Attack in the Mountains Is this the First War between Russia and a Former Soviet State?

The world is looking to the Caucasus region with dismay. President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia has sent his country's forces into the breakaway region of South Ossetia, and its protector, Russia, has retaliated by sending in tanks and aircraft. Is a region that is home to all of 75,000 people about to become the scene of a hot war?

The South Ossetian coat of arms depicts a snow leopard raising its paw in a threatening gesture, against a backdrop of impregnable mountains. The warlike South Ossetians' most famous son was a man whose name alone instills fear: Josef Stalin, who hailed from Gori near the Georgian-South Ossetian border.

But none of this was enough to deter Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili when he ordered his army to invade Tskhinvali, the capital of separatist South Ossetia, a region in the center of Georgia, on Thursday night. Skirmishes had been going on for weeks, and on Thursday evening Saakashvili had even announced a ceasefire. But then, at around midnight, Georgian forces attacked in an effort "to reestablish constitutional order," as a high-ranking Georgian general described it.

Within hours Georgian units, using rockets and fighter jets, had apparently demolished entire streets of Tskhinvali. The "president" of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, a former freestyle wrestler, said on Friday evening that an estimated 1,400 people had died and characterized the Georgian invasion as ethnic cleansing. Saakashvili, however, announced the mobilization of 100,000 reservists.

It didn't take long before the Ossetians' protectors retaliated with the full force of their military machine. Russia sent two tank columns of its 58th Army to Tskhinvali to repel Saakashvili's units, Sukhoi fighter jets bombed Georgian military bases near the capital Tbilisi and the Black Sea port of Poti, far from the actual conflict region. Georgia, for its part, reported that its forces had shot down four fighter jets over its own territory.

Few of the roughly 25,000 residents of the South Ossetian capital were able to flee, with most hiding in the cellars of their meager houses. Doctors performed surgery in the corridors at the city's main hospital, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, vacationing on the Volga River, flew back to Moscow for a crisis meeting of the National Security Council.

The Russians called the Georgian invasion a "deceitful attack," while the Georgians referred to the Russian incursion as a "war on our own territory." When US President George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin met at the Olympic Games in Beijing, the Russian Prime Minister confirmed that a war had "practically just begun" in the Caucasus and announced, in his typically pithy style, "retaliation." The United Nations Security Council convened in New York, while NATO officials in Brussels expressed "serious concern."

If the prediction Putin made on Chinese soil becomes reality, the world will see the first hot war between Russian and a former Soviet state, a war only 3,000 kilometers (1,875 miles) from the European capital, Brussels.

Even if temporary calm returns to the situation, on the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games a conflict was forced onto the global political agenda that Americans and Russians have long fomented, and yet that neither Washington nor Moscow could have any interest in encouraging. And all of this revolves around an impoverished region about one-and-a-half times the size of Luxembourg.

But the real conflict is not as much about Tskhinvali, but about the former rivals in the Cold War. In no region have they been as hostile toward each other since the fall of the Soviet Union than they are now in the Caucasus. The South Ossetians, supported by Moscow, and the Georgians, who have received US military assistance, are bitter enemies. From the Russian standpoint, Ossetia has been an important strategic base near the Turkish and Iranian frontiers since the days of the czars. The Americans, on the other hand, are courting Georgia, which they see as a way to curb Moscow's influence in the southern Caucasus. Georgia is also an important transit country for oil being pumped from the Caspian Sea to the Turkish port of Ceyhan and a potential base for Washington efforts to encircle Tehran.

Twenty years ago, the Ossetians wouldn't have dreamed that they would ever be in the headlines. They were among the losers when once-oppressed regions received their independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Ossetians were divided, with the north remaining part of Russian and the south counted, under international law, as part of now-independent Georgia since 1992. But the "Republic of South Ossetia," which is not recognized internationally, declared its independence from Tbilisi. In the early 1990s, when Georgian autocrat Zviad Gamsakhurdia attempted to crush all efforts at autonomy in South Ossetia, sending irregular troops into Tskhinvali, tens of thousands of Ossetians, who had previously numbered 160,000, fled to stay with their relatives in the Russian region of North Ossetia.

About 1,000 people died on both sides in the ensuing two-and-a-half-year war, and tens of thousands of Georgians were driven out of South Ossetia. Then former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Gamsakhurdia's successor, former Russian Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, signed a ceasefire agreement. Although that agreement was occasionally violated, it remained largely intact until last week.

In a November 2006 referendum, 99 percent of South Ossetians voted for independence from Georgia, at a time when most of them had long held Russian passports. This enabled Russian President Medvedev to justify his military's open invasion of neighboring Georgia on Friday as an effort to "protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they may be."

Since Friday, the new man in Moscow's Kremlin finds himself in a delicate situation. Barely three months in office, Medvedev is already being denounced as "soft," and 36 percent of Russians still consider Putin to be the true strong man. And it is Putin, even though he is now only the prime minister, who has managed to score points in foreign policy in the past three months, not Medvedev. A victorious Saakashvili in Tskhinvali would spell Medvedev's premature political demise.

Faced with this prospect, Medvedev will continue what Putin once began. The former Kremlin chief repeatedly stressed that a "precedent" was set when the United States, Great Britain and other NATO states recognized the independence of the former Serbian province of Kosovo. It was at that point that Moscow reasoned that it could claim the same right for the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians, another group seeking independence from Georgia, and it demonstratively expanded its support for the two separatist provinces. At the same time, a speedy conquest of Tskhinvali became even less of a reality for Saakashvili.

The West never knew quite how to approach this game the Kremlin was playing, just as it was taken by surprise by Friday's escalation. Only a few days earlier, both Washington and Moscow had simultaneously announced their strong commitment to preventing war in the region. On the other hand, both the Americans and NATO had repeatedly insisted, in their dealings with the Russians, on "preserving the territorial integrity of Georgia." This essentially meant that South Ossetia and Abkhazia were, in their view, part of Saakashvili's country. Of course, they had also wisely refrained from explaining how the separatist territories were to be brought back into the fold. The conflict in the Caucasus was a sore and divisive issue within both NATO and the European Union.

While the EU's Eastern European members repeatedly called for solidarity with Tbilisi, and the Estonian foreign minister, to the dismay of his Western European counterparts, even suggested sending EU troops to the Caucasus, the French blocked any commitment to support the Georgians. The Germans chose a middle course and attempted to mediate in the embattled region, while at the same time shelving the question of the disputed territories' status.

The conflict came to the fore in early April, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania. When US President Bush proposed accepting Georgia into the Western defense alliance's "Action Plan for Membership," a precursor to NATO membership, 10 member states refused to support his plan, including Germany, France and Italy. They argued that accepting the Georgians was problematic, because of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. What they were really saying was that they would not be willing to back Georgia if, under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, they were ever forced to defend the country as part of a joint defense effort.

This may have been sending the wrong signal to the Caucasus, because tensions increased from that point on. Moscow felt emboldened in its position and entered into quasi-official relations with the breakaway separatist provinces -- a de facto annexation as far as the Georgians were concerned.

The then Foreign Minister David Bakradze called the NATO decision a mistake and an angry Tbilisi withdrew its troops from Kosovo. It was time for Europe to finally "show that it stands by its values," Saakashvili said during a visit to Berlin, where he stressed that "what is at stake here is the whole post-Cold War security order in Europe." Russia, Saakashvili argued, is engaging in a policy of redistribution, and Georgia is only the beginning. "Tomorrow it will be Ukraine, the Baltic states and Poland," the Georgian president predicted, returning his focus to the Americans.

The Americans have been closely aligned with Saakashvili since the 40-year-old hothead's days at Columbia University in New York, especially after he assumed power in the 2003 "Rose Revolution." US presidential candidate John McCain (who would like to see Russia ousted from the Group of Eight industrialized nations, or G-8) even traveled to Tbilisi at the time and handed Saakashvili a bulletproof vest. Since then, Saakashvili has considered the Republican a "personal friend."

In recent years, the Americans have provided Georgia with more than $30 million (€19 million) in annual military assistance, including equipment and training for many of the country's soldiers. Today Saakashvili's army consists of 30,000 men, and his military budget is 30 times as large as it was during the term of former President Shevardnadze. In July, 1,000 US soldiers and 600 Georgian infantrymen participated in an exercise dubbed "Immediate Response." The official objective was to prepare for deployment in Afghanistan, but the true goal was to fight Russian volunteers who, in case of a serious conflict, would come to the aid of the separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

This is precisely what could happen now. On Friday evening, there were reports that the first Russian patriots were headed for South Ossetia -- at a time when the world was still puzzled over what could have prompted the Georgian president to launch his military strike.

Did he deploy his troops in the hope of receiving American support for regaining the two lost provinces before the end of US President Bush's term? And could he have miscalculated, not expecting his neighbor to the north to pull out its big guns so quickly?

The reintegration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was Saakashvili's key campaign promise to Georgian voters. He also knows that his country can only succeed internationally by resolving its conflict with these provinces.

"It's not about Georgia anymore. It's about America, its values," the Georgian president told CNN in a live broadcast on Friday. "We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack. "

But it doesn't appear that Saakashvili is entirely blameless in the matter.