War breaks out in the Caucasus

Russian troops and fighter jets moved into South Ossetia today in response to the Georgian Army’s offensive against Ossetian separatists today.  Georgia claims to have shot down two Russian jets, and Russia accused Georgia of a “dirty adventure”.  The hostilities broke out after years of tensions between the two nations over a pair of breakaway provinces still in dispute almost 20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union:

Georgian troops pushed into the separatist province of South Ossetia Friday, attacking with aircraft, tanks and artillery. The conflict threatens a wider war with Russia, which has peacekeeping troops in the area and began moving reinforcements into the province Friday, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking in Beijing where he is attending the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, said Georgia’s action was a matter of “grave concern and it will certainly lead to retaliatory actions.”

Russian state television showed pictures of a column of tanks and troops that it said was already inside South Ossetia. “Additional reinforcements has been sent to the region to help the peacekeepers prevent bloodshed,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

This conflict was a long time coming, but it started over recent shelling by separatists into Georgia proper.  Georgia had announced a unilateral ceasefire in hopes of dialing down the tension in the region.  Separatists responded by amplifying the provocation, and Georgia decided to go all out in its response.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili today implored America to become involved in the conflict.  Georgia has desired NATO membership, but the alliance has had its reservations chiefly because of this unsettled conflict, but also over anxiety about provoking Russia.  Saakashvili told CNN that the new war was “about America, its values”, but most Americans might find it difficult to relate enough to an ethnic and border dispute in the Caucasus to go to war with Russia.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been in limbo since they fought Georgia over their status in the early 90s, with Russian assistance.  Georgia has never relinquished its claims of sovereignty over the two provinces, and they have no international recognition of independence or of anything other than Georgian territory.  The Russians wanted a UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to the use of force on the part of both the South Ossetians and Georgia, but the US and UK vetoed it — likely as much for retribution over Russian obstructionism on Iran as for support for Georgia.

This war creates even more instability in a region that has served as a crucible for Islamist terrorists and nationalist militias alike.  Russia finally pacified Chechnya after years of war, and this violence could threaten the entire region once again.  It could also interrupt oil supplies from the Caspian Sea to Europe, which pass through Georgia as well as Ukraine.  Russia will also probably cut off natural gas supplies to Georgia in retaliation, forcing Georgia to find alternative energy supplies.

This could get very messy in a very short period of time.  If Georgia doesn’t seize South Ossetia outright quickly, then cooler heads need to get involved to push the Russians and Georgians apart.