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Being at risk of hijacking my own thread (US Recession), I figured I'd be better off putting this here. This is courtesy of a fistfulofeuros.

South Ossetia: alea jacta est

by Douglas Muir

That’s Latin for “throw the dice highâ€, and that’s what it looks like Georgian leader Saakashvili has done.

I’m no longer the Fistful’s Man In the Caucasus — I left in March, after the violence in Armenia. Doug Merrill is now the go-to guy: he’s in Tbilisi, very close to the action. But he’s asleep right now, and it looks like some of our readers are still awake, so FWIW here’s an impression from a distance. Half-informed, amateur war analysis follows.

Who started it? — Looks like Georgia. The sniping earlier came from both sides, but the Georgians have clearly launched a major ground offensive, and that doesn’t just happen by accident.

Why? Why? — What follows is a mishmash of guesses. Take it with a big grain of salt.

South Ossetia has always been vulnerable to a blitzkrieg attack. It’s small, it’s not very populous (~70,000 people), and it’s surrounded by Georgia on three sides. It’s very rugged and mountainous, yes, but it’s not suited to defense in depth. There’s only one town of any size (Tsikhinvali, the capital) and only one decent road connecting the province with Russia.

That last point bears emphasizing. There’s just one road, and it goes through a tunnel. There are a couple of crappy roads over the high passes, but they’re in dreadful condition; they can’t support heavy equipment, and are closed by snow from September to May. Strategically, South Ossetia dangles by that single thread.

So, there was always this temptation: a fast determined offensive could capture Tsikhinvali, blow up or block the tunnel, close the road, and then sit tight. If it worked, the Russians would then be in a very tricky spot: yes, they outnumber the Georgians 20 to 1, but they’d have to either drop in by air or attack over some very high, nasty mountains. This seems to be what the Georgians are trying to do: attack fast and hard, grab Tsikhinvali, and close the road.

So, is it working? — It’s too early to tell, but it’s not looking good. There’s not much solid information, but it appears that (1) the Georgians don’t have firm control of Tsikhinvali yet; (2) they don’t seem to be anywhere close to the tunnel; (3) the Russians have reacted with unexpected speed and energy, so that Russian troops are already on the ground in the province, and (4) the Russians have grabbed control of South Ossetia’s airspace. Things are still fluid, but it’s not looking good for the Georgians.

(Saakashvili’s actions this afternoon seem to reflect this. He’s visibly shaken, and he’s been yelling for help from the US and the EU. That’s not going to happen.)

Why did Saakashvili try this now? — Here’s my guess, based on my impression of Saakashvili’s character.

Saakashvili is an ardent nationalist who doesn’t view the disputes with Russia rationally. To him, they’re painful and continuing insults to the national soul.

More importantly, Saakashvili is a gambler. That’s because he lacks patience. He’s charming and clever, but he bores easily. He’s also facing internal political difficulties ; they weren’t likely to unseat him, but probably raised his frustration level. And when faced with frustration, his instinct is to look for a brilliant, dramatic stroke to cut through it.

So, Saakashvili was stupid? — That might be too strong. But it looks like he made a couple of bad assumptions.

It appears he thought the Russians wouldn’t fight, or wouldn’t fight well. He seems to have that they were either not really committed to South Ossetia, or that they’d be too screwed up and disorganized to respond quickly to a fast offensive. The first of these was probably a foolish assumption — the Russians have made it clear that they’re committed — but the second wasn’t. Keep in mind that the recent Russian military record in the Caucasus does not inspire pure fear. Yes, Putin crushed the Chechens, but only after the Russians had been humiliated in the first war and then had brought overwhelming force in the second.

But while the assumption wasn’t foolish, basing a major offensive on it probably was. Yes, the Russian military is sometimes disorganized and incompetent, but you can’t consistently count on it.

It also looks like Saakashvili, or someone, thought the Russians would be distracted. The Olympics, perhaps, but more “it’s August, everyone is on vacationâ€. That sounds silly, but it’s not completely — it’s hard to overstate how much things shut down in these countries in August. Government offices empty out, courts and Parliament close, and even senior defense officials may vanish to very distant beaches and cabins for days at a time.

But, as it turned out, not: the Russian response may be a little chaotic, but it’s looking vigorous and fast. Someone was minding the store.

– I note in passing that this “let’s try something in August†trick has been done before… most notably by the Austro-Hungarian Ministry of War, in August 1914. Hm.

It should also be noted that Russian intelligence has put a fair amount of effort into penetrating Georgia. So it’s possible the campaign plans were compromised from fairly early on.

So what happens now? — Well, it’s guesses piled on guesses at this point, but if Georgia can’t get into a strong position quickly they’re going to be in a very difficult situation. Another day or two should tell.

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I find this guy particularly grating, and he betrays a perverse penchant for honourary titles (Earl of Stirling, Viscount of Canada, Viscount of Stirling, Lord Alexander of Tulibody, Chief of Clan Alexander, Lord Lieutenant and Governor of Canada, Lord High Admiral of Nova Scotia, Lord Lieutenant of Nova Scotia, Lt.-Gen. of Nova Scotis, etc., etc.) that - in my opinion - points to some sort of deep emotional insecurity.

What follows is primarily here for entertainment purposes only. I couldn't help but share it after reading it. There is a *lot* of meat here in the form of logistical detail to chew on, if you can eat around the possibly paranoid-delusional gristle. Time will tell, I guess.

Seems like the sort of thing that would get William/SmoothedShredder's rocks off, so hope he is still out there.

Massive US Naval Armada Heads for Iran (relevant to the thread subject, though somewhat indirectly)

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TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The head of Georgia's national security council says Russian forces have taken the strategically key city of Gori. Gori is on Georgia's main east-west highway, about 60 miles west of the capital Tbilisi. By taking the city, Russia has the potential to effectively cut the country in half.

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The Russians set a trap, and prodded by the neo-cons, Saakashvili walked right in


From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Georgia's decision to seize large parts of Tskhinvali - the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia that borders Russia - was a most disastrous political miscalculation. Within three days of the assault, Russian forces had responded by effectively neutralizing Georgia's military capacity, which President Mikhail Saakashvili's government in Tbilisi had spent several years, and considerable sums of money, building up.

Clearly, Russia has been goading the Georgian government for several years into making the big mistake. The parastates of Abkhazia and, above all, South Ossetia, have been under the control of a toxic coalition of criminals and both former and serving Russian security service officers. Russian soldiers have been acting as their protectors under the guise of a peacekeeping mission, preventing Georgia's attempts to seek a negotiated reintegration of the two areas. The Georgian crisis has clearly benefited the standing of hard-liners in Moscow still aggrieved at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision to have the moderate, business-friendly Dimitry Medvedev succeed him in the Kremlin.

But under the influence of an energetic neo-con lobby in Washington and with considerable support from Israeli weapons manufacturers and military trainers, Mr. Saakashvili and the hawks around him came to believe the farcical proposition that Georgia's armed forces could take on the military might of their northern neighbour in a conventional fight and win.

So the Russians set a trap, and prodded by U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney's people, Georgia walked right into it.

The consequences of this egregious error begin in Georgia itself. Not only is it now defenceless, it can kiss goodbye to any restoration of sovereignty over both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Even though French President Nicolas Sarkozy received tentative agreement from both Moscow and Tbilisi for the establishment of international talks to settle the status of the two areas, they are unlikely to rejoin Georgia any time soon. The loss of Abkhazia, with its considerable economic potential, is a huge blow. The European Union and the United States will argue there is no parallel to be drawn between Kosovo and the Georgian breakaway regions. But that is not how much of the world, including China, South Africa and Indonesia see it. And it is certainly not how Russia sees it. The first chickens of Kosovo's independence are coming home to roost.

Second, President Saakashvili is now very vulnerable. The Russian invasion has cut communications between Tbilisi and the main port in Poti. BP has closed down the pipeline running from Baku to Ceyhan in Turkey through Tbilisi, and Georgian banks are freezing all loans and blocking capital flight. After only a week, the Georgian economy is teetering. And if the wheels do come off the economy, it is hard to see how Mr. Saakashvili might salvage his political position - such a combination of economic distress and military defeat is usually fatal. If he goes, Georgia is likely to fracture politically into a variety of fiefdoms familiar from the 1990s, and living standards will plummet. There is one faint consolation. The West may be impotent when it comes to responding to the situation militarily but it can rally round by offering the country a financial and commercial lifeline.

Meanwhile, the foreign implications of the error are graver still. Russia is placing a marker on Ukraine. Do not, Moscow says, even think of allowing Ukraine into NATO, otherwise what we have seen in Georgia will be child's play. So the West will have to think hard how to play Ukraine's application to join the military alliance.

This, in turn, has accentuated the divisions within the EU between those countries, including Germany, which remain cautious about a course of open confrontation with Russia, and Britain which has echoed calls from Washington demanding that Russia's application to join the WTO be reconsidered.

But the Georgian fiasco has even broader political implications. For the Bush administration (or for its hawks at least), the Georgian mistake presents an opportunity - let us recast Russia as a threat to global stability and a potential enemy. Predictably, the toughest response to the Russian invasion came from Mr. Cheney on Sunday. The outbreak of the crisis coincided with U.S. President George Bush horse-playing with beach volleyball players in Beijing and the Vice-President was in operational control at the time. Mr. Cheney immediately announced the Russian invasion could not go "unanswered." Mr. Cheney has been spoiling for a fight with the Russians for a couple of years, and he and his allies have seized upon Georgia's and Ukraine's stated aims to join NATO as a way of riling Moscow. By cranking up the dispute with Russia over NATO, Mr. Cheney is also shifting the political debate in the United States away from the state of the economy and toward the issue of national security.

If the presidential election is fought on the former issue, Democratic candidate Barack Obama is a shoo-in. But if the central issue is national security and who would be best at dealing with a major crisis like Georgia, then his Republican opponent John McCain has to be the favourite. Mr. McCain's response to the Georgia crisis was almost as tough as Mr. Cheney's, perhaps explained in part by the fact his chief foreign policy adviser worked as a former lobbyist for the Georgian government.

This political dynamic is driving the West toward a rift with Russia that will polarize a number of other issues, including policy toward Iran. On this latter issue, Russia has played a relatively constructive and, perhaps more importantly, a moderating role. In the next three months, the issues of Ukraine and Iran will loom large in global politics and they may well have a decisive impact on the outcome of the U.S. election. Who set the trap in Georgia? Mr. Putin and his thuggish security service pals or Mr. Cheney and his equally unflappable neo-con friends?

Whether Georgia was defeated by the Russians or lost by the neo-cons, a touch of diplomatic sobriety on both sides would be a welcome development if the Georgian conflict is not to mark a very dangerous new phase in the development of global politics - serial confrontation between the West and Russia.

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  • 2 weeks later...


August 27, 2008

Russia Backs Independence of Georgian Enclaves


MOSCOW — Russia on Tuesday recognized the independence of two enclaves that have long sought to secede from neighboring Georgia. The action deepened strains with the West over the conflict in the economically vital crossroads of the Caucasus and roiled a broader debate over how to respond to separatist movements around the world.

The Russian decision was intended to consolidate its political and military gains in the two and a half weeks since it invaded Georgia after hostilities flared over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, an ally of Moscow.

The Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, declared in a nationally televised address that South Ossetia and the other pro-Russian enclave, Abkhazia, would never again have to endure what he described as oppressive Georgian rule.

“This is not an easy choice, but it is the only way to save the lives of people,†Mr. Medvedev said.

With Russia’s image and financial markets suffering in recent days, Mr. Medvedev took the unusual step of giving a series of interviews to foreign media on Tuesday to explain the move. He said Russia had abided by international law in recognizing the two enclaves, but he left no doubt that the decision was in part retaliation for the West’s support earlier this year for the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, which Russia had opposed.

The United States and its allies denounced the decision, saying that Georgia must not be broken apart and contending that Russia was violating the cease-fire framework that it signed to halt the fighting. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, accused Russia of trying to annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“This is a challenge for the entire world,†Mr. Saakashvili said. “Not just Georgia.â€

In Washington, President Bush said, “Russia’s action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations.â€

While the dispute centers on two slices of land, it has been playing out against a much broader backdrop of historic antagonism among the major powers over separatist movements.

World leaders have for years struggled to determine which ones to recognize, often making decisions and then trying to limit the repercussions by warning that each situation is unique.

The questions now are: whether that hesitance to bestow recognition could be eroding, as witnessed by Kosovo and Russia’s action in Georgia; and whether other independence movements will use the recognition of the two enclaves to further their own ambitions by citing similar grievances. Not far from Georgia, for example, is an Armenian enclave that wants to secede from Azerbaijan, and Kurdish separatists are seeking their own homeland in regions of Turkey and Iraq.

In the past, most countries feared that if they waded into one such conflict, it could be used against them in a future one. On Tuesday, no other big power followed Moscow’s lead and voiced support for South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence.

Many in Abkhazia have expressed the desire to be separate both from Georgia and Russia — and some experts say it might be viable as an independent nation, albeit a very small one, because of its larger size and busy port.

South Ossetia, in contrast, has only 70,000 people and borders on the Russian region of North Ossetia. Suspicions have long arisen that after seceding from Georgia, South Ossetia would be absorbed by Russia and joined with North Ossetia — and most Ossetians say they support that.

The Kremlin said Tuesday that it had no plans to take over South Ossetia. It has already given Russian passports to many residents of both places, thereby widening its influence.

Mr. Medvedev announced the enclaves’ independence with unexpected swiftness, only a day after the Russian Parliament unanimously called upon him to do so. Diplomats and analysts had surmised that the Kremlin might draw the process out as part of negotiations with the West.

But tensions between the sides have been escalating, and not only over the status of the regions. On Tuesday, Russian military and diplomatic officials continued to complain about NATO efforts to assist Georgia, suggesting that the alliance might be trying to send military equipment, rather than humanitarian aid. The Russians also expressed discomfort about the presence of NATO ships in the Black Sea off the coast of Georgia.

Russia has for months been seething over the West’s decision this year to recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, a traditional Russian ally. The Russians were especially angered when Western diplomats emphasized that Kosovo was not any sort of precedent and had no bearing on the standing of the breakaway enclaves in Georgia.

As if to drive home the idea that recognition of the enclaves was in some sense payback, Mr. Medvedev used an interview on Tuesday with Russia Today, the Kremlin-financed English-language channel, to turn the West’s rationale on Kosovo against it.

“There was a special situation in Kosovo, there is a special situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia,†he said. “Speaking about our situation, it is obvious that our decision is aimed at preventing the genocide, the elimination of a people, and helping them get on their feet.â€

Still, Russia, a sprawling nation with many nationalities, has faced its own secessionist pressures, notably in the Muslim region of Chechnya, where Moscow has fought two wars to crush an independence movement. Even as they were hailing the independence of the two enclaves, Russian officials were trying to explain why Chechnya did not deserve the same right.

They contended that when Chechnya had had autonomy in the late 1990s, it became a source of tremendous instability, and Russia had no choice but to reassert complete control.

“You know what they did to their own place,†the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said Tuesday. “They turned it into a place where international terrorists were feeling at home.â€

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this part of the world has been a locus of the problem of addressing separatist aspirations.

For a time, a consensus developed in the West, but with two aims that sometimes appeared to be in conflict. On one hand, the allies, led by the United States, were quick to recognize the independence of former Soviet republics, including Georgia itself, the better to wrest these countries away from Russia’s orbit and into the arms of the West.

“Depending on where you sat, you could easily call those places breakaway republics,†said Derek Chollet, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, adding that many hard-liners in Russia did see those countries as breakaway regions.

On the other hand, a post-cold-war understanding, hardened by the experience in Bosnia, developed that the West should be very careful about recognizing breakaway regions, so as not to set a precedent, or embolden secessionist areas, Mr. Chollet said.

That consensus held until February, when Kosovo declared independence, and the West said Serbia lost its right to Kosovo because of actions over the years by the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006.

Igor Lukes, a professor of international relations at Boston University, said international law contained clear standards for evaluating whether an independence movement should be recognized, in part based upon whether such a territory has well-defined borders, a well-established central authority and a populace that strongly desires secession.

The problem is that these judgments typically become hostage to conflicts between large nations, as in the case of Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Mr. Lukes said.

“These situations are not really murky,†he said. “What makes the situations murky is each superpower tries to exploit ad hoc situations as they emerge to advance its interests and to hurt its rivals. It’s really the way the superpowers manipulate the reality. It’s not the reality that is complicated.â€

On the border area around Russia and South Ossetia on Tuesday, there was mostly joy. Hundreds of South Ossetians streamed south to their homes, buoyed by Russia’s decision.

At a rest home in Alagir, an hour’s drive from the border, aid workers sat alone, eating sardines. It was one of the first moments since the crisis began early this month when they looked out at an empty dormitory.

Three hundred refugees had left in the morning, and 400 more were expected to pass through on Wednesday on their way to the narrow Roki Tunnel, which cuts through the nearly vertical ridge of the Caucasus to South Ossetia.

“This was the only hope of people who live on the other side of the pass to return to a normal way of life,†said Avan Galachiyev, an agent of the Federal Migration Service who had been helping the refugees.

Artur Dzhoiyev, whose family fled their village, Hampalgon, 18 years ago, was thinking idly about returning to his “historic motherland,†maybe building a house.

Now, he reasoned, things would be different. No Georgian checkpoints, no need to lurch along rocky bypass roads, no rooting for documents under the hostile gaze of soldiers.

The Georgians, Mr. Galachiyev said, have lost control of the road.

“And they won’t get it back,†he said.

Reporting was contributed by Ellen Barry in Vladikavkaz, Russia; Helene Cooper in Washington; Nicholas Kulish in Tallinn, Estonia; and Steven Erlanger in Paris.

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