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Georgia: Scene of the Outbreak of Cold War II?

The Kremlin has called off its attack troops. But even as it suspends its armed assault on Georgia, Russia may well have fired the first shot of Cold War II.

The United States and the European Union have appeared reluctant to engage in a superpower confrontation with Russia. But the aggressive actions and rhetoric of the Russian leadership tandem of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev suggest that the Kremlin will keep pushing until the West has no option other than to confront Moscow in an adversarial way. In effect, the Georgia crisis has shown the West to be operating with a 21st century outlook, while the Kremlin seems to have reverted to a 19th century mindset.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Moscow on August 12 for what promised to be tough talks concerning the new geopolitical balance in the Caucasus. According to various reports, Russian troops are now in control of large areas of Georgia proper, including the Western city of Zugdidi and the port city of Poti. Russian forces have also turned the city of Gori into a ghost town, thus severing road links between the eastern and western parts of Georgia. In addition, Russian and Abkhaz forces have pushed Georgian troops out of the Kodori Gorge, part of the separatist territory of Abkhazia.

While Russian officials seem to have backed off a demand that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili resign, Moscow appears disinclined to relinquish its recent territorial gains. Medvedev made it clear on August 12 that Moscow no longer considers the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be Georgian. He also asserted that Russia was the sole guarantor of peace in the Caucasus. "This is how it was, and this is how it will be," Medvedev said.

"The aggressor has been punished and sustained very serious losses," the Interfax news agency quoted Medvedev as saying.

In what may be a prelude to formal annexation, Medvedev announced that under no circumstances would Georgian soldiers be allowed back on Abkhaz or South Ossetian territory. "They can no longer remain," Medvedev said during a news conference.

Georgian officials and Western leaders seemed unsure if Russia would continue to refrain from further violence. "There was a substantial threat to the capital yesterday [August 11]. This threat is reduced, but not eliminated yet," Georgian Parliamentary Chairman David Bakradze told an emergency parliamentary session.

The Georgian government reported several suspicious bombings in various locations, including Gori and Rustavi. The blasts occurred after Russia officially declared that it was suspending military operations. Moscow denied any involvement.

Far more troubling, reports of atrocities committed by Russian troops and South Ossetian paramilitaries are filtering back to Tbilisi. Georgian government officials are asserting that Ossetians paramilitaries are ethnically cleansing Georgians found in the conflict zone, specifically in the villages of Nikosi, Kurta, and Armarishili. Many detainees are being sent to a camp in Kurta, some are being summarily executed, dispatched with a single bullet to the head, according to Georgian sources. Overall, there are an estimated 12,000 Russian troops in Georgia.

Sarkozy's tentative comments following his initial round of discussions with Russian leaders suggested that the Kremlin would not be easily mollified. A 6-point stabilization plan discussed by Sarkozy and Medvedev did not refer to Georgia's territorial integrity, and it demanded that Tbilisi submit to a non-use of force pact. "We don't yet have peace. But we have a provisional cessation of hostilities. And everyone should be aware that this is considerable progress," Sarkozy said. "There is still much work to be done. ... What we want is to secure the best result."

Caught off guard by the ferocity of the Russian assault, the United States' resolve to confront Moscow appears to be stiffening. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza who traveled to Tbilisi in a bid to stabilize the situation, assailed Russia, saying the Kremlin had exceeded the bounds of civilized behavior. "As President Bush said again last night, this brutal form of behavior has no place in the 21st century, and by brutality I mean destroying, or trying to destroy, a government elected by the free citizens of a free country," Bryza stated.

Much of Georgia's economic infrastructure now lay in ruins. Bryza indicated that Russia, if it continued its present course, would not escape from the conflict unscathed. He called Putin's decision to unleash the Russian military on Georgia "a tragedy for Russia itself and its standing in the world," adding that Russia's relations with the United States and the Euro-Atlantic community had already been "severely damaged." The implication of Bryza's comments appeared to be that if Russia continues to act aggressively, new Cold War battle lines will be quickly drawn.

If there is any restraint currently acting on the Kremlin's behavior, it would appear to be the domestic economy. Share prices plunged in Moscow as Russian troops poured into Georgia. The market stabilized somewhat upon Medvedev's announcement on a suspension of hostilities.

During his news conference, Medvedev's rhetoric was at times decidedly unpresidential. In characterizing Saakashvili as a "lunatic," Medvedev invited questions about the mental state of the Kremlin leadership. He claimed only Russia's use of overwhelming force could subdue what he portrayed as a crazed Georgian government. "You know, the way lunatics differ from other people is that when they smell blood, it is very difficult to stop them. So you have to use surgery," Medvedev said.

Thousands gathered in downtown Tbilisi on August 12 for a rally against Russian aggression. The crowd chanted repeatedly "Georgia." Some were draped in Georgian flags and wore hats. Others chanted "Misha," Saakashvili's nickname.

"I may not be happy with everything that my government does," said one student draped in Georgian flag. "I may or may not like Saakashvili, but he is Georgian, I am Georgian and this is Georgia. They may drop bombs all they want, but we will never ever be Russia's province."

The mood in Tbilisi on August 12 appeared calmer compared to the previous day when rumors of approaching Russian tanks prompted many to flee the city. Cars lined up for gas, and with phone connections often down, the city seemed on the verge of panic. "I just grabbed whatever I could, took my wife, my children and my mother-in-law and we are headed South now, I don't know where, as far as we can go, and then we will decide what to do," said Zurab Tatanashvili, a management consultant in Tbilisi as he was filling up his car's tank.

Georgia: Scene of the Outbreak of Cold War II?

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