Why is Russia so interested in “defending” a micro-nation of 70,000 people (South Ossetia) that it is willing to risk international conflict? Let’s have a look at the map:
View Larger MapThe city you see is the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. This is where fighting is taking place today. The Georgians sent in an armored force from the south; the Russians came from the north; control of the city’s suburbs is swaying back and forth as you read this.
Now zoom out 4 notches and you will notice some very interesting geography. Russia and Georgia are separated by one of the most difficult military obstacles in the world, the Greater Caucasus mountain range. It is partly because of the presence of this geographical barrier that Georgia has felt safe enough to pursue an aggressive pro-Western policy, up to the point of becoming a NATO candidate (and if there is one thing that Russia doesn’t like, it’s to have neighbors that are in NATO).
So with the presence of such an imposing obstacle, how did the Russian tanks reach Tskhinvali in less than 24 hours? They came along the Trans-Caucasus Highway, a military road constructed by the Soviet government to connect North Ossetia (in Russia) and South Ossetia (Georgia).
And therein lies the strategic importance of South Ossetia for Russia. As long as South Ossetia is “independent” (read: controlled by a Russophile faction, perhaps with the help of a Russian military base to be established there), Russian tanks can cross the Greater Caucasus at will, and Georgia has to be very cautious with the Russian military threat. If Russian tanks can reach Tskhinvali within 24 hours, they can also reach the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, very quickly afterwards.
Thus South Ossetia is a vital defensive region for Georgia, and losing control of it makes the Caucasian republic extremely vulnerable militarily. Anyone familiar with the Munich Agreement and the Sudeten Crisis should recognize the analogy: an aggressive power encourages separatist tendencies in a border region of a smaller neighbor, with the purpose of depriving the smaller neighbor of its military defenses (the Sudeten fortifications for Czechoslovakia, the Greater Caucasus range for Georgia).
So it now becomes even more vital that our response to the crisis should be McCain’s (Russia should withdraw its forces from Georgia immediately) and not Obama’s (stop fighting and allow Russia to increase its control over South Ossetia).