Monday, August 11, 2008


The war between Russia and Georgia is very worrying. It's tempting to write it off as a spat between two countries far away that have no bearing on us. But that would be wrong.

Georgia is one of the most pro-Western of the ex-Soviet states. It has a democratic government, has troops in Iraq, wants to join NATO and sees itself as European, rather than Russian. On the 8th, they moved troops into South Ossetia, a breakaway province that was autonomous under the Soviet Union but made part of Georgia in 1991. Presumably Georgia chose the 8th because they wanted to do it quietly while everyone was watching the Olympics. The South Ossetians want independence and reunification with their brothers in North Ossetia - part of Russia - but Georgia wants them to be part of Georgia.

Why does it matter? When it first kicked off over the weekend it would be easy to say "it doesn't". What's a couple of air-raids between friends? Since then, Russia has air-striked Georgian military facilities and civilian areas, sunk a ship in the Black Sea, landed troops on Georgian soil and reconquered South Ossetia. Obviously, the Georgian military doesn't stand a chance, which is why they've requested help from the West.

The Russians say they're defending Russian citizens in South Ossetia. The Georgians say they were fighting terrorism in South Ossetia. Who's right? Probably both of them, but at this stage that's immaterial.

Will any help come? It should. 1% of the world's oil passes through a pipeline in Georgia (the one featured in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, incidentally). More pressingly, our response to Georgia's request belies our attitude to the whole region. If Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan are thinking about realigning themselves to the west and away from Russia then they'll have to think long and hard about it, if they'll be fighting Russia alone. You shouldn't provoke a bear unless you have either a weapon or a getaway vehicle.

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