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Hostilities between Georgia and Russia over the South Ossetia region have simmered for some time and the latest fighting is replete with consequences for the two countries and the U.S., no matter how it ends, analysts say.

The U.S. in particular is stuck between supporting a burgeoning democracy it has showered with aid and not antagonizing a strengthened Russia.

"The U.S. has been put in an impossible position," according to Ronald Suny, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in the South Caucasus. "(The U.S.) likes Georgia, George Bush has been supporting the government, but they’re not going to go to war with Russia over little Georgia. (The U.S.) needs Russia for bigger games."

Georgia gained its independence in 1991 and has worked toward a closer relationship with the West since 2003 elections replaced a cadre of corrupt officials with Western-educated leaders, including current president Mikhail Saakashvili.

But the country has been part of the Russian empire in one way or another for the past 200 years, and Josef Stalin was born in South Ossetia, Suny said.

Russia has essentially controlled the two breakaway regions — which comprise about 17 percent of Georgia — since 1994, even extending Russian passports and welfare benefits to the citizens.

"Russia has been in control of these regions, keeping the peace, and Georgia wants those regions back and has a perfect international right," Suny said. "But the local people don’t want to go back to Georgia."

U.S. intelligence pointed to a potential war in the other breakaway republic of Abkhazia earlier this year, according to Charles King, a Georgetown University professor and author of "The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus."

"This has been coming for sometime," he said.

Many consequences

There will be a push to increase U.S. financial and military aidto Georgia no matter the war’s outcome, King said. The U.S. has given Georgia about $1.8 billion in aid since 1992, according to the State Department.

More than 1,000 U.S. troops and trainers just finished up an exercise last week with the Georgian military at a base outside of Tbilisi.

"It would be very interesting to see if there is a change of force posture and content of training in response to all of this," King said.

These latest events will convince the U.S. and the next administration that Georgia needs aid, but that the U.S. also needs to be tougher on the small state and let its leaders know that it can’t embark on military misadventures, King said.

"We have been clear with Taiwan that (U.S. support) is not carte blanche to go to war with China," he said. "Georgia never really got that."

Georgia’s leadership overestimated the importance U.S. leaders placed in the relationship between the two countries, King said. Aid and military training don’t mean the U.S. is going to fight, even if America had troops to spare.

"It’s the case with any small country," King said. "For Georgia you could substitute Mali. It is very common for these places to believe the U.S. president and secretary of state wake up and say, ‘What about insert-country-here?’ "

Getting to NATO

The fighting now raging will likely affect Georgia’s prospects for joining NATO, King said.

"The irony is that this proves Georgia is both unfit for (NATO) membership and desperately needs it at the same time," King said.

Georgia’s attempts to join NATO led Russia to believe the U.S. is reneging on previous pledges not to expand the organization’s membership to former Soviet states, Suny said.

Add this NATO recruitment push to the proposed missile defense shield in Europe, and Russia feels caged in, Suny said.

"The Russians are going to want to keep (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), largely because they don’t want Georgia to join NATO," Suny said.

The move could also send chills through the Ukrainian leadership, another former Soviet state seeking NATO membership, King said.

"If Russia feels it can just intervene with no effort at multilateralism, then that’s very dangerous for Ukraine," King said, adding that Russia can point to the Iraq invasion when the U.S. accuses it of acting unilaterally in making war with Georgia.

The war started last week when Saakashvili launched an attack to seize control of South Ossetia, a move that included the reported bombing of innocents by Georgian forces.

"This was a ridiculous military adventure by Saakashvili that was met by a response that was pretty predictable," King said. Saakashvili hoped a quick strike and U.S. pressure would curb Russia’s reaction, but that didn’t happen, Suny said.

"When you muck around with the Russians, they’re like the schoolyard bully," he said. "They’re not going to give you tit-for-tat. They’re going to overwhelm you. And batter you."

However and whenever the fighting ends, the U.S. is stuck in the middle with few ways to directly intervene and end the war, Suny said.

"We’ve basically put ourselves in an impossible situation where we have no maneuverability," he said. "And again, Russia is feeling its oats, flexing its muscles."

Republic of Georgia

Size: Slightly smaller than South Carolina, about 17 percent of country is not under government control.

Population: 4.7 million.

Capital: Tbilisi.

Terrain: Mostly rugged and mountainous.

Ethnicity: 83 percent Georgian, 6.5 percent Azeri, 5.7 percent Armenian, 1.5 percent Russian, about 2.5 percent other.

Religion: 84 percent Orthodox Christian, 10 percent Muslim, 4 percent Armenian Apostolic, about 2 percent other.

GDP: $6.46 billion.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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