Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What Happened in Georgia

At least insofar as the start of the conflict, it's anybody's guess. Well, anybody's except Saakashvili's and, perhaps, a few people in the U.S. government. For now, it's denial time:
During a private dinner on July 9, Ms. Rice’s aides say, she warned President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia not to get into a military conflict with Russia that Georgia could not win. “She told him, in no uncertain terms, that he had to put a non-use of force pledge on the table,” according to a senior administration official who accompanied Ms. Rice to the Georgian capital.
It's hard to imagine that Saakashvili would ignore such a direct warning. It's really hard to believe this:
“This caught us totally by surprise,” said one military officer who tracks events in the region, including the American-Georgian training effort. “It really knocked us off our chairs.”
There are some understandably skeptical responses to that claim:
If the Pentagon and CIA were also caught flat-footed by Russia's response, as the McClatchy Newspapers' crack Washington bureau is reporting, then we have to ask: Why are we spending $55 bllion a year on intelligence? What are we getting out of it?

* * *

As easy as it is to believe that the CIA, etc., blew another huge event, I find it impossible to accept that not one of the 127 Pentagon advisors in Georgia, including Special Forces and intelligence contractors, were clueless about Tblisi's intent -- and preparations - to move into South Ossetia.
It is very difficult to imagine that the Georgians launched their attack against U.S. wishes. The Georgians rely on the United States, and they were in no position to defy it. This leaves two possibilities. The first is a massive breakdown in intelligence, in which the United States either was unaware of the existence of Russian forces, or knew of the Russian forces but — along with the Georgians — miscalculated Russia’s intentions. The second is that the United States, along with other countries, has viewed Russia through the prism of the 1990s, when the Russian military was in shambles and the Russian government was paralyzed. The United States has not seen Russia make a decisive military move beyond its borders since the Afghan war of the 1970s-1980s. The Russians had systematically avoided such moves for years. The United States had assumed that the Russians would not risk the consequences of an invasion.

If this was the case, then it points to the central reality of this situation: The Russians had changed dramatically, along with the balance of power in the region. They welcomed the opportunity to drive home the new reality, which was that they could invade Georgia and the United States and Europe could not respond. As for risk, they did not view the invasion as risky. Militarily, there was no counter. Economically, Russia is an energy exporter doing quite well — indeed, the Europeans need Russian energy even more than the Russians need to sell it to them. Politically, as we shall see, the Americans needed the Russians more than the Russians needed the Americans. Moscow’s calculus was that this was the moment to strike. The Russians had been building up to it for months, as we have discussed, and they struck.

* * *

By invading Georgia as Russia did (competently if not brilliantly), Putin re-established the credibility of the Russian army. But far more importantly, by doing this Putin revealed an open secret: While the United States is tied down in the Middle East, American guarantees have no value. This lesson is not for American consumption. It is something that, from the Russian point of view, the Ukrainians, the Balts and the Central Asians need to digest. Indeed, it is a lesson Putin wants to transmit to Poland and the Czech Republic as well. The United States wants to place ballistic missile defense installations in those countries, and the Russians want them to understand that allowing this to happen increases their risk, not their security.

The Russians knew the United States would denounce their attack. This actually plays into Russian hands. The more vocal senior leaders are, the greater the contrast with their inaction, and the Russians wanted to drive home the idea that American guarantees are empty talk.
The article elaborates that Russia has the U.S. over a barrel, as the U.S. needs their cooperation in its conflicts in the Middle East, particulary in relation to Iran.

Meanwhile, McCain is talking loudly and waggling a tiny stick. He's prepared to move forward with NATO membership for Georgia... "at the right time", whenever that is. (He's implicitly stating the obvious - It's not right now, or even at any future time we can presently predict.) He wants to boot Russia out of the G-8, as if that's going to happen. He seems to be admitting that the Iraq war has left the U.S. impotent in the Caucasus: "We don't have, I think, right now, the ability to intervene in any way except in a humanitarian, economic way, and do what we can to help the Georgians".

What we do seem to be getting is a lot of really silly analysis. For example, in The Jerusalem Post:
After the war, the status quo ante in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is no longer tenable and the policy choices facing Russia in the region - official annexation or recognition of their independence - would not be accepted internationally. Moreover, Russian troops can no longer be perceived as an evenhanded peacekeeping force, and this may bring pressure for their replacement with either UN or some other more neutral peacekeeping troops.

Internationally, Russia's use of force could in the long run completely undermine Russian credibility when it speaks against the use of force in Iran or condemns potential future confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah (in 2006, Russia condemned in the harshest terms Israel's "excessive use of force").

Finally, as Israelis know well, bombing and invading small countries never looks good on TV in the West, however justified it might be. In the court of public opinion, Russia has already lost, something the independent Russian media was quick to acknowledge. Some in the US are already calling for a American boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and that may perhaps be only the beginning.
In terms of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it seems pretty clear that Russia is mostly interested in excluding Georgian troops from those territories, wants a commitment that Georgia won't again attempt to subdue them by force, and won't be inviting in international peacekeepers. Evenhandedness? Who thought Russia was evenhanded before this flare-up of the long-simmering conflict? And what does it really matter? Few countries view Israel as "evenhanded" in its administration of the West Bank; that doesn't mean international peacekeepers will ever take over that role.

And gee whiz... Russia won't have credibilty when it criticizes other nations for the excessive use of force? As if it did in the first place? And people around the world will think of Russia as being a bully against weak neighboring states? That'll be a first....

This piece seems mostly designed to fill column inches:
In the meantime, could it be that Russia, petro-confident and irredentist, seeking to reverse the record of the past two decades, is careering toward another 1989 or 1991? Will it heed the lessons of the Soviet era? What will happen if it does not? Will the North Caucasus break out of Moscow's grip? Will the Far East turn into a Chinese colony? Will the West once again confront the prospect of Moscow's former satrapies suddenly becoming major nuclear powers? Will the specter of Russian "loose nukes" keep haunting the West?
It's written like the ending of a 1950's serialized cliffhanger. And Russia, we're told, may be in for a "hard landing" if it doesn't learn from the lessons of history:
A decade [after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan], there would be no more Warsaw Pact. Europe would be sending humanitarian aid to Russia. The Soviet military would be defeated in Afghanistan. What caused all that? We are still not quite sure.
I sure hope the Russians are taking notes.... (But if you really want silly analysis, turn to Richard Cohen, who apparently isn't even slightly interested in internal consistency. I'd do a "slash and burn" on it, but the pickin's are just too easy.)

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