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Experts Discuss Georgia-Russia Conflict

Fighting between Russian and Georgian troops spread to western parts of Georgia Monday as international efforts to halt the clashes appeared to be picking up momentum. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at what prompted the conflict in a very volatile region of the world.

Analysts agree the current conflict between Georgia and Russia was sparked by Tbilisi last week when it sent troops in an effort to take control of Tskhinvali, the capital of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia. Russia, which had troops based in the breakaway region, responded to the attack by sending additional troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers in the region and going on the offensive.

South Ossetia, along with another Georgian region - Abkhazia - declared independence from Georgia in the mid 1990s. Georgia's president Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to bring both regions back into the fold.

Tensions have been rising in the area for months, as Russia increased its economic, commercial and political ties with the two breakaway regions. A series of military moves by both Georgia and Russia in the area helped increase tensions even further.

What was Saakashvili thinking?

Many experts are at loss to explain why President Saakashvili decided to send troops into South Ossetia at this time. But many analysts, including Marshall Goldman from Harvard University, say that move was a serious miscalculation.

"He certainly picked the wrong time to move this way," said Marshall Goldman. "He was upset because the Russians were violating Georgian airspace. I think he thought maybe this was the best time to move. He certainly provoked the Russians. I think the Russians were really looking for an excuse - and he provided it to them."

Bush, Western leaders criticize move

Western leaders, including U.S. President George Bush say the Russian response has been disproportionate.

Robert Legvold from Columbia University says Moscow's strong military response goes far beyond its initial reason of defending its own citizens in the region.

"No longer is it merely to restore peace and stability in South Ossetia," said Robert Legvold. "I think it is to destroy Georgian influence in South Ossetia and indeed for the most part in Abkhazia itself - and prepare the way, if the Russians chose to go in that direction - for annexing South Ossetia itself. And in the case of Abkhazia, recognize the independence of Abkhazia and then work out a different relationship with it."

Analysts describe international response as 'lukewarm'

Analysts say the international community's response to the conflict in Georgia has been lukewarm. Once again, Marshall Goldman.

"The Europeans have been basically neutralized," he said. "In part, because they've become very dependent on Russian oil and gas, particularly gas. For example, in the case of Germany, [Russia] provides 42 percent of Germany's natural gas. So the Germans, who were probably expected to take the leading role here, have been neutralized."

US unable to halt conflict

Experts say the United States - a strong supporter of President Saakashvili - has also been unable to persuade both sides to end the conflict.

Robert Legvold says it could turn out to be a foreign policy debacle for the United States as it will not help Georgia militarily and is unable to restrain Moscow.

"The Georgians are blaming the United States and the Russians are blaming the United States," he said. "The Georgians are blaming the U.S. for letting them down, betraying them, stab in the back - all of that. And the Russians are accusing the United States, as they have for some time, of having given license to what they regard as a hot-headed Georgian leader.'

Legvold and others believe the international community must work to secure a cease-fire before the conflict in the region gets completely out of hand.