This is from the Globe and Mail.
This is a good article in that it details some of the background to the conflict. It also does not gloss over the fact that it was Georgia not Russia that in effect started the conflict by its attack on South Ossetia's capital. In the process they managed to kill some Russian peacekeepers who were stationed there as part of a long standing agreement. There were talks scheduled within the next few days just before the attack. Perhaps Saakashvili thought he would strengthen his hand or come to the talks with a fait accompli. Perhaps too he thought that with U.S. backing him the Russians would roll over and play dead. For now Georgians will rally around Saakashvili but once the dust settles the opposition will probably rise against him since he has caused Georgia to in effect lose any hope of regaining South Ossetia or Abkazia and has caused many casualties and damage to Georgia. Although Bush and Merkel continue to support Georgia's membership in NATO other European countries may have a quite different view. If Georgia does get to join NATO this will be a sign that we are in Cold War II an even more dangerous sequel to the first Cold War.
Crisis in Georgia: How Misha messed up
Why on earth did Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili provoke this week's conflict and rekindle Russian expansionism?
Globe and Mail Update
August 16, 2008 at 11:50 AM EDT
As fighting raged all over his tiny former Soviet country this week, a CNN anchor asked Georgia's brash and unpredictable President Mikhail Saakashvili whether he had believed his country could actually win a military showdown with Russia. "I'm not crazy," the President answered in his American-inflected English.
Others weren't so sure. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev charged that Mr. Saakashvili had acted like a "lunatic" in provoking the conflict and said he needed to be removed from office. A French diplomat suggested Mr. Saakashvili had been mad to take on Russia, and American officials wondered how he could have so badly misread their signals calling for restraint in his efforts to reclaim the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Many of his own people are shaking their heads at how "Misha," as he is affectionately known, could have backed their country into such a dangerous corner.
It was on Monday afternoon in the tree-lined city of Gori that Mr. Saakashvili came face to face with the scale of the error he made in attacking South Ossetia and triggering war with Russia, Georgia's giant neighbour to the north.
Sporting a green camouflage flak jacket, he was preparing to address the international media when Russian jets suddenly roared overhead. Someone in his entourage shouted, "Air! Air!" and Mr. Saakashvili looked at the sky, then broke into a sprint. Eventually he dove for cover, his bodyguards piling on top, hoping to shield their President from shrapnel.
Many bombs fell in and around Gori — the geographic heart of this strikingly beautiful country on the southeastern edge of Europe — and none came close to hurting him.
But the video of him ducking and running may prove to be the bookend to a tumultuous political career that began five years ago with another famous image: Mr. Saakashvili striding into Georgia's Soviet-era parliament building clutching a rose, at the vanguard of a democratic revolution that was supposed to remake not only his own tiny country but the entire former USSR.
Even if he remains in office after this crisis, the era of hope, democracy and pro-Western reform that Mr. Saakashvili — still boyish-looking at 40 — was supposed to herald has ended. The moment he ordered his troops to attack the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali a week ago, Georgia once more became a failed state, a place where wars, coups and instability are the norm and one that Western investors would be wise to avoid.
Georgia's loss is Russia's gain. Moscow is once again emerging as the regional hegemon, on the verge of pushing the U.S. back out of the former Soviet Union, an area Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calls "the near abroad." The leaders of Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all former Soviet republics, rushed to stand with Mr. Saakashvili in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi this week in what was as much a demonstration of fear as it was of solidarity. They were joined by the President of Poland, another country that remembers when the Red Army regularly ranged far beyond its borders and thus fears Russia's resurgence.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is probably the most concerned member of the quintet. While Poland and the Baltic states are under the protective umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Ukraine is not. Along with Georgia's, its application to join NATO was shelved back in April for fear of offending Russia, which considers both states to be properly part of its "sphere of influence."
It all makes Mr. Saakashvili's decision to attack last Friday — while the world was distracted by the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games — extremely difficult to understand. In the name of "reuniting" Georgia, which has never been united since it gained independence in 1991, hundreds of people are dead (each side accuses the other of ethnic cleansing) and Georgia's sovereignty is under renewed threat.
As the sound of gunfire recedes, questions about Mr. Saakashvili's judgment — and his ability to continue governing — are growing louder.
Young and restless
Mr. Saakashvili has always been bold, daring and idealistic. Born into a family of Tbilisi intelligentsia in the Soviet period, he was a member of the generation who grew up as the Communist bloc was crumbling and the Soviet Union was splitting apart. What had seemed eternal suddenly disappeared and the old rules vanished, providing an opportunity for his generation — less indoctrinated than its elders — to write new ones.
Even though he had grown up in the USSR, born in Leonid Brezhnev's time and gone to school in Mikhail Gorbachev's, Mr. Saakashvili was never going to be the homo sovieticus the Russian leaders tried to create. At one of our meetings, he told me that he took particular relish in being interviewed by The Globe and Mail, since it was the first foreign newspaper he had ever read after discovering copies of it in the library of Kiev University, where he studied international law in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He surreptitiously read every page, soaking up information usually blocked by the Soviet censors.
After the Soviet Union fell apart and Georgia became an independent state, Mr. Saakashvili received a U.S.-government sponsored fellowship to continue his law studies at Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1994.
While in New York, he did exactly what the U.S. State Department had hoped when it sent him and thousands of other young students from the former Soviet Union to schools in the U.S: He fell in love with America.
He initially intended on settling in New York and practising law, but in 1995 he was personally headhunted by Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, who was looking to surround himself with talented young Georgians unhindered by old ideas. Mr. Saakashvili came home and, at just 26, was elected to parliament, along with Zhurab Zhvania and Nino Burdjanadze, two other young Georgians recruited to the cause. The young lawyer quickly made a name for himself as an anti-corruption campaigner and within five years his mentor made him justice minister.
But Mr. Saakashvili was cut from a very different cloth than Mr. Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who won fame for helping bring an end to the Cold War.
Dubbed the Silver Fox, Mr. Shevardnadze was a cautious and careful consensus builder who effectively negotiated away Tbilisi's hold over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in exchange for an end to the fighting and Russian interference that plagued his country during the early 1990s. While he spoke of cracking down on Georgia's endemic corruption problem, he was reluctant to tackle the problem head-on, fearful of upsetting the country's hard-won stability.
For Mr. Saakashvili — stereotypically Georgian in his passion and taste for the impulsive — these were unforgivable compromises.
A year after he was made justice minister, he resigned, declaring that Mr. Shevardnadze was complicit in the criminality bedevilling Georgia.
In opposition, he caught the eye of George Soros, the American billionaire and philanthropist who had initially become involved in Georgia at Mr. Shevardnadze's request. Mr. Soros also had become irritated by the Silver Fox's go-slow approach, and he decided that Mr. Saakashvili was the embodiment of Georgia's future.
The Soros foundations began pouring millions of dollars into organizations that were nominally interested in free media and democracy building but mainly served to undermine Mr. Shevardnadze's rule and push for Mr. Saakashvili to succeed him (including the youth movement Kmara, which would provide the backbone of the protests during the Rose Revolution).
On the pipeline
The U.S. State Department came to see Georgia that same way Mr. Soros did, although for very different reasons: The country stands on a key transit route for getting oil and gas from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea to markets in the West. The world's largest and most expensive pipeline project — the $4-billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil line — was to run across Georgian territory, and Mr. Shevardnadze's habit of playing Moscow and Washington off each other was deemed a risk to the investment.
Russia had always vehemently opposed the BTC, viewing the pipeline's route, which dances along the South Caucasus while carefully avoiding both Russia's territory and Iran's, as an effort to break through its growing stranglehold on the supply of energy to Europe.
For a country few outside the old Soviet Union had previously heard of, Georgia was suddenly thrust into the heart of international intrigue when U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney declared after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the BTC pipeline was of "vital strategic interest" to his country. The U.S. embassy in Tbilisi began to court Mr. Saakashvili, as well as Mr. Zhvania and Ms. Burdjanadze, who had joined him in opposition.
Mr. Saakashvili was a fast-rising force in Georgian politics. He founded the United National Movement, which caught the imagination of voters with a vision of Georgia as a modern, European country that could also reclaim its pre-Russian history by using the red-and-white, five-cross flag of the medieval kingdom of Georgia as its new party banner.
Just months after quitting Mr. Shevardnadze's cabinet, Mr. Saakashvili was elected mayor of Tbilisi, setting the stage for his head-to-head confrontation with the Silver Fox.
In many ways, the Rose Revolution in 2003 — which saw massive street protests force Mr. Shevardnadze from office and Mr. Saakashvili elected in his place — was as much an American victory over Russia on the geopolitical chessboard as it was a pro-democracy uprising. Within two years of the revolt, oil was flowing westward through a completed BTC pipeline and Georgia was seeking NATO membership with U.S. help.
Mr. Saakashvili's brashness and unpredictability made him the perfect leader for the protests. Even his closest associates don't know what inspired him to carry a rose as he charged into parliament to demand Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation over election fraud. The idea was Mr. Saakashvili's alone, they say.
The revolt inspired copycat people-power movements that overthrew the old order in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine the following year (the Orange Revolution) and Kyrgyzstan (the Pink, or Tulip, Revolution) in 2005. The Kremlin initially feared that the wave of "colour revolutions" would wash over Red Square too.
Mr. Saakashvili won 96 per cent of the vote in the barely contested post-revolution elections, and once more made the five-cross banner Georgia's national flag. His audacious style helped him carry out astonishing reforms during his first years in office — including a remarkable decision to simultaneously fire all the country's notoriously corrupt traffic policemen, rehiring only a third after forcing them to apply for their old jobs.
With Mr. Zhvania as his prime minister and Ms. Burdjanadze as speaker of parliament, the trio rapidly remade Georgia, at least in the eyes of the White House, from a corrupt post-Soviet backwater into a plucky friend of the West and a favoured destination of Western investors. He even won some belated admiration from Mr. Shevardnadze, who told me after the Rose Revolution that Mr. Saakashvili had the country on the right path, though the septuagenarian worried that "the youngsters" would take it too far.
In the eyes of some of his one-time allies, however, Mr. Saakashvili's early successes had the effect of convincing the young President that only he could fix Georgia. Worried that he was turning into an autocrat, a group of 14 non-governmental organizations that initially backed him signed a petition warning that the Rose Revolution was becoming "anti-democratic." When Mr. Zhvania mysteriously died in 2005 from gas poisoning in 2005, Mr. Saakashvili lost his closest friend and a moderating influence whom colleagues say often talked him out of rash decisions.
Radical economic reforms inevitably left many Georgians behind. Discontent grew as Mr. Saakashvili slashed the size of the civil service, and opposition demonstrations — including some organized by a group known simply as Anti-Soros — became a regular feature on Tbilisi's streets last year. In November, the President ordered riot police to disperse the protests with tear gas, water cannons and batons.
With the opposition in disorder, he called snap elections and won a second term in January with a much less resounding, though still impressive, 53 per cent of the vote. His reputation in Europe was badly tarnished by the November crackdown. Ms. Burdjanadze, long his ally and arguably the country's second most popular politician, signalled her own discomfort with her snap decision to quit politics four months ago.
Mr. Saakashvili's impulsive penchant, combined with his overt distrust of nearly all things Russian, led to the escalating confrontation with Moscow that finally boiled over this week. In his world view, the Russians' military presence as "peacekeepers" in separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia was the leash holding Georgia back, guaranteeing the Kremlin's lingering and malicious influence over its ex-colony.
Though the territories are small — and Abkhazians and South Ossetians are ethnically distinct from both Georgians and Russians, with their own languages — Mr. Saakashvili saw the Russian presence as a present and future threat to his country's sovereignty. The nebulous state of the two regions gives the Kremlin a lever for destabilizing the country should it ever get too close to its ambitions of joining NATO and the European Union.
To Georgia's young President, the United States — the country that had given him his education and then backed his rise to power — was his country's potential saviour from what he perceived as renewed Russian imperialism.
"People have been feeling the change — that's obvious. They feel that things are moving forward," Mr. Saakashvili proudly told me a few years ago when we met in his office for a talk about the successes and failures of the Rose Revolution, during which he lavished praise on the U.S. for its support. The phone rang and he asked me to excuse him for a moment: It was George W. Bush.
Determined to tie his country to the West, Mr. Saakashvili enthusiastically signed Georgia up to the American-led war in Iraq, and until last week only the United States and Britain were contributing more troops to the "coalition of the willing" (the 2,000 Georgian soldiers in Iraq were flown home this week on U.S. military aircraft to help deal with the crisis). The road connecting Tbilisi to its international airport was renamed President George W. Bush Street.
Last straw for Moscow
The step that sealed Mr. Saakashvili's fate was his decision this year to formally seek NATO membership.
Despite Mr. Bush's enthusiastic support, the bid predictably failed, with France and Germany voicing concerns about taking on an ally that had outstanding territorial disputes with Russia. Old Europe didn't want to see the Third World War break out over a place called South Ossetia.
The fact that Mr. Saakashvili went ahead with the bid was enough to convince the Kremlin once and for all that he was an implacable enemy. Now that it has humbled him militarily, many expect a Russian-sponsored push to oust him from within.
While Russia doesn't seem interested in occupying Tbilisi, it could easily throw its clout behind Georgia's political opposition or, more dangerously, use its separatist allies as proxy armies. South Ossetian irregulars were reportedly behind the violence that continued after the French-brokered ceasefire this week, while troops from the second separatist region, Abkhazia, launched their own attack on Georgian troops in the northwest of the country.
Washington has escalated its tough talk in recent days, dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region and using warships and military aircraft to deliver aid. But with its military already overstretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and worried about a potential confrontation with Iran, it seems unlikely the U.S. can offer much more than moral support.
Although, in reality, Russia and the United States have been backstage antagonists for years now, the sound of explosions echoing off the Caucasus mountain range also heralds the final end of the hopeful era that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow and Washington are once more now fully at odds over everything from the World Trade Organization (which the U.S. has blocked Russia's efforts to join) to Iran's nuclear program (which the Kremlin has helped to build). South Ossetia is only the first hot conflict zone in this New Cold War.
"Georgia is the first test case... We should realize what is at stake for America: America is losing the whole region," an increasingly desperate Mr. Saakashvili said this week in an attempt to rally the West to Georgia's side. While Russia said it had accepted the ceasefire, he charged the next day that Russian troops were encircling Tbilisi, a claim later denied by his own Interior Minister.
All of which calls into question why Mr. Saakshvili chose Aug. 8 to launch his military offensive in South Ossetia, which had been outside Tbilisi's control since a short war in 1992. While his election platform this year centred on restoring Georgian authority in the breakaway territories, few expected him to try it militarily. Given that Mr. Putin, who retains wide power in the country as Mr. Medvedev's Prime Minister, had issued Russian passports to Abkhazians and South Ossetians during his eight-year presidency, a heavy-handed military response to Georgia's assault was as predictable as it was disproportionate.
Ten Russian peacekeepers reportedly died in the initial Georgian attack, which followed days of tit-for-tat shelling between South Ossetian and Georgian forces. The Russian fatalities made a counteroffensive inevitable even if Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin hadn't been waiting for just such an excuse to humble Mr. Saakashvili.
Indeed, they were waiting. Ever since the Rose Revolution, the Kremlin has viewed Mr. Saakashvili as an American pawn and his government as a threat to Russia's resurgence. The BTC pipeline blew a hole in Moscow's efforts to monopolize the supply of energy to Europe, while the effort to join NATO was taken as something close to a declaration of war.
"In the end, Saakashvili clearly underestimated Putin's personal hatred for him — an enmity that became intense after an aide told Putin that Saakashvili described him as 'Lilliputian,'ƒ" columnist Yulia Latynina wrote in The Moscow Times this week. Mr. Putin, who stands five-foot-seven, is known to be insecure about his height.
The impetuousness that was so useful when Mr. Saakashvili was leading street demonstrations has proved to be a dangerous trait in a national leader in such a sensitive corner of the world.
Zaza Gachechiladze, editor-in-chief of The Messenger, an English-language newspaper in Tbilisi, said the sudden war smelled to him of a Kremlin trap. The shelling in South Ossetia was the bait, and Mr. Saakashvili leaped at it.
"It was a very well-organized provocation," he said in a telephone interview. "Unfortunately for Georgia, we made this dramatic and fatal step [of attacking South Ossetia]."
For now, he said, Georgians will rally around their flag and their leader — thousands of citizens attended a pro-Saakashvili rally in the centre of Tbilisi this week — because few want to see a return to Russian domination. But eventually a reckoning will follow. Many will look to see what Ms. Burdjanadze, who has twice served capably as acting president, does and her evaluation of Misha's latest gambit may determine what happens next.
"When there's a threat to the country's existence as such, all the parties are united," said Mr. Gachechiladze, whose own paper saw one reporter killed and two others injured during the Russian counterattack. "Afterwards, we can discuss what went wrong and who has to pay — and whether he will stay as President."
Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in the Middle East