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Aug 11, 2008 | 15:34 GMT

3 mins read

Georgia, Russia: Checkmate?

The conflict in the small former Soviet state of Georgia has taken a new twist. So far, apart from Russian airstrikes, most of the combat has been limited to the north-central Georgian secessionist province of South Ossetia. But on Aug. 11, Russia beefed up its 2,500-strong peacekeeping force in Abkhazia — a secessionist region in northwestern Georgia — to more than 9,000 troops. And now the Russian Defense Ministry has announced — and the Georgian Interior Ministry has confirmed — that Russian forces have advanced up to the western Georgian city of Senaki. The presence of Russian troops in Senaki has a number of important implications. First, the Russian forces used in the operation approached from Abkhazia. There has been a U.N. buffer force between Abkhaz- and Georgian-controlled territory, so for Russian forces to be near Senaki, the Russians would have had to move through — and ultimately beyond — that buffer. Georgia's best troops are also typically kept near Abkhazia, suggesting that those forces have been either bypassed or destroyed. Several reports indicate the Georgians are engaged in combat with Abkhaz forces in the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge, so it seems likely they were bypassed. Second, Senaki sits astride a railroad juncture that links the rest of the country not only to Abkhazia, but to Georgia's largest port: Poti. The Russians have already bombed Poti several times, but taking Senaki completely removes the port from the equation. Third, another Georgian city — Samtredia — is only an hour's march from Senaki. Samtredia sits astride the Baku-Tbilisi-Supsa oil pipeline, transit fees from which are a major portion of Georgia's economic wherewithal. But its military significance for Georgia cannot be overstated. Samtredia is where Georgia's transport links to its only other ports, Supsa and Batumi, merge with its link to Poti. (Technically, Sukumi is also a Georgian port, but the Abkhaz have controlled it since achieving de facto independence in 1993.) Should Samtredia fall, Russia will have, in effect, enacted a naval blockade of Georgia without using its navy. The city is also the only land link of any meaningful size to Turkey. While Turkey — along with the rest of the world — does not want to get involved in the conflict, the capture of Samtredia effectively blocks any potential land-based reinforcements from reaching Georgia via Turkey. Furthermore, there is only one road and rail line that leads east from Samtredia to the rest of the country. This transport corridor is, in essence, the backbone of the entire country. Should Samtredia fall, there is really nothing that can be done — by Georgia or anyone else — to stop the Russians from taking over Georgia outright, one piece at a time, at their leisure. In essence, the Russians are a heartbeat away from being able to dictate terms to the Georgians without even glancing in the direction of Tbilisi.

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