Map of Georgia showing the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A Russian army convoy entered South Ossetia and Russian planes attacked a Georgian military base, reports said, after Georgian forces pounded the capital of the breakaway province and warned of “war” if Russia intervened. (AFP Graphic)
Bloomberg | Aug 8, 2008
By Henry Meyer and Ryan Chilcote
Aug. 8 (Bloomberg) — Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said “war has started” in the breakaway region of South Ossetia while Georgia accused Russia of “a well-planned invasion” and appealed to world leaders for help.
Russian “volunteers” are pouring over the border to help defend South Ossetia from Georgian forces, Putin told U.S. President George W. Bush in Beijing today, according to Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Russia of “full-blown military aggression” after civilians died in aerial bombings and wide-spread fighting in and around the disputed region. The country of 4.6 million people is fighting “to secure its borders,” Saakashvili told Bloomberg Television.
The U.S., European Union and NATO all called on both sides to end hostilities. The ruble dropped the most against the dollar in 8 1/2 years and Russian stocks tumbled today on concern the conflict will worsen.
Georgian troops ride in armoured personnel carriers at an unnamed location not far from Tskhinvali. Georgia’s National Security Council has warned that Moscow and Tbilisi will be in “a state of war” if reports of Russian tanks, military trucks and troops entering South Ossetia prove true. (AFP/Vano Shlamov)
South Ossetia, which has a population of about 70,000 and is less than half the size of Kosovo, broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s and now is a de facto independent state with Russian peacekeepers and economic support. Georgia, a U.S. ally that wants to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, accuses Russia of stoking tensions in South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia.
“We will not allow the death of our compatriots to go unpunished,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, 42, told state television after reports that Georgian troops had shelled a Russian barracks and checkpoint and killed soldiers. “The guilty will get the punishment they deserve.”
Saakashvili, 40, said Russia amassed troops for months on its northern border before fighter jets entered Georgian airspace overnight and bombed the towns of Gori and Kareli near South Ossetia. The Russian government earlier denied bombing and accused Georgia of “unleashing a dirty, reckless scheme.”
“There are so many claims and counter-claims that it’s impossible to know who started it,” said James Nixey, manager of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a research institute based in London. “Both sides have been antagonistic and easy to antagonize. It’s a cold war that’s suddenly gotten very hot.”
Georgia last month increased the size of its military to 37,000 soldiers and today Saakashvili called up reservists and urged the nation to defend “every meter” of land. Russia has a standing army of about 1.1 million.
Agence France-Press reported Russian tanks heading over the border to South Ossetia from the Russian region of North Ossetia at about 3:30 p.m. Moscow time. Interfax reported at about the same time that Russian warplanes were bombing Georgian targets.
“Fighting continues,” Russian Major General Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of Russia’s peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia, said by mobile phone. The peacekeepers have suffered casualties, although it’s too early to say how many, he said.
Georgia is a key link in a U.S.-backed “southern energy corridor” that links the Caspian Sea region with world markets, bypassing Russia, the world’s biggest energy producer. Two pipelines pass through the country linking Azerbaijan and Turkey.
The BP Plc-led Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which has been closed since Aug. 5 due to an explosion in Turkey, runs about 100 kilometers south of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.
The most recent violence in the region erupted on Aug. 1, when South Ossetia said Georgian shelling of the regional capital Tskhinvali claimed six lives. Georgia said South Ossetian forces sparked the fighting.
“The conflict might be short and hot, but my sense is that neither party wants a prolonged conflict,” said Michael Denison, associate fellow at London-based research group Chatham House and a professor of international security at the University of Leeds.