— Russia conducted airstrikes on Georgian targets on Friday evening,
escalating the conflict in a separatist area of Georgia that is shaping
into a test of the power and military reach of an emboldened Kremlin.
Earlier in the day, Russian troops and armored vehicles had rolled into
South Ossetia, supporting the breakaway region in its bitter conflict with Georgia.
The United States and other Western nations, joined by NATO, condemned the violence and demanded a cease-fire. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
went a step further, calling on Russia to withdraw its forces. But the
Russian soldiers remained, and Georgian officials reported at least one
airstrike, on the Black Sea port of Poti, late on Friday night.
military units — including tank, artillery and reconnaissance — arrived
in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, on Saturday to help
Russian peacekeepers there, in response to overnight shelling by
Georgian forces, state television in Russia reported, citing the
Ministry of Defense. Ground assault aircraft were also mobilized, the
Also on Saturday a senior Georgian official said
by telephone that Russian bombers were flying over Georgia and that the
presidential offices and residence in Tbilisi had been evacuated. The
official added that Georgian forces still had control of Tskhinvali.
Neither side showed any indication of backing down. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia declared that “war has started,” and President Mikheil Saakashvili
of Georgia accused Russia of a “well-planned invasion” and mobilized
Georgia’s military reserves. There were signs as well of a cyberwarfare
campaign, as Georgian government Web sites were crashing intermittently
during the day.
The escalation risked igniting a renewed and
sustained conflict in the Caucasus region, an important conduit for the
flow of oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets and an area where
conflict has flared for years along Russia’s borders, most recently in
The military incursion into Georgia marked a fresh
sign of Kremlin confidence and resolve, and also provided a test of the
capacities of the Russian military, which Mr. Putin had tried to
modernize and re-equip during his two presidential terms.
between Georgia and South Ossetia, which has declared de facto
independence, have simmered for years, but intensified when Mr.
Saakashvili came to power in Georgia and made national unification a
centerpiece of his agenda. Mr. Saakashvili, a close American ally who
has sought NATO membership for Georgia, is loathed at the Kremlin in
part because he had positioned himself as a spokesman for democracy
movements and alignment with the West.
Earlier this year Russia
announced that it was expanding support for the separatist regions.
Georgia labeled the new support an act of annexation.
The conflict in Georgia also appeared to suggest the limits of the power of President Dmitri A. Medvedev,
Mr. Putin’s hand-picked successor. During the day, it was Mr. Putin’s
stern statements from China, where he was visiting the opening of the
Olympic Games, that appeared to define Russia’s position.
Mr. Medvedev made a public statement as well, making it unclear who was
directing Russia’s military operations. Officially, that authority
rests with Mr. Medvedev, and foreign policy is outside Mr. Putin’s
“The war in Ossetia instantly showed the idiocy of our
state management,” said a commentator on the liberal radio station,
Ekho Moskvy. “Who is in charge — Putin or Medvedev?”
between Georgia and South Ossetia, until recently labeled a “frozen
conflict,” stretches back to the early 1990s, when South Ossetia and
another separatist region, Abkhazia, gained de facto independence from
Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The region settled into
a tenuous peace monitored by Russian peacekeepers, but frictions with
Georgia increased sharply in 2004, when Mr. Saakashvili was elected.
conflicted throughout Friday about whether Georgian or Russian forces
had won control of Tskhinvali, the capital of the mountainous rebel
province. It was unclear late on Friday whether ground combat had taken
place between Russian and Georgian soldiers, or had been limited to
fighting between separatists and Georgian forces.
Kulakhmetov, commander of Russian peacekeeping forces in Tskhinvali,
said early on Saturday that South Ossetian separatists still held most
of the city and that Georgian forces were only present on its southern
That report aligned with a statement by Georgia’s ambassador to the United Nations,
Irakli Alasania, who said that Georgian military units held eight
villages at the capital’s edge. Georgian officials asserted that
Russian warplanes had attacked Georgian forces and civilians in
Tskhinvali, and that airports in four Georgian cities had been hit.