Who is to blame for firing the first shot in this conflict will never be resolved, partly because shots have been regularly exchanged since the 1990s when the West was too preoccupied with Kuwait and then Bosnia to notice regional uprisings in Georgia. Indeed we thanked Russia for offering to sort out its own backyard by sending in ‘peace keepers’ to both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (Nobody guessed they would be issuing Russian passports to non Georgians within 8 years.)
Access to South Ossetia from Russia is only possible through the 3km narrow Roki Tunnel. Yet by some logistical miracle, over 150 T55 tanks, coincidently participating in Exercise ‘Kavkaz’ north of the border, managed to ‘spontaneously’ react to calls of help from pro-Russian militias and squeeze through the tunnel within hours.
Who fired the first shot is therefore now irrelevant; the escalation of events in Georgia pre-empted by the mysterious explosion of a non Russian pipeline in Turkey a day before hostilities began, suggest this was a conflict waiting to happen and the West was caught off guard.
Russia’s objectives are clear; punish Georgia for looking West, establish de facto control over potential Georgian pipeline routes, seek an alternative warm weather, deep water Black Sea port to Sevastopol (due to be handed back to Ukraine in 2017), and send an unequivocal message to former Soviet colonies not to flirt with the West.
This is not the Prague Spring of 1968 where tanks rolled in, Czech leaders were deported and regime change was imposed. This is invasion by stealth; crippling a tiny country without provoking a retaliatory invasion or sanctions by the West and suffocating Georgia economically until the state of the economy will turn its people against the country’s Western educated President.
Although Russian procrastination in withdrawing its troops continue to make headlines there is a worry here in Georgia that the West believes the worst is over. Yes the Russians marched deep into Georgia but they’ve now retreated and are not these two enclaves mostly full of Russians anyway?
This could not be further from the truth. On an economic level, the strategic Black Sea port of Poti, where the only intercontinental pipelines that avoids Russia terminates, remains under Russian influence. On a political level should even a super power escape punishment after flagrantly breaking international law? And finally on a humanitarian level there remain over 120,000 displaced people in Georgia who are desperate for assistance.
Georgia is an infant democracy: mistakes have been made and some questions must be answered. If the grass roots of its economy are not to die then the West needs to ensure the bully on the block does not trample on it.
The forthcoming EU Summit is the first opportunity for the West to re-evaluate its relationship with Russia; to find its voice and use those trump cards of membership to the WTO and OECD as well as EU trade to underline the rules by which modern, integrated, 21st century countries should abide. If the West, including Britain fails to address a resurgent Russia, the future for Georgia is certainly bleak and that of Ukraine even bleaker.
For us students of international affairs who observe and debate the hotspots around the world, from the Middle East to Afghanistan and the Balkans to Korea we must now develop a detailed knowledge of the Caucusus. For it is here where the last battle of the cold war is likely to take place.