Frozen Conflict Becomes Hot War: Russia Invades Georgia
The frozen conflict over the Georgian separatist region South Ossetia has become a shooting war. On the first day of the Olympics, no less. According to CNN:
“All day today, they’ve been bombing Georgia from numerous warplanes and specifically targeting (the) civilian population, and we have scores of wounded and dead among (the) civilian population all around the country,” President Mikhail Saakashvili told CNN in an exclusive interview.
“This is the worst nightmare one can encounter,” he said.
Hundreds of people, possibly thousands, are fleeing South Ossetia to the Russian region of North Ossetia-Alania, the United Nations reported Friday, citing Russian officials. About 400 more are believed to have fled for other parts of Georgia, the United Nations said.
Asked whether Georgia and Russia were now at war, he said, “My country is in self-defense against Russian aggression. Russian troops invaded Georgia.”
About 150 Russian armored vehicles have entered South Ossetia, Saakashvili said, and Georgian forces had shot down two Russian aircraft.
The separatist conflicts in the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have often been termed “frozen conflicts,” along with other long-standing separatist crises in Moldova and Azerbaijan (and some would add Kosovo). There are many reasons why these conflict have been seemingly intractable. Factors ranging from Russian assistance to the separatists (especially in the Georgian and Moldovan cases), a sense of ethnic difference (justified or not), historical grievances, and factions that seek to derail negotiated solutions are problems in all of these conflicts.
Georgia , however has been in the unenviable position of having two distinct separatist regions: one in Abkhazia and the other in South Ossetia. Russia has taken an increasingly interventionist stance on the situation in Georgia, especially since Kosovo’s declaration of independence. I have heard many experts express concern that, of the frozen conflicts, one (or both) of the Georgian conflicts were at greatest risk of becoming real wars. In part, this is because Russia is most easily able to exert direct influence as both regions border Russia and Russia can easily roll in the tanks, as it has done today.
This crisis points out an interesting divergeance between how Russia talks about international law and how the EU and US do, as I’ve written about here. In short, when it comes to the frozen conflicts the EU and the U.S. focus on the international norms concerning sovereignty, territorial integrity, and that self-determination does not lead to a right of secession. Russia, however, tends to focus on norms concerning minority rights and the ability of states to defend the interests of “co-nationals.” Seemingly in an attempt to fortify the “co-nationals” argument, Russia has been recently providing passports to just about anyone in Abkhazia or South Ossetia who asked for one. Russia then argues that these people–who had until then lived their lives in Georgia–are best understood as Russian citizens. This “passportization” policy has been widely criticized. This argument based on minority rights and the protection of co-nationals seems to be at the heart of Russia’s explanations of its invasion of Georgia. According to CNN:
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meanwhile said Moscow had received reports that villages in South Ossetia were being ethnically cleansed, according to Reuters.com.
“We are receiving reports that a police of ethnic cleansing was being conducted in villages in South Ossetia, the number of refugees is climbing, the panic is growing, people are trying to save their lives,” he was reported saying
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, quoted by the Russian news agency Interfax, said Russians had died because of Georgia’s operations.
Russia “will not allow the deaths of our compatriots to go unpunished” and “those guilty will receive due punishment,” he said. “My duty as Russian president is to safeguard the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they are. This is what is behind the logic of the steps we are undertaking now.”
Note that with the ethnic cleansing argument, Russia seeks to essentially say “NATO, this is no different than what you did in Kosovo.” Medevdyev also uses the co-nationals argument.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia brings to a head many issues that have been floating around, ranging from arguments over NATO’s invasion of Kosovo to the proper understanding of self-determination to the role of Russia in the ongoing frozen conflicts.
I will have more on the situation in Georgia and the related international legal issues, later. For now, Postmodern Conservative is keeping a running summary of the news related to the invasion.