The South Ossetia conflict has been simmering since March, but it had taken the form of the controlled instability that had governed Russian-Georgian relations ever since the standstill agreement of June 24, 1992. The Georgian attack on the South Ossetia capital of Tskhinvali on August 8 turned this "frozen conflict," as diplomats call it, into a hot proxy war. At present its potential for escalation seems virtually unlimited and has direct consequences for Europe's security.
Protecting South Ossetia's national culture and identity isn't the issue here. This is more about the local business dealings of the self-declared president of South Ossetia's de facto regime -- Eduard Kokoity, who isn't recognized by any government. His dealings play into the hands of Russian geopolitical interests and also serve Georgia, Europe and the United States.
South Ossetia has been part of Georgia since the 5th century. But the independence proclaimed in 1991 has proved a good earner for Kokoity. The Roki Tunnel, the only passable border crossing into North Ossetia, which belongs to Russia, is a much used smuggling route. This conduit is in the hands of Kokoity and the so-called Russian peacekeeers.
The Intervention Has Putin's Handwriting
Russia also supplies peacekeeping troops for Abkhazia, the other Georgian breakaway region. The dispatch of the Black Sea fleet to Abkhazia, the bombing of the Georgian towns of Poti and Gori and of an aircraft factory near the Georgian capital of Tbilisi show how determined Russia is to escalate this conflict. And how uninterested Russia is in living up to its role as a peacekeeping power.
Russia wants to prevent Georgia from joining NATO and it wants to topple Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the initiator of this policy. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's visit to the crisis region immediately after he attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics shows clearly who is driving Russia's intervention. It also shows how weak Russian President Dimitry Medvedev's power base is, and how little his public speeches about protecting international law mean.
The Russian attacks are a blatant violation of Georgian territorial sovereignty, and the fact that many Abkhazians and South Ossetians have Russian passports provides no legal justification for Russia's actions.
Steinmeier's Initiative Was Late and Insuffícient
Since Saakashvili came to power in 2004 with the "Rose Revolution," he has been urging US and Europe to take a greater role in helping to solve the conflicts. His calls have been in vain as far as Europe is concerned. Georgia is a member of the EU's European Neighborhood Policy, but when it came to concrete steps to limit and prevent conflicts, Berlin in particular has been quite reticent -- in contrast with Sweden, Poland and the Baltic States.
Georgia's demands for European solidarity have been refused amid -- albeit justified -- criticism of the country's democratic shortcomings. The initiative by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to solve the Abkhazia conflict stemmed from the belated realization of the threat it poses for the people living there and for Europe's security. But it showed a surprising misunderstanding of the local power structures by calling on Abkhazia to permit the return of 250,000 displaced Georgians in a second step.
At present's it's impossible to predict how far Russia will escalate the fighting. It can't be ruled out that large parts of Georgia will be bombed and occupied. Even under President Medvedev, Russia is showing its true face -- it is playing power politics. Every possible form of international pressure must be brought to bear, also in the UN Security Council, to stop Russia from further military actions.
In the end it will be up to Washington to show Russia the red line it must not cross, although the threshold for US intervention will be very high. And for Berlin and Brussels, it's time to grant Georgia the kind of European solidarity that a European state is entitled to under the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Jörg Himmelreich is Senior Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund, aUSthink tank. Before that he served in the German Foreign Ministry as a policy planner responsible for Russia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea region. He has also helped coordinate DaimlerChrysler's relations in Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe.