Can we have a show of hands, please? How many had even heard of South Ossetia before the current conflict? [Hands here are down.]
A Fistful of Euros provides some blunt analysis, from which are below offered extended quotes. But here is an alternative analysis. If you want to do some background reading on your own, American Footprints has some good links.
So, South Ossetia. Little mountainous region up in the back of the Caucasus. Used to be part of Georgia. Declared independence in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was falling apart. There was a shooting war for about a year, which left around a thousand people dead, some tens of thousands ethnically cleansed. When it ended, most of South Ossetia had de facto independence, which they’ve maintained since then with strong support from Russia.
Couple of things you need to grasp if you’re going to understand South Ossetia. One is, it’s not very horizontal. It’s all mountains, with just enough flat ground for one modest-sized town. Almost all of it is over 1000 meters up, about a third of it over 2,000 meters.
Two, it’s not that big. There are only around 75,000 people in South Ossetia. In both area and population, it’s the smallest of the frozen conflicts.
Three, it’s poor. Really poor. I mean, Transnistria is one of the poorest corners of Europe, but Transnistria is Switzerland compared to South Ossetia. It’s basically 75,000 people living on rocks. Okay, okay, not rocks, but this is a region whose traditional economy consisted of driving sheep uphill in spring and back down again in autumn. There’s no industry to speak of. About one-third of the state’s income comes from charging tolls on the single highway. South Ossetia doesn’t export much but timber, sheep and people. Well, and there was a big counterfeiting operation making US $100 bills a couple of years back. But anyway, point is, not much there.
The Ossetians themselves are one of those weird Caucasus groups. Their language is distantly related to Persian; the Ossetians are supposedly descended from the Alans, a medieval nomadic people who were vaguely connected to the ancient Scythians. The Alans had a small empire going in the northern Caucasus back in the 12th century, but then they got badly steamrollered by the Mongols. The survivors fled up into the rugged slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, which is where their Ossetian descendants still live today.
That’s why there’s a North and South Ossetia, by the way: two regions are separated by the spine of the Greater Caucasus range. These are some serious mountains — jagged savage peaks that go up three, four, five kilometers. There’s only one road connection between the two Ossetias. It goes through the Roki Tunnel, which was blasted out by Soviet engineers back in the glorious Soviet heyday of blasting big holes in things. The tunnel is at 3,000 meters altitude and 3.8 km long, and it gets closed by snow every winter. When that happens, there is no way over those mountains by land whatsoever, unless you’re a trained Alpinist with a few days to kill. Ossetians like to talk about the essential unity of the Ossetian people, but geography isn’t really working with them.
Okay, so much for the basics. Now an obvious question: why should you, dear reader, care about South Ossetia?
You probably shouldn’t.
Unlike the other frozen conflicts, there’s not a lot at stake in South Ossetia. It’s small, it’s remote, it has no resources and zero strategic value. It’s very unlikely to lead to a larger conflict. So unless you’re Georgian or Ossetian, there’s no reason it should keep you awake at night. (And even if you’re Georgian, you probably spend a lot more time thinking about Abkhazia — Georgia’s other frozen conflict — than about South Ossetia.) South Ossetia is just not that important to the rest of the world.
And then there's this:
Who started it? — Looks like Georgia. The sniping earlier came from both sides, but the Georgians have clearly launched a major ground offensive, and that doesn’t just happen by accident.
Why? Why? — What follows is a mishmash of guesses. Take it with a big grain of salt.
South Ossetia has always been vulnerable to a blitzkrieg attack. It’s small, it’s not very populous (~70,000 people), and it’s surrounded by Georgia on three sides. It’s very rugged and mountainous, yes, but it’s not suited to defense in depth. There’s only one town of any size (Tsikhinvali, the capital) and only one decent road connecting the province with Russia.
That last point bears emphasizing. There’s just one road, and it goes through a tunnel. There are a couple of crappy roads over the high passes, but they’re in dreadful condition; they can’t support heavy equipment, and are closed by snow from September to May. Strategically, South Ossetia dangles by that single thread.
So, there was always this temptation: a fast determined offensive could capture Tsikhinvali, blow up or block the tunnel, close the road, and then sit tight. If it worked, the Russians would then be in a very tricky spot: yes, they outnumber the Georgians 20 to 1, but they’d have to either drop in by air or attack over some very high, nasty mountains. This seems to be what the Georgians are trying to do: attack fast and hard, grab Tsikhinvali, and close the road.