Georgia (“Gruzia” in the Georgian language) is a small, 70,000 square km country, barely the size of South Carolina.  Geographically it is situated in the Caucasian mountain region next to the Black Sea, close to the Middle East.
It is doubtful that many people knew about this countries’s existence, but the recent conflict with Russia has brought the country in the attention of the entire world.

Unfortunately mass media is not necessarily impartial and it is not necessarily presenting the truth, but that is a whole other story. Long story short, this small country decided to attack one of its rebel regions, killing some civilians and a couple of Russian soldiers on an UN Peace Keeping mission. The Russians got really upset because of this and decided to push out the Georgian military forces from the rebel regions while taking a long detour of about 100 km into Georgian territory. About 64 Russian and 215 Georgian soldiers died and around 1,500 civilians. Although not a major conflict the impact it had on the relations of Russia with the US and other West European countries was at least, significant.

How did we get here?

The conflict we see today is by no means new. Back when the USSR was falling apart, Georgia, the birth country of Joseph Stalin, emerged as a new state. However, when the borders of the new country were settled, it seems they were not settled properly. With the exception of Turkey, Georgia has border disputes with all the countries around it, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the worse situation is in the two regions of South Osetia and Abhazia (North Osetia is part of Russia). In both of these two regions the majority of the population is not Georgian and seems to be more friendly towards Russia. As a result, back in 1991, they wanted to break away. However, Georgia was not as willing to let things go this away and between 1991 and 1992 military conflict started between Georgia and these regions. Eventually the conflict was settled and an UN Peace Keeping Mission maintained by Russian soldiers was installed in the area.
All went well until a couple of months ago, when Kosovo, a region of Serbia, declared independence on its own, independence which was quickly recognized by most major West European countries and USA. This gave an impulse to other break away regions around the globe, regions just like South Osetia, to fallow a similar path. Backed by the USA, which keeps promising NATO membership, offers military training and free weapons, Georgia decided that military force was the best solution against Osetia’s bid for independence.

Now, another important aspect of this conflict which has not been said is that until about 3 years ago, Georgia was under Russian influence. Although Georgia did not fallow directly Moscow’s agenda, it was by no means hostile to it. But in 2006 the Orange Revolutions started, some of which were successful, one in Ukraine and one in Georgia. The Orange Revolutions attempted to change regimes which were either corrupt, pro-Russian or both with ones that were pro-Western and vehemently opposed to Moscow. Some may even call these revolutions “peaceful coups” which tried to break these countries away from Moscow’s influence. The reason for which they can be called “coups” is because they tried to change a political class which won a first set of elections. This usually started by having a claim that the elections were not fair (usually these claims were not entirely groundless). Then, after building strong public support and with international pressure from Western countries, the political figures leading the “Orange Revolution” would usually ask for the cancelation of the first elections and have a rerun. The old political class would then be replaced not by manipulating the actual votes but by swiftly and efficiently manipulating public opinion so that people will change in a very short time their political support and as a result their vote in the second elections. Regardless if this was legitimate or not, this was not seen with good eyes by Russia, especially in countries like Ukraine which was historically under Russian influence and has direct and strong ties with Russia.

The new pro-Western regimes were heavily supported by the West, a good example of this is the attempt to make Ukraine and Georgia part of NATO (in Ukraine about 65% of the population opposes NATO membership).

How did it go?

Getting back to Georgia, on the 1st of August 2008, one of the sides either Georgia or South Osetia (it is still unclear who), started the fight with little apparent reason. The fighting although small at the beginning, intensified and on the 7th of August Georgian troops entered in force into South Osetia, shelling the capital of the region, Tshinvalli. Later, that is two weeks later, they justified this by saying Russians moved some troops into the area, it is hard to tell how much truth is in these claims. In the attack many civilians died under artillery shells (MRLS) but also some Russian soldiers. It does not take a brilliant mind to figure out that when you attack a regions under an UN Peace Keeping Mission things will not turn out well for you. The only rational explanation for why the Georgians attacked is that according to the status of the UN Peace Keeping Mission, the number of Russian troops in the area was not supposed to be more than 350 and only armed with machine-guns (hard to say if the Russians respected these terms). It is likely that Georgia did not consider Russia’s small Peace Keeping Missions a credible threat and with the backing of US, believed that Russians will not take military action. Russians took about a day to scramble their forces and move into South Osetia, then Abhazia and then with some smaller forces further into Georgian territory. The number of military casualties show that there was little direct confrontations but more likely skirmishes and artillery shelling, all of which the main victims were civilians. However, the scale of military mobilization, the speed at which both countries took action suggests that neither was taken unprepared which is a bit puzzling. After about a week of fighting, a peace treaty was settled and now the Russians are slowly retreating.

Another interesting part here is that in many pro-Western countries, Russia was presented as an invader, as an evil, “undemocratic” country which bullies smaller countries (Afghanistan, Iraq anyone ?). One would not expect to see Russia presented positively, after all Georgia is supported by the West, but the fact that they were presented in such a negative way points out that the relationship between Russia and USA/Western Europe is at a very low level.

What are the results?

In the past few years Russia has been distancing itself from the West (US and Western Europe) becoming a world of its own. The West has also been encroaching into Russian controlled areas like Ukraine and Georgia, directly threatening its sphere of interest and power. This spring, when US announced it wanted to push for a Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership, Russia did not express strong disapproval but anger and made it clear that this was going too far. Taking this into consideration, for Moscow, Georgia was the perfect opportunity to show to the West that they will not be pushed around easily.

For Georgia, South Osetia is its territory and unlike Serbia which gave up on Kosovo peacefully it decided to fight for it. Now that all is over, it appears Georgia has lost its control over the region along side with Abhazia. But this may not be a complete loss, because for Georgia it was impossible to join NATO as long as it had territorial disputes and Russian troops on its territory. If South Osetia and Abhazia declare independence, then the path for Georgia’s NATO membership is opened.

As for the Russians, besides the fact that they were mostly presented as “evil” by Western media, they showed to the rest of the world that they will fight for what they believe to be their sphere of influence. Maybe in the future US will think twice before going further into the Russia’s controlled areas because Moscow will not just stand and watch.

In the end however, regardless of who won or lost, many civilian lives were lost in a conflict that was not theirs. It is sad when this happens, and we should not forget them.