08 August 2008

War at the rim of Europe

If you're like most Americans, you know practically nothing about South Ossetia. Over the next few days you may be hearing more about it than you ever wanted to.

South Ossetia is a tiny territory with a population of about 70,000 people, located in the northern part of the nation of Georgia in the Caucasus mountains. Georgia was one of the fifteen constituent "republics" of the Soviet Union, until that latter-day incarnation of the Russian Empire finally broke up in 1991; today Georgia is pro-Western and is even mentioned as a possible future candidate for NATO membership. The Putin regime, in a bizarrely-misguided effort to re-assert Russia's status as a major power, has long sought to increase its influence over its former vassal states by stirring up trouble among their minorities. South Ossetia is perhaps the most successful example of this policy; it has established itself for over a decade as a de facto independent entity, friendly to Russia and hostile to the Georgian government of whose sovereign territory it is still legally a part.

Yesterday the Georgian government called Russia's bluff and launched a full-scale military invasion of South Ossetia, deter-mined to regain control over its breakaway province. The effort has so far met with success, as Georgian forces appear to have captured much of the territory and have reached the South Ossetian capital city.

Because of the extent to which Russia has supported its client statelet, even going so far as to give many South Ossetians Russian citizenship, its prestige is now on the line. Putin has threatened "retaliation", and Russian TV reports that Russian troops and tanks are already moving into South Ossetia -- that is to say, they are technically invading another sovereign country, since South Ossetia is still internationally recognized as part of Georgia.

If the situation escalates, we could see something that is now quite unusual: a "conventional" war between two countries. Those don't happen very much any more; most recent wars (Sudan, Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, eastern Congo, etc.) are between rival factions within countries. An old-fashioned war between two sovereign states -- right on the edge of Europe, yet -- would be a disturbing throwback to an era most Europeans thought had ended long ago. The West is not going to get involved militarily, but if Georgia is seriously threatened it cannot sit back and do nothing, either. This crisis may well spark the worst escalation in great-power tensions in several years.

The world owes the Russians a great debt for the fact that they, unlike (for example) the French in Algeria and Vietnam, let their empire go without a fight. If the Soviet army had actually fought to keep control over Poland and East Germany and Lithuania and Ukraine and so on, the resulting bloodbath would have made the Yugoslavian wars look like a pillow-fight. It is regrettable that this point has been so little recognized in the West, and it would be even more regrettable if Putin were to break with that honorable precedent now.

Update: "Scores" of Georgian civilians dead and wounded from Russian bombing.....Two Russian planes shot down by Georgia..... This sounds bad.


Anonymous Joshua Minton said...

That is a very interesting point about the possibility of a conventional war in Europe between separate countries...while the rest of the world is focused on the Olympics also--you think that timing was planned?

08 August, 2008 07:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Hi Joshua!

I kind of doubt the timing was planned in that way -- the Georgians chose the timing, and since their biggest concern would be the Russians "retaliating" at them, they'd want the world to be paying attention, not distracted.

For the Russians, of course, the timing couldn't be better.

08 August, 2008 08:44  

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