Russo-Georgian conflict is not all Russia's fault
But war could ignite further disputes in the region.
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The EU flag now flies alongside the Georgian one on major government buildings (even though Georgia is a long way from ever becoming a member of the EU). The Saakashvili government seeks Georgian membership in NATO, an aspiration strongly supported by the administration of George W. Bush. Oddly, before the conflict erupted on its own soil Georgia was the third-largest troop contributor in Iraq, a result of Saakashvili's desire to show absolute commitment to the US and, in the process, gain needed military training and equipment for the small Georgian Army.Skip to next paragraph
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Russia must be condemned for its unsanctioned intervention. But the war began as an ill-considered move by Georgia to retake South Ossetia by force. Saakashvili's larger goal was to lead his country into war as a form of calculated self-sacrifice, hoping that Russia's predictable overreaction would convince the West of exactly the narrative that many commentators have now taken up.
But regardless of its origins, the upsurge in violence has illustrated the volatile and sometimes deadly politics of the Caucasus, the Texas-size swath of mountains, hills, and plains separating the Black Sea from the Caspian.
Like the Balkans in the 1990s, the central problems of this region are about the dark politics of ethnic revival and territorial struggle. The region is home to scores of brewing border disputes and dreams of nationalist homelands.
In addition to South Ossetia, the region of Abkhazia has also maintained de facto independence for more than a decade. Located along Georgia's Black Sea coast, Abkhazia has called up volunteers to support the South Ossetian cause. Russia has now moved to aid the Abkhazians, who are concerned that Georgia's actions in South Ossetia were a dress rehearsal for an attack on them.
Farther afield, other secessionist entities and recognized governments in neighboring countries – from Nagorno-Karabakh to Chechnya – are eyeing the situation. The outcome of the Russo-Georgian struggle will determine whether these other disputes move toward peace or once again produce the barbaric warfare and streams of refugees that defined the Caucasus more than a decade ago.
For Georgia, this war has been a disastrous miscalculation. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are now completely lost. It is almost impossible to imagine a scenario under which these places – home to perhaps 200,000 people – would ever consent to coming back into a Georgian state they perceive as an aggressor.
Armed volunteers have already been flooding into South Ossetia from other parts of the Caucasus to fight against Georgian forces and help finally "liberate" the Ossetians from the Georgian yoke.
Despite welcome efforts to end the fighting, the Russo-Georgian war has created yet another generation of young men in the Caucasus whose worldviews are defined by violence, revenge, and nationalist zeal.