Roots of Georgia-Russia clash run deep
The war broadened Monday as Russian troops moved beyond rebel provinces into Georgia proper.
Ancient ethnic strife, fanned by East-West rivalry and Moscow's growing regional ambitions, lie behind the war over Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Russian troops opened a second front Monday.Skip to next paragraph
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For dozens of young Ossetian men lined up at a Russian Army recruitment center in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz, the conflict is a replay of endless clashes with their traditional foe: Georgia. For Georgians, whose forces are retrenching after failing to retake the separatist province of South Ossetia, the war appears just the latest futile effort to unite their country against what they see as Moscow's neocolonial designs.
US and Russian diplomats, who sparred angrily over the crisis at a United Nations session Sunday, were falling back into the language and passions of their long, bitter cold-war standoff.
"This conflict has very deep and complicated roots," says analyst Alexei Malashenko at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "It was Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili who started it, hoping to redraw the whole situation with one sweeping action. But if it goes on for much longer, it is likely that there will be no winners, and Russia will suffer very badly, too."
The war, which began with a lightning Georgian offensive Friday aimed at ending secessionist South Ossetia's 16-year-old de facto independence, prompted a Russian military intervention which, by Monday, had put Russian forces in full control of the region. The West worries that Moscow's true goal is to subjugate pro-West Georgia and overthrow its democratically elected president, Mr. Saakashvili. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Monday, Saakashvili warned that if Moscow's drive succeeds, Western influence in the region will be defunct.
Hours after President Dmitri Medvedev asserted Monday that Russia's limited "peace mission" in South Ossetia was nearly over, Russian troops rolled into Georgia proper. The move into the western town of Senaki, which lies well over Georgia's buffer zone with Abkhazia, opened a second front in the conflict. At press time, Russia had also moved into the Georgian town of Gori, just outside South Ossetia.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged Russia Monday to accept a cease-fire that Georgia had signed, saying there is "no justification for continued Russian military action in Georgia, which threatens the stability of the entire region and risks a humanitarian catastrophe."
Russian experts say that Moscow seeks to blunt US influence in the region and halt the eastward expansion of NATO into the former Soviet Union. Beyond that, it is likely to become the main arbiter of disputes in its area, including Georgia.
"Russia is moving toward an analagous role [vis-à-vis South Ossetia] to that which the US plays when it, for example, guarantees the security of Taiwan against attack by mainland China," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States Studies in Moscow. "But this situation is beginning to look too much like a direct clash between Russia and the US," which has strongly taken Georgia's side, he adds.