The conflict in Georgia is Russia's largest military engagement outside its borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Here are some of the key issues in the current crisis.
Who is fighting whom?
On one side is Russian air, naval and ground power. On the other is the military of Georgia, a small, separate country south of Russia on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. It was part of the Soviet Union but has a history of troubled relations with Moscow.
Where are they fighting?
The bulk of the fighting revolves around two pro-Russian enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The fighting appears to be expanding toward other parts of Georgia. Russia captured a military base in western Georgia on Monday, and there were conflicting reports whether a main road had been cut near the city of Gori.
What is the background to the fighting?
Moscow has long viewed itself as the protector of the two enclaves, which have been under pressure from the central government in Georgia.
In 1990, Georgia voted to abolish the autonomy of South Ossetia and by 1991 the ethnic antagonists were fighting. In 1992, Georgia and Russia signed a peace treaty and Russian troops began patrolling the South Ossetia border.
That same year, Abkhazia declared its independence from Georgia and another war was fought, which ended in 1994 with a treaty between Russia and Georgia. Russian troops then began patrolling that enclave too.
What touched off the latest fighting?
Georgia launched a surprise operation last week to seize control of South Ossetia. An enraged Russia sent its military into the breakaway republics and bombed Georgia proper.
Was this confrontation expected?
Yes and no.
Many western experts have predicted that Russia would stage some sort of military action after Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia in 2004. As part of his platform, he said he wanted to reincorporate the enclaves into Georgia. Most experts agreed that Russia would respond with force if that happened.
Does the United States have any special interests in the area?
Saakashvili is an ally of the United States and sent troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has strongly backed Georgia's effort to join NATO.
Russia fears that its former Soviet partners and satellites will look to Europe and form a pro-Western ring, curbing Moscow's arena of diplomatic action.
The second concern is energy. Georgia is a major conduit for oil flowing from Russia and Central Asia to the West.
What is the U.S. diplomatic position?
President Bush said Monday that the United States wants Russia to end its offensive and return to the situation that existed before the fighting began.
In a tough statement from the White House after he returned from the Olympics, Bush said: “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.”
Bush said there were reports that Russian forces soon might begin bombing the civilian airport in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Such an action “would represent a dramatic and brutal escalation of the conflict in Georgia and these actions would be inconsistent with assurances we have received from Russia that its objectives were limited to restoring the status quo of South Ossetia that existed before fighting began.”
How is Russia likely to respond?
No one knows how far Russia is planning to go, although its attack on Georgian cities elsewhere suggests that its goal goes beyond just protecting the enclaves.
At the very least, Russia seems to want to punish Saakashvili and use him to send a message to its former allies and the West and that Moscow is again a major player.