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The Cold War Revisited

Steven Eke, BBC News Russian affairs analyst, has a compact background piece, South Ossetia bitterness turns to conflict

Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili has called upon his country to “mobilise” in the face of “a very blunt Russian aggression”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had reports of “ethnic cleansing” in villages.

Russian tanks have reportedly moved towards the capital of the region, which has been under heavy bombardment from Georgian forces.

South Ossetia is a territory one-and-a-half times that of Luxembourg, with an estimated population of some 70,000 people.

It is legally part of Georgia, since its self-proclaimed independence has been recognised by no other state, including Russia.

Yet its people and their separatist leaders do not want to be part of the Georgian state, in any shape or form.

They want either to attain international recognition as an independent state, or to be united with their ethnic kin living across the border in the Russian region of North Ossetia.

Russia asserts that its role since the end of the South Ossetian war in 1992 has been that of a peace-keeper.

Putin’s Russia is unhappy with its reduced role in world affairs, and Georgian leaders have discovered the joys of nationalism. Throw in a pipeline [you had to know gas and oil would be involved] and you have the Hedgemony suddenly interested in a Caucasian republic.

Stalin was a Georgian, which creates its own problems, and the government has been trying to join NATO which annoys the hell out of Russia. The Russians have been handing out passports to anyone who claims to be Russian in the area, which annoys the hell out of the Georgians.

The pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey reduces Russian control of oil and gas from the area, and the Georgians are shifting to Azeri suppliers from Russian, after the Russians decided to jack up the prices.

The problem is, while no one wants an all out war, it is politically useful not to have a resolution and peace.


1 Badtux { 08.08.08 at 11:54 pm }

Saakashvili gambled that the Russians wouldn’t respond if he sent in Georgian troops to reassert control over South Ossetia, or that if they did respond, the Georgian troops could close off the one road into the area from Russia (which goes through a tunnel through the mountains) so that the Russians couldn’t get from point A (Russia) to point B (South Ossetia) without going the long way ’round which happens to go through Georgia and would involve a clear and blatant invasion of Georgia. He lost his gamble. And it is clear from the Russian response that Putin was expecting exactly what happened. Those tanks, troop carriers, and mobile artillery didn’t just “happen” to be ready to roar through the tunnel before the Georgians could reach it. Saakashvili played right into Russia’s hands.

My best guess is that Russia is going to finish kicking the Georgians out of South Ossetia, then set their troops on the border with the rest of Georgia and claim that they’re just peace keepers and call for a ceasefire while saying that the fate of South Ossetia should be settled via political measures rather than via force of arms. Things will settle down to the two sides lobbing occasional mortar shells and rockets at each other, and that will be that. And the Western powers will go along with it, because who wants to go to war with Russia? And eventually Saakashvili is going to end up going the way of pretty much any Western-backed leader in the area… either leaving on a jet plane to the West in the face of massive discontent over how he “lost” South Ossetia, or with his head added to a bonfire after his government is overthrown.

Saakashvili made a big mistake thinking he could get Western support for retaking South Ossetia by force. Europe isn’t going there, and the U.S. can’t — the U.S. has no troops left, they’re 100% committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, the only support Saakashvili will get is diplomatic, and a buncha diplomats wringing their hands helplessness aren’t going to change the facts on the ground. Eventually everybody is just going to pretend that Russia is telling the truth about only being “peace-keepers” to “assure a political rather than military solution to the problem of South Ossetia”, and things will get back to normal. Except for the families of those who’ve died in this useless and stupid war, of course. But then, who thinks about them?

– Badtux the Cynical Penguin

2 Bryan { 08.09.08 at 12:29 am }

Georgia had everything they needed except a competent general. Putin has been putting the pressure on for months with the drone overflights hoping to suck the Georgians into attacking.

This isn’t going anywhere good for Georgia, and Putin is going to rub NATO’s nose in it as payback for Kosovo. If a vote was good enough for Kosovo, it’s good enough for Ossetia.

It’s a matter of who loses the least, and at this point it’s Russia, but this will affect the other republics. They may not be as willing to go along after what happened to Georgia. China may pick up some support in Central Asia.

3 Badtux { 08.09.08 at 12:56 am }

It always boils down to, who has more to lose? Russia had nothing to lose in responding the way they did. The worst that could happen would be that Georgian troops closed that tunnel before their troops got through it, and at that point they would be no worse off than they were to begin with. Georgia… well, I doubt Russia has enough good troops to just wipe Georgia off the map. Their “special” units are the only ones that have modern weapons and modern training, the vast majority of the Russian army is ill-trained half-starved draftees with decrepit Soviet-era equipment. But still, clearly this isn’t any conflict that a small nation should start, because even if they’re only getting hit by the 5% of the Russian Army that is qualified to pour piss out of a boot, that’s still bigger than their entire military and with air superiority capable of basically wiping the Georgian military off the map then settling down to a nice long looting and burning that would be a national disaster akin to the Mongol hoards invading ancient Rus. It’s unclear that the Russian Army could stick around for the winter. But then, they don’t need to in order for it to be a national disaster for Georgia.

My guess is that the Russians aren’t going to do this (i.e., make like Mongols). They are chess players, not football players. They had pushed a pawn forward — their “peacekeepers” in South Ossetia. Georgia sent a knight to take it. And now Russia just shipped in a bishop backed by a rook. The next move is going to be Georgia’s, and Russia is bettering that Georgia is the one that’s going to back down. But if they don’t… well. There’s always the Mongol option. And by now it should be starting to dawn upon Saakashvili that all he’s going to get from the West is some hand-wringing and platitudes…

Thus my prediction of the eventual outcome. I think Russia is quite happy with where this puts them. It’s just another move in a long chess game with the West, and one where the sacrifice of few dozen “peacekeepers” was well worth what they get in return — a chance to rub the West’s nose in the mud for meddling in the former Yugoslavia by setting up the “Kosovo Scenario” once more except this time with the West being the inevitable loser. A pity about all those dead people though…

– Badtux the Geopolitical Penguin

4 Bryan { 08.09.08 at 9:14 pm }

Well the Russians are bombing inside Georgia, and moving the Black Sea fleet down the coast. This is escalating. The Russian admit to losing two aircraft over Georgia.

Georgia is recalling its Brigade from Iraq to provide more firepower, and apparently the US is going to provide transportation.

There have been hits near key oil facilities, so things could get nasty.

5 Badtux { 08.10.08 at 1:26 am }

Right out of the Kosovo playbook, in reverse. The U.S. made air strikes in the Russian ally state, Serbia. Russia will make air strikes in the U.S. ally state, Georgia. The U.S. breaks off a province of a Russian ally state and declares it an independent nation. Russia breaks off a province of a U.S. ally state and declares it an independent nation.

Where it gets scary is if Russia decides to deviate from the Kosovo playbook. My bet is that they don’t. Their whole goal is payback at a low risk to Russia. Going beyond the Kosovo playbook would create risk for Russia, and that’s not acceptable (Russian paranoia, remember?). But their thought process is that if this playbook was acceptable for U.S. actions in the former Yugoslavia, it’s acceptable for Russian actions in the former Soviet Union. And they’re probably right — just as the U.S. brushed off Russian objections to their actions in the former Yugoslavia, Russia is doing the same thing to U.S. objections, and the response to having objections brushed off is likely to be… more objections. Because it simply doesn’t make any sense to start WWIII over a breakaway province today, any more than it did in 1999 when Putin was on the other side of that equation.

Oh, regarding “hits near oil facilities”, beware of attaching too much importance to any “facts” reported by the propaganda ministries of Georgia and Russia. Where both agree that something happened, you can attach a good likelihood that it really happened. Otherwise, there are no independent journalists on the ground so there’s at least a 75% chance that anything you hear from the propaganda ministries is about as real as Iraq’s WMD. We’ll find out more when the fighting stops and independent journalists can move around the country. Until then… well. Not really.

– Badtux the Geopolitical Penguin

6 Bryan { 08.10.08 at 4:53 pm }

The Georgians are trying to quit, but the Russians are getting a little carried away. The Ukrainians may ban access to the their ports if the Russians don’t back off the Black Sea Fleet, and there are no deep water ports on the Russian stretch of coast.

Abkhazia is getting into the act because the Georgians are occupied.

Georgia shouldn’t have moved without ground attack aircraft and effective anti-aircraft protection. They should have sealed the tunnel and the roads into Abkhazia before doing anything else, and they lack that basic capability. It was stupid to believe that the Russians wouldn’t use airpower.

I think you’re right on this being a mirror of Kosovo, but the Russians may not stop with that now that the Georgians have pulled back.

The Georgians have a chance on a one-on-one ground campaign on their side of the mountains, but they need anti-air and anti-ship protection before they do anything again.