By Joel C. Rosenberg
UPDATED: Are Russia and Georgia on the verge of all out war? Tensions have been growing for the last few years, but the situation has deteriorated rapidly in the last twenty-four hours and fighting along the border has broken out. Most serious so far: Russian fighter jets have bombed two towns in neighboring Georgia, killing and injuring innocent civilians, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said Friday. [At 9:35am eastern, Fox News reported that Georgia had shot down four Russian fighter jets....an hour ago, the New York Times reported that two Russian jets had been shot down, something AP reported as well....AP is now also running this headline: "Russia Invades Georgia."....at 10:47am eastern, AP reported hundreds dead in fighting....Sen. McCain has just called on Russia to halt its action in Georgia and withdraw....]
One critical issue to watch as the crisis develops: Who is really in charge in Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or newly installed President Dmitry Medvedev? For the moment, it seems to be Putin who is calling the shots and speaking out most forcefully on the crisis with Georgia. Putin, of course, believes deeply in restoring the glory of Mother Russia. He certainly does not want to lose Russian territory and is determined to expand the Russian empire. As I have written about previously, he knows he cannot expand Russia westward because NATO is expanding eastward. Putin also knows he cannot expand Russia eastward because of China. He has claimed ownership of the North Pole, but the real opportunity for Russia is to expand southward, and that is where Putin has been focusing all of his attention in recent years. He is determined to control the Caucuses region, and South Ossetia -- though not a name or place most Westerners have ever heard of much less cared about -- is a key piece in Putin's southward strategy. Interestingly, a new poll finds that four times more Russians think Putin is the most powerful man in Moscow than Medvedev, and tensions between the two men have been growing all summer.
The Russian bombs allegedly fell on Gori and Kareli, two towns near South Ossetia, a volatile region smaller than the size of Rhode Island with a population of less than 70,000. South Ossetia broke away from the Republic of Georgia in the early 1990s and has been controlled ever since by Moscow-backed separatists. To effectively hold the territory for themselves -- or at least keep the territory of South Ossetia from being reclaimed by Georgia, Russia sent military troops designated as "peacekeepers" into the area several years ago and provides economic support to the rebels. Now Georgian military forces have just launched a major attack on those rebels in a bid to regain control of the territory.
Putin warned Georgia that her attack on South Ossetia would trigger a retaliation. Putin did not say precisely what form that retaliation would take, and as of this writing, Russia is denying that it has bombed Georgian towns.
"The Georgian leadership has launched a dirty adventure," the Russian Defense Ministry said on Friday. "We will not leave our peacekeepers and Russian citizens unprotected."
"Heavy weapons and artillery have been sent there, and tanks have been added," Putin told reporters this morning. "Deaths and injuries have been reported, including among Russian peacekeepers....It's all very sad and alarming. And, of course, there will be a response."
The Republic of Georgia is a democratic country that wants to join NATO, remove Russian troops and military bases from its soil, allow the U.S. to build a missile defense system on its territory, and become a full-fledged ally of the West. For those very reasons, tensions between Georgia and Russia have been growing steadily.
In April of this year, under intense pressure from Moscow, NATO decided not to invite Georgia and Ukraine to join its 26-member alliance immediately, but promised to revisit the issue soon. This may prove to have been a serious mistake, inviting Russian provocation. Days later, Putin ordered the establishment of semi-official ties with the rebel "government" in South Ossetia, which Georgia charged was a violation of international law. A few weeks later, Russia began sending more troops to the border of South Ossetia, which NATO said was a provocation of Georgia. In July, Russian fighter jets penetrated Georgian airspace and flew a reconnaissance mission over South Ossetia in a show of force -- a warning, really -- designed to "cool hot heads in Tbilisi [the capital of Georgia]," the Kremlin said. The President of Georgia immediately recalled his ambassador from Moscow, all but cutting off diplomatic ties, to protest the aggressive Russian move.
Back in September 2006, as I wrote about at the time, Russia warned of dire consequences if NATO provided arms and continued building strong ties to Georgia. In October 2006, Russian forces blockaded Georgia from air, rail and ground transportation and Putin sent the Russian navy to maneuver off Georgia's Black Sea coast.
In January 2006, two explosions ripped through pipelines carrying Russian oil to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. The blasts effectively cut off Georgia's main supply of energy amidst a brutally cold winter. The Kremlin called the sabotage acts of terrorism, but Georgian President President Saakashvili, top Georgian officials, and even a number of Western analysts were not convinced. They accused Russian intelligence of triggering the explosions to send Georgia a chilling message: don't join NATO, don't insist that Russia give up its military bases in Georgia, don't keep criticizing Putin as he re-centralizes power and rebuilds the Russian military, don't oppose Russia's application to join the World Trade Organization, stop calling for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to “internationalize” peacekeeping operations in the troubled southern Russian regions Abkhazia and Ossetia, and stop promoting pro-democracy movements throughout the former Soviet Union.
The pipelines were eventually fixed, and oil began flowing again, but tensions were never defused. "Russian-Georgian relations have deteriorated to the point that some Kremlin officials are seriously weighing a military operation, which they hope will hand Georgia a military defeat and topple President Saakashivili," wrote Heritage Foundation Russia expert Dr. Ariel Cohen in March. Cohen quoted one veteran Russian foreign policy as saying, "It’s springtime -- a time to start a war with Georgia." Cohen noted that Kremlin political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky actually called for Saakashvili to be assassinated, and that Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party issued a statement in February statement saying the call for assassination should be seen as a warning to the Georgian leader. “Saakashvili is out of control, and needs to be brought to heel,” said one Kremlin insider, quoted by Cohen. “If Georgians keep quiet and behave, we may even tolerate their joining NATO, but if they are loud, we’ll take measures.”
ALSO WORTH NOTING: Observers of Biblical prophecies such as Ezekiel 38 and 39 will note that directly or effectively controlling Georgia would be key when Moscow one day begins moving Russian military forces through Turkey and into Lebanon, Syria and eventually against Israel.
KEY HEADLINES TO TRACK:
* Jerusalem Post: '2 US aircraft carriers headed for Gulf'
* Kuwait Learns 2 US Aircraft Carriers Headed For Gulf
* Israel considers military option for Iran nukes
* Time magazine: Israel Preparing for Iran Strike (including buying 90 new long-range fighter jets and two new German submarines)
* Israel slams Turkey over Ahmadinejad plan to visit
* Turkey, Iran likely to sign natural gas deal soon
* Iran-Turkey trade to cross $20b mark
* Supreme Leader: Iran, Syria to continue friendly ties
* Syria's Assad in Iran for security talks with Ahmadinejad (last week)
* Secretary of State Rice says U.S. doesn't have a veto over Israel's decision to strike Iran
* Georgia Says Russian Planes Bombed Georgian Villages
* Heavy fighting as Georgia attacks rebel region
* Bush spokeswoman: Russia, Georgia should cease hostilities, engage in talks to end conflict
* FLASHBACK: RUSSIA-GEORGIA CRISIS WORSENS: Putin begins deporting Georgians, Russian expert predicts military coup in Georgia soon (October 2006)
* FLASHBACK: PUTIN THREATENS NEIGHBORING DEMOCRACY [Georgia]: How far will the new Russian Czar go? (October 3, 2006)
* CNN: Man held for alleged Obama assassination threat
* Olmert questioned for 5th time on corrupiton affairs