Russian forces have established a presence in Tskhinvali, the main city of Georgian separatist region South Ossetia. Now, Moscow will determine where its forces will halt their advance — and thereby what the new regional boundaries will be when a permanent cease-fire is declared.
Tensions erupted into open conflict Aug. 8 in Georgia's separatist region of South Ossetia, where the Georgian military cracked down on the region's major city of Tskhinvali. Russian armor has now carved out a position in the city, and as it advances, Georgian troops have no option but to retreat — leaving Moscow the ultimate arbiter of the outcome of the territorial dispute. Wherever the Russian military decides to station its forces will become the de facto boundary in the aftermath of the conflict. Former Soviet Union countries are already reassessing their relations with Russia in light of the events in Georgia, especially NATO members that hoped they could lie low and avoid getting entangled. But as Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has plainly stated, Russia has always ensured stability in the Caucasus and will continue to do so. One of Russia's geopolitical imperatives is to secure its periphery, including the mountainous slice of land between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. This means Moscow alone decides the details of how stability in the region will be sustained. The Russians will choose among four basic templates in drawing the new map for Georgia and South Ossetia. The first would involve using Russian military domination to facilitate a return to the status quo ante, ensuring a cease-fire and bringing Georgia to the negotiating table. The region's winding boundaries emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union and Georgia's subsequent independence. A series of conflicts and international agreements have followed over the years as tensions grew between the intermingled villages and suburbs of ethnic Georgians and ethnic Ossetians. A return to the previous arrangement would leave Georgia with no question as to Moscow's seriousness in defending South Ossetia's informal autonomy, while allowing Russia to claim that its peacekeepers acted as objective guarantors of security for the region according to treaties that were already in place. Second, Russia could in effect lay claim to the city and its ethnically mixed suburbs, consolidating a major foothold and establishing a base of operations. This outcome would greatly diminish Georgia's claims to sovereignty over the region, though Russia would argue that its intent is to prevent Georgia from further attacking the already partly damaged city. Third, Russia could expand this second option, pressing its advantage not only to appropriate Tskhinvali but also to extend its forces to the furthest extent of South Ossetian territory. The Russian advance could take several weeks to maneuver over the rougher terrain to the east and west of Tskhinvali, perhaps with scattered resistance from Georgians, but it ultimately would amount to a de facto annexation of the territory. Such a move would silence Georgia's claims to legal authority over the region and foist upon Tbilisi new national boundaries. The South Ossetians would likely applaud at rejoining their neighbors in North Ossetia under Russian rule, and the Georgians would fume. But neither the United States nor any other Western country could — or would — take action to undo Russia's moves. Fourth, Russia could take extreme measures and proceed to Tbilisi, toppling the Georgian government of President Mikhail Saakashvili, which has irritated the Kremlin with its gadfly buzzing for years. The Russian military would face few tactical difficulties in taking this course — as the Georgians simply do not have the defensive capability to fend off Russia — though a larger force would be needed than for the South Ossetian scenarios. The only question is whether the Russians would want to go to so much trouble only to gain a restive territory that would be hard to control. Nevertheless, this last outcome of a Russian overthrow of Tbilisi would symbolize a major shift in the region's geopolitics — and in the West, it would invoke memories of Soviet expansionism. The United States would bluster and denounce Moscow for setting up a puppet state in Georgia, but it could not respond with force, because it is tied up in the Middle East and does not desire a confrontation with Moscow. The reverberations of such a realignment of the Caucasus would be felt even beyond the former Soviet Union. In the coming days — or possibly even hours — the Kremlin will reveal which of these courses it wishes to pursue. Any one of them, even a return to status quo ante, will demonstrate that Russia's resurgence means it will not allow its neighbors to play games in its backyard — even if they are supported by the United States.