Sunday, August 24, 2008

Follow-On Moves and Maneuvers

In an October 1939 radio broadcast, Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma;” but he also went on to say that “perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” In the time that has passed since Russian troops entered Georgia, Russia’s behavior has perhaps lifted some of the mystery surrounding Russian intentions vis a vis Georgia especially now that these forces are apparently withdrawing – and the key does appear to be Russia’s perception of that national interest.

As revealed by its actions in Georgia, Russia’s goals include:

Eliminating as much of Georgia's military capability as possible

Embarrassing the U.S. and NATO over their inability to prevent Russian actions

Reminding other neighboring states that were formerly allies or a part of the Soviet Union of their vulnerability to similar Russian action

Building up its perceived role as the leading challenger/competitor/rival to the United States for both its domestic and international audiences

Enough information has also emerged, and continues to emerge, regarding the Russian military operation to make it clear that Russia was probably preparing an invasion of Georgia when the incident began. Saakashvilli's decision to order Georgian forces into South Ossetia simply allowed Russian forces to accelerate own plans under the cover of responding to Georgia's initiative. The sizable presence of Russian forces in the region, the cyber attacks in the days leading up to the conflict, on top of the pattern of incidents between Russia and Georgia over the previous months of 2008, all fit the pattern established by Russia in 1999 when Moscow sent its troops into its own breakaway region of Chechnya.

It is also clear that at the response by the United States and its allies to Russia’s actions will need to be clearly defined and even rather robust. In addition to winning greater acceptance of U.S. anti-missile system plans in Europe (as in Poland) the Georgian armed forces will have to replace the sizable equipment losses inflicted by Russian forces. However, this assistance will have to be accompanied by extensive training across the full spectrum of military activity – not just how to use the equipment, but improving the command and control of Georgian forces and the quality of the strategic direction provided by Georgia’s political and military leadership in order to avoid any future miscalculations on the scale of this recent activity. The performance of Georgian forces calls to mind the evaluation by Prussia’s von Moltke of the American armies engaged in our 1861-1865 civil war as consisting of nothing more than “armed mobs.” The Russian forces appear better only by contrast (and the fact of their overwhelming numbers). It is fortunate for both Georgia and Russia that the fighting was not more intense.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

No White Hats Anywhere and No Cavalry in Sight

George Bernard Shaw once wrote that the problems between England and Ireland arose from the fact that the Irish couldn’t forget their history and the English couldn’t remember it. Given the current conflict in the Caucasus, something similar can be said about Georgia and Russia – the Russians can’t forget their history and the Georgians appear unable to remember it.

Like the Balkans, the Caucasus region overflows with the history of past conflicts between the many empires whose armies have struggled across its mountains. One of the legacies of these conflicts is a patchwork of neighboring populations that do not get along. Tsarist and Soviet Russia both took advantage of this legacy, just as Moscow has been doing since 1991. Among the things the Russians appear to have forgotten is that Georgia’s reported attempt last week to forcibly return South Ossetia to its control could well have been inspired by Moscow’s own use of military force to reassert its control over Chechnya just over a decade ago, though that conflict simmers on in a guerrilla-terrorist struggle.

The Georgians likewise appear to have forgotten the Russian military’s willingness and even eagerness to engage in military operations in the Caucasus region. Tbilisi also failed to remember the geography of their part of the world – Moscow is a lot closer than just about anyone from whom the Georgians might have expected real military help.

Georgia is a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, having lent its territory, its airspace, and its troops to support that conflict and it has been a recipient of U.S. military equipment, training, and assistance. Tbilisi has also made clear its ambitions to join the NATO alliance. A major western-owned pipeline passes through Georgia carrying oil from Central Asia (and according to press reports this pipeline has already been targeted by Russian bombers.) However, whether they are in Brussels or New York, the diplomats now engaged in seeking a peaceful resolution to this conflict are much farther away than the Russian forces now facing the Georgians.

The outcome of any conflict between Russia and Georgia recalls the admonition that “victory doesn’t always go to the big battalions – but that’s the way to bet.” This Russian “victory” will not be won with elegant maneuvers and rapid, decisive surgical strokes – it will be ground out the hard way and with violence just as the conventional war in Chechnya was fought.

Up to the time of this writing, late on Sunday August 10, Russian ground forces appear to be confined to the South Ossetia and Abkhazia enclaves – although Russian aircraft are striking cities and other targets across Georgia. However, if the Russian generals are unable to resist the memory of Georgia’s previous status as a part of the Soviet Union, it would be a mere matter of hours at most for Russian forces to traverse the rest of Georgia. The real question yet to be answered – and this may be true in Moscow as well – is “what will a Russian victory in a conflict with Georgia look like?”