This is not a new dispute. As the former Soviet Union imploded in the early 1990’s, the republics in the Caucasus – always an area of unrest and concern to the rulers in Moscow, whether tsar or communist – began to fracture. Georgia had hardly declared itself free of Moscow when South Ossetia, an interior region in Georgia that borders the ethnically similar Russian region of North Ossetia, declared its autonomy from Georgia. Troops from Georgia were sent to force South Ossetia back into the fold, but they were frustrated in that effort by Russian forces sent by Moscow. Fighting trailed off in 1994, a ceasefire was arranged and a “peacekeeping force” made up of Russian, Georgian, and Ossetian soldiers was formed.
But South Ossetia was not alone. Also in the early 1990s the larger region of Abkhazia, which has an extended coastline on the Black Sea, declared it intended to seek independence from Tbilitsi. And then there was Chechnya – part of the Russian Federation but also seeking independence. Under Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, the Russian army was pulled from Chehnya in 1994. Continued lawlessness in Chechnya and a series of terror bombings in Moscow led Yeltsin to pour in 100,000 troops to retake the province. Grozny, the capitol, was leveled, and eventually the armed insurgents fled first to the mountains and then dissolved.
The U.S. and European Union gave called on Moscow to pull its ground forces back from Georgian territory and to halt the bombing of Tbilitsi. Western countries are concerned because a major oil pipeline that transports much of Europe’s oil from the Caspian region to the Mediterranean passes close to the fighting in Georgia and is quite vulnerable to accident or deliberate sabotage. Georgia has 2,000 troops serving in Iraq; the government has called these troops back to Georgia and requested the U.S. provide airlift.
Despite western calls for the Russians to pull back, there is little the west can do. And Russia may see this “uprising” against Tbilitsi as pay-back for the West’s insistence that the predominantly ethnic Albanian and Islamic population of Kosovo be recognized as a separate country from Orthodox Christian Serbia.