LONDON (Reuters) - Russia sent forces into Georgia on Friday to repel a Georgian assault on the breakaway region and Georgia’s pro-Western president said the two countries were at war.
Here 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 armor 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 fulfill 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.”
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.”
“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.”
“Should fighting continue, as it is likely to over coming days, Russia looks set to respond, especially as the majority of South Ossetia’s population hold Russian citizenship. This includes the possibility that ground troops, such as airborne units stationed in Russia’s North Caucasus region, could also be deployed. Such a development would mark a major escalation of the conflict and potentially lead to wider regional instability, with associated risks to major Caspian-Europe energy transit routes such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.”
“The first priority for Washington right now is to stop the fighting before it spins out of control. There is a very real danger that this might go beyond what either the Russians or the Georgians intended.”
“I would think that the secretary (Rice) is working the phones on all sides ... The United States can help here but it must be an honest broker.”
JANUSZ BUGAJSKI, DIRECTOR, NEW EUROPEAN DEMOCRACIES PROGRAM AT THE CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES IN
“I can’t see us intervening militarily. The only possibility would be if this would escalate between Georgia and Russia. Then it’s a different ballgame ...
“If there was a full scale confrontation, Georgian against Russian armies, and the Georgian government was under threat of falling .... If the situation escalates and the Russians do not withdraw, I’m not saying military involvement, but some kind of military assistance would be essential. Whether logistics, or intelligence ... We cannot see Georgia disappear under the Russian boot.”
“How this conflict develops is unpredictable at this point — what is clear is that we are entering the next stage of a year-long conflict between Russia and Georgia. Today’s events and their consequences are further deteriorating investor sentiment towards Russian assets.”
“Last week’s attack on (New York-listed coal firm) Mechel’s pricing behavior by Putin and the lasting TNK-BP saga found a bloody next act in a screenplay that could be named “how to destroy the investment story of one of the strongest credits in the emerging markets universe”.
DMITRI TRENIN, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE:
“Potentially, we are dealing with a very serious crisis which goes far beyond Ossetia, Georgia or the Caucasus. A lot depends on how the United States acts and this is what is on the top of the minds of people in Moscow.”
“The United States is vulnerable in this situation and may invite an undesired deterioration (of ties) with Russia. The rocky relations could become a lot worse.”
ROBERT HUNTER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO NATO, SENIOR ADVISOR TO RAND CORPORATION IN WASHINGTON
“(The U.S.) leaning towards Georgian membership of NATO got well out of hand. They have not yet demonstrated that they are a full democracy. George W. Bush overplayed this by saying Georgia and Ukraine would definitely get into NATO.
“No one (within NATO) wants to fight for Georgia ... They see it as being too far away.”
Reporting by Luke Baker, Adrian Croft, Peter Apps and Janet McBride in London, Christopher Baldwin in Moscow and Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by Janet Lawrence