Russia and Georgia – Background to conflict

After months of increased tension, and recent low-level hostilities, the conflict between Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia escalated in the early morning of 8 August 2008. The fighting became the most serious confrontation since the civil war between the two was concluded through a truce in 1992.

Georgian troops launched what appears to have been a coordinated military offensive against the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, with the Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili emphasizing the need “to restore constitutional order” over the region.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, pledging “to respect the life and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are”, responded by sending further troops to reinforce those already stationed in South Ossetia as part of the ceasefire.  

On 9 August President Saakashvili declared a 15-day ‘state of war’ to facilitate mobilization.  

South Ossetia
The people of South Ossetia are a distinct ethnic group, speaking a language distantly related to Farsi.

South Ossetia, which is in Georgia, is separated from North Ossetia, which is in Russia, by the border between the two countries running high in the Caucasus. Much of the region lies more than 1000m above sea level.

South Ossetia was an autonomous province of Georgia during the Soviet era. It declared independence from Georgia in 1990 and armed conflict between South Ossetian and Georgian forces ensued in 1991 and 1992.

The conflict ended in 1992 with a ceasefire and establishment of a tripartite peacekeeping force, with Russian, Ossetian and Georgian peacekeeping battalions. South Ossetia has enjoyed de facto independence since 1992, although not recognized by any other state. Many of its ethnic Ossetian inhabitants have, however, acquired Russian passports. A third of the population is reported to be ethnically Georgian.

Tensions, never far below the surface, increased after the 2004 election of President Saakashvili, who pledged to restore Georgian territorial integrity by re-establishing control over South Ossetia and the other unrecognized region of Abkhazia, in the north-west.

Tensions have also increased between Georgia and Russia this year over Abkhazia, where Russia has troops operating as a peacekeeping force mandated by the Commonwealth of Independent States. The UN also has an observer contingent there, known as UNOMIG, established in August 1993 to verify compliance with the ceasefire agreement.

The conduct of military operations

The principles of international humanitarian law are binding on states and non-governmental armed groups.

The following are key principles of international humanitarian law:

All parties to the conflict must protect civilians and respect the distinction between military targets and civilians objects;
Direct attacks against civilians or civilian objects, whether in reprisal or for any other reason are prohibited;
Neither side can use a civilian object such as a school or hospital to shield fighters or weapons;
Indiscriminate attacks which do not attempt to distinguish between military target  and civilians or civilians objects , or which use inherently indiscriminate weapons, are prohibited;
Disproportionate attacks are prohibited too – this means attacks that, while aimed at a legitimate military target, have a disproportionate impact on civilians relative to the military objective;
Parties must take measures to protect the civilian population from the dangers arising from military operations – this includes not locating military objectives among civilian concentrations;
Civilians must have access to humanitarian assistance, and humanitarian agencies must be allowed access to the civilian population;
All prisoners, the wounded and those seeking to surrender, must be treated humanely – prisoners must never be killed or held as hostages;
Anyone responsible for grave breaches of international humanitarian law should be brought to justice in a fair trial, and reparations should be provided to the victims of such violations.