On August 7th, 2008 an open conflict broke out between Georgia, South Ossetia (an unrecognized break-away region of Georgia), and Russia. The public debate has focused mainly on the legitimacy of Russia and Georgia’s actions in this conflict. Did Georgia act legitimately? Did Russia? Did both? Or did neither? The importance of this debate relates largely to how other states in the international community react to the conflict. America’s formal diplomatic position is, for instance, that Russia “invaded” Georgia, and that Russia is primarily culpable in the conflict. This had led some Americans to conclude that Russia must be punished in some form, with proposals ranging from sanctions to removing Russia from the G-8.
This conflict has existed in a milder form for over a decade. Georgia regained its independence in 1991 upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. Soon after, in the early 1990s, South Ossetia (which had been autonomous under the Soviet Union), declared independence as the Republic of South Ossetia. South Ossetia, however, is not recognized in the international community as a state. Georgia and the international community still considers it part of its territory. In 2008, upon alleged provocation by South Ossetian separatists, Georgia launched military operations into South Ossetia in an attempt to reassert sovereign control over the break-away region. At this stage, Russia became involved in the conflict, justifying its engagement on the grounds that Georgia’s military operations in South Ossetia lead to a humanitarian disaster that killed dozens (and possibly hundreds) of Russian citizens in addition to allegedly injuring around 150 Russian peacekeepers and killing 10. With these and other justifications abounding, who was right? Who was more legitimate in their actions, Russia or Georgia?
Russia’s intervened in South Ossetia to protect Russians from Georgia’s hard-handed military intervention in South Ossetia, which resulted in a significant humanitarian crisis. Some claim that upwards of 2,000 civilians had died in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali as a result of Georgian military operations there, most of them Russian citizens. Russia’s constitution requires that it protect its citizens no matter where they are in the world. Russia aggressive response to the death of so many of its citizens was, therefore, justified.
One of Russia’s primary objectives in South Ossetia was to protect Russian peacekeepers that were under attack by Georgian forces. During this attack reportedly 10 Russian peacekeepers were killed and roughly 150 injured. This provided a sound pretext for a strong military response from Russia.
Interfax news agency cited a source in the Russian naval command saying, “This is definitely necessary for preventing arms shipments to Georgia by sea. A sea blockade of Georgia will also help avert an escalation of military activity in Abkhazia.”
Russia’s bombings within South Ossetia have been too heavy handed, involving too much destructive fore, and resulting in too many civilian casualties.
“I was very firm with Vladimir Putin. I expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia. We strongly condemn bombing outside of South Ossetia.”
Georgia’s military actions in South Ossetia were not unprovoked. They were a proportional response to shellings against Georgia proper by South Ossetian separatists.
US President George Bush. – “Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century.”
“Russia’s invasion of Georgia has less to do with South Ossetia than with a Russia that never reconciled itself to losing an empire — or to being treated like a second-rate power all these years. Russia’s resentment has only grown as oil prices have risen, turning Russia, with the 5 million bbl. of oil it exports a day, into a first-world economic power. It was only a matter of time, then, before Russia taught the world a lesson.”
Over 2,000 civilians were reported to have been killed in the capital city of South Ossetia, following Georgia’s military actions there. Russia’s response to this humanitarian crisis was justified.
Vladmir Putin – “In line with effective international agreements, including the 1992 agreement, Russia not only performs peacekeeping functions but in case of violation of the ceasefire agreement by one side is obliged to protect the other, which we did in this case with regard to South Ossetia.”
Russia moved more than 9,000 troops into South Ossetia, while peacekeeping agreements allow only 2,500. Its violation of these agreements signifies that Russia was not attempting to engage in a peacekeeping or humanitarian operation, but was, rather, engaging in a broader military action against Georgia.
Russia’s ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said that what was happening in Georgia’s breakaway region could only be seen as “ethnic cleansing and genocide”. Georgia has also been accused of shelling Tskhinvali, the capital city of South Ossetia.
This is not the first time that Georgia has been accused of committing genocide in Georgia. It has allegedly committed genocide in South Ossetia in the early 1990s.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili denounced as “a lie” Russian claims of more than 1,000 civilian deaths in South Ossetia’s main city. He said “practically no civilians” were killed. He continued that the claims were an “egregious lie. There were practically no civilians dead. But Tskhinvali is ruined as a result of Russian bombardments.”
On August 13th, Georgia filed a lawsuit against Russia at the International Court of Justice for allegedly engaging in ethnic cleansing South Ossetia and other parts of Georgia. 
South Ossetia has been de facto independent since the 1990s. It has excercised authority over its own affairs since then. Georgia, therefore, was wrong to attempt to re-claim South Ossetia by force.
Many supporters of Georgia claim that Georgia was justified to reassert its sovereignty over South Ossetia. But, such a re-assertion of territorial integrity could not legitimately include bombing civilian targets and inflicting such a heavy humanitarian toll on Georgia.
Southern Ossetia should be independent. Its case for independence is very strong, with over a decade of de facto, democratic self-governance, and a majority desiring and voting for independence from Georgia in 2006. Because its case is so strong for independence, Georgia’s decision to attempt to re-claim it by force was particularly illegitimate.
In 2006, South Ossetia held a referendum that found over 90% of its population wants independence from Georgia. This provides a very strong case for giving South Ossetia independence, on the basis of self-determination.
“The republic of South Ossetia, which is not recognized internationally, formally belongs to the Georgian state even if Tbilisi has lost factual control there for the past 15 years and almost all residents have Russian passports.”
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania Petras Vaitiekunas. – “Having arrived in Georgia and observing the situation on the spot, I agree with the assessments of the situation by the international community, that Russian military forces have crossed all red lines by crossing an internationally-recognized border into the sovereign territory of Georgia.”A senior US official, who spoke on condition he not be named, said the outlook was “grim” and that Russia had planned its moves in Georgia for some time. – “This appears to be a full invasion of Georgia with an end result uncertain and an objective that is not clear but appears to be aggressive in nature. Words like invasion should not be used lightly but this is an invasion.”
None of the world recognized South Ossetia’s 2006 referendum vote for independence. Therefore, this referendum should be considered illegitimate.
S. Ossetia is too small to be independent. It is also a landlocked state. These facts make it unlikely that South Ossetia could act effectively as an independent state.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2007. Most Western scholars consider this to have been a legitimate claim. A comparative analysis reveals that South Ossetia has an equally legitimate claim to independence as Kosovo.
Kosovo should not have been given independence. Its independence is, therefore, illegitimate, and should not be held up as a precedent by which South Ossetian independence can be justified.
Russia long opposed Kosovo’s moves to independence. It is, therefore, a double standard that it now support Ossetian independence.