [..] are continuing. [..] The principles agreed between the presidents of Georgia and Russia on 13 August include: no recourse to the use of force; a definitive cessation of hostilities; free access for humanitarian aid; the withdrawal of Georgian military forces to their bases; the withdrawal of Russian military forces to lines held prior to the start of hostilities and the implementation of temporary security measures by Russian peacekeeping forces while awaiting the deployment of an international monitoring mission; and the opening of international negotiations on achieving security and stability in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
[These] must now be developed into a binding agreement and implemented, probably by an international monitoring mission. France, which is brokering the negotiations, will be presenting a new six-point resolution to the UN Security Council before the end of the week.
Russian forces are reported to be concentrated near the town of Zugdidi, near the border with the separatist region of Abkhazia and around the town of Gori, in order to maintain control of the highway connecting the port city of Poti and the capital Tbilisi. Meanwhile, Georgian troops have taken up position on the Gori-Tbilisi highway, in order to prevent the potential advance of Russian forces towards Tbilisi.
Reports of Russian forces moving around Georgian territory continue, with some suggesting that Russians units are in the port of Poti, and in Zugdidi and Senaki, astride key lines of communication. They also remain in Gori, where they are said to be in the process of handing control back to Georgian police. Reports indicate that Russian troops allowed some humanitarian supplies into the city on 15 August.
South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy
Thomas de Waal
12 - 08 - 2008
Georgia and Russia have stumbled into a war that need not have happened. The price of their political calculation - and folly - is being paid by civilians on both sides, says Thomas de Waal of the IWPR
The epicentre is South Ossetia, which is home to both ethnic Ossetians and Georgians (the latter accounting for about a third of the 70,000 population). The destruction there has been appalling, and it looks as though many hundreds of civilians have died, in the first place as a result of the initial Georgian assault of 7-8 August 2008. Gosha Tselekhayev, an Ossetian interpreter in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali with whom I spoke by telephone on 10 August said: "I am standing in the city centre, but there's no city left."
Ossetians fleeing the conflict-zone talk of Georgian atrocities, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Ethnic Georgian villages inside South Ossetia have also come under fire [..]. Now, in a second wave of violence, Georgians - from Gali in Abkhazia to Gori in the north of the country - are fleeing and dying.
South Ossetia is a tiny and vulnerable place, which before the current outbreak of violence had no more than 75,000 inhabitants in a patchwork of villages and one sleepy provincial town in the foothills of the Caucasus.
The immediate trigger of this conflict both Moscow's and Tbilisi's cynical disregard for the well-being of these people. On 7 August, after days of shooting incidents in the South Ossetian conflict-zone, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia made a speech in which he said that he had given the Georgian villagers orders not to fire, that he wanted to offer South Ossetia "unlimited autonomy" within the Georgian state, with Russia to be a guarantor of the arrangement.
Both sides said they were discussing a meeting the next day to discuss how to defuse the clashes. That evening, however, Saakashvili went for the military option. The Georgian military launched a massive artillery attack on Tskhinvali, followed the next day by a ground assault involving tanks. This against a city with no pure military targets, full of civilians who had been given no warning and were expecting peace talks at any moment.
The attack looked designed to take everybody by surprise [..]. It also unilaterally destroyed the negotiating and peacekeeping arrangements, under the aegis of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), that have been in place since December 1992. [..]
The inevitable response was swift. Moscow cares as little about the South Ossetians as it does the Georgians it is bombing, regarding the territory as a pawn in its bid to bring Georgia and its neighbours back into its sphere of influence. It was as recently as 4 August that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov - a relative moderate within the Moscow leadership - had said: "We will do everything possible to prevent the accession of Ukraine and Georgia to Nato."
The ordinary citizens of South Ossetia could feel little confidence either in the government of Eduard Kokoity, which has a reputation for allowing criminality and has engaged in provocative statements and actions towards Tbilisi over much of this summer. It is likely that the de facto authorities in Tskhinvali would long ago have lost power had they not been the rallying-point against Georgia.
Indeed, if politicians on all sides had shown more restraint and wisdom, this conflict could have been avoided.
The Ossetians [..] generally felt more comfortable with Russian rule than as part of the new, post-Soviet Georgian state. A small and nasty war with Tbilisi in 1990-92 led to a declaration of independence, at the cost of 1,000 lives and a huge legacy of bitterness.
In fact, away from high politics, ethnic relations were never bad. For a decade after South Ossetia's de facto secession from Georgia in 1991, it was a shady backwater and a smugglers' haven. The region was outside Tbilisi's control, but Ossetians and Georgians went back and forth and traded vigorously with one another at an untaxed market in the village of Ergneti.
Then Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in the "rose revolution" of 2003-04, with heady promises to restore his country's lost territories. He closed the Ergneti market in June 2004 and tried to cut South Ossetia off, triggering a summer of violence. [He] pledged that the country's territorial integrity would be re-established by the end of his presidency.
He sought to tear up the far-from-perfect Russian-framed negotiating framework for South Ossetia, but failed to come up with a viable alternative.
For their part, the Russians raised the stakes and baited Saakashvili [..] by effecting a "soft annexation" of South Ossetia. Moscow handed out Russian passports to the South Ossetians and installed its officials in government posts there. Russian soldiers, although notionally peacekeepers, have acted as an informal occupying army.
Saakashvili is notoriously volatile, a risk-taker who veers between warmonger and peacemaker, democrat and autocrat. On several occasions international officials have pulled him back from the brink. [..] This time, he has stepped over the precipice.
The provocation is real, but the Georgian president is rash to believe that this is a war he can win, or that the west is happy to see it happen. [..] When the dust settles, there will be angry words with Tbilisi as well as with Moscow. Both Georgia and Russia deserve to be condemned.
The main focus of humanitarian concern has now shifted to the territory of Georgia proper, with reports of dozens of civilian casualties from Russian air-raids and a mass flight from the town of Gori, which lies to the south of South Ossetia.
The worry now is that Moscow is using the plight of the Ossetians as cover for its ambitions to overthrow the government of Mikheil Saakashvili. There is almost certainly a debate going on within the Russian leadership about how far to go in Georgia - whether to stop now and claim the moral high ground in South Ossetia, or carry forward its military campaign and effect "regime change" in Tbilisi, ignoring western outrage.
The signs are that the hawks, in the shape of former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin - who has what amounts to a personal feud with Saakashvili - are in charge. [It] was Putin who flew down to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, to coordinate the Russian handling of the crisis and made the ominous comment that the Georgian people would "pass objective judgement on their own leadership".
Abkhazia too is an area of great concern. There are reports that Russia has sent in thousands more troops to the territory, much exceeding the 3,000 peacekeepers it is allowed to keep there under the terms of the 1993 ceasefire agreement. [..]
Liberal Russia reflects on the war
Boris Dolgin, 12 - 08 - 2008
Polit.ru reflects on the legality of Russia's war with Georgia, who is to blame, how Russians have responded and what needs to happen next
This is too vague a concept. It could be understood literally, in the sense that it is better to take an eye for an eye, rather than 10 eyes for one. Or it could be interpreted instrumentally, as the minimum amount of actions required to prevent the possibility of carrying out the actions which drew the response.
The first interpretation does not seem practical - the argument can also be seen in Israeli responses to similar complaints. [..] The instrumental approach seems more sensible. In order to secure South Ossetia against attacks by Georgia, too much has been done, from the military standpoint, rather than enough. Doing enough means that it will not happen again. Doing too much means that it may well, as will further provocations.
In any case, outside Russia the sympathies of ordinary people are already on Georgia's side. Nor is this just because we have handled our information badly, but because of the situation as a whole. The more that Russia's response looks like bullying, the less justified Russia's position appears, as these events appear increasingly less connected with South Ossetia. [..] In fact, Russia has not been particularly warmly supported by anyone. Not even "allied" Belarus. [..]
[T]he build-up of Russian troops in the Zugdidi region of Georgia, where they have been demanding that the Georgian police be disarmed, [offers even less cause for optimism]. The removal of UN observers from the conflict zone, and the entry of Abkhaz troops, are a further serious violation of existing agreements. In a similar manner, Georgia has more or less openly violated the same agreements since 2006 by keeping divisions in Verkhny Kodori [..]. If with the non-intervention of Russian peacekeepers, Abkhazia is able to get Georgia out of Verkhny Kodori, or even cross Inguri, it will be impossible to interpret this in any other way than as aggression by unrecognized Abkhazia with the connivance of Russia. It would be a very good thing if this could be avoided.
The Russian public reacted quite predictably to the war. These reactions ranged from enthusiastic endorsement by the official quasi-community and demands for a radical response from the nationalists to liberal reactions on the other end of the spectrum.
These [latter] were summed up most memorably by a wonderful contemporary writer: ‘Ever since I was a child I've known the answer to the eternal Russian question "Who is to blame": it's always the big, strong and stupid one who is to blame. From yesterday evening until the middle of today [8 August - BD], I thought of Saakashvili as one of these people. Then everything fell back into its usual place, alas."
The clearest and most immediate reaction seems to have come from Memorial, which, without waiting for any official statements from government, called for an end to the war.
- To explain to the government and citizens why it is time to stop
- To supervise the non-violation of human rights by Russian soldiers in the conflict zone
The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future
12 August 2008
The intentions behind the Russian assault on Georgia constitute a political challenge to the west and an existential one to its southern neighbour, writes the minister of education and science in the Republic of Georgia, Ghia Nodia.
The war was unexpected and anticipated at the same time. No one foresaw exactly the way events were to unfold; but for months, diplomats and analysts had talked about the danger of a major Russian-Georgian conflict around one or both of Georgia's so-called "frozen conflicts" (in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia). At the same time, the real role of the frozen conflicts in triggering the fateful events of 8-12 August 2008 should neither be underestimated nor overestimated. True, without the unresolved status of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, Russia and Georgia would not have gone to war. But, on the Russian side, the issue of South Ossetia in general - or of protection of the citizens of Russia residing there in particular - was just a pretext; and this became increasingly evident as the conflict unfolded.
The forced choice
As the international community moved towards stronger condemnation of the Russian aggression, the Georgian government was also under criticism for its alleged failure of judgment when the military attack to occupy Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's provincial capital, was ordered in the early morning of 8 August 2008. It looks like the Georgian government displayed political immaturity by falling into a Russian trap.
The context of that decision should be understood, however. For months, the Georgian forces inside the enclave within South Ossetia loyal to Tbilisi - as well as those forces across the de facto border - had been systematically attacked using artillery fire and other means. The obvious aim of this was to draw Georgia into an open military confrontation with Russia. Everybody on the Georgian side understood this very clearly, and all efforts were made to avoid such an outcome. However, by exerting this pressure, the Russians - through its puppet-regime in Tskhinvali - were putting the Georgian government into a lose-lose situation. Yes, engaging Russians in an open military confrontation was against Georgian interests. But, by helplessly watching how its citizens were systematically attacked and killed, the Georgian government was losing its credibility incrementally.
The escalation of violence in the days before 8 August demonstrated that what was on the Russians' mind was to wipe out the pro-Georgian enclave within South Ossetia, thus causing a serious humanitarian catastrophe. The news that, around midnignt on 8 August, a large column of Russian tanks entered South Ossetia from the north (and the pro-Georgian enclave is exactly on the main road between the Russian border and Tskhinvali) was the last straw: the decision to take control of Tskhinvali was a desperate attempt to pre-empt the large-scale Russian strike.
From the international public-relations perspective, it would probably have been smarter to allow Russia do whatever she was planning to do and wait for the international indignation afterwards. It is also easy to judge in hindsight. In the event, the Georgian government also felt that it had an obligation to do something to protect its citizens against an open attack. The Georgian government hoped that the Russians would not dare to conduct an undisguised all-out military aggression against Georgia, thus jeopardising its international image and relations with the international community. That did prove a miscalculation.
The true target
Perhaps the most telling illustration of what the Russians are doing in Georgia was something found found in the pocket of a Russian airman downed by the Georgian air defence: an obscene verse. The verse mocks the enemy - which is normal in wars. However, neither Georgians nor Ossetians are mentioned: the theme of this piece of doggerel was Russian troops humiliating Nato soldiers.
Whatever the humanitarian rhetoric, what Russia is really doing is a preventive strike against Nato, which happens to take place on Georgian territory. Moscow wants to teach Georgia a lesson for Tbilisi's open and defiant wish to become part of the west; it wants to send a message to the United States and Europe that it will not tolerate further encroachment on its zone of influence; and it wants to make clear to other countries in its neighbourhood (Ukraine first of all) that they are in Russia's backyard and should behave accordingly.
In Georgia proper, the main objective is regime change. At the United Nations Security Council meetings on 8-9 August 2008 convened at short notice to discuss the crisis, the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad revealed that the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was telling Condoleezza Rice that "(Mikheil) Saakashvili should go"; an indiscretion that provoked rage in his Russian counterpart, on the grounds that it betrayed the confidentiality of diplomatic conversations.
In strategic terms, the Russians want finally to consolidate their control over the separatist territories, and, most importantly, to have a pro-Russian regime in Georgia that would never again dare look in a westerly direction and try to become a western-style democracy. In domestic terms, this will be sold as a major victory over Nato, thus showing that the trend of Russia's humiliation after losing the cold war is broken.
Russia's claims that its forces are defending the Ossetian people from Georgian "genocide" are, in their mimicry of western humanitarian rhetoric, another manifestation of its resentment against the west. Russia took the Nato military operation against Serbia in 1999 as a personal affront; the Russian political elite and a majority of its public considered western talk of "humanitarian intervention" to protect Kosovar Albanians as a particularly cynical way to justify aggression motivated by geopolitical interests. Now Russia is settling scores: we all understand this humanitarian talk is bullshit (it hints to the west), but if you could do this in former Yugoslavia, you do not have any moral right to stop us from doing the same in our backyard.
The other war
Thus, on the global scale, this war poses serious questions to the west and to Georgia: for the west, whether it will accept its strategic retreat vis-à-vis Russia, and concede that the former Soviet Union is a territory where Russia can effectively dominate without formally restoring its erstwhile empire; for Georgia, whether it retains de facto sovereignty and effective statehood. The Russian calculation appears to be that Georgia will descend into chaos as its people express anger at their government for starting a wrong war and wrongly relying on the west, leaving Georgians with but one option: to embrace a new government that will be formally independent but effectively a Russian satellite.
I'd like to see a return to a position where America, rather than acting unilaterally, would use its weight to work within the alliances and institutions that had at least reasonable success in the past. Work on reforming the UN. Work within NATO. That kind of thing...
Perhaps the most telling illustration of what the Russians are doing in Georgia was something found found in the pocket of a Russian airman downed by the Georgian air defence: an obscene verse. The verse mocks the enemy - which is normal in wars. However, neither Georgians nor Ossetians are mentioned: the theme of this piece of doggerel was Russian troops humiliating Nato soldiers.
A Friend in Need
by Andrew Bennett and Leah Kohlenberg
14 August 2008
This spring, Tbilisi, the once-volatile capital of a traditionally unstable Georgian nation, was blossoming.
Not long ago, Georgia was the former Soviet Union’s Wild West, run by an anarchic medley of hill bandit clans and infamously corrupt politicians [..]. But since the 2003 nonviolent Rose Revolution, the country had turned a corner. Corruption was down, foreign investment was up, and Tbilisi " with its burgeoning outdoor café and gallery scene, as well as a concerted revitalization of the city " was experiencing a renaissance as an artsy, intellectual, sophisticated capital city.
It took only four days for the Russian military to bring to a halt what had been painstakingly built over the past four years. What exactly the Russians want has yet to be determined, but it’s clear that one thing on the top leadership’s minds is to control what is arguably among the West’s most successful “democratic experiments” and discredit Western doctrine just as it was taking off.
Of all the former Soviet republics to suffer during the aftermath of perestroika, Georgia had probably fallen from the highest pedestal. It was once the playground of the former Soviet Union, with verdant landscapes, wineries and lush Black Sea coastal towns dotted with resorts and sanatoriums. But since independence in 1991, Georgia had been plagued for more than a decade with energy shortages, poor infrastructure, rampant corruption, and battles with Russia over two of the most beautiful, and agriculturally productive, parts of the country " Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In those wars in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Georgian inhabitants were forced to flee from their homes under heavy fire. [..]
But over the past four years, Georgia showed positive signs of change. The formerly hellish border checkpoints had become quick and painless " including in the Ajaria region, where crossing from the seaside resort region of Batumi into Turkey once involved hours to navigate the nightmarish maze of bribes, self-serving, and ever-changing regulations.
In Tbilisi, Rustaveli Avenue and other city streets were suddenly well-lit and spruced up, local businesses were expanding, several international luxury hotel chains were building there and foreign investment was pouring into the country. [..]
This change is not just superficial. Efforts to liberalize the economy, combat corruption, and trim the bloated bureaucracy have brought Georgia praise from international lending organizations. Georgia is now 18th in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” ranking, putting it in league with the most developed countries.
Georgia has also taken a more serious approach to the challenge of democracy building than its former Soviet counterparts. In Armenia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, flawed elections were followed by a trend of brutality, and the suspension of basic civil liberties. [..]
One could question Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s tactics, including the use of tear gas and martial law to subdue protests in November. But when compared with how neighboring Armenia quelled mostly peaceful protests in March with truncheons and gunfire that produced predictably lethal results, his tactics seem mild. The relatively open way the government handled the aftermath " Saakashvili stepped down as president, until he was re-elected again in January " showed that Georgia and its government held itself answerable to international law, something that its former Soviet neighbors have repeatedly failed to demonstrate.
The old government administrators had been pushed to the margins and replaced with a new generation untouched by the old Soviet system. Though young and inexperienced, the government that came to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution presided over a relentless campaign of reform. This change was sometimes haphazard, and often too rapid to be implemented thoroughly. But few, if any, countries that emerged from the Soviet Union have sought to embrace the 21st century more completely or so quickly.
EUROPE’S EASTERN FRONTIER
Rather than being a Russian satellite, Georgia chose to see itself as the easternmost outpost of the West. The European Union flag flew proudly from every government building and the government drove to become a member of the NATO alliance. Georgians embraced the support and advice of the West. The tiny country, with 4.5 million people, sent more than 2,000 troops to Iraq, one of the largest and most respected contingents supporting the U.S. operations there. Georgia has also sent troops to support NATO’s operation in Afghanistan. This helped win the country steadfast support " and a steady stream of military and civilian aid " from Washington.
Today, Georgia finds its independence threatened, its land under Russian occupation, its military in disarray, civilian infrastructure destroyed, and once lively cities filled with a new wave of tense and homeless citizens fleeing the conflict zones " just as the earlier refugees from Abkhazia forced out of their homes more than a decade ago were finding their footing again.
In recent days, as the Western nations failed to take substantial action, either through military aid or sanctions, to help protect Georgia as the Russian military darted menacingly back and forth into Georgian territory, ordinary Georgians approached Western foreigners not in anger but in disbelief. How could anyone imagine that it was possible for Georgia to fight the West’s wars, participate in its institutions and adopt its laws and systems, only to be left defenseless at this critical moment?
Georgia has been more than an ally to Western nations. As a country struggling against its recent past, it is a model of how an emerging democracy can embrace Western ideals. Watching the lack of meaningful response from Georgia’s friends, one wonders how committed the West is to either.
I hate to say it, but the struggle between the US and the possibly reconstituting USSR is THE ONLY THING you should be concerned about. Things that threaten life as we know it are hinged on what is happening right now in Georgia...and now Poland. You seem to be in full possession of the No Geopolitics Knowing Democrat Party mindset...
What a bunch of crap. How do you go through life, afraid all the time? Russia isn't threatening 'life as we know it.' They are dealing with countries in their sphere of influence in the same way as the US has done in the past.
As for the Poland issue, if Russia attempted to put ABM facilities in Canada or Mexico, we would respond - more forcefully then they have. The idea that they are somehow acting irrationally or with evil intention when opposing the US putting missile bases right on their border
This was prepared long ago [..] A decision was made for the war to start in August. The war would have happened regardless of what the Georgians did. Whether they responded to the provocations or not, there would have been an invasion of Georgia [..]. The goal was to destroy Georgia's central government, defeat the Georgian army, and prevent Georgia from joining NATO.
Did Russia Plan Its War In Georgia?
August 15, 2008
Before the guns of August, there were the maneuvers of July.
Less than one month before Russia's armed forces entered Georgia on August 8, they held massive military training exercises in the North Caucasus involving 8,000 servicemen and 700 pieces of military hardware.
At center stage in those maneuvers -- which took place in the second half of July, not far from Georgia's border -- was Russia's 58th Army, the very unit that would later play a key role in the incursion.
Those exercises are just one link in a chain of incidents suggesting that Russia's military action in Georgia was planned months in advance, awaiting only an appropriate pretext to act.
Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says the aim, from the start, was to overthrow Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his pro-Western government.
"This was prepared long ago," Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst tells RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, adding that according to his information, a decision to go to war was made back in April.
"A decision was made for the war to start in August. The war would have happened regardless of what the Georgians did. Whether they responded to the provocations or not, there would have been an invasion of Georgia," Felgenhauer says. "The goal was to destroy Georgia's central government, defeat the Georgian army, and prevent Georgia from joining NATO."
Planning Began In April
April -- the month in which Felgenhauer claims Russia made its decision to invade -- was also the month when the NATO military alliance declined to offer outright a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine at its annual summit in Bucharest.
In an August 14 article published in the "Novaya gazeta" weekly, Felgenhauer, who is credited with maintaining close sources in the Russian military, claims Moscow's plan began taking shape shortly after Georgia and Ukraine were denied a MAP.
The Kremlin, which has made no secret of its antipathy for Georgia's NATO aspirations, may have been emboldened by Georgia's failure to achieve a critical step forward in the membership process. Alternately, it may have been angered by NATO's conciliatory pledge to Tbilisi and Kyiv that they would receive a MAP in future -- a move seen by many as a strong gesture of support from the West.
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says NATO's decision may have encouraged Russia to play rough with Georgia.
"I think the Russians took the wrong lessons from Bucharest," Pifer says. "There was a lot of Russian pressure and rhetoric against both Georgia and [Ukraine] getting Membership Action Plans before Bucharest. I've heard that Russians regard Bucharest as a success. And what you saw after Bucharest was an increase in pressure."
'Long Prepared, Successfully Executed'
Felgenhauer is not the only expert in Russia to posit the Kremlin's August "surprise" was anything but.
Writing in the online newspaper "Yezhednevny zhurnal," Andrei Illarionov likewise argues that the invasion of Georgia "had been long prepared and successfully executed." Illarionov is a onetime adviser to former Russian president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who has since emerged as a fierce Kremlin critic.
Such interpretations contradict the official narrative of the war promoted relentlessly by the Kremlin in the domestic and international media -- that Russian forces acted only in order to defend Russian citizens and peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia from Georgian soldiers intent on "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" in the breakaway region.
For now, there is no smoking gun to prove Russia methodically plotted its incursion into Georgia. But the first sign that Russia might seek a military advance on Georgia came more than a year ago -- in July 2007, when Moscow withdrew from the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, an amended Cold War-era document setting limitations on troops and military hardware between the Atlantic and the Ural Mountains.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service at the time of the withdrawal, Steven Blank, a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Army War College, warned the move could allow Russia to threaten Georgia by freely moving substantial deployments of troops and equipment into the North Caucasus.
"What Russia really wants is essentially to be able to do as it pleases in world affairs and to answer to nobody," Blank said. "It wants a totally free hand, particularly in and around the CIS. It also needs to conjure up the idea of an enemy to justify its regime. The fact of the matter is that the most immediate threat here is to Georgia, because the Russian government could pack forces into the North Caucasus to threaten Georgia."
Russia's provocations became more pronounced after the NATO summit, with Putin -- in the last month of his presidency -- signing on April 16 a decree authorizing the Russian government to strengthen diplomatic and aid links with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's pro-Moscow separatist provinces.
Later that month, Russia deployed 1,500 additional troops, some heavily armed, to its "peacekeeping" contingent in Abkhazia without Georgia's consent. The move was an express violation of a 1994 cease-fire agreement ending a brief but grievous civil war between Abkhaz and Georgian fighters.
In the weeks that followed, Georgia accused Russia of shooting down unmanned drone aircraft conducting reconnaissance flights over Abkhazia. Russian military aircraft were also detected violating Georgian airspace near the separatist territory.
In June, Russia stoked tensions yet again by deploying unarmed troops to Abkhazia to rebuild a rail link between the cities of Sukhumi and Ochamchira. Moscow argued the move was a humanitarian gesture meant to improve the territory's decrepit transportation infrastructure.
But Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, now argues the move was used to move military supplies into Georgia.
"We heard statements that the Russian railroad troops that had entered Abkhazia a couple of months ago were there on a humanitarian mission. And now we know the truth about why those forces were there. It was to rebuild the railroad to allow ammunition and other military supplies to aid a Russian invasion," Bryza told reporters in Tbilisi on August 11.
Predicting An Invasion
And then came Russia's Kavkaz-2008 military exercises in the North Caucasus in late July. Speaking at the time, Felgenhauer suggested the maneuvers -- which coincided with U.S.-led training of forces in Georgia -- might forecast a Russian invasion of Georgia as soon as August.
"I am afraid that there is a very strong possibility that military activity will happen this year, probably in the next month," Felgenhauer told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. "We could have a full-scale military conflict."
But with all eyes on Abkhazia, the focus abruptly shifted to South Ossetia, where days of clashes across the de facto border with Georgia erupted in early August. Moscow accused Tbilisi of using excessive force; Georgia, meanwhile, accused Russian-backed separatists in the region of firing into Georgian-controlled villages. Each side accused the other of initiating the violence.
Blank, who predicted trouble for Georgia over a year ago, now says Moscow was confidently ramping up the level of provocations in South Ossetia. "This is a war that Russia wanted, and clearly had planned for," he added.
"The evidence I’ve seen indicates that the Russian Army was sitting there waiting for this, that this was essentially a provocation launched by the South Ossetians, who ratcheted up the level of violence in order to bring the Georgians -- who are easily provokable, obviously -- to attack," Blank said. "And the Russians were waiting there, ready with an operational plan and with forces in place -- land, sea and air -- to do what they have subsequently done."
After days of clashes, Georgia moved into South Ossetia on August 7 in a large-scale operation to regain control of the Moscow-backed separatist region. The offensive sparked a furious reaction from Russia, which sent in troops, military aircraft, and tanks to repel Georgian forces. (Russia assert that it entered South Ossetia nearly a day after Georgia's advance; officials in Tbilisi counter that Russian troops were already moving into South Ossetia before Georgian forces entered the province.)
'Difficult To Imagine'
Not everyone is prepared to endorse the notion of a premeditated, orchestrated war by Russia. Aleksandr Golts, a Moscow-based defense analyst, says the timing of the conflict, which came at a time when the country's leadership was absent from the capital -- President Dmitry Medvedev was in the Volga region and Putin was attending the Olympics in Beijing -- does not suggest the event was planned in advance.
"It is difficult to imagine that Russia prepared such a provocation while neither of the country's two leaders was in Moscow," Golts said. "It is [also] difficult to imagine that Russia prepared to go to war and then, when Saakashvili fell into the trap, waited 13 or 14 hours, by my count, before deploying forces."
But regardless of whether the war was prefabricated, says Golts, the blame remains squarely with the Kremlin. "Russia's policies over the past several years caused this war. And for this they bear responsibility."
Russia and Georgia on 15 August signed a ceasefire agreement brokered by France, which provides for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia. However, Russian peacekeepers would be allowed to remain in the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and patrol up to six miles (10km) into Georgian territory. The deal also stipulates that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should no longer be referred to as breakaway republics or part of Georgian territory.
Russian troops on 15 August reportedly continued to damage naval facilities in the port city of Poti, as well as military facilities in the cities of Senaki, Zugdidi and Gori. Incidents of looting and violence continued in Gori and the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, while the entrance to Gori remains blocked.
During a press conference on 15 August, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili accused Russia of carrying out ‘ethnic cleansing’ in South Ossetia, Gori and Upper Kodori Gorge. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for the presence of additional international observers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Russia on 16 August signed the six-point EU-brokered ceasefire agreement. It was earlier approved by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili during a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the capital Tbilisi on 15 August. The accord is not a final peace settlement, but provides the basis for a legally binding text to end the fighting and facilitates steps towards a political solution. The UN Security Council is expected to formalise the ceasefire through a vote by this weekend, though it could be delayed due to Russian opposition to any clause referring to Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The accord stipulates the withdrawal of all Russian troops and any militia forces from Georgian territory. However, Saakashvili claimed late on 15 August that Russian soldiers had moved into the three Georgian towns of Kaspi, Borjomi and Khashuri. Reports also indicate the presence of Russian personnel at Igoeti, approximately 18 miles (30km) from Tbilisi. Russian troops remain in control of the main checkpoint into the city of Gori, 40 miles (60km) north-west of the capital.
Both sides continue to blame each other for alleged ceasefire violations. Russia said that its soldiers exchanged fire overnight on 15 August with Georgian troops. Meanwhile Georgia claimed that Russian troops on 16 August destroyed a railway bridge in Kaspi, 30 miles (45km) west of Tbilisi, disrupting the country’s main east-west rail link. Media reports quoted witnesses confirming the incident, although Russia has denied involvement.
Meanwhile, two US aircraft with humanitarian supplies arrived in Tbilisi on 15 August, along with experts from US Agency for International Development (USAID) to assess the situation. The UN has put the number of people displaced because of the conflict at more than 118,000. Several foreign aid groups have demanded unrestricted access for delivering relief supplies to South Ossetia. Two UN aircraft with relief material are expected on 19 and 20 August after Russia agreed to allow aid supplies through Vladikavkaz, the capital city of the republic of North Ossetia-Alania, a Russian territory which shares borders with South Ossetia.