On August 8, Russia sent troops into Georgia, spurring violence that has spread beyond two disputed breakaway regions and resulted in the deaths of thousands. The conflict was not unexpected; relations between the two countries have been seething for years. Here is a summary of the conflict's history, major actors, core issues, and consequences.
-- Georgia, a small state that sits just north of Turkey, wedged between the Black and Caspian Seas, became independent in 1991 with the fall of the USSR. Since the early 1990s, it has been in conflict with breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which demand independence and are supported by Russia. In 2003, the Rose Revolution brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power. He ran on a platform of restoring Georgia's territorial integrity and creating ties with the West. Russia vehemently opposes these developments as threats to Moscow's sphere of influence. The baiting between Russia and Georgia led to mounting tensions, particularly in the breakaway regions, which are monitored by Russian troops. A crisis point was reached last week when Russia accused Georgia of killing Russians in South Ossetia during an offensive that Georgia said was necessary to quell separatist attacks. Moscow soon retaliated, taking South Ossetia and eventually pushing toward Abkhazia and into Georgia proper. It remains unclear whether Russia intends to topple Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, or end its campaign after securing a buffer zone around the breakaway regions.
-- Mikheil Saakashvili. The Georgian president has pushed his country toward stronger relations with the West by supporting its accession to NATO, reducing corruption, and seeking foreign investments, including money for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which serves the Caucasus but bypasses energy powerhouse Russia.
-- Vladimir Putin. As the Russian president, and now as prime minister, Putin has backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His approach to Georgia has been deemed by some experts as evidence of a lingering Cold War mentality about the authority Russia should maintain in the region.
-- Dmitry Medvedev, the new president of Russia, has said, "Russia was and will remain the guarantor of security for the peoples of the Caucasus" -- a slap at Georgia's efforts to spurn Russian influence. He is viewed widely as a puppet for Putin, who hand-picked Medvedev as his successor.
-- Eduard Kokoity is the unrecognized president of South Ossetia, and Sergei Bagpash is the leader of Abkhazia.
-- South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The regions are predominantly ethnically Ossetian and Abhkazian, respectively, although Abkhazia's largest ethnic group was Georgian until thousands fled the fighting in the early 1990s. Ceasefires with Georgia have been overseen for more than a decade by Russian, Georgian, and local authorities, but Russia has maintained its support for the regions' independence. In March 2008, Saakashvili proposed a plan for Abkhazia's autonomy within Georgia, but it was rejected by the region's leadership. The following month, in a letter to separatist leaders, Putin pledged Russia's expanded support for independence. Soon after, Russia drew ire from Georgia in May when it sent in additional troops and shot down a drone aircraft.
-- Kosovo. When the West recognized Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in February, Russia used it as pretext to say it would support similar independence for Georgia's breakaway regions. "Americans officials and analysts underestimated the scope of the Russian reaction to Kosovo's separation from Serbia," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
-- NATO. Georgia has sought entrance into the organization with the support of the United States, much to Russia's chagrin. At the NATO summit in Bucharest in April, Georgia was denied a Membership Action Plan (MAP) but promised eventual membership when, among other things, it is able to settle the conflicts with its breakaway regions. Russia called the development a "huge strategic mistake." The current conflict could diminish Georgia's chances of joining NATO, which is what Russia wants to see happen.
-- Energy also factors into the mix. Russia perceives of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, as well as Europe's plans to build the Nabucco pipeline through Georgia, as threats to its regional energy hegemony.
-- Saakashvili has agreed to a ceasefire, but Russia has not. Saakashvili has also accused Russia of "ethnic cleansing." There is evidence that Russia's campaign "looks like conquest," said Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations, but it will only be in the coming days and weeks that Moscow's goals become clear.
-- President Bush--who sat next to Putin Friday at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Beijing, even as fighting erupted in Georgia--has "urged an immediate halt to the violence." The U.S. has also agreed to airlift roughly 2,000 Georgian troops from Iraq and send them home. European leaders have also called for a cessation of violence.
-- There are, however, no plans for military intervention from the West, leading to speculation that Saakashvili may have miscalculated his support. CFR's Sestanovich said that if anything, the conflict should lead the West, namely Europe, to realize that "disunity is dangerous" and to develop stronger, more collaborative energy and security policies vis-a-vis Russia.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The conflict is as much a standoff between Russia and the West for regional influence as it is a battle between Russia and Georgia. Whether it is a "game-changer," in the words of CFR's Kupchan, in the West's relationship with Russia remains to be seen, but Russia has shown muscle that caught Western governments off-guard. "I think it's safe to say," Kupchan added, "that from here on out the United States and its allies are going to look at Russia more warily."