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South Ossetia: How Firm Will Russia's Message Be?

Reports indicate that Russia’s military is moving into Georgia’s
separatist region of South Ossetia. The question is, where will they stop?

August 8, 2008
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili announced Aug. 8 that 150 pieces of Russian military equipment — mostly tanks and armored personnel carriers — have entered South Ossetia via the Roki Tunnel. Normally we take any reports from a war zone with a grain of salt, but in this case the Georgians have no reason to lie about their worst nightmare — the active involvement of Russian forces — coming true.

South Ossetian forces have no chance against Georgia without Russian assistance, and Georgia has no chance against Russian forces without U.S. assistance. And since the U.S. military is locked down in Afghanistan and Iraq, meaningful American help will not be coming.
The initial stages of what will likely prove to be the final battle for South Ossetia may already be under way. South Ossetian sources are reporting that Russian infantry (sometimes referred to as militia or volunteers) are clearing the road that connects the Roki Tunnel to Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, to allow heavier forces safer direct access. Again, normally we would be wary of such a report — especially considering the source — but tactically, clearing the road in advance of heavy equipment makes perfect sense.

Currently, the Georgians have declared a cease-fire, ostensibly to allow civilians to flee the battle zone in and around Tskhinvali. This could just as easily be a means to cover their own retreat from areas they fear would be too exposed to Russian firepower.

But the important thing is that all sides now agree that the Russians have decided to show the flag, and odds are they will join the fight within the next two hours.

Moscow wants to make an example in this conflict. It needs to convince the West that tampering with its near abroad is something that will not stand, and pro-Western Georgia has long been a thorn that the Russians have wanted to pull from their side.

The real question in our minds is where will the Russians stop? On the outskirts of Tskhinvali, where Russia can negotiate from a position of strength? In Tskhinvali itself, so they can bloody the Georgians and force a retreat? At the border between South Ossetia and Georgia proper so they can purge Georgian influence from South Ossetia completely and reinforce their foothold south of the Caucasus? Or will they continue to Tbilisi itself and quash the threat on their southern border altogether?

This is not a military question. No one doubts Russia’s ability to enact any of these options. It is a political question: Just how firm of a stance — and message — does Russia want the world to be aware of?
Geopolitical Diary: Decision Time in South Ossetia
August 8, 2008 | 0948 GMT

Fighting in Georgia’s separatist enclave of South Ossetia picked up overnight Friday. Georgia moved regular army forces into the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali proper after having captured most of the suburbs and encircling the town. The Georgian government says that its forces now hold most South Ossetian territory, including all of the heights overlooking the capital.

South Ossetia seceded from Georgia in 1993 during the chaos of the Soviet breakup. In those early post-Soviet days, a crumbling Russia wanted to maintain footholds south of the Caucasus Mountains and ensure that Georgia could not become a launching point for foreign influence into Russian territory. On the other side of the border, Georgia was undergoing a nationalist spasm that made the South Ossetians believe that their destruction was imminent. These fears merged and the Russians provided the South Ossetians with the military capabilities they needed to secure and hold independence. Fifteen years later, the Georgians are attempting to eliminate the South Ossetian separatists.

But this conflict is about much more than simply which flag flies over a tiny chunk of territory in the Caucasus. Georgia is an extremely pro-American and pro-Western state and represents the easternmost foothold of American/Western power. It has also been in the Russian orbit for the bulk of the past 300 years. As such, it is the hottest flashpoint in Western-Russian relations. Which way the territory falls ultimately decides whether Russia can determine security concerns that literally fall right on the border of its heartland. To put it another way, what is being decided here is whether bordering Russia and simultaneously being a U.S. ally is a suicidal combination. Whichever way this works out, the dynamics of the entire region are about to be turned on their head.

The conflict started on Thursday because the South Ossetians feared that the Russians were about to sell them out. Russia does not want Georgia to join NATO — or even to be appearing to be seeking to join NATO — and so has cranked up political, economic and military pressure on Tbilisi. The two had been negotiating a deal by which Georgia would abandon its NATO bid and tone down its rhetoric in exchange for being allowed to continue existing. Since South Ossetia (and, to a lesser degree, Georgia’s other breakaway region of Abkhazia) gauges its own prospects for continued existence based on the level of tension between Moscow and Tbilisi, the South Ossetians feared that restoration of some sort of “normal” relations between Russia and Georgia could destroy them. Ergo they began shelling Georgian towns near Tskhinvali. The Georgians responded with an invasion.

Fundamentally there are only two locations in this conflict that matter: the capital and the southern end of the Roki Tunnel, which connects South Ossetia to Russia. The capital is the only city of note in South Ossetia, and the Roki is the only means for Russia to shuttle forces to and from the territory. The tunnel is only two lanes wide and is an excellent choke point. If Georgia can capture and hold those two targets, South Ossetia’s 15-year rebellion will in essence be over.

But that can happen only if the Russians let it. While Georgia’s forces — with U.S. training — have become demonstrably more capable in the past five years, Georgia remains a relative military pigmy and South Ossetia is a Russian client.

Effective Russian intervention has not yet materialized, however. Russian sources are reporting that the Georgians have engaged Russian peacekeepers (forces the Russians have long deployed to guarantee South Ossetia’s independence) and killed their commander. Georgian sources report that Russian jets have bombed Gori, a city in Georgia proper that is being used for the invasion’s launching point. Those reports also claim that Georgian forces downed one of the jets.

The truth of the reports from either side cannot be confirmed at this point, but this we know for sure: If the Russians were committed to assisting the South Ossetians, then the Roki tunnel would be flooded with military assets flowing south instead of evacuees flooding north. All reports at present indicate that the northern end of the tunnel is cluttered with evacuation buses, by some reports enough to transport a sizable portion of South Ossetia’s total population of about 70,000.

If the Russians do commit militarily, one of the most enthusiastic forces they could tap to assist South Ossetia are the Abkhaz. Like South Ossetia, Abkhazia is another Georgian separatist enclave that could have attained and maintained its de facto independence only with active Russian military support. The Abkhaz say they are willing to send at least 1,000 volunteers to back up South Ossetia, but it appears the Russians are restraining them.

The Russians appear to be making up their minds about what to do. President Dmitri Medvedev is chairing a National Security Council meeting as this diary is being published, a meeting that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — at the Olympics in Beijing — is undoubtedly attending remotely.

The Russians now face an uncomfortable decision. South Ossetia wants to force Russia to intervene militarily, but Russia prefers to maintain the fiction that it is not Russian military assets that guarantee South Ossetian independence. Should Russia not intervene, however, it will essentially have demonstrated its ineffectiveness in its own back yard. Kosovo’s independence proved that Russian diplomatic power in Europe was nonexistent. Getting forced out of South Ossetia — a territory that Russia not only borders but has troops in — would be several steps past humiliation.

And so we would be very surprised if Russia does not act. Which means we are very surprised that the Russians have not yet acted firmly. They will need to do so very soon, for if Georgia manages to capture both Tskhinvali and the mouth of the Roki Tunnel, then Russia not only will have lost its foothold in the South Caucasus, but also will be unable to use purely conventional forces to put the military balance back where Moscow would like it to be.

So, for now, all eyes are on that security council meeting in Moscow. The Russians need to decide if they are all in.
Read the Background Material...
Stratfor: South Ossetia: How Firm Will Russia's Message Be?
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