What lies behind the conflict between Georgia and Russia? Dave Crouch explains why the Caucasus has become the new front for US imperialism.
The British media coverage of the war that erupted in the Caucasus last month almost universally portrayed a fragile little democracy terrorised by its big Russian neighbour. But a closer look at what happened reveals something different - a frightening escalation of the "war on terror" that masks the US drive for markets, oil and influence around the globe.
The Georgian government led by Mikheil Saakashvili is one of George Bush's closest military allies and has aligned itself fully with US economic and political ambitions. The relationship is summed up by the chief Moscow correspondent of the New York Times:
"The United States... helped militarise the weak Georgian state. In his wooing of Washington as he came to power, Mr Saakashvili firmly embraced the missions of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Saakashvili's rise, the paper says, "coincided neatly with a swelling American need for political support and foreign soldiers in Iraq. His offer of troops was matched with a Pentagon effort to overhaul Georgia's forces from bottom to top. At senior levels, the US helped rewrite Georgian military doctrine and train its commanders and staff officers. At the squad level, American marines and soldiers trained Georgian soldiers in the fundamentals of battle."
Georgia began re-equipping its forces with Israeli and US firearms, reconnaissance drones, communications and battlefield-management equipment, convoys of vehicles and new ammunition. According to the respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Georgia has the fastest growing military in the world. Since the 2003 "rose revolution" that brought Saakashvili to power, Georgian defence spending has increased by over 40 times. The country had 2,000 troops in Iraq and had offered to send hundreds more to Afghanistan.
At home Saakashvili's free market reforms neglected the poor, while rampant fraud and corruption led to mass demonstrations last November, which were ruthlessly put down by the security forces. This was the background to a major US military exercise in Georgia on the eve of last month's fighting. Operation "Immediate Response 2008" involved 1,000 US military personnel and over 600 Georgian troops from 15 to 31 July. It was the first time that Georgia had hosted these annual war games, which are normally conducted in Poland and Bulgaria.
On 1 August, just a day after the exercises ended, skirmishes erupted between Georgian forces and those from the breakaway region of South Ossetia, leaving several dead. It was the worst violence during long years of standoff in this conflict zone. The chronology of events makes a mockery of claims by US diplomats that they tried to calm the situation. The area was a tinderbox into which the US had poured guns, men and warcraft.
A week later, on the night of 7 August, the Georgian army stepped up the violence when it began an artillery assault on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, backed up with ground troops the next day.
Larisa Sotieva, an Ossetian humanitarian worker, gave the following description of what happened to the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, which is renowned for eyewitness reports from trained and trusted sources: "A massed Georgian assault began on the town. For 14 hours we were fired on without pause by every conceivable type of heavy weaponry, supported by the Georgian air force. The city was fought over in hand to hand fighting and in a night of hellish metallic hail it turned into ruins."
The US-based organisation Human Rights Watch, which usually errs on the side of sympathy for the US and its allies, entered Tskhinvali on 13 August. Its researchers reported that they "saw numerous apartment buildings and houses damaged by shelling. Some of them had been hit by rockets most likely fired from Grad launchers, weapons that should not be used in areas populated by civilians, as they cannot be directed at only military targets and are therefore inherently indiscriminate".
Human Rights Watch said it "saw several buildings that bore traces of heavy ammunition as if fired from tanks at close range. There was some evidence of firing being directed into basements, locations which civilians frequently choose as a place of shelter."
The researchers interviewed 30 civilians about the fighting in the town. They concluded that "witness accounts and the timing of the damage would point to Georgian fire accounting for much of the damage". The organisation recorded 44 dead and 273 wounded in Tskhinvali alone. At the time of writing Russia is claiming that at least 133 civilians died in South Ossetia during the fighting.
So why did Georgian troops launch this bloody assault? What were they hoping to achieve? And why did Russia itself respond so brutally, shelling Georgian homes and setting paramilitaries loose on civilians?
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked a seismic shift in the balance of power between the US and Russia, the global tremors from which are still making themselves felt. With the Soviet regime gone and the Japanese economy in crisis, the US found itself the world's sole superpower.
It set about reaping the benefits. Through its control of major financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the US prised open the weaker economies of the former Soviet bloc, securing dominant positions for its firms in these new markets. Countries such as Georgia took out massive loans from the IMF, in return it had to accept "structural adjustment programmes" which let the market rip.
At the same time, the US sought to use fear of Russia to bind former Soviet bloc countries into a military alliance, further isolating its former Cold War adversary. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic became Nato members in 1999, while Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states joined in 2004.
The US built up networks of non-governmental organisations backed by multibillionaires such as George Soros to strengthen Western influence among young, educated elites in these countries. When political crises broke out, organisations set up or co-opted by the US such as Otpor in Serbia, Kmara in Georgia and Pora in Ukraine helped to lead huge but largely passive opposition movements that brought pro-US politicians to power under the banner of democracy. With dizzying speed these regimes turned out to be just as greedy and corrupt as the ones they replaced.
And finally, when some nations still held out against the West, the US looked for opportunities to wield its stupendous military arsenal to bring them into line. The first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein in 1991 was the earliest such campaign. The aerial bombardment of Serbian factories, bridges and television stations by Nato forces in 1999 was principally about Western dominance of the Balkans, rather than protecting Kosovans from Serb paramilitaries.
The 9/11 attacks on New York presented the US with an opportunity to step up the military wing of its campaign in the name of fighting "terror". The Afghanistan campaign allowed the US to establish military bases in oil-rich Central Asia, surrounding its new economic rival - China - and further hemming in Russia. The invasion of Iraq was part of a far broader plan to "democratise" the Middle East - in other words, to apply the methods that had worked so well in Eastern Europe to the Arab states and Iran.
This strategy was the heart of the recent events in Georgia. Military cooperation between the US and Georgia was billed as the pursuit of Al Qaida in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, on the border with Chechnya. Georgia was also a key access point to the oil and gas wealth of the Caspian and Central Asia, with two major pipelines running through its territory.
But moving Georgia closer to Nato and integrating it with the US military machine inevitably meant stoking Georgia's own ambitions to wrest back control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia - breakaway regions backed by Russia. Friction between the enclaves and Tbilisi had festered since the early 1990s.
In August these tensions exploded into a war that for the first time threatened to pit the US against another major power.
Russian troops poured into South Ossetia, ostensibly to protect civilians from the Georgian onslaught. But, like Nato's attack on Serbia nine years ago, the Kremlin had other goals. Russia is guilty of savage reprisals against Georgian civilians, while its clients in South Ossetia played a clear role in provoking an escalation of the conflict.
Ever since the Soviet Empire was broken apart by mass movements in 1990-1, Russia's rulers have attempted to win back control.
North Ossetia - the tiny Russian republic that borders on its linguistic partner to the south - was the scene of one of the first such moves. In 1992 Russia chose to back the local regime in driving 70,000 ethnic Ingushis from their homes in the area near the capital, Vladikavkaz, that had been annexed from Ingushetia by Stalin in 1944. Russian "peacekeepers" stood by as Ossetian militias systematically torched Ingush homes.
North Ossetia was then turned into a military outpost for Russia in the Caucasus, with a quantity of arms per head of population that was the highest in the world. It was from its North Ossetian bases that Russia launched its first bloody invasion of Chechnya in December 1994.
The Chechen resistance fought off the Russian troops who were demoralised and disorganised. But in 1999 the new president, Vladimir Putin, exploited a wave of nationalism in the wake of Nato's attack on Serbia to reinvade. This time the resistance was crushed.
As Russia emerged from the slump of the early 1990s, soaring oil and gas prices gave Putin the means to rebuild the military. And Georgia, with its key strategic importance in terms of Caspian oil, was a primary target.
Last year Russia imposed an economic blockade and severed all transport and postal links with the republic. It deported hundreds of Georgian migrants and harassed Georgian businesses across the country, while the state-controlled media waged a racist anti-Georgian propaganda campaign.
For years Georgia had been accustomed to Russian weakness, but it became increasingly clear that the Kremlin was prepared to resort to force.
The rebel regime in South Ossetia was well aware of the potential for Russia to be drawn into a major firefight on its side. The enclave conducted its own military manoeuvres simultaneously with the US-Georgian ones in July. Within hours of the first casualties from skirmishes with Georgian troops on 1 August, South Ossetia had evacuated over 1,000 women and children, while hundreds of volunteers rushed from North Ossetia to take up arms. Within days 10,000 volunteers had been registered in Vladikavkaz to fight in Tskhinvali.
The authoritative Russian weekly Independent Military Review therefore concluded that the Georgian side responded to Ossetian provocations. However, in an interview with the Financial Times, Batu Kutelia, the deputy defence minister of Georgia - sitting in his office in front of the flags of Georgia and Nato - admitted that Georgia decided to seize the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali in the mistaken belief that Russia would not retaliate.
In any case, Saakashvili backed the Georgian assault, and Russia seized the opportunity to stamp its authority on its former colony and thumb its nose at the West - slaughtering countless Georgian civilians in the process.
After a major earthquake, it is never certain whether new tremors are merely aftershocks or the warning signs of a new quake. The seismic geopolitical events surrounding the 9/11 attacks have scattered aftershocks across the world, but they are also fraught with new upheavals as the tectonic plates of the major powers continue to grind against each other.
Last month's conflict was a clash of imperialisms, represented on one side by a client state of the US. Had Georgia been a Nato member, however, there would have been a real possibility of war between two nuclear powers.
The US "war on terror", backed slavishly by the Labour government in Britain, is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan just as an economic downturn is beginning to hit. US vulnerability in these circumstances means that the rulers of other states may feel emboldened to test the limits of US power, just as Russia has done.
What is certain is that ordinary people will pay the price. There is an urgent need to break the imperialist logic that pits countries against each other in the pursuit of power and profit. We too must test the limits of US power - with our resistance to the system that breeds war.
Conflict and freedom
The oil-rich Caucasus region has been the focus for conflicts for over two centuries. Russia's conquest of the area under the tsars saw hundreds of thousands dead. Russia then vied with Britain and the Ottoman Empire to maintain control. In 1944 Stalin deported entire peoples to Siberia to stamp out resistance.
The collapse of the Soviet Union paved the way for a return to the 19th century "Great Game", with the major imperialist powers once again jostling for control. After it invaded Chechnya in 1999, Russia said "we must defend our position on the Caucasian bridgehead" in this "confrontation between world powers".
The 1920s, however, stand out as an illustration of how things could have been different in the Caucasus and point to a way forward today.
Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik revolutionaries, who led the socialist revolution of 1917, pledged to dismantle the empire and restore full national and religious rights to its peoples. In 1919 the north Caucasus rose in support of the revolution. In 1921 an Autonomous Republic of Mountain Peoples was established led by local people. The Chechen historian Avtorkhanov describes this as "a period of maximum political peace and harmony between the various Caucasian nations and popularity of the Soviet government".
With the revolution isolated, these gains began to unravel. The Mountain People's Republic was subdivided in 1924 - Stalin personally intervened to prevent the reunification of North and South Ossetia. Stalin's counter-revolution saw Russian dominance restored in all spheres of soviet life, with Lenin's legacy in the Caucasus destroyed.