The main players were surprised by how quickly small border skirmishes slipped into a conflict that threatened the Georgian government and perhaps the country itself, writes CJ Chivers.Updated: Aug 11, 2008 21:49 IST
As the bloody military mismatch between Russia and Georgia unfolded over the past three days, even the main players were surprised by how quickly small border skirmishes slipped into a conflict that threatened the Georgian government and perhaps the country itself. But there had been signs for years that Georgia and Russia had methodically, if quietly, prepared for conflict.
Several factors had also contributed to the possibility of war. They included the Kremlin’s military successes in Chechnya, which gave Russia the latitude and sense of internal security it needed to free up troops to cross its borders, and the exuberant support of the United States for President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, a figure loathed by the Kremlin. And, in preparing Georgian soldiers for duty in Iraq, the US appeared to have embo-ldened Georgia to enter a fight it could not win. American officials said privately that, as a result, the war risked becoming a foreign policy catastrophe for the US.
Russia’s bureaucratic and military groundwork was laid even before Saakashvili came to power in 2004. Under Putin, Russia had been granting citizenship and passports to all adult residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the much larger separatist region where Russia massed troops over the weekend. The West had been sceptical of the validity of Russia’s handing out passports to citizens of another nation. “Having a document does not make you a Russian citizen,” one US diplomat said in 2004. Whatever the legal merits, the Kremlin had laid the foundation for one of its public relations arguments for invading: its army was coming to the aid of Russian citizens under foreign attack.
Simultaneously, the US support for Saakashvili created tensions and rival views within the foreign policy establishment in Washington. Some diplomats considered Saakashvili a politician of unusual promise, while others worried that he would draw the US and Russia into arguments the US did not want. The risks were intensified by the fact that the US helped militarise the weak Georgian State. Saakashvili embraced the US missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Privately, Georgian officials consi-dered participation in Iraq as a sure way to prepare the Georgian military for ‘national reunification’ — the local euphemism for restoring Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian control. All of these policies collided late last week. One us official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Saakashvili had acted rashly and given Russia the grounds to invade. The invasion, he said, was chilling, disproportionate and brutal, and it was grounds for a strong censure. But the immediate question was how far Russia would go in putting Georgia back into what it sees as Georgia’s place. There was no sign of Kremlin’s willingness to negotiate. A national humiliation was under way. “The Georgians have lost almost everything,” the official said. “We always told them, ‘Don’t do this because the Russians do not have limited aims.’”
The New York Times