On August 7th, 2008, just before midnight, Georgian forces launched an attack on Tskhinvali, the provincial capital of South Ossetia, or what Georgians call Samachablo. Georgia claimed it was responding to a Russian invasion. Russia, whose troops surged immediately and rapidly into Georgia, claimed the Georgians attacked first.

A small mountainous territory on the southern side of the Caucasus range (population around 100,000 in 1989, and 3,900 square kilometers), South Ossetia seceded from Georgia in 1992 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since its unilateral declaration of independence, South Ossetia has survived but with no permanent resolution of its status. It is officially part of Georgia, unrecognized until recently by anyone in the international community. It has its own government, though largely staffed by Russian state employees, and its security is assured by Russian troops stationed in the region, erroneously described as "peacekeepers."

Over the past sixteen years, South Ossetia has been a "frozen conflict" with occasional flashes of violence. Tensions among Georgia, Russia, and South Ossetia grew, however, after the election of Mikheil Saakashvili as Georgia's President in 2004. Saakashvili, young (36 at the time of his election) and an enthusiastic state-builder, promised to restore Georgian territorial unity. Over the last four years he has attempted to unfreeze the conflict by both diplomacy and military threats. He has presented a number of plans for South Ossetian autonomy, which have been regularly dismissed by the South Ossetian government as too little too late. In the days and weeks leading up to August 7th, fighting intensified between South Ossetian irregulars supported by Russian "peacekeepers" and U.S.-trained Georgian units.

During August 7th, Georgian and Ossetian leaders made plans to meet and defuse the situation. Temuri Yakobishvili, the Georgian State Minister of Reintegration, traveled to Tskhinvali to meet his South Ossetian counterparts, who did not turn up. Saakashvili made a speech offering South Ossetia "unlimited autonomy," which would be guaranteed by Russia.

However, that night Georgia launched an artillery barrage and a ground assault of infantry and tanks on Tskhinvali. The Georgian government declared it was acting as any sovereign and independent state would to defend itself against violent secessionists and Russian aggression. South Ossetians accused Georgia of perfidy.

Moscow's response to the Georgian attack was fast—so fast according to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that she thought it pre-planned and premeditated. Tanks and troops poured across Georgian borders, picking up South Ossetian militia along the way. The Georgian army retreated under intense artillery and air strikes on its positions in Tskhinvali.

Russian troops quickly crossed over from the demarcated conflict zones in South Ossetia where they had operated with official UN sanction as peacekeepers since 1992. They drove deep into Georgian territory, occupying Gori (the birthplace of Joseph Stalin), the vital Georgian port of Poti on the Black Sea coast, and many other towns.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Beijing for the Olympics at the time of the Russian attack, returned to Vladikavkaz in the Russian province of North Ossetia to oversee operations. Putin had bitter relations with President Saakashvili, and may have felt a personal stake in teaching him and Georgia a lesson.

The Georgian attack caused significant damage in South Ossetia, although arguments continue as to how severe. One Ossetian interpreter in Tskhinvali reported on August 10 that he was standing in the city center, "but there's no city left." Later UNOSAT imagery suggests around 5-6% of the city was destroyed, though predominantly in residential areas.

There are arguments too over casualties. The casus belli for the Russian invasion was Georgian "genocide" against the South Ossetian population, a claim that was subsequently shown to be greatly exaggerated. Current estimates (many civilians remain missing) are between 1,000-1,200 dead on both sides. Both Georgians and South Ossetians suffered horribly and fled their homes, but in the end it was mostly Georgian villages that were ethnically cleansed.

Immediately following the Russian thrust into Georgia through South Ossetia, Russian-backed forces in Georgia's other "frozen conflict" in Abkhazia—another secessionist region that had won de facto independence from Tbilisi in 1993, but had remained unrecognized by the international community—pushed Georgian villagers and soldiers out of the Kodori Gorge. This is part of Abkhazia that the Georgians had continued to govern after their defeat in 1993.

The United States—an active ally of Georgia and its American-educated President (Saakashvili gained a law degree from Columbia University)—passed a Congressional resolution defending Georgia's right to territorial integrity and condemned the Russians' illegal occupation of Georgia. After quickly helping 2,000 Georgian troops—that had been supporting U.S. forces in Iraq—to return to defend their state, President Bush offered Georgia $1 billion in humanitarian aid and assistance and continued to put pressure on Russia to withdraw.

On August 26th, Russia officially recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent sovereign states—the first country in the world to do so (Nicaragua, thus far, is the only other country to follow suit). The Russian leadership cited the precedent of Kosovo, which many Western states had recognized following Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in February, 2008. Jubilant Ossetians and Abkhazians spilled onto the streets, waving flags, firing guns, and honking car-horns in celebration.

The question is what drove President Saakashvili to use military force to regain Georgian lands when the Russian army was standing in readiness across the border? This will be a central debate in Georgia and around the world in the months to come. Whatever the answer, a Rubicon was crossed on August 7th.

A Small War with Big Repercussions

This brief one-sided war, which lasted only five days and ended in Georgian military defeat, will have wide and lasting implications not only for the people and politics of the region, but for international relations more generally.

The military conflict will have a serious impact on Russian-U.S. and Russian-European Union (E.U.) relations. It may not presage a new Cold War or the threat of a Third World War as some have suggested. Russia is too weak for that, and neither the U.S. nor the E.U. is willing to completely isolate Russia. But the conflict demonstrates a major shift in the Eurasian geopolitical map.

Russia's invasion of Georgia showed up the West's weakness: the uncertainty within NATO about its commitment to Georgia and Ukraine; the E.U.'s reluctance to jeopardize the steady stream of oil and gas from Russia; and the United States' limited capacity to extend a hand to allies in unstable regions for fear of being dragged into expensive foreign policy commitments.

For all this, however, Russia should not get too over-confident. Its successes this summer came as a result of a declining and preoccupied U.S., rising oil prices that have shored up Russian revenues, and an E.U. dependent on Russian energy. In reality, as the collapse of the Russian stock market showed in August, its economy is deeply vulnerable to external shocks.

The August war will affect all former Soviet republics. Russia has reclaimed its sphere of influence, and Russia's neighbors have taken notice. This is particularly true for countries like Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have their own "frozen conflicts" to deal with; and for Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which are seeking closer ties to the West and have large Russian minorities that can be leveraged by Russia. To a certain degree, Russia has reenacted the Soviet policy of "Finlandization," a post-World War II strategy of intimidation that the USSR used to emasculate Finland's independent foreign policy.

The Ossetian conflict will lead to major repercussions for Russian and Georgian domestic politics. The war represents a decisive defeat for the few liberal reformers in Russia who had hoped President Medvedev would reverse Russia's authoritarian direction. Russia's military, with a victory (albeit against a much smaller state), has strengthened its position in Russian domestic politics. [For more on contemporary Russian politics, see our March 2008 Origins article on this year's Presidential elections].

Georgian domestic politics will be in for turmoil once the patriotic rallying behind President Saakashvili ends. Economically, Russia has set back the high growth Georgian economy (10-12% annual GDP since 2004). It has made investors think twice about further development of oil and gas transit across the Caucasus—like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which currently carries one million barrels per day and in which U.S. companies are heavily invested. Russia wants no competition to its own pipeline network.

More significantly, August 7th has forced international organizations and world leaders to reconsider the slippery concepts of self-determination, human rights, and national sovereignty. In particular, Russian actions have challenged the role and capacity of both international law and Western powers to deal with these issues. It shows us that force (and the privilege of great powers to use it) remains ascendant despite all declarations of a new world order.

The war also underlined continuing confusion in the international community over minority rights and the link between self-determination and independence. It raised—as did Kosovo—the question of territorial integrity of UN member states: under what conditions should peoples be allowed to secede from states, what is the mechanism for secession, what actions can states legitimately take to prevent secession? Furthermore, can states grant citizenship to "co-ethnics" or others abroad, as Russia did to the South Ossetians and Abkhazians? Russia's policy highlights the potential abuses of the UN approved principle of "responsibility to protect," and underlines the danger of authorizing the presence of regional peacekeepers in conflicts where they have national security interests.

Why this war?

The international context—Russian, U.S. and E.U. relations; the question of NATO expansion; changes in the global oil economy—is key to explaining the origins and consequences of this conflict. At the same time, we must come to grips with the history of interethnic relations in Georgia. The history of Georgian-South Ossetian relations have largely been forgotten in the media's speculation about the invasion's global ramifications. The August events did not signify the beginning of conflict, but its culmination.

Let's start by asking what we mean by "ethnic conflict." This is the phrase most often used to encapsulate current relations between Georgians and South Ossetians. But the tag "ethnic conflict" is inadequate. It reduces social and economic relations to "culture." It diminishes the importance of long periods of peace compared to periods of tension. And it assumes violence is the inevitable outcome of distrust among neighboring ethnic groups. Most important of all, it leaves out politics.

Distrust, prejudice, social inequality, and privilege have certainly characterized relations between Georgians and South Ossetians for decades. Core identities play a role in this conflict, and South Ossetians genuinely perceive their cultural survival to be under threat. But the violent conflicts—and my emphasis is on the word "violent"—are due to politics.

By "politics," I mean the local ambitions of "ethnic entrepreneurs," badly implemented government policies, and the neglect of national minority integration. "Politics" also includes great power provocations driven by ideological goals, and international neglect. This has been a frozen conflict for 16 years and there were plenty of signs that it could spill over into violence. International mediation remained tame and reactive.

In Georgia, ethnic violence in the 20th century has been rare. When it occurred, it was under crisis conditions involving state breakdown and economic distress—as in 1918-1921 under the impact of World War I, the collapse of the tsarist government, and the Russian civil war.

Once violence takes place, however, ethnic identities are polarized, simplified, and solidified. The Georgian-Ossetian case suggests that the "ethnicization" of these disputes—the transformation of ethnic difference into a zero-sum game of ethnically-based competition—was not spontaneous but followed the mobilization of the population by local political and intellectual elites.

The largely engineered violence of the early 1990s in South Ossetia which led to its de-facto separation was a production of the inflamed imaginations of Georgian university professors, populist leaders, and Russian ideologues. Neighboring Georgian and South Ossetian residents wanted nothing to do with the violence or extreme nationalism until they no longer had any choice.

The result was tragic—a breakdown of shared social networks and common economic interests between Ossetian and Georgian villagers and small businessmen, and the identification of ethnic solidarity with security. This led in turn to increased vulnerability to foreign intervention by Russian ideologues backed by the KGB (now FSB), resentful at the loss of former colonies. All these factors tell us more about the eruption of violence in 1989-1992 and 2008 than ethnic hatreds do.

Georgia's Minorities in Crisis? From Coexistence to Conflict

Georgia has for many centuries been a multi-ethnic state. Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Abkhazians, Ossetians, Acharans, and Greeks, among others, have long shared the country with Georgians and have often played leading roles in its history.

The 2002 census listed 120 national minorities in Georgia. For all this diversity, however, Georgians today make up a greater proportion of their state than they have ever done before. In 1989, Georgians comprised 70.1% of the state's population; in 2002 it was 83.8%. But this increased ethnic homogeneity (an observable trend in Georgia since the late 1950s) has occurred not due to ethnic animosities, but—in the last 15 years at least—due to economic misery. Georgians themselves have joined a general exodus from the country, creating a dramatic fall in the country's total population from 5.44 million in 1989 to 4.36 in 2002.

"History" has long been an effective weapon for mobilizing hatred among majorities and minorities. Georgia is no exception. In the 1990s, speeches of South Ossetian politicians cast Georgians as historical oppressors. Georgians (though to be fair, neither President Eduard Shevardnadze nor President Saakashvili) characterized South Ossetians as historical interlopers who had only recently settled in Georgia.