Did Russia pay high price for winning Georgia war?

It is responsible for economically troubled South Ossetia and may have spurred the European Union to seek alternative sources of energy.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
Ossetian police patrol streets in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, Thursday, despite rising tensions and slashing rhetoric as the first anniversary of the Russian war approaches, top officials in Tbilisi and Moscow downplay the likelihood of renewed fighting.

Though the dispute over who started the war between Russia and Georgia has yet to abate, most experts agree that it erupted during the night of Aug. 7 with an apparently well-planned and massive Georgian attack on Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia, which had won its de facto independence from Georgia in a brutal civil war nearly two decades earlier.

About a dozen Russian peacekeeping troops died in that assault, prompting Moscow to send its North Ossetia-based 58th Army swarming through the Roki Tunnel the next day. Russian forces rapidly routed the Georgians and went on to briefly occupy a handful of Georgian towns such as Gori, where they destroyed Georgian weapons.

Many experts argue that Georgian President Saakashvili merely handed Russia the pretext it had long awaited. But while Russia may have won the war, in doing so it exposed potentially fatal weaknesses in its unreformed Soviet-era military machine. It also took on two expensive new dependencies – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – whose nominal independence no country in the world, other than Nicaragua, has joined Moscow in recognizing.

S. Ossetia an economic burden

South Ossetia, led by former wrestler Eduard Kokoity, could land Moscow a good deal of trouble in future.

Some experts say the tiny republic of around 60,000 has become an economic burden. South Ossetia's border with Georgia was completely sealed by Russian forces following the war, killing a once-thriving trade between the two. Commerce through the lone tunnel connecting South Ossetia to Russia is scant.

South Ossetian officials dismiss such concerns, saying the territory will soon be economically viable.

"South Ossetia is rebuilding slowly and surely from the war initiated by Georgia in 2008," says David Sanakoev, Special Assistant to President Kokoity. "There are hardships in this postwar period, but our people are strong and resilient."

Mr. Kokoity appears to have an appetite for more conflict. This week he appealed for a larger Russian troop presence than the 1,500 Russia plans to base permanently in South Ossetia and "more serious weaponry" with which to face down Georgia. In an interview with Russia's official RIA-Novosti, Kokoity provocatively suggested seizing "historically Ossetian" territories that remain well inside of postwar Georgia.

"Russia needs to make sure that everything Kokoity does gets fully coordinated with Moscow," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. "Kokoity is trying to establish himself as the best friend and strongest ally of Russia. But he has personal ambitions that should be of great concern. The local authorities in South Ossetia might well have an interest in renewed conflict."

The war may also have undermined Russia's wider energy strategy by alarming its neighbors and encouraging the European Union to move more assertively on the long-delayed Nabucco pipeline project, which would bring up to 20 billion cubic meters of Central Asian gas to Western markets by 2014, bypassing Russia.

"Nabucco is largely a political project, stimulated by fear of Russia as a result of last August's war," says Mr. Lukyanov. "In future, Russia can expect sharpening competition for regional resources."

Even Russia's biggest gain from the war, the delay of NATO expansion into the post-Soviet region, does not look so solid, say some analysts.

"Russia stopped too soon, and did not press its gains," says Alexander Dugin, an influential Russian ultranationalist.

He argues that efforts by the US to "encircle Russia" by drawing Georgia and Ukraine into the Western military alliance will continue. "We won a battle in Georgia last year, but we have not won the war," Mr. Dugin says.


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