Russia, Georgia Engage In War Of Words Ahead Of Anniversary

09/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

MOSCOW -- Russia and Georgia have relaunched a war of words as the first anniversary of their lightning conflict over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia approaches this weekend.

The two countries remain in a state of tense standoff. The five-day war last August left hundreds dead, obliterated Georgia's military and further blackened Russia's image in the eyes of the West.

It also left unresolved the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two republics that broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and declared independence shortly after the crushing war -- a declaration recognized only by Russia and Nicaragua.

Both sides continue to insist the other was to blame for starting the war, which saw Russian troops crossing international borders for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union.

As the anniversary of the start of the war -- either August 7 or 8, depending which side you ask -- approaches, observers are trying to decipher language hinting at whether lingering animosities could once again explode.

Since last week, both Moscow and Tbilisi have accused each other of provoking attacks -- shellings, mortar attacks or grenade explosions -- on South Ossetia's border.

Andrei Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of Russia's General Staff and the de facto spokesman for the 2008 war, told reporters Wednesday that he had counted about 70 such attacks near South Ossetia and 50 near Abkhazia.

Russia has responded by putting its troops in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia on high alert.
"The most important thing now is to prevent escalation and not to allow skirmishes to grow into bigger clashes," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in a statement Tuesday announcing the move.

The reports of attacks have not been independently verified. The European Union maintains a monitoring mission in Georgia, but is not allowed inside South Ossetia following Russian objections. Both the EU and the United States have called for calm.

Russia has responded toughly, but so far mainly with words.

Last week, the defense ministry said it "reserves the right to use all forces and means at its disposal" if civilians or troops are threatened.

"The August 2008 event developed along similar lines," the ministry said in a statement.

Yet the tensions last year built up for months, and were spurred on by reports of Russian troop build-ups near the region and speculation that Ossetians were being given Russian passports in a prelude to war.

Russia insists Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered an attack on Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia on Aug. 7, 2008, prompting a large-scale Russian response and invasion the next day that took troops into the heart of the country's ex-Soviet neighbor.

Georgia, meanwhile, argues it was responding to Russian violence and became the unwitting victim of a long-planned war.

An EU report on the conflict's origins was due to be released on July 31, but its publication has been delayed until September amid reports that the fact-finding mission feared stoking tensions ahead of the war's anniversary.

Tensions remain high nonetheless. Russia permanently maintains 800 military personnel inside South Ossetia and 1,000 in Abkhazia -- a number due to rise to 1,500 each by the end of the year, Russian Deputy Foreign Ministry Grigory Karasin said Wednesday. That number is still lower than the original plan, which called for 3,700 in each republic, he said.

"We don't want a repeat," Karasin said, calling the August war a "tragedy" and "an adventurist decision" taken by Saakashvili, a man vilified by many in the Russian leadership. Karasin also accused the U.S. of helping rearm Georgia.

For now, diplomats, analysts and journalists are following every move to see if the Russian tradition of a busy August will repeat itself yet again. So far, the refrain goes like this: "I don't think there will be a war. But, then again, that's what I said last year."

Read more at Global Post.

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