ASSOCIATED PRESS: GORI, Georgia — Georgian troops retreated from the breakaway province of South Ossetia on Sunday as their U.S.-allied government ordered a cease-fire and pressed for a truce, overwhelmed by Russian firepower in a conflict that threatened to set off a wider war. Russia deployed a naval squadron off the coast of another of Georgia’s separatist regions, Abkhazia, and its jets bombed the outskirts of Tblisi, the Georgian capital. Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said its soldiers were observing a cease-fire on orders of the president and notified Russia’s envoy to Tbilisi.”Georgia expresses its readiness to immediately start negotiations with the Russian Federation on cease-fire and termination of hostilities,” the ministry said in a statement. The Russian Foreign Ministry had no immediate response to the Georgian offer. It came as the U.N. Security Council _ where Russia has veto power _ met in an open session and European diplomats sought to mediate. Georgia, whose troops have been trained by American soldiers, began an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia overnight Friday, launching heavy rocket and artillery fire and air strikes that pounded the provincial capital, Tskhinvali.In response, Russia, which has granted passports to most South Ossetians, launched overwhelming artillery shelling and air attacks on Georgian troops. Russia has demanded that Georgia pull out its troops from South Ossetia as a condition for a cease-fire. It also urged Georgia to sign a pledge not to use force against South Ossetia as another condition for ending hostilities. Earlier, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said that Moscow now needs to verify the Georgian withdrawal. “We must check all that. We don’t trust the Georgian side,” he said.MORE
JAMES TRAUB: The hostilities between Russia and Georgia that erupted on Friday over the breakaway province of South Ossetia look, in retrospect, almost absurdly over-determined. For years, the Russians have claimed that Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has been preparing to retake the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and have warned that they would use force to block such a bid. Mr. Saakashvili, for his part, describes today’s Russia as a belligerent power ruthlessly pressing at its borders, implacably hostile to democratic neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine. He has thrown in his lot with the West, and has campaigned ardently for membership in NATO. Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s former president and current prime minister, has said Russia could never accept a NATO presence in the Caucasus.The border between Georgia and Russia, in short, has been the driest of tinder; the only question was where the fire would start. It’s scarcely clear yet how things will stand between the two when the smoke clears. But it’s safe to say that while Russia has a massive advantage in firepower, Georgia, an open, free-market, more-or-less-democratic nation that sees itself as a distant outpost of Europe, enjoys a decisive rhetorical and political edge. In recent conversations there, President Saakashvili compared Georgia to Czechoslovakia in 1938, trusting the West to save it from a ravenous neighbor. “If Georgia fails,” he said to me darkly two months ago, “it will send a message to everyone that this path doesn’t work.” MORE
NEW YORK TIMES: The image of President Bush smiling and chatting with Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia from the stands of the Beijing Olympics even as Russian aircraft were shelling Georgia outlines the reality of America’s Russia policy. While America considers Georgia its strongest ally in the bloc of former Soviet countries, Washington needs Russia too much on big issues like Iran to risk it all to defend Georgia. And State Department officials made it clear on Saturday that there was no chance the United States would intervene militarily. Mr. Bush did use tough language, demanding that Russia stop bombing. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanded that Russia “respect Georgia’s territorial integrity.”
What did Mr. Putin do? First, he repudiated President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Beijing, refusing to budge when Mr. Sarkozy tried to dissuade Russia from its military operation. “It was a very, very tough meeting,” a senior Western official said afterward. “Putin was saying, ‘We are going to make them pay. We are going to make justice.’ ” Then, Mr. Putin flew from Beijing to a region that borders South Ossetia, arriving after an announcement that Georgia was pulling its troops out of the capital of the breakaway region. He appeared ostensibly to coordinate assistance to refugees who had fled South Ossetia into Russia, but the Russian message was clear: This is our sphere of influence; others stay out.
“What the Russians just did is, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, they have taken a decisive military action and imposed a military reality,” said George Friedman, chief executive of Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis and intelligence company. “They’ve done it unilaterally, and all of the countries that have been looking to the West to intimidate the Russians are now forced into a position to consider what just happened.” MORE
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE CONFLICT IN GEORGIA BUT ARE TOO LAZY TO ASK: On April 9, 1991, shortly before the collapse of the USSR, Georgia declared independence. On May 26, 1991, Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected as a first President of independent Georgia. However, he was soon deposed in a bloody coup d’état, from December 22, 1991 to January 6, 1992. The coup was instigated by part of the National Guards and a paramilitary organization called “Mkhedrioni“. The country became embroiled in a bitter civil war which lasted almost until 1995. Eduard Shevardnadze returned to Georgia in 1992 and joined the leaders of the coup — Kitovani and Ioseliani — to head a triumvirate called the “State Council”.
In 1995, Shevardnadze was officially elected as a president of Georgia. At the same time, two regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, quickly became embroiled in disputes with local separatists that led to widespread inter-ethnic violence and wars. Supported by Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia achieved de facto independence from Georgia. More than 250,000 Georgians were ethnically cleansed from Abkhazia by Abkhaz separatists and North Caucasians volunteers (including Chechens) in 1992-1993. More than 25,000 Georgians were expelled from Tskhinvali as well, and many Ossetian families were forced to abandon their homes in the Borjomi region and move to Russia.
In 2003, Shevardnadze (who won reelection in 2000) was deposed by the Rose Revolution, after Georgian opposition and international monitors asserted that the November 2 parliamentary elections were marred by fraud. The revolution was led by Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze, former members and leaders of Shavarnadze’s ruling party. Mikheil Saakashvili was elected as President of Georgia in 2004.
Following the Rose Revolution, a series of reforms was launched to strengthen the country’s military and economic capabilities. The new government’s efforts to reassert the Georgian authority in the southwestern autonomous republic of Ajaria led to a major crisis early in 2004. Success in Ajaria encouraged Saakashvili to intensify his efforts, but without success, in the breakaway South Ossetia. These events resulted in a severe deterioration of relations with Russia, fueled also by Russia’s open assistance and support to the two secessionists areas. Russian military bases (dating back to Soviet era) in Georgia were evacuated, with the last remaining base in Batumi handed over to Georgia in 2007.
On August 7, 2008, while the world media was almost entirely focused on the opening of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Georgian forces entered South Ossetia, which is situated on the border with Russia, in an attempt to bring the region under government control. On August 8, Russian military forces retaliated by entering South Ossetia and allegedly launching a series of airstrikes against Georgian forces (and, according to Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, civilian targets outside of the actual conflict zone). Russia has denied doing this. Due to the intensive war activity in South Ossetia there are controversial reports about the possible casualties on both sides, targets which have fallen under aerial attacks, troop movements and the current front line between the Georgian and Russian-Ossetian combat groupings. MORE