LONDON, Aug 8 (Reuters) - Fighting is raging in and around the capital of Georgia’s South Ossetia as Georgian troops, backed by warplanes, pounded separatist forces in a bid to re-take control of the breakaway region.
Russian media say Russian reinforcements are being sent to the region, escalating the threat of full-scale war between Russia and Georgia, a former member of the Soviet Union that is now an ally of the United States.
Following are comments from defence and political analysts on the escalating crisis:
CHRISTOPHER LANGTON, DEFENCE ANALYST AT INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES AND EXPERT IN CENTRAL ASIA:
"It’s very hard to tell how serious it is at this point. Although TV pictures tend to show Russian armour moving into South Ossetia, we don’t know for sure.
"If that were to be the case, this would be the most serious incident in South Ossetia since the end of the war and it changes the face of this conflict quite dramatically.
"There is now real danger of Georgian and Russian forces clashing in a serious fashion.
"I’m still a bit puzzled as to why this has gone so far, given the risks to Georgia in terms of the possibility of not being able to fulfil its aspirations towards NATO and the EU.
"Russia has a military capability, if it is indeed moving into South Ossetia, to secure a corridor from Tskhinvali back through the Roki tunnel and to secure Tskhinvali itself," he said, referring to a tunnel that is the only land route connecting South Ossetia to the Russian Federation. Tskhinvali is the main city in South Ossetia.
"The biggest danger would be if fighting broke out in the city itself."
SVANTE CORNELL, CO-DIRECTOR OF THE STOCKHOLM-BASED INSTITUTE FOR SECURITY AND DEVELOPMENT POLICY AND AN EXPERT ON GEORGIA:
What are the roots of the conflict?
"It boils down to Kosovo independence, NATO’s Bucharest summit and possibly also Russian internal politics and the transfer of power.
"In February, Russian diplomats said Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia would stir up strife in the Balkans and linked Kosovar status to separatist areas Abkhazia and South Ossetia."
Cornell said Russia has seized upon a moment to assert itself in South Ossetia when Europe is unwilling to anger Moscow, the United States is distracted by domestic elections and Georgia has perhaps fallen into an Ossetian provocation.
"Irrespective of who triggered this recent action, the general direction of Russian policy is clear, which is: We are taking control of these territories, and we’re not even pretending that we’re not."
PAVEL FELGENHAUER, SECURITY ANALYST:
How far could Russia go?
"Turning the tide of a Georgian offensive would mean a massive invasion by Russian forces.
"They would need to deploy crack Russian troops on the battlefield, and that does not guarantee victory over Georgia because you can’t deploy much."
Only one road runs south from Russia into South Ossetia, there are no military-capable airstrips and snows from October through May close the mountain passes.
"Massive Russian intervention would mean it’s going to be a long war, a bloody war, with an unpredictable outcome, because Ossetia is geographically separated from Russia."
"It’s a hell of a logistical nightmare to try and take and keep South Ossetia against a rather fine Georgian military."
ADAM HUG, POLICY DIRECTOR AT THE FOREIGN POLICY CENTRE THINK-TANK:
"I think there are opportunities for both sides to pull back from this. There is a risk of wider conflict (but) it’s in neither side’s interests to begin head-to-head clashes.
"I think it’s unlikely the U.S. would intervene to support Georgia militarily at this stage... The focus in the coming days is going to be to try and put a lid on this as quickly as possible." (Reporting by Luke Baker and Adrian Croft in London and Christopher Bladwin in Moscow; Editing by Janet Lawrence)