A splendid little war

We are dealing with absolutely criminal and crazy acts of irresponsible and reckless decision makers, which is on the ground producing dramatic and tragic consequences." - Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili

Well, that's one way to describe Vladmir Putin's naked power grab against Georgia. "Criminal and crazy" certainly fits the Russian prime minister to a "T." But methinks there may be a method to Putin's madness.

Putin covets South Ossetia as a way to block western influence in the caucuses. He also needs the breakaway province as a staging area for his war of nerves with Georgia and its democracy championing president Mikhail Saakashvili. Putin sees Saakashvili as a threat to his iron hold on the Caucasus and resents the Georgian president's attempts to join NATO.

The fog of war is particularly thick since communications are bad to begin with and made worse by the Russians apparently targeting communications hubs. Just how bad things are is
anyone's guess:

Shota Utiashvili, an official at the Georgian Interior Ministry, called the attack on Gori a "major escalation," and said he expected attacks to increase over the course of Saturday. He said some 16 Russian planes were in the air over Georgian territory at any given time on Saturday, four times the number of sorties seen Friday.

In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, wounded fighters and civilians began to arrive in hospitals, most with shrapnel or mortar wounds. Several dozen names had been posted outside the hospital.

In a news conference, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Georgian attacks on Russian citizens "amounted to ethnic cleansing."

Mr. Lavrov said Russian airstrikes targeted military staging grounds. Asked whether Russia is prepared to fight "all-out war" in Georgia, he said: "No. Georgia, I believe, started a war in Southern Ossetia, and we are responsible to keep the peace."

Actually, there has been a low level conflict in South Ossetia since the province broke away with Russian help in the early 90's. At that time, Russian "peacekeepers" moved in to, in effect, maintain the status quo. Then, in 2004, Saakashvili was elected on a pro-democracy, nationalistic platform promising to reunite with both South Ossetia and another break away province Abkhazia.

Putin, who appears unstable at times, was reported to have had a carpet chewing episode a la Hitler when he heard of Saakashvili's election - especially since his hand picked candidate got creamed. He vowed not to give up South Ossetia and has tried to kick Georgia out of the province ever since.

This latest round of trouble occurred when several Georgian policemen were killed by a roadside bomb. Georgia responded by lobbing some mortar rounds into a South Ossetian separatist military enclave and Putin (who is in Beijing himself) seeing the world's attention on China at the moment, decided to launch what is either going to be a punitive raid or perhaps the big enchilada - full scale military invasion of Georgia. At the moment, anything could happen.

One bit of comic relief has been supplied by the man elected President of Russia who is supposed to be in charge of the army and foreign affairs but who apparently was either kept out of the loop or isn't calling the shots. If anyone needed any proof who is really running the show in Russia, this military action should dispel all doubts:

The conflict in Georgia also appeared to suggest the limits of the power of President Dmitri A. Medvedev, Mr. Putin's hand-picked successor. During the day, it was Mr. Putin's stern statements from China, where he was visiting the opening of the Olympic Games, that appeared to define Russia's position.

But Mr. Medvedev made a public statement as well, making it unclear who was directing Russia's military operations. Officially, that authority rests with Mr. Medvedev, and foreign policy is outside Mr. Putin's portfolio.

"The war in Ossetia instantly showed the idiocy of our state management," said a commentator on the liberal radio station, Ekho Moskvy. "Who is in charge - Putin or Medvedev?"

Putin should stop the charade and just name himself emperor. Or Czar.

Of concern to the west is not only the independence of a democratic Georgia, but also a good chunk of western Europe's oil supply. The Caspian ports from where that oil is shipped are in danger of being bombed at any time and any interruption in supply will cause the price of oil to reverse its current downward trend and rocket back up into the stratosphere.

On top of all this is the need for Putin to maintain contact with his friends in Tehran. The Caucasus are the back door to the Persian Gulf  and have historically been a vital crossroads in playing "The Great Game" of big powers seeking to control the region where smuggling routes over the years for everything from drugs to blue jeans have meant fabulous profits for those on top. A continuing NATO presence in Georgia threatens Putin's lines of communication with Iran which is just one more reason for Putin's bluster in the region.

Chances are this conflict will die down quickly. Georgia can't afford to go to war with Russia and Putin would rather burrow from within when it comes to taking down Saakashvili. But the real chances for peace lie with the South Ossetia separatists. And they have their own agenda they are following at the moment.