This is a Blast Magazine special report with senior editor, Daniel Peleschuk, in Eastern Europe. We will have further reports as they are dispatched.
KYIV, Ukraine — In a brazen maneuver that has ignited an international military conflict, Russia late last week sent 150 tanks over its border into neighboring Georgia’s separatist territory of South Ossetia, prompting Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to declare a 15-day state of war with Russia.
The assault was a response to Georgia’s surprise capture of the pro-Russian territory, which for years has struggled for independence from Georgia with Moscow backing. Internationally recognized as part of Georgia but a self-proclaimed, de-facto independent republic, the north-central enclave has battled on and off since 1992 to grasp official independence. Observers and political officials have called it a “frozen conflict.”
Here in the capital of Ukraine, the pro-Georgian government announced yesterday that it may not let Russian naval ships, based in the Crimean, Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, back to their bases. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has for long been a thorn in Ukraine’s side with regards to their relations with the larger country.
Russia argues that it is simply protecting the interest and well being of its citizens in the breakaway region. The Russian government has issued most of South Ossetia’s citizens Russian passports, thereby legitimizing Russia’s claims of “protecting their own.” Although there are virtually no ethnic Russians in the territory, they have do have a cultural and lingual connection to North Ossetia-Alania, a federal republic of Russia, which it borders to the north.
Throughout the weekend, Georgian troops exchanged artillery and small arms fire with Ossetian separatists and Russian soldiers, officially sent in by Russia as peacekeepers. Russian planes bombed Georgian towns in and around South Ossetia, completely leveling the breakaway capital of Tskhinvali. Some planes reached as far as the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, bombing military bases on the city’s outskirts.
Russia has claimed that over 2,000 civilians — most of which were ethnic Georgians with Russian citizenship — were killed in the territory as a result of Georgia’s invasion, but more accurate, independent estimates have yet to be released.
Two journalists have also been killed covering the conflict. Alexander Klimchuk and Giga Chikhladze were photographers with Caucasus Images (CPI), a Georgia-based photo agency that supplies photos to various news organizations. They were embedded with Georgian forces fighting in South Ossetia, according to the Ukrainian newswire, UNIAN.
Envoys from the U.S. and the European Union traveled to Tbilisi over the weekend in an attempt to negotiate a ceasefire between the countries, but have not yet reached a peaceful agreement, according to various reports.
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Jim Jeffery warned that a prolonging of the violence could strain important political relations between the U.S. and Russia.
“We have made it clear to the Russians that if the disproportionate and dangerous escalation on the Russian side continues, this will have a significant long-term impact on U.S.-Russian relations,” he said, speaking to reporters on Sunday in Beijing.