In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Georgia stayed Menshevik controlled, while the Bolsheviks took control of Russia. In June 1920, a Russian-sponsored Ossetian force attacked the Georgian Army and People's Guard. The Georgian's responded vigorously and defeated the insurgents, with several Ossetian villages being burnt down and 20,000 Ossetians displaced in Soviet Russia.Eight months later, the Red Army successfully invaded Georgia and in 1922 the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast was created.
In the late 1980s, when the perestroika policy initiated by Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, caused rising nationalism in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) and the country moved towards independence, it was opposed by the Ossetian nationalistic organization, Ademon Nykhas (Popular Front). Created in 1988, Ademon Nykhas demanded greater autonomy for the region and finally, unification with Russia’s North Ossetia. On November 10, 1989, the South Ossetian Supreme Soviet approved a decision to unite South Ossetia with the North Ossetian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. However, a day later, the Georgian SSR Supreme Soviet revoked the decision and on 23 November, thousands of Georgian nationalists led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia and other opposition leaders marched to Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, to hold a meeting there. The Ossetians mobilized blocking the road and only the interference of Soviet Army units avoided a clash between the two demonstrations. The Soviet commanders made the Georgian demonstrators turn back. However, several people were wounded in subsequent clashes between Georgians and Ossetians.
By the beginning of 1990 South Ossetian forces had 300-400 poorly armed fighters, however their number grew to about 1,500 in six-months time. The main source of small arms for South Ossetian militias was the Soviet Army helicopter regiment based in Tskhinvali. Ethnic Georgians in neighbouring villages also organised a self-defence force known as the Merab Kostava Society. Rivalling militias engaged in sporadic low-level fighting.
The Georgian Supreme Council adopted a law barring regional parties in the summer of 1990. This was interpreted by Ossetians as a move against Ademon Nykhas and on September 20, 1990, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast declared independence as the South Ossetian Democratic Soviet Republic, appealing to Moscow to recognise it as an independent subject of the Soviet Union. When the election of the Georgian Supreme Council took place in October 1990, it was boycotted by the South Ossetians. On December 10, 1990, South Ossetia held its own elections, declared illegal by Georgia. A day later, the Georgian Supreme Soviet cancelled the results of the Ossetian elections and abolished South Ossetian autonomy.
On December 11, 1990, several bloody incidents occurred in and around Tskhinvali. The Georgian government declared a state of emergency in the districts of Tskhinvali and Java on December 12. Georgian police and National Guards units were dispatched in the region to disarm Ossetian armed groups.
At the time of the dissolution of the USSR, the United States government recognised as legitimate the pre-Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact 1933 borders of the country (the Franklin D. Roosevelt government established diplomatic relations with the Kremlin at the end of that year). Because of this, the George H. W. Bush administration openly supported the restoration of independence of the Baltic SSRs, but regarded the questions relating to the independence and territorial conflicts of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the rest of the Transcaucasus — which were integral part of the USSR with international borders unaltered since the 1920s — as internal Soviet affairs.