War has torn apart yet another region of the world in the last week, as Russia and Georgia clashed over South Ossetia, a breakaway province that lies in the Caucasus mountains between the two countries.
But the question of South Ossetia’s status has become wrapped up in a much larger conflict – the US’s relentless drive to expand its Nato alliance and encircle Russia with a ring of pro-Western regimes.
By Monday of this week the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali lay in ruins as a result of the Georgian assault there.
Tens of thousands of refugees have fled South Ossetia, the majority heading north across the mountains into Russia.
The US backs Georgia’s government, while Russia supports the South Ossetian separatists. And now this imperial rivalry has spilled over into a military conflict that has started to spread further across the Caucasus region.
At the weekend Russia boosted its military presence in Abkhazia, another breakaway province of Georgia.
On Monday Russian troops crossed over the border into Georgia proper.
Recent US actions have also poured fuel on the flames in the region. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, declared in July that “membership of Nato is Georgia’s future” and pledged support for the country’s “territorial integrity”.
Many commentators believe it was this move by the US that emboldened the Georgian government to mount its attack on Tskhinvali last week.
The new round of tensions is the result of US expansion into countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.
In a “gentlemen’s agreement” made with Russia following the fall of the Soviet regime in 1991, the US promised it would not expand its military influence into eastern Europe.
But the US broke this agreement when it moved to establish radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. A host of former Soviet republics have become drawn into Nato’s push towards Russia’s borders.
Russia has responded by backing regions that have come into conflict with the US’s new allies. In April, Russia announced it was boosting ties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Georgia then threatened to invade the breakaway provinces. This prompted Russia to buzz the Georgian capital Tblisi with its warplanes during Condoleezza Rice’s July visit as a direct warning against the country’s Nato aspirations.
Georgia began massing its troops along the border with South Ossetia last week. The Ossetians began to evacuate children and the elderly. Shots were fired across the patchwork of front lines.
These soon escalated into artillery duels and then full scale war.
Although Russia has its own imperial agenda and has become more assertive in the face of Nato’s expansion, it has been much weakened.
It was powerless to prevent the US from recognising Kosovo’s independence from Serbia last year – a move that many people predicted would destabilise other disputed regions around the world, stoking up more conflicts and wars.
And the denunciations of Russia’s regional ambitions are especially hollow coming from the mouths of Western politicians who have slavishly supported the US’s wars and invasions in the name of the “war on terror”.
Russia has itself used the “war on terror” as an excuse to brutally crack down on separatist forces within its own borders – notably in Chechnya, which lies near Ossetia and shares a border with Georgia.
The Caucasus region lies next to the Middle East and Central Asia, crucial strategic areas of the world that the US is determined to bring under its heel.
The wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan are spiralling out of control, triggering instability across the region.
The latest conflicts in the Caucasus are inseparable from that wider context – and underline the need to end the global system that breeds war and destruction.