Monday, August 11, 2008

The Bear in South Ossetia

Gary Brecher:

There are three basic facts to keep in mind about the smokin’ little war in Ossetia:

1. The Georgians started it.
2. They lost.
3. What a beautiful little war!

I disagree! (With the third point...). But, despite the liberal truism that war is hell wherever, there seems to be an inordinate amount of hand-wringing in the on- and off-line commentariat about this war (as many of them apparently come up to speed on precisely where South Ossetia is). (Here's one hysterical instance among many; here's another). The intentions of Russia are not all that unclear, for one thing, and a quick tutorial from Cheryl Rofer is helpful here (see also Rob Farley).
With most of its boundaries on the land of the Eurasian continent, Russia has always been vulnerable to invasion, whether from the Vikings to the north, the Germans and French to the west, or the Mongols to the east. The way the tsars, and later the Soviet Union, coped with that was to annex or co-opt the states on their borders, which provided battle grounds so that Muscovy, and later the vast expanse from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka, might be protected. But every extension produced another boundary, the need for additional buffers and additional expansion...

...the Soviet messing with populations and boundaries set up problems that persist. Having ethnic populations that can be subverted in those buffer states encourages Russian intervention to keep them weak. Separating ethnic groups so that they wound up in two or more post-Soviet states provides another area of manipulation. And Russia has continued that manipulation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia...

Despite the promises to Russia that if Germany (one of Russia’s invaders) was reunified, NATO would not extend further east, the former satellites and the Baltic States were taken into NATO, and the EU as well. So much for Russia’s preference for buffer states on the west. NATO was the alliance of the West against the Soviet Union, any new purpose never stated...

The Russians aren’t bringing back the tsarist empire, or even the Soviet Union. But the policies of those entities have helped to bring about the unrest in South Ossetia, and Russia would like to continue its tradition of weak neighbors.

Isn’t it time for us all to move into the 21st century? Time for the United States to give up its Cold-War poking of the bear with sharp sticks and time for Russia to accept independent neighbors?
Well, not for cold warriors Dick Cheney and John McCain. Whatever. Stick-poking seems to be at the longer-term root of this war from all sides: Russian, Georgian, and American. Gregory Djerejian gets the short-term root right:
...perhaps a more proximate causal factor contributing to this explosion of misfortune in Georgia, namely, that of stupidity, or at least, severe miscalculation. Saakashvili, an apparently quite idealistic 40 year-old former NY lawyer, seems to have erred too much in thinking that giddy summitry with Western big-wigs might pay dividends (or too his far too excited involvement in the Iraq adventure which, incidentally, looks to be coming to a quite precipitous end) but unfortunately, insufficiently appreciated the disastrous waning in U.S. power these past years, despite his constant hankering for NATO membership (which a resurgent Russia will never accept regardless of Kosovo or whatever else, best I can tell), and thus has fallen short with regard to better appreciating a variable which would have been more apropos, namely, a harsh dose of realpolitik...
Brecher puts it slightly more breezily:
Most likely the Georgians just thought the Russians wouldn’t react. They were doing something they learned from Bush and Cheney: sticking to best-case scenarios, positive thinking. The Georgian plan was classic shock’n’awe with no hard, grown-up thinking about the long term. Their shiny new army would go in, zap the South Ossetians while they were on a peace hangover (the worst kind), and then…uh, they’d be welcomed as liberators?...

We’ll probably give them a ride, but that’s about all we can do. We’ve already done plenty, not because we love Georgians but to counterbalance the Russian influence down where the new oil pipeline’s staked out. The biggest American aid project was the GTEP, “Georgia Train and Equip” project ($64 million). It featured 200 Special Forces instructors teaching fine Georgia boys all the lessons the US Army’s learned recently. Now here’s the joke—and military history is just one long series of mean jokes. We were stressing counterinsurgency skills: small-unit cohesion, marksmanship, intelligence. The idea was to keep Georgia safe from Chechens or other Muslim loonies infiltrating through the Pankisi Gorge in NE Georgia. And we did a good job. The Georgian Army pacified the Pankisi in classic Green-Beret style. The punch line is, the Georgians got so cocky from that success, and from their lovefest with the Bushies in DC, that they thought they could take on anybody. What they’re in the process of finding out is that a light-infantry CI force like the one we gave them isn’t much use when a gigantic Russian armored force has just rolled across your border...

The quickest way to see who’s winning in any war is to see who asks first for a ceasefire. And this time it was the Georgians. Once it was clear the Russians were going to back the South Ossetians, the war was over. Even Georgians were saying, “To fight Russia by ourselves is insane.” Which means they thought Russia wouldn’t back its allies. Not a bad bet; Russia has a long, unpredictable history of screwing its allies—but not all the time. The Georgians should know better than anybody that once in a while, the Russians actually come through, because it was Russian troops who saved Georgia from a Persian invasion in 1805, at the battle of Zagam. Of course the Russians had let the Persians sack Tbilisi just ten years earlier without helping. That’s the thing: the bastards are unpredictable. You can’t even count on them to betray their friends (though it’s the safer bet, most of the time, sort of like 6:5 odds).

This time, the Russians came through. For lots of reasons, starting with the fact that Bush is weak and they know it; that the US is all tied up in that crap Iraq war and can’t do shit; and most of all, because Kosovo just declared independence from Serbia, an old Russian ally. It’s tit for tat time, with Kosovo as the tit and South Ossetia as the tat. The way Putin sees it, if we can mess with his allies and let little ethnic enclaves like Kosovo declare independence, then the Russians can do the same with our allies, especially naïve idiotic allies like Georgia.

If South Ossetia wasn't lost to Georgia before this unpleasantness, it is now. And Georgia learned a hard lesson about US rhetoric, which has had a particularly long way to flutter to earth from its pre-2003 tough-guy superpower talk to the hollowness of 2008 that Putin and Medvedev have quite clearly seen through.

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