The bumbling of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is a stunning sight to behold. This much seems clear: Putin and his surrogates in South Ossetia set a trap and the Georgians ambled into it, naively expecting his allies in the West to come to his rescue. And it is too early to tell just where the blame lies, though convincing arguments can be made for both camps. Georgia argues that it was responding to an attempted annexation of South Ossetia and consistent provocations from the Russian military; Russia claims it is merely defending the Russian passport holders of Ossetia from Georgia's all-out attack on Tshkhinvali, the regional capital. Both sides are engaged in heated, overblown rhetoric; both are making shocking and unverifiable claims. Georgia says that Russia is engaged in a campaign of "ethnic cleansing." Russian President Dmitri Medvedev told reporters that Georgia is engaged in "genocide." Both of these statements are to be treated with circumspection, of course, just as it is impossible to determine if the civilian casualty figures reported are accurate.
The propaganda war is in full swing, with both sides limiting access to certain media outlets. According to The Moscow Times, a reporter for Russia Today, the Kremlin's English-language propaganda channel, was fired for mentioning on-air that Russia was bombing inside Georgia. The same story noted that Georgia "terminated broadcasts of Russian news channels Channel One, Rossia and NTV and blocked web sites in the .ru domain."
That said, the Russians have made it abundantly clear that they desire to overthrow the democratically elected Georgian government. So the question of proportionality is not just one of force, but of end results. If the Russians only desire to expel Georgian forces from South Ossetia and reestablish "peace keeping" forces in the region (it is, of course, a bit odd to have one of two interested parties acting as "peacekeepers"), why attempt to bomb oil pipelines? Why send Russian troops into the contested region Abkhazia? Why bomb the Kodori Gorge—a stronghold of ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia? Or military bases bordering Abkhazia? Or the airport in Tbilisi? Or send troops into the town of Senaki, deep into Georgian territory? According to this breaking story from CNN, the Russian military currently controls half of the country.
Again, Russia has made it clear that it wants Saakashvili to go. But as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said today, there is simply no justification for Russian military's occupation of areas in Georgia proper (Although many would claim that Ossetia and Abkhazia too are Georgia proper, as enunciated in multiple UN resolutions, but I won't wade into that dispute). But if Saakashvili is indeed correct that Russia is "in the process of invasion, occupation, and annihilation of an independent, democratic country," the justification for its initial incursion into South Ossetia seems to have been rendered irrelevant.
Bonus video: Watch this BBC reporter's car come under attack by the Russian air force.
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