Despite being rather moth-eaten and while still missing a claw or two, the
Russian bear is definitely back in business.
The conflict with Georgia over its troublesome breakaway provinces has as much
to do with nationalistic pride and the Kremlin's wish to reassert itself on the
international scene as a determination to protect the predominately Russian
citizens of South Ossetia or the determinedly independent-minded Abkhazians.
Despite constant assertions by Washington that Russia risks isolation for its
military actions of the past week, it is arguable
that it is United States itself that faces the greatest dilemma.
To enforce any form of diplomatic or economic "punishment" on the Russians,
Washington desperately needs the wholehearted support of the international
community and its closest allies in particular.
For a variety of reasons, this might not be forthcoming.
The former communist countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia are
increasingly and rightly wary of the growing confidence of Russia's leadership
and the resurgence of Russian military capability.
Western Europe remains significantly reliant on Russian energy supplies and
particularly at a time of the increasing instability of international markets.
India and China may well be loath to support Washington, particularly as both
nations would wish to keep a free hand in dealing with areas such as Kashmir or
Tibet. While not directly comparable, both these long-running problems are
similar enough in that the protection of the lives and rights of their citizens
may require military action at any time.
It cannot be seriously denied that Washington itself also desperately needs
Russian cooperation in the "war on terror" and to be "on side" over the Middle
East and Iran in particular.
Even in the newly ebullient and forceful mood prevailing in the Kremlin,
Russian leaders must still be painfully aware that their overall military
strategic position remains weak. The Kremlin needs Western technology and the
willing acceptance of Russia as a major power once again.
It remains unlikely that Russia will seriously involve itself in major military
adventurism in the near future, nor does it seem likely that the West will
seriously attempt to enforce sanctions against the Kremlin.
There is simply too much at stake on both sides. A deal will be most likely
struck behind closed doors in New York or Paris or Moscow. Empty rhetoric will
fill the airwaves and the only long-term loser will be Georgia itself.
Put simply, realpolitik or the triumph of reality over ideology will most
probably and rightly prevail this time. That said, the conflict has still
raised serious issues over international cooperation, understanding and trust.
Conflict or the threat of conflict has bedeviled Georgia, its breakaway
provinces and its international relations, particularly with Russia, since the
collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Saakashvili - nationalist crusader
President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power after November 2003 elections on a
wave of nationalism and with the promise of recovering both Abkhazia and South
In the past four years, the acquisition of significant numbers of more modern
armored vehicles, artillery, multiple rocket launchers, small arms, armed
helicopters, reconnaissance drones and much else could not have failed to raise
alarm in the breakaway provinces and in the Kremlin.
Western intelligence services were also fully aware of military developments
and indeed significant numbers of US and Israeli military personnel helped the
Georgian special forces in particular in preparing for large-scale
counter-insurgency operations ... exactly the type of training required for any
serious attempt to suppress the citizens of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia,
who were certain to violently resist any Georgian takeover.
This current conflict was born out of a crisis that has been simmering since
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) action in the former
Yugoslavia and has most certainly come to boil since February 2008, when the
breakaway province of Kosovo achieved a degree of doubtful international
acceptance as an independent state, but only, it is suggested by many
observers, after considerable pressure was exerted on its allies by the United
There is little or no difference between Russia's actions to ensure the right
of self-determination of the South Ossetians and the US/NATO support for the
It could be argued that Russia may indeed have a valid point in suggesting that
it is intensely hypocritical of Washington and London to demand that Georgia
should have its sovereignty respected when Serbia, Iraq, Somalia, Panama,
Afghanistan and others have had their sovereignty ignored by the US and its
allies, sometimes with a degree of genuine justification, but on occasions
simply on the flimsiest of evidence that would certainly not have survived the
close scrutiny of a court of law.
M K Bhadrakumar's masterly summing up of the political background to the
conflict (The end
of the post-Cold War era Asia Times Online, August 13, 2008) should be
studied closely by all who wish to have a grasp of the great game played in the
region between Washington and Moscow.
The lead-up to the military confrontation was however entirely predictable and
indeed was flagged quite openly to all who wished to take notice.
In 2005, the Georgian army was openly involved in large-scale training for
integrated infantry, armored, artillery and air support operations which would
appear to have had no other possible purpose but the retaking of the breakaway
provinces by military force.
The significant buildup of firepower, so tragically demonstrated by the
Georgians' wanton destruction of the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, and
vastly increased ammunition stocks and logistic support, allowed the Russian
GRU (military intelligence) to draw the right conclusions.
Saakashvili would use force, only the timing remained uncertain.
It is significant that the United States was fully aware of the risk of
conflict. The American Foreign Policy Council in Washington in its Russia
Reform Monitor reported on July 11:
Russia has admitted its fighter
jets overflew the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia in a sortie
that took place just hours before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
visited Tbilisi with a message of support ... Speaking in the Georgian capital
on July 10, Rice said Russia needs "to be part of resolving the problem ... and
not contributing to it." However, she also said she had told Georgian President
Mikheil Saakashvili that "there should not be violence".
... Georgian media have been reporting an alleged Russian
Defense Ministry plan to storm the Kodori Gorge in the breakaway Georgian
republic of Abkhazia, to which Russia plans to respond by publishing details of
alleged Georgian plans to launch a military incursion into South Ossetia.
On July 15"
Last week, Georgia recalled its ambassador in Moscow to
protest the Russian overflights, while Russia said they were aimed at
preventing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from launching a military
operation against the separatist South Ossetia region.
the beginning of August, the Russian intelligence services had a fair idea of
both Georgia's intentions and its likely tactics, but still no firm evidence of
A week of war
The Russian 58th Army with its headquarters in Vladikavkaz was on alert and
responded reasonably quickly and effectively to the Georgian invasion of South
Ossetia on August 6 and 7. The use of massive artillery and multiple rocket
barrages against the largely open and undefended city of Tskhinvali has been
well documented, though little hard evidence has emerged of ether ethnic
cleansing or genocide by either side elsewhere in this conflict.
However, the violent Russian response left no one in any doubt as to the
outcome. Supported by attack aircraft and helicopters from the 4th Air Army,
units of the 58th Army of the North Caucasian Military district, including
elements of the 20th Guards, 19th and 42nd Motor Rifle Divisions, swept down
into South Ossetia.
They succeeded in first blocking the Georgian advance north and then quickly
pushed them into a humiliating retreat back across the border and eventually
out of the town of Gori, the birthplace of Josef Stalin.
They were further supported by units of the Russian 76th and 98th Airborne
Divisions and the 45th Independent (Spetsnaz) reconnaissance regiment from the
Moscow Military District, who reinforced both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Within a matter of days, virtually the entire Georgian command and control
system had been severely degraded, along with radar stations, air defense and
what remained of the air force at bases such as Alekseevka and Marneuli.
Georgian army infantry units including the First Brigade from Gori, supported
by the T72-equipped Independent Tank Battalion and probably reinforced by
elements of the Fourth Brigade from Vaziani, were quickly routed or ordered to
withdraw to save what remained of their fighting capability for the possible
defense of Tbilisi.
The Second Brigade at Senaki appears not to have put up a fight when a column
of Russian troops on a short-lived punitive raid pushed deep into Georgia from
Abkhazia on August 11.
Russian special forces are also reported to have made limited incursions into
the ports of Poti and Batumi without significant interference from the Georgian
By August 12, large parts of the Georgian armed forces had ceased to operate or
lacked any central command and coordination. Georgia had effectively been
defeated within six days and without any of its Western allies doing more than
resorting to pointless rhetoric.
Continuing Russian military action would seem to concentrate on destroying the
surviving Georgian military infrastructure around the borders of South Ossetia
and perhaps Abkhazia, including the well-defended artillery positions that had
allowed the Georgians to heavily shell Tskhinvali.
A new cold war?
Illusions of any certainty of Western military support have been shattered, and
probably for the foreseeable future. The benefits of the increasingly close
diplomatic, economic and military relationship with the US, North Atlantic
Treaty Organization and European Union may now be called into question by many
of the former communist states and some old ties may now be restored as the
only likely guarantee of regional security.
This indeed could turn out to be a defining moment in the post-Cold War world,
with a redrawing of lines of influence and a reassertion of national interests.
It is a lesson the Kremlin will sincerely hope has been taken to heart by many
of its former allies.
The best that can probably be rescued from the Georgia crisis is to make it
blatantly clear to Moscow that the West will react more positively in the event
of a similar situation developing over, for instance, the largely Russian
population of the Crimea.
It is a potentially massive problem for the incoming US administration next
year, and it is to be hoped that a calm and measured response from Washington
may prove to be decisive in preventing the major powers from sliding back into
a chillier and increasingly dangerous relationship
Richard M Bennett, intelligence and security consultant,