ANALYSIS / Someone Timed Russia-Georgia Crisis to Coincide With Olympics

Has a tiny province caused the biggest crisis in Europe since the fall of Communism?

The world's television screens were split this weekend between the colorful fireworks in Beijing and the burning tanks in Tskhinvali, and not by coincidence. That's how the warring sides, or at least whoever initiated the clashes, planned it.

Indeed, many people must be asking themselves how an impoverished, remote and tiny Caucasian province managed to ruin their Olympic viewing pleasure. Is it possible that a province of some 3,900 square kilometers and less than 70,000 residents has caused the biggest crisis in Europe since the fall of Communism, perhaps even the 21st century's first war involving the world's great powers?

It is still unclear what triggered Friday's outbreak and turned the largely verbal feud of the last few months - with the exception of the odd gunfire exchange - into an all-out war. Each side claims that the other violated the terms of the cease-fire reached in 1992. According to the Russians, the Georgians opened fire first, killing several troops of the Russian peacekeeping force. They claim Georgia has moved more troops into the area in recent weeks and violated South Ossetia's airspace as part of a premeditated attack.

According to the Georgians, the Russian peacekeeping forces violated their neutrality and were engaged in actively arming separatists in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway province in Georgia that receives Russian support. Georgia claims that Moscow wants to annex both provinces. That is why, they say, Moscow provided residents of both provinces with Russian passports, allowing it to claim that it is defending its own citizens.

Whether the Georgians fell into a Russian-Ossetian trap or whether they had been planning on launching an operation for a long time is unclear, but the circumstances that gave rise to this situation are as follows:

1.The NATO summit: Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, elected in 2003, made joining NATO one of his top priorities. But NATO members, who met in Bucharest this April, preferred to avoid a confrontation with Russia. They declined setting a timetable for the inclusion of Georgia or Ukraine, another former East Bloc applicant. Moreover, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during the summit that the organization could not include a state that had not resolved its territorial problems. Then-Russian president Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, came to the conclusion that in order to stifle NATO's enlargement into his own backyard, he must prevent Georgia from solving the issue of its breakaway provinces. Saakashvili's conclusion, of course, was the opposite: Georgia will be able to join NATO only if it reins in its restive provinces in a speedy operation.

2. Kosovo's independence: For more than a year now, Russia has been warning that Kosovo's independence will set off a domino effect in the Caucasus. The Kremlin has argued that those Western countries that supported the breakup of Serbia cannot prevent Ossetians and Abkhazians from expelling Georgian forces from their territory. But Russia's support of the Georgian separatists may be dangerous: Its own autonomous republics in the region - like Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia - may also seek independence from Moscow, undermining its territorial sovereignty.

3. The changing of the guards in Russia: The current conflict may help solve one of the biggest questions analysts have been asking themselves: Who is in control in Russia? According to some estimates, President Dmitry Medvedev was displeased with going to war at the start of his tenure but was coerced into doing so by his real boss, Putin. Others say, however, that the Caucasus escalation is intended as a tour de force of Medvedev's leadership.

4. War and Olympics: Russia is seeking to get rid of the pro-U.S. Saakashvili before it hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics at the coastal town of Sochi, located only a few kilometers from Abkhazia. Others claim Saakashvili chose the operation's timing to send a message to Russia that he can imperil the Sochi Games if no solution to his liking is reached.

5. Washington's lame duck: Russia has come to the conclusion that it will be difficult for the Bush administration, which has entered the last leg of its tenure, to intervene on behalf of its Georgian allies. Or perhaps Saakashvili believes that a Democratic president in the White House may not accord him as much support as Bush and thus decided that now is the right time for him to act. But at a time when Europe and the U.S. need Russia's energy resources and support on issues like Iran and North Korea, it is doubtful the Georgian president can count on a lot of support.