What is South Ossetia?
The southern half of a mountainous territory which enjoyed autonomous status under Communism. In the Soviet era the region was divided between North Ossetia, now in Russia, and South Ossetia, then within the Georgian republic. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in the early 1990s, South Ossetia resisted being absorbed into an independent Georgia, and broke away. It has around 60,000 Russian-speakers who adhere to the Russian Orthodox Church and are ethnically distinct from the Georgians. Georgia has never exercised administrative control over South Ossetia, apart from a few Georgian-populated villages in the south.
When did the trouble start?
This phase began with the Georgian attempt to seize the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, on Friday, drawing an immediate response from Russia. But there has been fighting on and off since 1989, when South Ossetia declared autonomy from the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1992 Russia, Georgia and South Ossetian leaders agreed to an armistice and a 1,500-member peacekeeping force – 500 soldiers from each of the three parties. Despite political tension as South Ossetia drew up its own constitution and sought union with Russia, violence remained at a relatively low level until this year.
What is Russia's role?
No country has diplomatically recognised South Ossetia, but Russia has supplied moral, political and economic support. Many Ossetians have been given Russian passports, enabling Moscow to intervene on behalf of its "own people". Georgians believe the Russians are using South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region, to punish them for seeking links to the West, especially since Georgia unsuccessfully tried to join Nato this year.
Is Georgia at fault?
President Mikheil Saakashvili promised in his re-election campaign early this year to seek to bring the breakaway regions under control. But using military force, timed for a moment when he hoped the world would be distracted by the Olympic opening ceremony, has lost him the moral high ground. As the Russians hit back, bombing targets in Georgia proper as well as in South Ossetia, and the Abkhazians begin to stir, his move to seize the troublesome territory looks increasingly like a disastrously reckless gamble.
Does this matter to us?
Yes. A long-held strategic aim of the West was to obtain oil from the Caspian Sea region by a route outside Russian control. This was achieved with the opening in 2006 of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the second-longest in the world, which runs through Georgia. One of Russia's bombing attacks was, according to Georgia, on the pipeline, though it was not damaged. But apart from oil, a glance at a map shows the volatility of the region in which this conflict is taking place. Chechnya is next door; Iraq – from which Georgia is bringing back its 2,000 troops – and Iran are not far away.
What happens next?
Yesterday, there was no early halt to the fighting, despite a ceasefire call by Georgia. The United Nations Security Council could not even agree on a statement, because of disagreements between Russia and the three Western permanent members, including Britain. The course of events will be determined by Russia, which is moving more forces to the region. Full-scale invasion is unlikely, but Russia can be expected to go on meting out punishment to Georgia – for how long, it is impossible to say, but there is no doubt that Moscow intends to leave its neighbour in a much weaker state.
The key players
Mikheil Saakashvili: Educated at Columbia University, the Georgian President preaches the language of freedom and democracy. His young and enthusiastic team has done much to modernise Georgia and shake off the least desirable elements of its Soviet past. But he also has a single-minded ruthlessness that makes him, at best, a flawed democrat – as demonstrated by the crushing of opposition protests last year.
Dmitry Medvedev: Russia's President since May, Medvedev has been cast as the good cop in the "tandemocracy" with Vladimir Putin, having made statements that suggest he values human rights and the rule of law more than his predecessor. With Putin away in Beijing, Saakashvili may have hoped Medvedev would not want to authorise retaliation against Georgia.
Vladimir Putin: Putin believes firmly that the former Soviet states should remain part of Russia's orbit. As President, he cleverly exploited Abkhaz and Ossetian grievances against Georgia to give the Russians a decisive role in the conflict zones and ensure that Saakashvili could not easily be free of his northern neighbour. His secondary role as Prime Minister has not stopped him weighing in from Beijing.
Eduard Kokoity: Head of South Ossetia since 2001, the former wrestler is disliked by many. Unlike the situation in Abkhazia, where the population supports the separatist leadership, Kokoity's alleged corruption and cronyism have left many Ossetians less than enamoured with him. At a time like this, though, the whole ethnic Ossetian population is behind their leader.