By Nicholas Dima l August 24, 2009
Photo: GEOFF PUGH
Protesters demonstrating against the Russian occupation of South Ossetia last year compared the Russian invasion of Georgia to the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, a time during the Cold War when Soviet tanks crushed freedom movements behind the Iron Curtin in Eastern Europe.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili credits former President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, with preventing the “annihilation” of the independent, democratic state of Georgia and the seizure of east-west oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian region. A major energy transit point located on the Black Sea, the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic has become the political target for former Russian president, Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, whom Saakashvili claims is intent on killing him and regaining Soviet empire in a geopolitical challenge to the West. For the former KGB colonel, the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th Century.
Tragically, the short-lived Russo-Georgian war in August of 2008 left at least 390 Georgians dead and more than 30,000 homeless refugees. Provocations on August 7, 2008 by separatists caused Georgian forces to mount an assault on Tskhinvali, the capital of the Georgian province of South Ossetia, prompting a surprisingly swift Russian response. The war lasted five days with the Russian advance deep into Georgian territory stopping just short of Tbilisi. While President Dmitry Medvedev approved a French-led ceasefire on August 12th, Russian troops remain in South Ossetia in violation of the agreement. On August 26th, Medvedev announced the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Today, only Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has extended recognition.
Moscow’s military action “violated the core principles of the Helsinki Final Act, the charter of Paris, and the territorial integrity of a country that was a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and the Euroatlantic Partnership Council – all in the name of defending a sphere of influence on its borders,” wrote the leaders of Central and Eastern Europe in a recently issued Open Letter. All the while, the Atlantic alliance stood by as thousands of Russian troops and tanks violated Georgian sovereignty and independence.
In an interview with Philip Pank of the Times of London reported on June 25, 2009, Saakashvili revealed that in his conversation at the time, President Bush told him, “We will not allow them to enter Tbilisi.” According to the report, “Half-an-hour after that statement, the Russians backed down.” The Russian military continues to occupy the two breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with some 10,000 troops stationed there, including tanks and heavy weapons. Daily provocations occur as Russian border guards and South Ossetian paramilitaries fire across the checkpoints. Less than one hour’s striking distance from Tbilisi, Russia remains a threat. It’s like living in Washington, DC with Russian troops occupying Annapolis, Maryland and preparing to invade our capital at any moment.
Today, Abkhazia is totally dependent on Moscow, while both breakaway provinces have for all intents and purposes been ethnically cleansed of their Georgian population. On the eve of the first anniversary of the ceasefire, Putin paid an unexpected visit to Abkhazia pledging $500 million in aid to pro-Kremlin supporters. “The situation has changed radically and there will be no return to the past,” Putin declared. “Abkhazia does not need to be recognized by anyone but Russia.” The leader of Russian occupied Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, stated on Russian radio Ekho Moskvy on July 16th that it could become part of Russia by popular referendum. Further, he revealed that an important Iranian delegation had visited from July 11-14. The Romanian daily Ziua reported the Iranians also visited Abkhazia’s Soviet-built nuclear facilities. This included the Vekua Institute of Physics and Technology located in the capital of Sukhumi.
A 34 year old Georgian blogger, highly critical of the Russian government, named Georgy, claims that on August 8, 2009 hackers launched a massive cyber attack to silence him. IT experts believe the attacks originated in Abkhazia. Reportedly, both sides used cyber attacks during the five day war.
Russia finds it offensive that Georgian troops continue to receive NATO training from U.S. Marines for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Moscow suspended military cooperation with NATO following the invasion of Georgia. One year later, the Kremlin is still unable to come to terms with the independence of its former republics.
Under severe protest from the Kremlin, recent NATO exercises involved 1,000 soldiers representing 18 countries. Concluding two sets of exercises conducted over a period of three weeks from May 6th through June 3rd, President Medvedev described them as “an overt provocation.”
In comparison, Moscow’s war games were staged in and around Georgian territory from Monday, June 28th through Monday, July 6th, a day that coincided with President Obama’s visit to Moscow, with 8,500 Russian troops, 200 tanks, 450 armoured vehicles and 250 artillery pieces reportedly participating in their full field military exercises. The Caucasus 2009 war games also involved parts of the Russian air force including airborne troops and elements of the Black Sea Fleet stationed in Crimea. In the meantime just across the border in Georgia, 200 EU monitors guard against the threat of a Russian invasion, while Moscow continues to block observers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
William H. Courtney, U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to Georgia (1995-97), in praise of a new book on the subject entitled The Guns of August 2008: Russia’s War in Georgia, states, “In July 2008, Russia’s military conducted a full field exercise of an invasion and then launched the real thing.” The Russian and Eastern European expert ends by saying, “It leads to the disturbing conclusions that Russia may go beyond Georgia to subdue other neighbours, and that it may again use force against Georgia.”
The Columbia Law School graduate, Saakashvili, was largely responsible for the ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze in what became known as the 2003 Rose Revolution. Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, had been backed by the United States. Now 41 and president of small democratic country on the southern border of Russia, Mikhail Saakashvili remains defiant over the loss of Georgian territory to the Russians, yet, confident it will be recovered and that eventually Georgia will become a full fledged member of NATO and the European Union. Both moves are strongly opposed by the Kremlin.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.