Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia in 1991 and has kept troops inside South Ossetia as part of the peacekeeping forces to prevent combat. Russia rejects Georgia's domination of South Ossetia and is acting to protect its client state. Russia had warned that if Georgia attacked South Ossetia, they would defend there client state. The Georgians, egged on by the Bush administration and an offer to join NATO, considered the Russian threat to be a bluff.
When the Georgians attacked South Ossetia, they learned it was not a bluff.
Ian Welsh offers a more recent history at Firedoglake of the immediate actions that have led to the current conflict. Ian points out that Georgia is a small state next to the much larger Russia and is dependent on Russia economically. Georgia is deep inside Russia's sphere of influence. Second, NATO is not going to send troops to fight for Georgia against Russian troops. The distance is much too great. While some might think that Russia will not fight NATO if NATO sends troops to Georgia, NATO surely will not fight Russia in Georgia. Saying anything else is merely a NATO bluff, and Russia will very probably call that bluff. NATO will not back it up.
The Guardian offers a brief history of Ossetia. Here is a key part of it:
The Ossetians are descendants of a tribe called the Alans. Like the Georgians, the Ossetians are orthodox Christians, but they have their own language. In Soviet times the Ossetians had an autonomous region within Georgia. The Georgians say the Ossetians cooperated with the Bolsheviks and tended to be more pro-Soviet. Their ethnic kin live across the border in the Russian region of North Ossetia, so they feel more drawn to Russia than to Georgia - and many have Russian passports.
Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast also had autonomy within Georgia during Soviet times. Because of its sub-tropical climate, it was the playground of Soviet leaders and is popular with Russian tourists today. It has a mixed population of Abkhazis, Mingrelians, Greeks, Armenians, Russians and Georgians, and a small but significant Muslim minority. Thousands of ethnic Georgians fled their homes in Abkhazia during the civil war at the beginning of the 1990s and now live as refugees in Tbilisi and Moscow.
Wikipedia offers an excellent discussion of South Ossetia. Go read it. The people of South Ossetia do not hold any love or respect for Georgia as a nation.
The CIA world Factbook: Georgia provides some background like population and economy, but nothing that provided any real insight to me about the current problems between Georgia and Russia. Even the map provides very little detail.
From what I have heard and read (but cannot find documentation for) Georgia itself has been a propaganda battleground between the U.S. and Russia since the collapse of the USSR, but especially since the Bush administration has begun trying to sell its commitment to spreading "democracy." I haven't found a good description of the competing moves by the US/NATO and Russia through Georgia. It is generally clear, though, that the US/NATO has been trying to push greater democracy and membership in the European Union to as many of the USSR's old client states as possible, this at the expense of Russia. Russia has been resisting those encroachments on the previous client states it still considers part of its hegemony (much as the US considers South and Latin America to be part of its hegemony.) It is similarly clear that the Russians have seen the breakaway South Ossetia as a tool to keep Georgia off balance and to interfere with Georgia's flirtation with NATO and the European Union. It is also clear that Georgia is not in any position militarily to fight with Russia.
The combat in Georgia and South Ossetia with the Russian military is ongoing. There is no sense in me trying to compete here with breaking news on that subject. This material is intended as background. According to Wikipedia,
"The current authorized strength of the GAF structures is 32,650 personnel, including 18,993 in the Land Forces, 2,091 in the Air Force, 1350 in the Navy, 9,196 in administration staff and central structures. The Georgian Parliament aims to increase the strength of the ground forces. At the end of 2010 the GAF will consist of 75.000 men;forming 5th and 6th brigades. Reserves will be total 120.000 men." [Snip]Wikipedia describes the military forces of Russia as
The strength of Land Forces is 26,739 from which 2,215 are officers, 24,508 NCOs (contracting) and 16 civilians.
The Ground Forces included an estimated total 395,000 including est. 190,000 conscripts and 35,000 personnel of the Airborne Forces (VDV) in 2006. This can be compared to an estimated 670,000, with 210,000 conscripts, in 1995–96 (also an IISS estimate). These numbers should be treated with caution, however, due to the difficulty for those outside Russia to make accurate assessments, and confusion even within the General Staff on the numbers of conscripts within the force.The personnel difference alone makes any war between Russia and Georgia a very uneven combat, one Georgia will not win. It is clear that the government of Georgia believed that Russia would be intimidated by international public opinion and US/NATO rhetoric, so they would NOT be willing to attack Georgia. But the US/NATO were bluffing, and Russia has now called their bluff. Georgia has been caught in the backwash.
I wonder if, when Bush looked into the eyes of the ex-KGB agent Putin and saw his soul, Bush saw and recognized this part of Putin's Russian soul?
Check my sources to see if I have properly summarized what they had to say, and if you have any corrections or additional sources, leave a reference in comments. I'm just trying to understand what is going on.
Addendum 1 Aug 11, 2008 8:51 am CDT
Glenn Greenwald interviewed Professor Charles King of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service on the situation in Georgia yesterday, and has posted a transcript (Watch a 15 second ad to see it) of the very illuminating interview at Salon.
To summarize only a few significant points, it appears that the Georgian leadership looked back at a cased 13 years ago in which the Croatian military was given the green light by the U.S. to use it's US trained troops in a fast operation to remove a Serbian entity controlling a part of Croatian territory. The operation was completed rapidly and effectively, removing the Serbians and leading to the Dayton Agreements shortly thereafter.
With that as a template and the belief that the U.S. would step in to protect a nascent democracy if the Russians attempted to counter the military action, Georgia attempted to conduct a military action that would be over so quickly that the Russians would not be able to stop them.
The Georgian military operation did not work as expected, the difficulties the Russians were expected to face getting troops into South Ossetia were instead quickly overcome, and the Georgians grossly misunderstood how much influence the Americans and world opinion would have on the Russian leadership.
It appears now that the Russians are taking this opportunity to clean up the problem they have had in the Caucus Mountains with Georgia and to provide a demonstration to other recalcitrant ex-Soviet Union states that Russia remains in charge in that region.
There is a great deal more history and analysis in the transcript. It is well worth reading.