Background of the 2008 South Ossetia war

Background of the 2008 South Ossetia war

This article describes the background of the 2008 South Ossetia war.

outh Ossetian interests

The Ossetians are an Iranian ethnic group whose origin lies along the Don River. They came to the Caucasus after being driven out of their homeland in the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. Some clans settled in the territory now known as North Ossetia-Alania, and South Ossetia.cite news
title=Q&A: Violence in South Ossetia
publisher=BBC News

In 1991, following the collapse of the USSR, Georgia’s first post-Soviet leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was emerging. A longtime anti-Soviet dissident, he based his campaign for the presidency on an emerging Georgian nationalism, using the platform "Georgia for the Georgians". He projected ethnic Georgians, who made up 70% of the population, as the country’s true masters, and he derided South Ossetians as newcomers, saying they had arrived only 600 years ago and as "tools" of the Soviet Union. Amidst rising ethnic tensions, war broke out when Georgian forces entered the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali. The city was shelled almost nightly from the Georgian-held highlands, and more than 2,000 people are believed to have been killed. [ As Soviet Union Dissolved, Enclave’s Fabric Unraveled ] NYTimes Retrieved on 06-09-08] cite news |url=|title=We are at war with Russia, declares Georgian leader|work="The Independent"|date=2008-08-09|accessdate=2008-08-09] The war resulted in South Ossetia, which has a Georgian ethnic minority of around one fifth of the total population (70,000),cite web |author=Associated Press |date=2008-08-08 |url= |title=Facts about South Ossetia |work="International Herald Tribune" |accessdate=2008-08-10] breaking away from Georgia and gaining de facto independence. After a cease-fire in 1992, Tskhinvali was isolated from the Georgian territory around it. Russian, Georgian and South Ossetian peacekeepers were stationed in South Ossetia under JCC mandate and monitoring. [ South-Ossetian part of JCC draws attention to the activities of the Georgian JPKF battalion] The 1992 ceasefire also defined both a zone of conflict around the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and a security corridor along the border of South Ossetian territories.

In a 2006 South Ossetian independence referendum, held by the secessionist government, full independence was supported by 99% of the voters.

Georgian interests

Georgia accuses Russia of the annexation of its internationally recognized territory and installing a puppet government led by Eduard Kokoity and several officials who previously served in the Russian FSB and Army. [ru icon [ «Осетины не имеют никакого желания защищать режим Кокойты»] , Svoboda News, 2008-08-08] [ru icon [ Войсками Южной Осетии командует бывший пермский военком генерал-майор] ,, 11 August 2008] [ru icon [ Миндзаев, Михаил: Министр внутренних дел непризнанной республики Южная Осетия] , Lenta.Ru, 17.08.2008] [ [ Georgia blames Russia of a territorial annexation] , "Utro", January 18, 2005] Sporadic clashes between separatist and Georgian forces have killed dozens of people in the previous few years.

Restoring South Ossetia and Abkhazia (a region with a similar separatist movement) to Georgian control has been a goal of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili since the Rose Revolution. [cite web |url= |title=Saakashvili: Returning of Abkhazia is the main goal of Georgia] Saakashvili proposed a new peace accord, under which South Ossetia would be given "a large degree of autonomy" within a federal state, but leaders of those areas are instead demanding full independence. [ What is Georgia's rebel South Ossetia region?] , Reuters, 2008-08-08] Another point of interest for Georgia is the strategic position of South Ossetia along the border with Russia, as the Roki Tunnel, which passes through the Greater Caucasus Mountains, is one of few road routes between Georgia and Russia and would be a critical component in any plan to control the border.

According to the 2007 report of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Georgia had the highest average growth rate of military spending in the world. Military expenditures accounted for 5.6-6 per cent of GDP in the last two years. [ Georgia’s Big Military Spending Boost] , 19.07.07] [, [ Analysis: Georgia Reverses Decision To Cut Defense Spending] , ] South Ossetian leadership expressed its concerns with Georgia's military build-up however Tbilisi claimed that it was not aimed at the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. MP Givi Targamadze attributed this to the country's desire to join NATO.cite web|datepublished=15 июля 2008|url=|title=Defense Spending, Number of Troops Increased|publisher=Civil Georgia|accessdate=10 августа 2008|lang=en] According to the 2008 budget of Georgia defence funding accounted for slightly over 19% of all state spending, [Civil Georgia, [ 2008 State Budget Approved] , 28.12.2007] with a further significant increase approved in an extraordinary parliament session on July 15. [Covil Georgia, [ Defense Spending, Number of Troops Increased] , 15.07.2008]

In July 2008, Georgian Armed forces jointly with USA conducted a military exercise Immediate Response 2008.

Russian interests

The majority of the residents of South Ossetia are Russian citizens holding Russian passports. According to the BBC, "more than half of South Ossetia's 70,000 citizens are said to have taken up Moscow's offer of a Russian passport,"cite news |url= |title=Russian tanks enter South Ossetia |publisher=BBC |date=2008-08-08 |accessdate=2008-08-09] while a journalist of Deutsche Welle says that "almost all residents have Russian passports."cite news |url=,2144,3549832,00.html |title=Opinion: A Ruso-Georgian Media War in South Ossetia |publisher=Deutsche Welle |date=2008-08-09 ] Russian President Medvedev asserts that 90% of South Ossetia residents possess them. Medvedev cited article 80 the Constitution of the Russian Federation, saying, "According to the Constitution, I must protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are."

Since the 1991–1992 South Ossetia War, Russian, Georgian, North Ossetian and South Ossetian soldiers have been stationed in and around South Ossetia as peacekeepers under the terms of a 1992 agreement and were monitored by the OSCE mission in Georgia. [ [ Mandate of the OSCE Mission to Georgia] ] The Russian defense ministry said 12 of its peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia had been killed and 30 wounded in the initial Georgian offensive. Russia describes its intervention as a peacekeeping operation to protect its citizens and peacekeepers, and to enforce their peacekeeping mandate in South Ossetia.cite news
title=S Ossetia bitterness turns to conflict
] Dmitry Medvedev said that it aims to force Georgia to accept peace and restore the status quo, and that it is acting within its peacekeeping mission in South Ossetia, and in line with the mandate issued by the international community. [cite web|url=|title=Medvedev tells Bush Russia aims to force Georgia to accept peace|accessdate=2008-08-09|publisher=RIA Novosti] The Russian defense ministry said reinforcements for Russian peacekeepers had been sent to South Ossetia "to help end bloodshed."

Reuters describes the South Ossetian separatist government as "dependent on Russia," which "supplies two thirds of their annual budget," and reports that "Russia's state-controlled gas giant Gazprom is building new gas pipelines and infrastructure" worth hundreds of millions of dollars there.

According the UK "The Daily Telegraph", in 2007 Vladimir Putin announced plans for a $200 billion arms program over the next seven years for the financing of new, modern weapons and ordered military chiefs to 'strengthen the battle-readiness of the army and navy'. [ [ Russian soldiers who died in Georgia conflict hailed as heroes by Kremlin] , "The Daily Telegraph", 16 Aug 2008] Russia's defence budget rose 22% in 2007. [ [ Russian fighting machine is showing its age, say military analysts] UK Times]

Concurrently with the Georgia/USA military exercise Immediate Response 2008 the Russian forces conducted their own exercise, Caucasus Frontier 2008, where they practiced rapid response to the terrorist incursions through the Russian southern border as well as practiced assistance to the peacekeeping mission in South Ossetia. [ [ "Caucasus 2008 exercise ended", Russian Ministry of Defence ] , 2 Aug 2008 ] Both sides claimed that the exercises were unrelated to each other. Later Dale Herspring described the Russian exercise as "exactly what they executed in Georgia just a few weeks later... a complete dress rehearsal." [ [ Russians Melded Old-School Blitz With Modern Military Tactics] The New York Times]

NATO's interests

NATO members have in the past disagreed whether to enlarge the alliance further eastwards to include Georgia. To build up a case, Georgia conducted in 2008 a Georgian NATO membership referendum, 2008. It was a non-binding, advisory referendum on whether to join NATO and was held in Georgia on January 5, 2008, at the request of the Georgian President, together with an early presidential election and legislative election date referendum. [ [ Georgier sollen am 5. Januar auch über Nato-Beitritt entscheiden] NZZ, 26 November 2007 de icon] [ [ Georgia to Hold Plebiscite on NATO Membership] Civil georgia, 26 November 2007] This was announced in a surprise move on November 26, 2007, shortly before Mikheil Saakashvili resigned as President of Georgia for the early presidential elections. The only question of the referendum asked: "Do you want Georgia to become a member of NATO?" According to the official results of Georgia's Central Election Commission, 77% of voters were in favor, and 23% voted against it. [ [ Plebiscite.] , Civil Georgia, January 11, 2008]

However, at the 2008 Bucharest summit, to the great disappointment of Georgia, the alliance did not offer a Membership Action Plan(MAP) to Georgia or Ukraine, largely due to the opposition of Germany, France and other European NATO-members who pointed out that Georgia's territorial integrity was de facto not enforced (namely in Abkhazia and South-Ossetia). However, NATO pledged to review the decision in December 2008.Fact|date=August 2008 Even though Georgia was not offered a MAP, it officially welcomed the decision and said "The decision to accept that we are going forward to an adhesion to NATO was taken and we consider this is a historic success". [ [ NATO Summit Bucharest 2008 ] ] Russian President Putin was also pleased about the alliance deciding not to invite Georgia and Ukraine to the Membership Action Plan at least for the time being. [cite news | title = Vladimir Putin tells summit he wants security and friendship | work = "The Times" | date = April 5, 2008 | url =]

When Georgia started the 2008 South Ossetia war, she seems to have provided ammunition both to the Franco-German argument, that Georgia solve its minority problems in the two provinces "peacefully and prior" to any NATO application, and, to the US arguments in favour of a speedy accession of Georgia. It complicates NATO's relation with Russia, which has peacekeeping troops in both regions, which are internationally recognized as Georgian territory, but which seem to have no intention to be integrated into Georgia proper. The South Ossetia War has further diminished the likelihood of Georgian accession to NATO in the near future. [cite news |url= |title= Putin Says `War Has Started,' Georgia Claims Invasion |first= Torrey |last= Clark |coauthors= Greg Walters |work= Bloomberg L.P. |date= August 8, 2008 |accessdate= 2008-08-08]

However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during the meeting with Russian president that the promise made to Georgia in Bucharest is still standing. However, she did not indicate a time frame, nor did she take back the earlier insistence of Germany and France, that Georgia must resolve its internal problems prior to any NATO membership [cite news |url=,2144,3567243,00.html|title=Merkel, Medvedev Clash Over Russia's War in Sochi Talks|accessdate= 2008-08-15] The USA and Europe (EU) support the territorial integrity of Georgia, while Russia supports self-determination of the two provinces. The fragile nature of both positions is highlighted by NATO and Russian policies on Serbia, which also faces rebel province Kosovo with different ethnic composition. NATO supports self-determination for Kosovo and Russia insists on Serbia's territorial integrity.


Russian officials have on multiple occasions accused the United States and Israel of having invested interests in the region related to Iran. Russian envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin says the United States could have plans to use Georgian airfields to launch air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. Rogozin said that Russian intelligence had obtained information indicating that Washington had plans to use the Georgian military infrastructure for a war on Iran, stating that the US had already started "active military preparations on Georgia's territory" for such a strike and that the "reason why Washington values Saakashvili's regime so highly" is that he has given permission to the US to use its airfields. The Russian envoy's remarks follow a UPI report that "a secret agreement between Georgia and Israel had earmarked two military airfields in the south of Georgia for use by Israeli fighter-bombers in a potential pre-emptive strike against Iran." [ [ Georgia aiding US for war on Iran] ]


There are also analysts citing Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence as a reason for the Russo-Georgian imbroglio. There were suggestions that South Ossetia and Abkhazia, should they decide to stay as autonomous regions inside Georgia, an international mechanism to oversee negotiations for a referendum should be established. If, on the other hand, they wish to separate they too should be granted that wish and helped to achieve independence. Pope Benedict XVI's words were invoked where he said the strongest pillar in international relations must be reciprocity. In the same vein, using the Kosovo model, this could be achieved elsewhere. []

Likewise, Stratfor, founded by George Friedman, drew the same parallels. Stratfor said the decision by Europe and the United States to back Kosovo’s separation from Serbia was important to Russia's decision to move into South Ossetia. According to Stratfor the principle of Europe since World War II was that, to prevent conflict, national borders should not be changed; however, this was violated in the case of Kosovo, thus setting a precedent for other demands, by various regions, for independence. The Russians publicly and privately asked that Kosovo not be given formal independence, but to continue its informal autonomy. Russia’s requests were, consequently, ignored. []

A UN Security Council diplomat also said: "Strategically, the Russians have been sending signals that they really wanted to flex their muscles, and they’re upset about Kosovo." The New York Times continued this in saying, "the decision by the United States and Europe to recognize Kosovo may well have paved the way for Russia’s lightning-fast decision to send troops to back the separatists in South Ossetia." NYT also cited a meeting in Brussels this year where Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister had warned Condoleeza Rice and European diplomats that if they recognized Kosovo they would be setting a precedent for South Ossetia and other breakaway provinces. []

The Canadian National Post also saw similarities with Kosovo. They called this Ossetian crisis similar "except in a more dangerous setting." Accordingly, the role the late Slobodan Milosevic played is taken over by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in this conflict, while Vladimir Putin is playing the role of former British prime minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Further, the global community recognizes South Ossetia as being part of Georgia, just as Kosovo was seen as part of Serbia. The Ossetian majority in South Ossetia wants to secede from Georgia to become independent, or join North Ossetia, just as a majority in Kosovo wanted to break away from Serbia to become independent or to join Muslim Albania. []

Back in March of this year Time magazine also predicted that "by splitting...the wider international community, the U.S.-backed declaration of independence by Kosovo has given Russia an opening. Countries concerned with separatist problems of their own...have been unable to follow the U.S. lead in recognizing Kosovo's breakaway from Serbia. And Russia has sought to exploit the gaps that have emerged as a result." They went on to say "Russia...tacitly supported [the] breakaway provinces...Moscow has also granted Russian citizenship to some 90% of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian populations, giving it grounds to intervene whenever Russia deems it expedient, on the basis of ensuring the security of its citizens." [,8599,1720718,00.html]


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