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?”