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Challenging situation for Moscow

By James Rodgers
BBC News, Moscow

Putin in North Ossetia (09/08/08)
Russian PM Vladimir Putin seems to be taking the decisions

The aftershocks from the earthquake are still being felt almost two decades later. Not all the dust has settled from collapse of the Soviet Union.

South Ossetia is one of the wars - "frozen conflicts" in diplomatic speech - which did not really end. It smouldered beneath the surface. Now it has reignited.

It presents special problems for the Kremlin. There is a sense here that Russia was taken by surprise.

"I don't think Russia had any plan or master design for this conflict," says Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation. "Russia was reacting, and improvising - probably not always successfully.

"The way the Kremlin reacted suggests that they were not prepared to face such an action from the Georgian side," he adds.

The fact that the first statement from a top-level official came not from the Kremlin, but from Beijing, gives a clue as to who is taking the real decisions.

It was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, attending the Olympics Games, who spoke. It was also Mr Putin who arrived in the Russian region which borders South Ossetia to denounce "genocide".

Determined line

As Russia formulates its response, he is clearly playing a bigger role than any of his predecessors in the post might have expected.

Given the nature of the size and the terrain of the region where the fighting is going on, Russia would by no means assured of an easy military victory - if that's the way it decided to seek a solution.

That means Russia is likely to continue to follow the determined line it has set out so far.

During his time as president, Mr Putin is thought to have had a particularly poor relationship with his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili.

Mr Saakashvili's close ties with the United States, and ambition for Georgian Nato membership, pretty much sums up everything Mr Putin condemned when he made a speech at the Munich Security Conference last year.

In an interview with the BBC, I put it to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that given this antagonistic atmosphere, Russia wanted to teach Georgia a lesson.

Mr Lavrov began his reply by recalling recent diplomatic rows between Russia and Georgia.

He then said: "If you want us to like the people who started this aggression in South Ossetia, killing Russian peacekeepers, I don't think we would be positively considering the offer."

'Double standards'

Russia is clearly angered by the way this conflict has developed, but its way forward is not obvious.

Russian artillery in action in the South Ossetian town of Dzhava on 9 August
Georgia's move into South Ossetia appears to have surprised Russia

Before Kosovo's independence, Moscow insisted that South Ossetia's status should be considered along with that of Kosovo.

Russia bitterly opposed the secession of a region of Serbia. If it now decided to support the secession of a region of another sovereign state, it would leave itself open to the charges of "double standards" it so often lays at the West's door.

Russia also has its own disastrous experience of a separatist war in the Caucasus - in Chechnya.

From that conflict, Russia knows the challenges of facing a smaller, but determined, enemy.

What Russia wants

Russia's military strength dwarfs that of Georgia - but Georgia has spent massively on its army. Some of its officers have travelled to the US for training.

Especially given the nature of the size and the terrain of the region where the fighting is going on, Russia would by no means assured of an easy military victory - if that is the way it decided to seek a solution.

So what does Russia want?

Mr Lavrov said he had had lengthy consultations with US and European officials.

"We explained our position. We cannot allow the peace agreements just to be violated this way. And whatever it takes to bring the situation to status quo ante would be done."

It is easy to see why Russia would want that. The "status quo" meant that Russia had close ties with a region whose de-facto independence was a thorn in the side of a would-be Nato member.

Russia did not need either formally to recognise that independence, or take complete responsibility for South Ossetia's fate.

But the consequences of this conflict may mean that vague, undefined, status for South Ossetia is no longer an option - forcing on Russia a change in a relationship which suited it rather well.


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