The translation of a recent headline from Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta gives a feel for what is going down in Georgia: The Smell of Great Bloodshed.
It may just be a smell at the moment, but we could soon see Russian troops marching into "South Ossetia" in "Operation Ossetian Freedom" or something like it, in support of two breakaway regions in the country - Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Tensions have been high between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia for several years. Georgia underwent the "Rose Revolution" back in 2003, part of the color-wheel revolutions that swept a number of countries, bringing to power governments more or less favorable to the United States.
Georgia has been a loyal supporter of the United States in Iraq, sending in hundreds of troops, which have recently been increased to thousands - some of which are on patrol and in combat. In addition, Georgia has petitioned NATO, which angers the Russians, who have been accused of helping sponsor the two breakaway regions mentioned above.
With no love lost between the two sides and with the Russians wanting to roll back the advances NATO made into the lands ruled by the old USSR, this might be just the conflict the Bear is looking for to make its point.
From Stratfor (from their very valuable Intelligence Brief service) this morning we get a fresh look at the rising tensions and a recent clash that could signal open war:
Few states despise each other more than Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Displaying their venom for each other was the event of the day at the United Nations on Thursday. The core incident the two sides debated occurred Sept. 20 and both sides more or less denied the other's description of events.
According to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in his speech to the General Assembly, Georgian forces detained a group of militants led by a Russian lieutenant colonel in the Kodori Gorge, a mountainous region that straddles the border between Georgia proper and Abkhazia, a Russian-backed secessionist region. Saakashvili pointedly asked, "One has to wonder: What was a vice colonel of the Russian military doing in the Georgian forests, organizing and leading a group of armed insurgents on a mission of terror?"
The Russian response, both from Moscow's U.N. ambassador and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was not long in coming. Lavrov claimed the Russians were on an anti-terrorism exercise and that when the Russians acceded to the Georgians' demand that they disarm, two Russian instructors were executed with knives and gunshots to the head.
Why the Russians waited seven days before mentioning this to the world raised more than a few eyebrows. Also odd was the dispassionate way in which the Russian dignitaries brought up the topic. There were no calls for apologies or justice, just a bland hope that the U.N. observation mission in the area would get to the bottom of things.
There are really only two scenarios to consider. Either the Russians were executed and the Russians just found out the details, or there were no executions and the Russians have chosen to ratchet up tensions.
Either way the result is the same: the Russians have now put themselves in a place where they cannot easily back down. Their credibility is on the line. Either Russia can allow Georgia to think it is okay to execute its soldiers, or it can visit consequences upon the Georgians. It is almost as if the Russians were beginning to build a logical case for an intervention in Georgia. In fact, that is likely precisely what they are doing.
There are signs that the Russians may already be moving. The night of Sept. 26-27 witnessed heavy mortar exchanges between Georgian villages and the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. South Ossetia is Georgia's other pro-Russian secessionist region. Thursday also brought with it reports that Abkhaz forces were advancing on the border of Georgia proper.
Neither the Abkhaz nor the South Ossetians are capable of doing more than harassing their border regions -- their combined population is only 250,000 vs. Georgia's six million and their gaining and maintenance of de facto independence would have been impossible without extensive Russian military assistance.
None of this is conclusive, but the mortaring, the troop movements and the seemingly detached use of the word "executed" is beyond the pale even for the troubled Caucasus. The events of Thursday -- and a week earlier -- could just go down in history as yet more spittle exchanged between a fallen empire and its former colony. But never forget that Russia has the means and motive to crush Georgia -- and with the United States occupied in full by Iraq, Russia now has the opportunity...
One key fact to remember. In addition to acting as a "lily pad" from which the US and NATO can project power into Russia's sphere of influence, Georgia plays host to a portion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, a key source of Caucasus oil that does not run through Russian territory.
So, let's review the situation in Georgia:
- We have a small country that is key link in a pipeline that transfers up to 1 million barrels of crude per day to world petroleum markets. This million barrels of crude is far more vital to the United States and Europe than it is to Russia - who is currently still an exporter of oil.
- Georgia, a country sharing a border with Russia, is trying to join NATO
- Georgia has two low-level insurgencies brewing, both supported to one degree or another by Russia
- Georgia is supporting U.S. forces in Iraq and is now putting troops into combat situations, thereby beginning to create a force, small though it may be, that has experience in counterinsurgency warfare.
- Russia is feeling more and more confident these days in her power. Demonstrating that power through a short, successful military campaign that crushes a fledgling NATO-aspiring country would go a long way to put the Baltic States and Eastern Europe on notice that Russia means business and that her interests must be taken into account.
Now, that high-octane mix of factors might just convince the Russians that a quick attack into Georgia, in support of the Ossetians and Abkhazians might be a low-risk, high-reward operation. That, in my opinion, would be a grave miscalculation.
You'd think the Russians would remember their experience in Afghanistan against a small country supported with U.S. arms. The Georgians would almost certainly adapt to a 4GW style of conflict. The Georgians would suffer greatly, but the Russians would pay the price in either an occupation that would drag on for years, resulting in many casualties, or in a quick in-and-out campaign that creates a generation of terrorists based in Georgia, plotting and executing attacks all through Russia.