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