Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Russians Enter Fray in Georgia-South Ossetia Battle

As Georgian and Russian troops draw close to one another in South Ossetia, the rapidly escalating conflict threatens to go international.
By IWPR staff
Fighting in South Ossetia intensified on August 8 as Russian troops crossed the border and entered the breakaway region’s capital Tskhinvali.

With both Russian and Georgian combat troops deployed in force on the ground and neither side about to blink, the long-dormant dispute over the South Ossetian region’s sovereignty claim threatened to blow up into a full-scale war between the two countries.

Fighting erupted late on August 7, shortly after the Georgians and South Ossetian separatist government concluded a truce after an outbreak of localised fighting earlier in the week for which each side blamed the other.

Overnight, the Georgian military seemed to have the upper hand, with TV images showing multiple rocket-launchers firing salvos at South Ossetian targets.

Officials in the unrecognised government of South Ossetia alleged that Georgian attack planes had bombed civilian targets.

President Mikheil Saakashvili went on television to make a speech suggesting that this was more than one of the usual local clashes that had got badly out of hand – Georgia was re-taking its rightful territory.

“Most of South Ossetian territory has been liberated and is under Georgian control,” he said.

However, Moscow’s longstanding support for the separatist South Ossetian administration meant that the reconquest was never going to be a walkover for the Georgians.

Former president, now prime minister Vladimir Putin, attending the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing, said there would be a “response”, and left it at that.

Georgian officials claimed that Russian attack aircraft were overflying the region and hitting targets both in and outside South Ossetia.

On August 8, a convoy of main battle tanks and other military vehicles was filmed crossing over from Russian territory, and by the early evening TV stations in Moscow were reporting that some of these troops had entered Tskhinvali and the Georgians were falling back.

In a tersely-worded statement, the defence ministry in Moscow set out its view that the incursion was legitimate, in that the arriving troops were there to back up the Russian peacekeeping force which has long been deployed in South Ossetia.

“We will not allow the deaths of our fellow-citizens and peacekeepers to go unpunished,” said the statement. “Extra reinforcements have been sent into the region to help the peacekeepers, and they will assist in stopping the bloodshed.”

Russian defence officials said a barracks used by the peacekeepers in Tskhinval had been hit by Georgian artillery fire, resulting in an unspecified number of deaths.

Even before Russian ground forces had crossed the border, President Saakashvili announced that his country had been invaded.

“A full-scale aggression has been launched against Georgia, he said, insisting that his nation would yield neither territory nor its liberty.

Russia’s ORT television claimed that there were numerous casualties and large-scale devastation in Tskhinvali. South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity spoke of “hundreds of dead civilians" there.

Since coming to power after the November 2003 “Rose Revolution”, President Saakashvili has pledged to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under government control. His robust stance has mean relations with Moscow have been frosty.

Moscow’s response can hardly have come as a surprise. Russia has sided with the South Ossetian administration for many years, and will be unwilling to cede what it sees as an area of legitimate interest.

South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia after a brief conflict in 1991-92. Over the years since then, the ceasefire has more or less held, despite sporadic outbursts of violence. Even the more serious of these clashes, however, have been of a lesser order than the latest fighting, which has featured an alarming array of armour and other weaponry on both sides.

Saakashvili is seen as a democrat by western powers and has courted their diplomatic support as he tries to put pressure on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, it remains unclear how far that support will go with the peace process in ruins and Georgia close to open war with Russia, a state with which the West also needs to deal.

A United Nations Security Council met in emergency session on August 8 at Russia’s request, but had failed to agree a response by the time this report was published.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe warned of the risk of escalation into war.

The OSCE’s current chairman, Finnish foreign minister Alexander Stubb, warned, "War would have a devastating impact for the entire region. I urge the Georgians, South Ossetians and Russians to cease fire, end military action and stop further escalation.

"We need to pull back from the brink of a full-fledged war."

IWPR will be providing more in-depth reporting and comment on the crisis over the next few days.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Georgia: Perils of the Enguri Crossing
With the checkpoint closed, some residents of Abkhazia are risking their lives to access services.
Georgia: Perils of the Enguri Crossing
Trapped in Eastern Ukraine