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Prescient?

[ 0 ] August 10, 2008 |

McCain supporters are obviously going to try and run a good distance with the argument that he was somehow “prescient” on the question of Russian power. I’m not quite sure how to put this, but McCain’s apparent inability to view Russian foreign policy as anything other than retooled Soviet ambition strikes me as unhelpfully alarmist. Let’s recall that if things had gone as McCain preferred, the United States would have somehow expelled the Russians from the G-8, forced NATO to rapidly absorb Georgia and the Ukraine, unleashed the fookin’ fury on Iran, and pursued any any number of other needlessly provocative (and delusional) goals. (On the other hand, things certainly did go McCain’s way in the run-up to the Iraq War, which was in itself has been an absolute crackerjack for US-Russian relations. In the very least, the Russians seem to have developed an appreciation for the virtues of regime change; to their modest credit, they seem to have outperformed the Bush administration in so far as creating a pretext for that sort of work.)

I suspect things will get even more pointlessly silly in the coming weeks. McCain is already arguing that the pussification of NATO green-lighted Russian aggression, while his blogospheric taint-moisteners are in full St. Vitus’ dance, comparing the conflict in South Ossetia to the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Afghanistan, warning once more that Barack Obama is a minstrelized Jimmy Carter, and calling for the US to . . . I dunno, go kill a few Muslims somewhere to show the Russians we mean business. I predict that with a few days, “National Greatness Conservatives” will begin calling out the pantywaists in the State department for “losing South Ossetia”; insisting that all of this traces back to our Failure of Will in Iraq; reviving Bush’s assertion that global tyranny is still FDR’s fault; and reminding the world that the Russia is once more trying to execute the dying wishes of Peter the Great.

. . . Well, I’ll admit I hadn’t thought of this one: Someday, apparently, “8/8″ will be remembered as this generation’s “9/11,” or something. Does this mean we can still keep playing that shitty Lee Greenwood song during the 7th inning stretch?

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Georgia Cries Uncle?

[ 50 ] August 10, 2008 |

This looks like a surrender to me:

Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said its soldiers were observing a cease-fire on orders of the president and declared the move in a note handed over to Russia’s envoy to Tbilisi.

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy confirmed the Georgian note was received; the Russian Foreign Ministry had no immediate response.

“Georgia expresses its readiness to immediately start negotiations with the Russian Federation on cease-fire and termination of hostilities,” the ministry said in a statement.

Things appear to have quieted in South Ossetia; unclear if fighting in Abkhazia is continuing. Russian air attacks, as far as I know, are ongoing.

…Russia isn’t finished:

Russian tanks and troops moved through the separatist enclave of South Ossetia and advanced on the city of Gori in central Georgia on Sunday night, for the first time directly assaulting a Georgian city with ground forces after three days of heavy fighting, Georgian officials said.

Georgian tanks were dug into positions outside Gori and planning to defend the city, said Shota Utiashvili, an official in Georgia’s interior ministry. He said the city of Gori was coming under artillery and tank fire. There was no immediate comment from Russia.

The Russians have overwhelming firepower on their side, while the Georgians are dug in, defending their home territory. Putin is risking a lot by escalating this.

…Fire up your Google Earth and take a look at the situation. Gori is about 17 miles from Tskhinvali, about 1000′ downhill over what looks to me like a fairly even slope. Tblisi is about 50 miles by road to the east, over much more difficult terrain.

…Matt Weiner notes that this was included in an earlier version of the NYT article cite above:

Exhausted Georgian troops, their faces covered with stubble, said they were angry at the United States and EU for not coming to Georgia’s aid. A Georgian major who was driving an armored truck out of South Ossetia and who gave his name as Georgy, said, ‘Over the past few years I lived in a democratic country, and I was happy. Now America and the European Union spit on us.’

If either the Georgian military or political class believed that the US and the EU would provide material assistance, then this was a larger miscalculation than I had previously believed.

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An American in Russian Custody?

[ 14 ] August 10, 2008 |

I am told by a source that Izvestiya is claiming that an American working with Georgian forces has been captured by the Russians. Here’s the link; as I don’t read Russian, I can’t confirm anything.

Hat tip to CT.

…here’s the translation:

A group of Georgian explosives experts were captured in South Ossetia, among them is an American citizen, an African-American. This is reported by “Radio Ossetia”.

The group was detained in the area around the village of Zar, which is located on the “road of life” – the Zarskaya road.

It is assumed that the American citizen is one of the NATO instructors. At the moment, he was transferred to Vladikavkaz to resolve the circumstances around his presence on the territory of the Republic of South Ossetia.

As mentioned by Rosbalt news service (http://www.rosbalt.ru/), the Plenipotentiary Representitive to the Russian Federation Dmitriy Medoyev already reported that several dark-skinned bodies were found among the corpses in Tskhinvali, having fought on the side of Georgia.

A fascinating set of claims. That’s all I have to say.

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Hopefully Never To Speak of This Again

[ 1 ] August 10, 2008 |

With Rob doing yeoman work covering the real news, I was planning on not commenting, but seeing that MoDo has decided to combine inevitable attacks on the “Breck Girl” with mockery of Rielle Hunter (apparently once relevant novelist Jay McInerney was appalled!), I’m compelled to say something. So let me start with the obligatory concession that whatever one wishes the rules were, a candidate has to largely work within the established rules, and it was therefore grossly irresponsible of Edwards to run for president under these circumstances. I don’t feel the same bitterness that Paul must, because I was never an Edwards supporter in this cycle, largely because his campaigned seemed amateurish compared to his two largely ideologically similar opponents. I suppose this could be seen as further evidence of this.

Still, especially since it’s not just right-wingers who have used this opportunity to engage in easy moralism and to construct tortured rationalizations of why this really matters, let me be clear: the idea that this kind of thing could be seen a decisive factor in determining who should become president is, as Mizner says, “a national sickness.” This is politics-as-selling-jeans, and any difference between this and “OMG a woman adviser is telling Al Gore to wear earth tones!!!!!!” trivia is one of degree, not kind.

And, when you come down to cases, I don’t think anyone really could dispute this. This is particularly evident when you consider all of the McCain supporters now claiming that this should have been a major story in the (at least nominally) serious political press. Do they really believe this? Well:

Recall: John McCain returned to the United States from Vietnam in March 1973. His wife, Carol, had been in a near-fatal car accident while he was gone. She was overweight, on crutches, and 4 inches shorter than when McCain had left. McCain ended up divorcing Carol for Cindy Hensley, his current wife. Carol has remained mostly silent on her marriage to John, except for one notable comment to a McCain biographer: “John was turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again.”

There were legal complications, too. The Los Angeles Times reported in June that McCain obtained a marriage license while still legally married to his first wife. McCain suggested in his autobiography that he divorced Carol months before marrying Cindy. In fact, that period was about five weeks. He also said that for the first nine months of his relationship with Cindy, he still “cohabited” with Carol. Social conservatives were never McCain’s base, but yes, it could get worse.

So these people will support Obama, because a candidate’s commitment to marriage is Really Important, right? Of course not — and it would be incredibly foolish for them to do so. As Digby says, “[i]t’s not a useful proxy for public behavior, never has been.” And, fundamentally, I don’t think anyone really disagrees. They just pretend to in order to justify treating interesting gossip as if it was serious news.

As a punchline, Kenny has a good roundup of Instahackery on the subject. In addition to everything else (yes, newspapers that routinely put Judith Miller on the front page in the runup sure were committed to stopping the war), what kills me is that Reynolds thinks that by not reporting on this before the MSM was helping…the Democrats. Yeah, that sure would have been great for the Dems if this had come out now if Edwards was the candidate! But, of course, I’m forgetting the rules: Edwards’s adultery is bad news for Barack Obama, Bill Clinton’s adultery is bad news for Hillary Clinton, but John McCain’s adultery isn’t an issue for John McCain.

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Morning War Update

[ 13 ] August 10, 2008 |

The plot to distract the world from the glory of the 2008 Olympic Games continues to unfold:

  • Russia has not accepted Georgia’s cease fire offer.
  • Georgia claims to have fully withdrawn from South Ossetia. It’s unclear whether the Georgians mean the part of South Ossetia that was controlled by Russia/South Ossetian separatists prior to the war, or all of South Ossetia, but I’m betting the former, and I expect the Russians will be driving for the latter.
  • Russia has landed troops in the Abkhaz city of Ochamchire, to which it recently built a railroad; this could provide a good jumping off point for threats against the Georgian oil exporting city of Poti. Ukraine is threatening to bar the Russian Fleet from returning to Sevastopol.
  • Russia continues to bomb a number of Georgian military and strategic targets.
  • Russia (or motivated Russians) have launched cyber-attacks against Georgian government internet infrastructure. The attacks don’t appear to have been overwhelming thus far.
  • If the war continues, it would appear to be on at least two fronts, with substantial Russia troop buildups in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
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Sunday Book Review: The Bottom Billion

[ 0 ] August 10, 2008 |

This is the fifth in a seven part series on the Patterson School Summer Reading List.

  1. In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce
  2. The Utility of Force, Rupert Smith
  3. Negotiating Change, Jeremy Jones
  4. Enemies of Intelligence, Richard Betts
  5. The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier

Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion is about the developing countries that have failed to develop. Over the past twenty-five years, the greater portion of the “developed world” has developed; incredible growth rates in China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia have dramatically lowered the percentage of the world’s population that is in extreme poverty. This development has opened a new gap between developing and not-developing countries, the latter mostly in Africa. Collier wonders why these states haven’t developed, and tries to produce solutions for the most serious problems. His main culprits are a series of “traps” that prevent economic growth: The conflict trap (war and its aftermath), the resource trap (also known as the resource curse, the landlocked with bad neighbors trap, and the bad governance trap (the latter two are self-explanatory). Within this context he discusses the limits of developmental aid and of the ways in which developed countries can assist (or fail to assist) the not-developing world. Collier has engaged in substantial quantitative research, attempting to determine the links between several variables and a lack of economic growth.

Unfortunately, Collier can rarely go a page without launching a broadside salvo against “leftists” and “Marxists” who, through good intention or ill, manage to foul up every effort to provide genuine assistance to the bottom billion. That there are people on the left who have idiotic ideas about development isn’t surprising; there are people of every political stripe who have idiotic ideas on trade and development, and who once held to ideas that have since become idiotic. I find it hard to believe, however, that these “western Marxists” have had the impact on policy that Collier would impute to them. I mean, we all remember Howard Zinn’s disastrous turn as Secretary of the Treasury, and we’d all like to forget Noam Chomsky’s six years as Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, but beyond that I’m hard pressed to conceive of precisely how raving leftists have dictated US and European development policy.

A related problem is that Collier attempts to dismiss genuine policy differences with anti-leftist screeds. For example, Collier doesn’t have much patience for development efforts focusing on health and education. He’s aimed clearly at growth, but he fails to acknowledge that folks arguing for health and educational development are also pro-growth; they just think that health and education are better ways to spend money than infrastructure. This is a debate that can go back and forth, and there’s evidence on both sides (indeed, Collier scores an own goal on infrastructure projects when he mentions the corruption endemic to the construction industry), but it’s hardly the case that health and education advocates are starry eyed idealist rock star celebrity Marxists, and it ill serves Collier’s argument to treat them as such.

Advocates for health and education aid, however, get off easy compared to environmentalists. It’s fair to say that Collier sees no value whatsoever in any project, developed or developing world, which is designed to limit environmental damage. Advocates of such projects get trashed as Marxists and as indifferent to the suffering of the poor. This is, of course, a gigantic blind spot; environmental projects can indeed have negative effects on growth, especially in the short term, but they can have quite beneficial effects on long term prospects for development. They can also have a positive impact on infrastructure and health, both of which are key to development. Collier’s dismissal of such projects (and of environmental concerns more generally) is beyond silly; it’s derelict.

I do think that Collier’s approach is basically correct; the answer to extreme poverty in Africa and elsewhere lies in more, not less, contact with international markets. Such contact may have numerous negative effects, but it is remarkably difficult to produce economic growth in isolation from them, and without growth there are severe limits to what can be accomplished in terms of human development. I also think that his concept of producing international charters for resource development and post-conflict management make a lot of sense. We know from John Meyer et al that governments new to the international system most often try to duplicate the institutions they see in other states, even if those institutions don’t make sense (this is why landlocked countries have navies). The charter concept takes this a step further, suggesting the creation in the international sphere of a set of templates for how developing countries can deal with certain problems. Often, developing states simply lack the technical expertise for dealing with a sudden resource boom such as the discovery of oil; a charter would lay out a path for how the government could pursue policies that minimize risk and maximize reward. The post-conflict charter would develop guidelines for how international society would deal with states coming out of civil wars, coups, and other conflict situations. The idea is to turn the passive process of socialization into an active one, and lay out appropriate paths for governments in uncertain situations to follow. It’s fair to acknowledge that such charters have a quasi-imperialistic character to them, but such an acknowledgement doesn’t mean that they’re a bad idea.

Perhaps the most worrisome part of the book is Collier’s suggestion that the window for development may have closed. Although he doesn’t fully work it out, he suggests that East and South Asian development was capable of taking advantage of opportunities provided by the international market in the 1980s and 1990s, but that many of the opportunities are no longer available. This means that the not-developing world will have trouble following the same path as not just the developed, but the recently developing world. That a new path remains uncharted is worrisome for hopes of growth in Africa, and in other areas of extreme destitution.

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Another Lurch Toward Fascism

[ 15 ] August 9, 2008 |

First they came for the beer pong players:

Under newly proposed regulations, Florida students — on or off the campus — would be prohibited from “excessive rapid consumption” of alcohol. The policy specifically bars “drinking games,” as well as “alcohol luges,” which are carved ice blocks that serve as frozen pathways for liquor shots.

Patricia Telles-Irvin, Florida’s vice president for student affairs, said the university’s existing regulations were already designed to curb binge drinking. The proposed changes, however, are meant to target specific high-risk drinking activities, she said.

The regulations also forbid keg standing, an acrobatic drinking feat where students are inverted over a keg, with legs held aloft, as they guzzle straight from a tap.

I’m tempted to say, “Wow, that really brings back some memories.” But no. No, it really doesn’t. I do recall, though, some friends in college who developed a two-funneled beer bong with valves; these were the same folks who, at the end of each fall semester, hosted a tribute party to Bob Seger. Known as “Seger Day,” the event’s gimmick simply involved getting loaded and listening to Bob Seger records. For some reason, this bacchanal drew hundreds of people each year. The highlight of Seger Day was an event known as “The Distance,” a game that consisted of drinking beer drizzled from a keg that was dangled from a third-story window. It was a goddamned stupid game. Dumber yet was the fact that Seger Day was intended to be a serious tribute to its namesake; for three years, I thought it was one of the greatest jokes I’d ever heard.

That said, I can’t imagine regulations like these — which even UF administrators seem to think would be unenforceable — will have any practical effect, except to whip frat boys and independent sluggos into an indignant, libertarian froth. Which is usually entertaining for about ten minutes but offers minimal longterm payoff.

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Evening Update

[ 45 ] August 9, 2008 |

Bringing you the news the other blogs won’t [okay; some of them will]… Here are some questions, and some attempts at answers.

What are the latest developments?

The fighting continues, including airstrikes near the main Georgian oil pipeline and in the port city of Poti, which is a major oil export terminal. Putin has indicated that both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now off the table, and will not return to Georgian sovereignty under any circumstances. Putin also seems to be managing the situation from a base in southern Russia; sorry about that, Dmitri. US and European envoys are attempting to arrange a cease fire, but unless I’m terribly wrong (and I may be terribly wrong) the situation will, from this point on, be almost entirely dictated by Russian political calculation.


Did the Georgians wander into a Russian trap?

Quite possibly. More than a few people have noted that the Russians seemed extremely well prepared for intervention in South Ossetia. Believe it or not, there is more than one explanation for this, although we could hardly expect that someone like Ralph Peters, who has always lived in the ragged borderlands of sanity, would appreciate that. Russia could have had direct intelligence that the Georgians were preparing an offensive; as Doug Muir notes:

The Russians have put a lot of effort into intelligence in Georgia. Georgia has expelled various Russian citizens for being spies, but the real threat probably isn’t from Russians. Keep in mind that Georgia was part of Russia for almost 200 years, Georgians occupied a lot of high posts in the Soviet system, and a large minority of Georgians look back on the good old days with nostalgia and are not enthusiastic supporters of nationalist confrontation in general or Saakashvili in particular. So, there’s a pretty good chance that Moscow had the Georgian high command wired for sound.

However, Russia could simply be engaged in the entirely sensible and rational policy of keeping its best troops in places where it thought there might be conflict, and of developing contingency plans in case of conflict. It’s pretty obvious that the Georgian offensive wasn’t just an off the cuff response to the skirmishing in South Ossetia, either; it also looks to have been well planned, with the major flaw being the failure to predict a quick Russian response.

Even if the Georgians fell into a Russian trap, they’re hardly blameless; Saakashvili hasn’t been shy about employing the nationalist rhetoric, and I think it’s pretty absurd to claim that he was “forced” into the offensive, rather than seeing it as an opportunity (with the Olympics and the inevitable Rielle Hunter disclosure) to seize South Ossetia without much of a fight.

What’s going on in the Black Sea?

The deployment of the Black Sea Fleet is particularly worrying, because it may indicate that the Russians are planning to escalate again. Russian air attacks have already hammered large parts of Georgia, but an amphibious assault would be something else entirely. Even if they don’t invade, they can certainly blockade; the Georgian Navy is no match for the Black Sea Fleet, which has some exceptionally powerful ships. Most notable are the cruisers Moskva (Slava class) and Kerch (Kara class); Galrahn has a rundown on the capabilities of the former here. The Russians are already reporting that they have sunk a Georgian patrol boat. Galrahn also has a good discussion of what the deployment of the Black Sea Fleet might mean. It pains me to point out that if the Russians had been more careful with Giulio Cesare, the Georgians would really be screwed; if you want to say “I really mean it”, then say it with a 13″ shell…

What’s the US role?

How much did the US know about Georgian plans before the offensive was launched? David Weman highlights this, from Doug Merrill:

A senior State Department figure was here in Tbilisi last week, and I would expect that the Georgian side at least hinted very broadly about what was up. He would have to deny that, of course, in the way of these things. We can assume that the Americans did not warn them off.

I’m really, really skeptical of the notion that the Georgians would have prepared for, then launched, the offensive to retake South Ossetia without providing any clue to the United States. Even if the State Department figure wasn’t notified, American trainers must have noticed the preparations. I would like to say that it’s simply not plausible that US intel failed to detect preparations for the attack, but then… you know. I suppose it’s an intelligence failure either way; either the Americans failed to detect the Georgian offensive, or they failed to note Russia’s capability and willingness to respond. Either way, we got played by somebody. If the administration did know that the Georgians were planning something and didn’t stop it, then it’s just one indictment of the ineptitude of “the grown ups”

… I am also remiss in failing to note the excellent contribution of Daragh McDowell, including this on the potential impact of the war on the Putin-Medvedev. partnership

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Russia-Georgia Afternoon Update

[ 36 ] August 9, 2008 |

Last post was getting a little clogged…

The NYT is reporting a bunch of interesting stuff, not least this:

The de facto government of pro-Russian Abkhazia asked United Nations peacekeepers to depart from their posts in the Kodori Gorge, a small mountainous area that Georgia had reclaimed by force in 2006. The peacekeepers withdrew, and aerial bombardments of the gorge began soon after, the official said.

…the 650 armored vehicles said to have transited from Russia to South Ossetia in the last 24 hours is roughly 3 times the total number of armored vehicles in the entire Georgian arsenal.

…Before Putin returned to Russia, he and Bush spoke at a luncheon hosted by Hu Jintao. Must have been awkward. I wonder if George still thinks Vlady has a “good soul”?

…the Washington Post appears to be incapable in thinking of any but the simplest strategic terms:

This is a grave challenge to the United States and Europe. Ideally, the U.N. Security Council would step in, authorizing a genuine peacekeeping force to replace the Russian one that has turned into a de facto occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But a Russian veto rules that out. Thus, the United States and its NATO allies must together impose a price on Russia if it does not promptly change course.

What price can NATO impose? The editorial has no answers, and offers no suggestions. Military action? Military assistance for Georgia? Sanctions against Russia? A strongly worded letter? Whoever started this thing, it’s clear that Russia has intentions that go beyond the acceptable, but bluster like this gets us exactly nowhere.

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Morning Russia-Georgia Roundup

[ 154 ] August 9, 2008 |

Your morning Confrontation in the Caucasus (somebody tell me if CNN picks up that catchy alliteration, so I can sue) update:

  • Georgia claims to have shot down ten Russian aircraft; the Russians say they’ve lost two. Significant Russian air attacks over Georgia, which makes me suspect that the losses are from SAMs.
  • Russian paratroopers are in Tskhinvali; don’t know whether they got there by foot or by airdrop.
  • The Russians claim that they’ve taken Tskhinvali, while the Georgians disagree. If Tskhinvali is in dispute at this point, then things are not going well for Georgia.
  • As predicted, neither Putin-Medvedev nor Saakashvili are backing down. [Update: Georgia is asking for a ceasefire, but without details of what’s going on in South Ossetia, hard to know what that means. Georgia is also apparently withdrawing its troops from Iraq. Thx, Cernig.]
  • Among other targets, the Russians are bombing the city of Gori, where Georgian troops are massing. Let’s hope they avoid the Stalin Museum.
  • Death toll is running as high as 1600. Long time fans of political science will note that this means the Confrontation in the Caucasus is now a legitimate, genuine interstate war.

…this is illuminating:

Russian Gen. Vladimir Boldyrev claimed in televised comments Saturday that Russian troops had driven Georgian forces out of the provincial capital. Witnesses confirmed that there was no sign of Georgian soldiers in the streets.

Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili proposed a cease-fire Saturday. As part of his proposal, Georgian troops were pulled out of Tskhinvali and had been ordered to stop responding to Russian shelling, said Alexander Lomaia, secretary of his Security Council.

Russia did not immediately respond to Saakashvili’s proposal. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had said earlier that Moscow sent troops into South Ossetia to force Georgia into a cease-fire.

Just a couple of hours ago, the Georgians were claiming that they controlled Tskhinvali. I wonder if cooler heads have prevailed in Tblisi.

…This Der Spiegel report highlights the true threat of Abkhaz participation in the war. The problem isn’t that the Abkhaz might head to South Ossetia and join the fighting, because the Russians aren’t exactly facing a manpower crisis. The problem is that the Abkhaz might open a second front, threatening Georgia’s flank and preventing it from deploying additional forces to South Ossetia.

…Dan Nexon has plenty of additional analysis here.

…Reports indicate that the Black Sea Fleet is moving near Abkhazia. This is a substantial force.… the Georgians seem to think that an amphibious assault is going to take place. This would be extremely surprising, although the Black Sea Fleet does have some small, aging landing vessels.

NYT says Russian television reported 650 armored vehicles entering South Ossetia from Russia. Putin has returned from China. This, to put it mildly, could get very ugly.

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Bernie Mac

[ 12 ] August 9, 2008 |

It appears that Bernie Mac has passed away; surprising, and very sad. I, for one, do not blame Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for this.

…how long before the folks at NO QUARTER add Mac to the Obama Death List?

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The War for South Ossetia

[ 0 ] August 9, 2008 |

Further thoughts on the developing crisis…

Whose Fault?
In an earlier post I suggested that the question of moral righteousness in this war is muddled; both Georgia and Russia have plausible justice claims, and as such the determination of “fault” can’t really depend on an evaluation of principle. This pushes practical questions into the foreground, and I think that I was unclear (both to myself and others) regarding how those practical questions should have leaned very heavily against Georgian escalation of the situation in South Ossetia. To be a bit less muddled, I am less sympathetic to the Georgian case because I think that escalating the war (and providing an excuse for Russian counter-escalation) was a damn stupid thing for Saakashvili to do, and a remarkably damn stupid thing for him to do absent an extremely compelling cause. Small, weak states living next to abrasive, unpredictable great powers need to be extremely careful about what they do; in most cases, their foreign policy should, first and foremost, be about avoiding war with the great power. This is what Saakashvili failed to do. The war didn’t need to escalate; it was a Georgian decision to move from the village skirmishes that were happening on Tuesday to the siege of Tsikhinvali on Thursday.

I understand that there can be a bit of “blaming the victim” to this analysis. Russia has consistently pursued imperial aims in its Near Abroad (so does every great power, including the US) and has treated Georgia badly, with a succession of threats, boycotts, and efforts to promote the secessionist forces which are causing the trouble today. Georgia had every right to seek NATO membership in order to limit Russian efforts (although NATO had every right to turn Georgia down). Russia has been a bad actor, but it was nevertheless a terrible and unnecessary mistake to pick a fight with Russia over South Ossetia, not least because the balance of perfidy on South Ossetia is uncertain. This is why I’m unsympathetic to Saakashvili and to his claims that Georgia is fighting for freedom against tyranny. For example, I think that the Taiwanese would be considerably more justified in a declaration of independence from the PRC, but such a declaration would still be reckless, and would leave me less sympathetic to Taiwanese calls for aid.

The United States also bears some responsibility. US rhetorical and material support for Georgia may have given the Georgians unrealistic expectations about likely US behavior in a Russia-Georgia confrontation. Specifically, anything other than “we will not support you in any way or under any circumstances” might have led to the Georgians having the wrong idea.

The Military Balance
At Defense Tech, my good friend John Noonan has briefly run down the military balance between Georgia and Russia. Georgia has an entirely respectable post-Soviet military for a state of its size, which has probably benefitted from US training and from its experience in Iraq.

Russia is… Russia. It has overwhelming advantages in manpower, equipment, and technology. The Russian Army is not your… uh, older brother’s Russian Army. It’s not the Army that lost the First Chechen War, but rather the Army that won the Second Chechen War, and that has significantly improved itself since then. Because of the extended oil boom, all of the equipment that Russia used to sell to India and China but not buy itself is now standard. That puts it a generation and a half ahead of Georgia; not quite US vs. Iraq, but not far off. Moreover, there’s good reason to believe that training, discipline, and morale have substantially improved under the Putin-Medvedev dynasty. On paper, Russia should be able to utterly crush Georgia.

However, the war will not be fought between the full Russian and the full Georgian militaries; rather, it will be fought between the Georgian and whatever forces the Russians can get to South Ossetia and keep supplied there. And that may have been the crux of Georgian strategy. As Doug Muir notes, there is only one road between Russia and South Ossetia, and no substantial airfields. Doug:

There was always this temptation: a fast determined offensive could capture Tsikhinvali, blow up or block the tunnel, close the road, and then sit tight. If it worked, the Russians would then be in a very tricky spot: yes, they outnumber the Georgians 20 to 1, but they’d have to either drop in by air or attack over some very high, nasty mountains. This seems to be what the Georgians are trying to do: attack fast and hard, grab Tsikhinvali, and close the road.

It looks right now as if that strategy has failed. The Russians seem to have been able to deploy a substantial armored force in South Ossetia, and also seem to control the sky. Of course, we don’t know what things will look like tomorrow, but right now they don’t look good for Georgian efforts to close the road. And if the Georgians can’t close the road, they are in very serious trouble. Indeed, even if they do close the road they might be in trouble; the other way that the Russians might get into South Ossetia is to go through Georgia. That would be an escalation, but the Russians might be tempted by their overwhelming theater superiority, and by the stakes.

The Local Political Situation
Saakashvili was having political trouble before the war began, and will enjoy a bump even if Georgia loses. That won’t last long; if the Russians don’t remove him themselves, the Georgians probably will at some point. The stakes for Saakashvili are, thus, quite high, which is possibly why he spent half the day begging for Western assistance on CNN.

The stakes for Putin and Medvedev are also extremely high. I think that they could have given up on South Ossetia without taking a severe domestic hit; their popularity is solid, Russia is still making plenty of money (even with oil dropping), and Abkhazia has always been the more important of the two frozen conflicts. Now that they’re committed, however, I suspect that it will be very hard for Putin and Medvedev to disengage. It’s war; anything can happen, and if the Georgians somehow manage to pull it out, it’s a political disaster for the Russian leadership. The Putin dynasty’s legitimacy is based around the idea of Russian national resurgence, and if a ridiculous little country like Georgia manages to give the Russian Empire a bloody nose and get away with it, Putin and Medvedev become vulnerable. This, I think, is the most dangerous part of the crisis for Georgia. Russia will pull out the stops to win this war; if they can’t win easy, then they’ll win hard, because Russia’s leadership really doesn’t want to be beaten. The problem isn’t just external. I don’t really believe that reputational effects matter for international politics, but even I wonder whether the rest of Russia’s Near Abroad would get restless if the Russians failed to discipline Georgia. And I’m damn sure that Putin and Medvedev do take reputation very seriously, and will spend considerable blood and treasure to make sure Russia’s neighbors remain intimidated.

Moreover, it’s not just the downside of defeat that will drive Russian behavior; the Russians really want to win because they will see serious gains from victory. Putin will likely be able to dispense with the Prime Minister nonsense after pounding Georgia to dust, because the Russians will elect him God King, or at least “discover” that he’s actually the heir to the Romanov throne. The Ledeen Doctrine works much better for Russia than for the United States, because people understand that Russia really doesn’t care; she will destroy you without troubling her conscience about democracy. Russia gets to demonstrate her power, solve two of the Frozen Conflicts (the Georgians are never getting Abkhazia back if Russia wins here), and humiliate the United States, all at the same time. They hit the trifecta if they win this war.

The Larger Political Situation
If the war develops as expected, and Russia pounds Georgia until the latter cries uncle, the United States will have suffered a substantial political setback. Hegemony or no, the United States will have been unable to give significant military aid to an Iraq War ally facing the prospect of interstate war. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s not great.

As a few people have noted, Georgia’s chances of getting into NATO are dead. They probably weren’t going anywhere anyway; lots of people foresaw just this problem, and NATO involvement here might well have made the situation immeasurably worse. If Russia had been deterred from responding, then the Georgian effort to conquer South Ossetia would have gone okay. If Russia had called the West’s bluff, then we would have had a serious problem; my guess is that hundreds of diplomats in Europe and North America would have been begging Saakashvili not to invoke Article 5. If he had, NATO would have been thrown into the most severe crisis in the history of the alliance, and might well have been destroyed. And that’s the upside; if NATO went to war with Russia, the damage would have been inconceivable.

In any case, I certainly hope that the conflict is brief, and that casualties remain as low as possible.

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