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Russian clout prevails in S. Ossetia

Georgian President Saakashvili called for international mediation over the breakaway region in a conflict some see as East vs. West.

By Correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, Staff writer, Paul RimpleContributor / August 11, 2008

Front lines: Russia took control of S. Ossetia's capital after Georgian troops attempted to retake the breakaway region.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

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Moscow; and Tbilisi, Georgia

Georgia appeared Sunday to have lost its bid to retake a breakaway territory in a brutal war that may lead to deep changes in the troubled Caucasus and pose serious obstacles to securing lasting rapprochement between a resurgent Russia and the West.

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Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appealed for international mediation after Russia claimed full military control of South Ossetia's capital, which it invaded Friday after Georgia launched an assault on the rebel statelet.

Moscow, which says the assault killed 2,000 civilians and displaced 34,000, says it is fulfilling its peacekeeping mandate under 1992 accords that ended Georgia's civil war. But some analysts, including a former US diplomat, believe that Russia's true strategic goal may involve redrawing the map in its old Soviet spheres of influence.

"The Georgians were too quick to move, they rolled the dice to regain control. But that doesn't justify a [Russian] act of aggression and invasion to take the [Georgian] regime down," says Ronald Asmus, a former Clinton administration official responsible for NATO expansion. "This is a watershed in relations with Russia, comparable to the [1979] Afghan invasion, since it is the first time they have sent troops illegally out of their borders."

There are two starkly opposed narratives concerning who started the war and why. Georgia, which said it had control of about 70 percent of South Ossetia on Friday, has called for a truce.

But Russia is still pouring troops and tanks into the disputed region. On Sunday, it mounted a naval blockade of Georgia's Black Sea coast, and its jets bombed the outskirts of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. Experts say that much depends on Moscow's next steps as it moves to consolidate military control over South Ossetia.

"If Russia continues a massive attack through next week, its legitimacy as a neutral party will be harmed," says Sabine Freizer, European program director with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which warned about the gathering war clouds in a May report. "An ongoing attack of thousands of tanks and troops will certainly make Russia appear guilty in the eyes of the world."

Georgia seeks help in breakaway territory