South Ossetia Crisis Explained

Georgia's offensive to retake South Ossetia has spurred a strong Russian military response. Lincoln Mitchell, assistant professor in the Practice of International Politics at Columbia University, says a war may have started, and it remains to be seen if it can be stopped.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is a part of the world that can be baffling, a morass of complicated allegiances and borders. Professor Lincoln Mitchell of Columbia University's School of International Affairs joins us to help sort it out. He's an expert on Georgia and its separatist movements. Welcome to the program.

Professor LINCOLN MITCHELL (School of International Affairs, Columbia University): Thank you.

BLOCK: Why don't we start by placing this on a map - Georgia, between Russia and Turkey along the Black Sea?

Professor MITCHELL: Yes. North from Baghdad, east from Istanbul, and you get to Tbilisi.

BLOCK: And this region that we're talking about, South Ossetia, how many people live there?

Professor MITCHELL: About 40,000, 50,000. It's very small.

BLOCK: Very small, but it's become this major, major flashpoint. Why?

Professor MITCHELL: Well, it's become a major flashpoint. One of the reasons is location. When we use the phrase breakaway region, we get a sense of something far away, right? First of all, in Georgia, nothing's far away. It's a small country. But Ossetia is right in the middle of Georgia. It would be as if Michigan and Ohio were breakaway regions in the United States, you know, not Hawaii or Alaska, but right smack in the middle, very close - in Georgia's case, to the capital - so that instability in South Ossetia, a Russian presence in South Ossetia is felt very clearly in the capital in Tbilisi.

BLOCK: Has Russia, in fact, been arming the separatist movement in South Ossetia?

Professor MITCHELL: Yeah. I mean, without Russia, there's no separatist movement in South Ossetia. I think you can say that pretty definitively. Right, these are not South Ossetian planes that are bombing military installations near the capital in Georgia; these are Russian planes.

BLOCK: Now, Russia says that it's defending its citizens in this part of Georgia. Most of the South Ossetians, I gather, have Russian citizenship, they have passports.

Professor MITCHELL: Yes. I think that - I don't want to give a history lesson here, but if we can go so back in time, as far yesterday, even…

BLOCK: Okay

Professor MITCHELL: …where there was a low-level conflict between Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia, essentially for years. It had its peaks and some lesser peaks.

Yesterday, the Georgians made the determination that they were going to go into South Ossetia, take it back, and they did that for a day. And it is that to which the Russians are responding. So, to say that the Russians are doing this out of the blue is wrong. They are responding to something that, on the merits, I think you could argue the Georgians had the right to do, but one doesn't move one's troops into South Ossetia from Tbilisi, declare that South Ossetia, to use English language, is back under Georgian control, and expect the Russians to do nothing. They weren't going to get that lucky, as it were.

BLOCK: Does it strike you that this could evolve into an actual war between Russia and Georgia? Are the stakes that high?

Professor MITCHELL: Well, I mean, you know, it depends how you define the term war. Because flying airplanes over another country's capital and bombing military installations near that capital, killing civilians - whether deliberately or not - that could be construed as an act of war, and that is what Russia has done for Georgia. So in that sense, the war may have started. The question is, can we stop it soon? If it gets much longer than one or two days, the damage to Georgia will be quite severe.

BLOCK: Now, when you say we, do you think there's a U.S. role here?

Professor MITCHELL: I hope there's a U.S. role here, for several reasons. First of all, Georgia is an ally, and we should recognize that. Secondly, the - again, these events need to be put in a broader context of a pattern going back really to early 2004, in my view, of Russia seeking to undermine Georgian sovereignty in a breadth of ways. The frozen conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are only some of those. And I think that the international community -including but not limited to the United States - shouldn't really stand by and let something like that happen.

On the other hand, it's not clear what we do her, and I think the Russians understand that very well. So they're pushing to see how far they can go, what they can get away with, because it's not clear what the U.S. does at the end of the day.

BLOCK: Well, what would the options be?

Professor MITCHELL: Well, I mean, if you listen to the interview that President Saakashvili gave today, you know, he compared this to Finland in 1939, Prague in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979, implying that the response should be overwhelming from the Western side. But that's not going to happen. There are economic things we can do. There are - you know, we can make a lot of strong statements, which I don't think add up to much. I think the Russians have figured that out. So I think the first kind of out-of-the-box statements, you know, they're kind of harmless on the face of themselves, but they're not going to really lead to resolving this problem.

My fear is that Russia's going to stop doing this when they've gotten what they wanted, and that will be bad for Georgia and set a bad precedent for other independent countries with aggressive, large and more powerful neighbors.

BLOCK: Lincoln Mitchell, assistant professor at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book, "Uncertain Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy and Georgia's Rose Revolution." Professor Mitchell, thanks so much.

Professor MITCHELL: Thank you.

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