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The War for South Ossetia

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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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