GEORGIA ON OUR MINDS; Behind the Headlines SUNDAY FOCUS Russia's Military Intervention in Georgia Has Raised the Prospect of a New Cold War. TOMOS LIVINGSTONE Looks at Whether History Is about to Repeat Itself

Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales), September 7, 2008 | Go to article overview
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GEORGIA ON OUR MINDS; Behind the Headlines SUNDAY FOCUS Russia's Military Intervention in Georgia Has Raised the Prospect of a New Cold War. TOMOS LIVINGSTONE Looks at Whether History Is about to Repeat Itself


Byline: TOMOS LIVINGSTONE

Are we really on the brink of a new Cold War?

Relations between the West and Russia are now at their lowest ebb since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Both sides insist they don't want another decades-long conflict but the fighting in Georgia has raised the prospect of another long stand-off.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband said last month that the Russians had a "big responsibility" not to provoke a new conflict. The Russians say they're the last country on earth that wants a re-run of the Cold War.

Cold War mark II is probably not going to happen but Western governments need to come up with a new way of dealing with the powerful neighbour in the east. Russia probably couldn't overwhelm the West with military force any longer but it does hold significant oil and gas reserves that mean its actions can't be ignored.

So what was the fighting in Georgia about?

South Ossetia is part of Georgia, on its border with Russia.

The South Ossetians have been agitating for independence, and thousands of people in the region hold Russian passports and feel closer to Russia than to Georgia. South Ossetians want to join their ethnic brethren in North Ossetia, which has limited independence as part of the Russian Federation.

On August 7, Georgian troops went into South Ossetia after a series of skirmishes, prompting Russia to send in its own troops under the guise of protecting Russian passport holders and its own "peacekeepers" who were already there.

Who attacked first, Russia or Georgia?

Good question. Georgia says it went into South Ossetia after learning the Russian army was on its way; Russia says it was the other way around.

We will probably never know for sure but analysts in the region say some sort of showdown has been on the cards since 2004, when Georgian President Dimitri Saakashvili was elected on a promise to "unify" the various want-away areas of his country.

What happened next?

Russian troops occupied parts of Georgia around South Ossetia, including Gori, a strategic town on Georgia's main east-west road.

They also moved from bases in Abkhazia into parts of western Georgia, and the Russian fleet went into action against the Georgian navy.

After two weeks of fighting, Russia agreed to pull out of Gori and Georgia proper but they are still in South Ossetia, and it's unclear when, if ever, they plan to leave.

There have been reports of atrocities on both sides and thousands of Georgians were forced to flee from Gori and the surrounding villages.

So the problems are over?

Not exactly. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev raised the stakes on Tuesday by formally recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another break-away region of Georgia.

At the time Mr Miliband said: "We fully support Georgia's independence and territorial integrity, which cannot be changed by decree from Moscow", and that pretty much sums up the West's position.

The question is now whether Moscow just shrugs its shoulders at that, or whether Britain, the US, France and Germany can come up with actions that back up the words.

Russia has also argued it is merely doing what Britain did back in 1998, recognising Kosovo was independent from Serbia, despite the objections from Moscow.

What is Russia doing? Does it care about South Ossetia that much?

No, not particularly. The events of last month are part of a long process of Russian muscle-flexing that dates back to 1999, when Vladimir Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin in Moscow.

Russia still sees itself as a global world power and is irritated the rest of the world doesn't always think in the same terms. Although its post-Soviet economy has struggled, it still controls a large section of the world's energy supply, a trump card it appears happy to use to apply extra diplomatic pressure.

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GEORGIA ON OUR MINDS; Behind the Headlines SUNDAY FOCUS Russia's Military Intervention in Georgia Has Raised the Prospect of a New Cold War. TOMOS LIVINGSTONE Looks at Whether History Is about to Repeat Itself
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