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On the Georgian/Russian Conflict

chicago dyke's picture

[UPDATE: I've included a post from Registan with a totally different take] I confess to great ignorance, when it comes to this conflict and the region in general. But Sean-Paul's latest makes great sense to me.

"Where's NATO?"

I remember the conversation so clearly, as if it happened yesterday. I was meeting with Alex Rondeli, a tall, smart, well-connected Georgian involved in the formation of the country's foreign policy. Everyone interested in the foreign policy of the region, I was told, who traveled to Tbilisi, had to meet with him. So I did. Obviously I don't have my notes of the interview with me, as they are in storage back home in America, but I remember when the conversation turned towards NATO and America helping Georgia. Alex was clear that he thought, from a rational, realpoplitik perspective, that Georgia's best hope was in joining the West and all its institutions. But he was also realistic enough to realize that Georgia had to find a way of living with its giant northern neighbor.

And I asked him, point blank, "what makes you think the US will keep its promise to Georgia in the event of war with Russia? Can you really trust the US?" And then I made it clear, before he answered, that I thought it was folly to trust the US, that Georgia's best course was to find a modus vivendi with Russia and develop its economy on its own terms because the Russians aren't going away.

They haven't. Now they are attempting to split the country. And Georgians are wondering, where is NATO? NATO isn't coming. Deal with it.

Saakashvilli staked his presidency on it and failed. Find new leaders, leaders who will find a way of satisfying Russian demands. Otherwise, nothing will ever get better or change in Georgia.
Alex told me, "the Russian military, they've cooked up this bloody dish. But now they don't know who to serve it to."

Looks to me like they have found someone to serve it to the Georgians and his name is Saakashvilli. He provoked this fight--just as he did the one with Abashidze in Adjaria--but without realizing one critical difference: the Russians were, for once, prepared. They weren't going to get caught flat footed like they did in Adjaria. And as they continue their drive to Gori it's clear that when this is over and the time to make peace arrives Russia will be in a position of strength for a change.

How will Bush and Condi, his Russian expert, deal with the man whose soul he looked into this time?
As for Major Georgi, I would answer his thusly: "democracy, Sir, is not a means to an end, or a means to having powerful allies. It is an end in itself. And that end is in having the freedom of holding your leaders accountable in your hands, not in the hands of powerful allies. If you remember that you may yet keep your democracy."

It's a lesson we need to remember here in America too.

Live links at original.

I also left a comment:

...i think any foreign gov't or political group that trusts the word of the Bush Regime are *fools.* utter and complete fools. perhaps it's not as clear elsewhere in the world as it is to us, but the Bush regime is like an evil Lucy holding the almost every respect, every department, every promise. selling out/fucking over the people from whom they extract 'mutual support' arrangements is SOP, and they've proven that time and time again. wake up, rest of the world. the Bush Regime is made of lies, powered by double dealing, infused with cowardice, and guaranteed to be led by the arrogant, ignorant, 'take the money and run' criminal element. the georgian leadership that we helped rise to power must be even more foolish than i had previously thought, and perhaps as peopled by those who subscribe to 'we create our own reality' as our republican party.

secondly, when the dust clears, it's going to be beyond obvious that the US is a paper superpower. for all our wealth and strength, we're powerless to effect the stated aims of our leadership. why? because as you say, oil wealth is like the nuclear power of this age. and we don't control enough oil, nor have we been able too align oil producing nations, to work effectively to realize our aims. this is not a surprise. when your allies are tyrants and theocrats, and your policy makers are deliberately ignorant of the world they seek to manipulate, you will fail. to me, the metaphor for the bush regime is found in Ledeen's 20something daughter, put in charge of creating what would never work in iraq, mishandling billions and producing exactly nothing for her money and effort, slinking home in shame, to a nation ignorant that such even took place. i suspect that historians will find that example repeated over and over in the record of the bush diplomatic corps, as well as in the domestic agencies. cronyism always fails, and is always expensive, beyond the actual cost in money itself. the additional price we're paying now: the continued reduction in US influence upon all regions of the world.

finally: putin has always scared me. the Chechen war proved that the russians have no interest in pretending to "civilized" standards of warfare and conflict, and i believe he is a true intellectual and experienced player in the Great Game. he is also obviously capable of both long-term thinking, and short term action, to great success. the russian mob/gov't has its tentacles in everything these days, i'm almost afraid to do more research and theorizing about just how much they are manipulating behind the scenes both in the region in question, and the rest of the world. ruthless, willing to take great risk, empowered by great wealth from oil and nat gas, the russians seemed poised to vie with the chinese and EU for global domination. the US? falling into a depressed economy and social confusion without political will or the intelligence to perceive how much our fortunes have declined in just 8 short years.

FrenchDoc and Snow-Moon have more you should review.

The world is moving on without us, and I confess I go back and forth in wondering if that is a good or bad thing.

UPDATE: Registan has an utterly different take on this, but I don't yet find myself in agreement with most of it (it's chock full of live links at the original):

Some very smart people think Putin is the big winner of the war in Georgia. He is not. George W. Bush is. And not in the way you think.

More details have to emerge to make this more than speculation, of course, but from the looks of it this is the second war in as many years fought by a U.S. ally, ostensibly with U.S. support. The first was the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December of 2006, in which a U.S.-armed and funded Ethiopia invaded Somalia in an attempt to drive out a fundamentalist Muslim government. The second is now, in Georgia. Nathan Hodge, writing two days ago at Danger Room offered this anecdote:

The first U.S. aid came under the rubric of the Georgia Train and Equip Program (ostensibly to counter alleged Al Qaeda influence in the Pankisi Gorge); then, under the Sustainment and Stability Operations Program. Georgia returned the favor, committing thousands of troops to the multi-national coalition in Iraq. Last fall, the Georgians doubled their contingent, making them the third-largest contributor to the coalition. Not bad for a nation of 4.6 million people.

Leaving aside the question of Russian interference (see below), the larger concern has been that Georgia might be tempted to use its newfound military prowess to resolve domestic conflicts by force.

As Sergei Shamba, the foreign affairs minister of Abkhazia, told me in 2006: “The Georgians are euphoric because they have been equipped, trained, that they have gained military experience in Iraq. It feeds this revanchist mood… How can South Ossetia be demilitarized, when all of Georgia is bristling with weaponry, and it’s only an hour’s ride by tank from Tbilisi to Tskhinvali?”

One of the U.S. military trainers put it to me a bit more bluntly. “We’re giving them the knife,” he said. “Will they use it?”

Russia unquestionably intervened. There is, however, a curious parallelism to the conflict: in 1992, Georgia attempted to head off a broad confrontation with Russia through unilateral ceasefires, only now Russia is no longer buying it… only now Georgia has U.S. support, at least tacitly. From the American side, it is difficult to imagine that, with all of the provocations against Georgia the last two years or so, no one thought Georgia would not take its newly equipped and experienced Army and try to force a solution to its breakaway regions.

Obviously, that is not working out too well, as it now is obvious Georgia badly miscalculated the effects its invasion of South Ossetia would achieve. And as Sean-Paul Kelley notes, the U.S. will almost certainly not get involved directly to force a favorable outcome (though I would add the caveat that it will not so long as BTC remains untouched).

So how would Bush win from this? South Ossetia is clearly not acting on its own—as Joshua Kucera found when he visited Tskhinvali, pretty much the whole government resides in Moscow, and the rest of the country is famously closed off to journalists—he got into trouble for photographing a building simultaneously flying Russian and Ossetian flags, though he couldn’t figure out why. Kucera even noticed that the anti-Georgian rhetoric in South Ossetia was more inflammatory than in Abkhazia, which could indicate why Georgia resorted to force here and not during any of the recent escalation events in Abkhazia.

From the political side of things, contra Zenpundit, this conflict is actually showing how Medvedev loses. By moving into the conflict zone to take personal command, Putin has demonstrated how much of a figurehead Medvedev really is.

But notice how Georgia’s oil assets are being left alone. BTC, despite initial reports to the contrary, remains untouched. And there is no way Russia wants to turn Tblisi into Grozny—politically, to a limited degree Russian does care about its perception abroad, and it couldn’t withstand a global panic about Russian expansionism. Having incontrovertible proof that Medvedev is a limp puppet ruler, with Putin the actual power broken behind the scenes, means Russia loses a great deal of its political clout since it can no longer even be called an authoritarian democracy. It therefore must resort to force to achieve any of its political ends, whether it is forcing Georgia into subservience or forcing Europe into oil dependency. A wannabe tsar ruling from the prime minister’s office might sound ominous, but it speaks to Russia’s tremendous political rot, which this conflict is highlighting. And that rot means it has little prospect of lasting for a long time (the moment Putin is out of the picture, it is difficult to imagine anything other than chaos).

As for the fighting itself: this is a punitive expedition on Russia’s part, and little more. To pretend it is anything larger is to assign Russia more power than it really has (the vast majority of its Army is little more than a paper tiger). Russia will inflict painful damage on Georgia, and will probably try to oust the Saakashvili-shaped thorn in its side. But beyond that, little will change in the region, and Russia’s weakness will have been highlighted, if not exploited.

Required Reading: Steve LeVine, who really should be listened to a lot more on this topic, sketches out this same kind of idea really well, and even sees China as the really big long-term winner (my look is in the short run). To me, this sounds about right.

Of course, the wild card here would be in Russia does try to replicate Chechnya (Putin sticking with what he knows), and Saakashvili can successfully form a guerilla army that evades Russia’s famously brutal urban counterinsurgency tactics. In which case, Bush becomes the unequivocal winner, for having pulled a Brzezinsky on Putin. We’ll see.

If you come across anything you think adds to our understanding please add it in the comments below.

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myiq2xu's picture
Submitted by myiq2xu on

He can make a speech (with a free concert, beer and brats) and our media can gently stroke themselves under the table while proclaiming him the Presumptive Emperor of Europe.

“But hysteria is all the rage these days, I guess” - gqm

Submitted by Paul_Lukasiak on

is nuts. His premise is based on the false notion that we live in a two-power world, and that exposing Russian weakness is a "victory" for Bush.

But Russia is not perceived as the threat it once was/ Moreover, instability in the region is very bad for the USA, because continued instability will lead to higher oil/energy prices.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

but at the same time registan and levine provide a view into the minds of people crafting (or not) policy on the region, and it's important to know how they think. i found the levine link particularly important for this.

i always make a point to read blogs with perspective with which i don't agree. i try to avoid groupthink, and there are times when some information only makes rounds in the opposing camps, and doesn't get our way until it's too late for us to do anything with it.

Bruce F's picture
Submitted by Bruce F on

has some interesting things to say.

I'd agree with his assessment of Jerome a Paris' Georgia: oil, neocons, cold war and our credibility as worth reading. Both J á P and Goff's background are especially relevant in this case.

Jerome prefaces his post with this:

Just as a bit of background, let me state here for the record that I wrote my PhD on the independence of Ukraine, and have thus studied how Russia behaves with its neighbors rather intensively. Following that, I worked for several years financing oil&gas projects in Russia and the Caspian; in particular, I worked on te financing of the BTC pipeline that goes from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia (I wrote about it on DailyKos 3 years ago). Oil companies don't need the money: what they want is for other parties like banks to share the political risks associated with their projects. Which means that in turn, the job of a banker working on these projects is to understand those political risks. And it is quite obvious that the relationship between Russia and the Caucasus countries, including Georgia, was at the heart of my work.

More on Stan Goff here.

OxyCon's picture
Submitted by OxyCon on

are the three global powers. As such, they can act unchallenged unilaterally because no one wants to go to war against them.

Bruce F's picture
Submitted by Bruce F on

Another blog post on Georgia/Ossetia from someone with a lifelong interest in Russia.

This caught my eye:

Ames also points to the little-noticed -- and apparently pre-planned -- PR offensive by Georgia to obscure the reality of the situation -- i.e., that Saakashvili provoked Russia's massive response with his own brutal military incursion into South Ossetia:

"The invasion was backed up by a PR offensive so layered and sophisticated that I even got an hysterical call today from a hedge fund manager in New York, screaming about an "investor call" that Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze made this morning with some fifty leading Western investment bank managers and analysts. I've since seen a J.P. Morgan summary of the conference call, which pretty much reflects the talking points later picked up by the US media."

Jesus X. Crutch's picture
Submitted by Jesus X. Crutch on

I admit my profound ignorance of this region, so I turn to Google's map page and lo and behold, there's Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia without any place names. No cities or roads at all, there' a small nameless area in the most southern region that I assume to be South Ossetia. Does the conflict in this area have anything to do with Google's map?

Submitted by jawbone on

In sum, it belies logic that Saakashvili acted impulsively. Georgians have a reputation for being hot-tempered, but he is also a trained lawyer - trained in the US. He can't be so naive about the facts of life and the certainty that he would get a bloody nose if he tried to take on the Russian army.

What are the facts? According to Jane's, Georgia has 26,900 military personnel against Russia's 641,000; 82 main battle tanks against 6,717; 139 armored personnel carriers against 6,388; and seven combat aircraft against 1,206. Still, the indications are that on Monday, Georgia resumed the bombardment of Tskhinvali and Russian positions in the region, killing three more Russian peacekeepers. Russia's military losses have now risen to 18 men killed, 14 missing and over 50 wounded.

US military aircraft on Sunday transported 800 Georgian troops serving in Iraq, along with "about 11 tons of cargo, back to Georgia". Conventional wisdom would have us believe that the US can ill-afford a Georgian "pullout" from Iraq. The 2,000-strong Georgian contingent was involved in the sensitive task of interdicting Shi'ite militiamen from smuggling arms across the Iranian border. As an American scholar put it, "A US airlift of 2,000 Georgian troops to fight Russian ones at this juncture does not look friendly to Moscow."

The point is, the Bush administration cannot afford to fail in this Caucasian venture. It will be seen as needlessly having blood on its hands unless US diplomacy successfully turns the tide in its favor and takes matters to their cold, logical conclusion - induction of Georgia into NATO.

Washington has barely four months to achieve this objective. But it is not a tall order. If the Bush administration succeeds, a page in history is written. We may conclusively say goodbye to the post-Cold War era. Russia's relations with Europe and the US can never be the same again. Blood has been drawn, after all. The Beijing Olympics, in comparison, pale in significance.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

Damn--looks like the Bushies may have been dumb like foxes, setting up a nice new crisis spot, which they hope will wound the Russian bear.

And today, Bush "doubled down," saying he was going to use US air and naval forces to deliver "humanitarian aid" to Georgia. Confrontation time in the Caucuses? Oh, my.

Via Moon of Alabama.

Submitted by jawbone on

South Ossetia, asks why they left the route open to North Ossetia--which also allowed Russian military into S. Ossetia. Concludes the massive attack on the capitol of South Ossetia was deliberately designed to kill as many civiians as possible and create enough panic to drive South Ossetians into Russia. In other words, ethnic cleansing.

Fits with another aritcle I'd read that said it looked as if Saak. was using Croatia's attacks on ethnic Serb areas as a template for his population relocation plan. By the time the world cottoned on to what they were doing, it was supposed to be so over and those pesky Ossetians so gone north. Or dead.

Pretty damn ugly. And, no, thank you, Sen. McSame, I am not a Georgian now. Maybe you are, but, then, you liked BushBoy's invasion of Iraq.