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Analysis & Opinion
15.08.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Waging War On Georgia
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

This week’s panel was supposed to be about Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s political legacy, since the great writer passed away last Sunday. But events in South Ossetia called for a change of plans. We will discuss Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s impact on Russia and the world next week.

After several weeks of purposefully escalating tension in South Ossetia, Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili launched a full-scale military attack on the break-away republic. By noon Friday, August 8, after heavy shelling, Georgian forces captured most of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and nearly all territory formerly controlled by South Ossetian authorities. Georgian forces also attacked and killed ten Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.

Moscow had to respond to Saakashvili’s attempt to manufacture facts on the ground while the world was focused on the opening ceremony of the Olympics in China. The alternative of allowing Saakashvili to succeed in destroying South Ossetia’s autonomy and getting away with murdering Russian nationals was too humiliating for Russia, and particularly for its young and yet untested leader – President Dmitry Medvedev.

Thus, Moscow quickly responded by sending several armored battalions of its 58th Army into South Ossetia, that, in a matter of hours, rolled back most of the gains made by Georgian forces several hours before. Russian combat planes also attacked targets in Georgia, and shot down at least one Georgian combat aircraft. The speed with which Russian forces were able to enter South Ossetia and engage the Georgian forces demonstrates that Moscow had taken preparatory steps and concentrated troops and armor near the border.

Saakashvili may have miscalculated and misjudged Medvedev’s resolve to respond with overwhelming military force. But he may have won the propaganda battle by making Russia appear as an aggressor sending tanks into sovereign Georgia. Most of the international commentary portrays Russia’s response as an unprovoked attack against Georgia while completely ignoring Saakashvili’s concerted efforts in the past two weeks to build up military tensions in the region. Saakashvili even pretended to declare a unilateral cease-fire three hours before he launched an all-out assault on Tskhinvali. The West seems to be siding with Georgia, and calling upon Russia to withdraw its forces from South Ossetia.

What does this mean for Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and the West? Where is this headed? Was Russia’s response justified? Could Moscow have been more skillful in defusing the crisis without resorting to tanks? Was the West, particularly the United States, informed about Saakashvili’s plans to reclaim South Ossetia by force (the fighting broke out just a few weeks after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Georgia)? What does this mean for Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO? What does this mean for President Medvedev’s ambitious modernization agenda for Russia? Can Moscow afford another war in the Caucasus?

Andrei P. Tsygankov, Professor of International Relations and Political Science, San Francisco State University

Russia's response was justified, and it is not Russia that should be blamed for violence and devastation in the region. The responsibility lies with Georgia and its patrons in the West, especially with the United States.

In early 2004, Saakashvili seemed undecided on how to build ties with Russia. The Kremlin assisted Tbilisi with its power transition from Eduard Shevardnarze to Mikheil Saakashvili, and did not interfere with Tbilisi's efforts to restore control over Adjara. In May 2004, following Saakashvili's meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the Kremlin formulated its proposals for signing a good neighbor treaty, and forwarded them to Tbilisi. During his summit with Putin, Saakashvili humbled himself by referring to Georgia as "a small country" and pledged to respect Russia's security interests in the region. But in August of the same year, Tbilisi did not seek to consult Russia and used force against South Ossetia, attempting to win control over the strategic Djava district.

Since the second half of 2004, brushing aside Russia's hopes to return to cooperation as initially planned, Saakashvili adopted a different strategy of achieving his objectives. He aimed to solve territorial disputes without Russia’s assistance, by relying on political support from the United States that had emerged as Georgia's most important ally and patron in the region. Washington provided $1.2 billion in aid to Georgia in the past decade, and deployed military advisers in Georgia under the pretence of training and equipping forces to eradicate terrorism in the lawless Pankisi Gorge. The United States was determined to secure its access to Caspian oil and strengthen its geostrategic presence in the Caucasus. Tbilisi, on the other hand, felt emboldened by Washington's material assistance and the political and media support coming from the United States.

In October 2004, the Georgian foreign ministry turned down Russia's offer of a good neighbor treaty, and Georgian leaders felt compelled to continue trying to solve the territorial disputes with Abkhazia and South Ossetia by whatever means necessary. Tbilisi constantly provoked Russia, while preparing for a military blitzkrieg over various portions of the separatist territories. Saakashvili was hoping that under the West's patronage, his provocations would not lead to more than economic sanctions and tough rhetoric from the Kremlin. However, after the Western recognition of Kosovo’s independence, Russia moved to further strengthen its ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Saakashvili's mind, the window of opportunity was closing, and he understood that he needed to act. As Vladimir Putin appeared distracted by the Beijing Olympics, Tbilisi sought to make the best of Western, especially American, support by invading Tskhinvali.

Although American policymakers never provided a blank check for Georgia with regard to its autonomies, in a number of ways, Tbilisi was led to believing that it would be "forgiven," should it successfully solve the issue of territorial integrity by force. As the Russian saying goes, the father punishes his son not for stealing, but for getting caught. What provided Georgian leaders with the expectation of forgiveness was not merely the behavior of its patron, who is far from being exemplary in respecting territorial integrity and international law (suffice is to recall the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the recent recognition of Kosovo’s independence by the United States and the European Union). No less important was American determination to control the pipeline from the Caspian Sea, the training of Georgian military forces, and predisposition of the American political class to view Georgia as a "beacon of democracy" oppressed by Russia's "imperialism." Anti-Russian groups within the American establishment supported all anti-Russian policies in the Caucasus, and they consistently advocated a tougher U.S. policy toward Moscow by presenting its behavior as incompatible with American values and interests.

Yelena Miskova, President of the Board, the State Club Foundation, Moscow

The question ordinary Russians ask most frequently these days is how long the war will last. Historically, a war in the Caucasus is always something ominous to Russians – a horrible, never-ending conflict. It is always a distant war, but one which has an uncanny ability to affect the life of any Russian family in horrible ways.

This is the way ordinary Russians feel when they see footage from South Ossetia. Many wonder what exactly the objective of the operation is. Medvedev’s statement that this is a peace enforcement mission does not clarify much.

Medvedev looks deeply troubled and shy on Russian television, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appears decisive and in charge on the battlefield.

Putin’s resolute image brings Russians to their new reality – Russia has more important things to do than to pursue modernization reforms. Now Russians have more important and, of course, more noble issues to discuss than the pension or the healthcare reforms, which have already been prepared behind closed doors without any public debate.

This is a diversion from what the country really needs.

James George Jatras, Director, American Council for Kosovo, Washington

When the current crisis subsides, it is unlikely the last man standing will be Mikheil Saakashvili. Whether or not he or his sponsors in Washington sought to spring a trap on the Russians by attacking South Ossetia, there is little doubt that he will be the fall guy for the disaster he has brought upon his country. Even more, Saakashvili's fate will be a symbol of the deflation of Washington's hegemonic program in the former Soviet Union.

It may be supposed that Saakashvili would not have tried to "solve" the South Ossetian question by force without a green light and operational planning from the United States. That suspicion is bolstered by the presence of some 1,000 U.S. military personnel in Georgia last month as part of a joint exercise, now cut down to "normal" levels of a couple hundred. Even if there was not direct American involvement in the launch of the attack, at the very least Washington had to have been aware of Tbilisi's preparations, as well as of Moscow's likely response.

In any case, either Washington didn't warn Saakashvili to stand down, or it did and he didn't listen. Given how closely tied to and dependent upon U.S. agencies their Georgian counterparts are, it's hard to credit the second possibility. While there is some speculation that Washington actually wanted to provoke a massive response to justify further hostility toward Russia, and especially force the Europeans to see the "need" to integrate Ukraine into NATO (whatever is left of Georgia can forget about it), it is almost inconceivable that the George Bush administration would deliberately put itself into a humiliating position of spluttering impotence as their fair-haired boy takes it on the chin.

The crisis has stirred a predictable orgy of Russia-bashing from the usual suspects, the Munich and Afghanistan analogies (never far from Saakashvili's lips as he works the Western media), and fears about the impact on foreign investment in Russia (a concern I believe will be short-lived). But what is surprising is the amount of opinion being voiced in the foreign media, holding not only Tbilisi but especially Washington responsible for sowing what they now are reaping. Notable are comparisons to U.S. behavior against Serbia since 1999, as well as the provocative effects of NATO expansion, the color revolutions, and the missile deployments in Poland and Czech Republic. As the influential Washington Times commentator Tony Blankley put it: "Did our government assume that we could continue to bait the Russian bear in his cave and not eventually get his claw thrashed against our face?"

While not exactly what you'd call “pro-Russian,” such sentiments do point out the need to cease the pointless provocations directed against Russia. It is imperative that Moscow follow up on an opportunity to cultivate not love but respect with Western, especially American, elite opinion through a forceful, uncompromising, and intelligent lobbying and media campaign. Having hit the Western mule alongside the head with a two-by-four, as I recommended in my last commentary, the Russians have got his attention. Now they need to decide what to do with it.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA

It is unlikely that the West was informed about Saakashvili's plans. The West, as Moscow knows, has constantly sought to restrain Georgia. Moreover, the provocations in question were not Georgian but South Ossetian.

The FSB-led government (if one could call it that) of South Ossetia, fearing that pressure was building up for it to negotiate with Georgia, launched a series of escalating provocations hoping for such a result, although they probably got more than they bargained for. They did so to retain their control over the rackets that keep them in power.

In all likelihood, this episode will probably derail Georgia's hopes of getting into NATO, though in reality NATO should draw the opposite conclusion – that it cannot have security in Europe if Russia is the uncontested force in the CIS, able to use force through provocations to redraw the status quo.

As for Medvedev's alleged reform plans, these plans were limited to begin with, and now they are dead. Putin, not Medvedev, is calling the shots, and the readiness of Russian troops suggests very strongly that these provocations in South Ossetia were cooked up by him and the siloviki to ensure their dominance in Russia and to destroy Saakashvili's regime. They also clearly want to show the West who's the boss in the CIS, and that Russia can do as it pleases with impunity.

What this episode shows inter alia is a continuation of the fact that force and war are the ultimate rationales of Putin's regime. Just as he came to power by inciting a war in Chechnya as a coup d’état against Russian democracy, so now, to preserve his hold and the hold of his confederates, they have exploited Georgia's own provocative past behavior and temperament to start a war that ultimately cannot be won in the strategic sense, since it will lead to a long-term conflict in the Caucasus.

The North Caucasus continues to burn despite the presence of 250,000 MVD and Army troops there. Russia might force Saakashvili's regime out, but it is unlikely that peace will return to the troubled Caucasus.

Furthermore, Moscow has shown Europe that this regime cannot be considered a fit partner for European security, and thus once again for Moscow, the temporary satisfaction of a supposed easy victory over foreigners to concentrate authority at home will ultimately backfire over time.

Indeed, it has shown that Moscow's revisionism and unilateral reliance upon force and intimidation remains the greatest threat to Eurasian security, particularly under this type of regime. The current neo-Tsarist structure's imperial and bloody-minded mentality, plus a lack of effective democratic control over the structures of force (“silovye struktury”), means that it is always prone to military adventurism just as it was in 1979, 1994, and 1999 to 2000. And in none of these cases has either peace or order been the result.

Eugene Ivanov, Innovation Program Manager at InnoCentive, Boston

The key to understanding Russia’s position on the conflict in South Ossetia lies in the statement that president Medvedev made on August 8, the very day Georgia’s military assault on the citizens of the breakaway republic began. Addressing a meeting of his Security Council, Medvedev said: “Russia always was and will ever remain the guarantor of security in the Caucasus.” The statement hardly needs any interpretation. However, running the risk of redundancy, I am willing to try: Russia considers the Caucasus its strategic backyard, and intends to maintain order there solely by itself, without asking for any “external” help.

Medvedev’s message hasn’t been lost on Washington. An editorial by the Washington Post on August 9 carried the headline “Stopping Russia. The United States and its allies must unite against Moscow’s war on Georgia.” The beauty of the editorial is in its sincere unwillingness to even look at what actually happened in South Ossetia on August 8. The Post’s editors don’t even mention that scores of innocent civilians have been massacred by Georgian troops. They went straight to business. “Georgia’s democratically elected government has accepted U.S. military and economic aid, supported the mission in Iraq and pursued NATO membership.” That’s it. That’s enough to justify that Russia must be stopped, and “the United States and its NATO allies must impose a price on Russia if it does not promptly change course.”

(The lack of curiosity about events on the ground seems to reflect a standard policy at the newspaper. Writing for it on the next day, Ronald Asmus and Richard Holbrooke opined: “Exactly what happened in South Ossetia last week is unclear.” Robert Kagan went a step further: “The details of who did what to precipitate Russia’s war against Georgia are not very important.”)

The U.S. reaction toward Russia’s “disproportional response” looks ... well, disproportional, and one can see why. The Bush administration had put a lot of stock in Saakashvili, and he has screwed up, big time. When your protégé fails to pass a test, whom are you going to blame first? The examiner, of course!

The extent of the White House’s involvement in Saakashvili’s South Ossetian misadventure is unclear. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last visited Tbilisi in July (a coincidence?), and Matthew Bryza, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, has long ago assumed a role as Saakashvili’s Cheerleader in Chief. ("We trust in Georgia, the people of Georgia, the leadership of Georgia,” he told Reuters in November 2007, after Saakashvili had violently suppressed opposition protests and introduced a state of emergency.)

The U.S. Congress would be wise to invite Rice and Bryza to the Hill and ask them precisely what they knew about Tbilisi’s plans to launch the military operation in South Ossetia.

It is almost certain that had Saakashvili succeeded in his plan – a blitzkrieg through Tskhinvali, sealing off the Roki Tunnel and leaving Russian troops in the cold north of the border – the Bush administration would not have objected to the way “the constitutional order” in South Ossetia was “restored.”

But he hadn’t, and now it’s up to the White House to face the consequences. Any chances of South Ossetia and Abkhazia getting back under the Georgian fold – peacefully or otherwise – are nil, meaning that the hurdle Georgia must clear to get the NATO MAP has only become higher. President Bush’s hopes to see Georgia in the alliance by the end of his presidency are rapidly dissipating into the air.

It hurts.

Moreover, Saakashvili’s own future becomes uncertain. For now, the opposition is lying low and even expresses signs of loyalty to the “democratically elected” president whose elections they only so loudly condemned back in January. Sure, who changes horses in the middle of the stream?

But it may not last for long. Having lost the war he promised to win and having exposed the country to pain and suffering from Russian military retaliation – all this not even taking into account the almost inevitable war crime charges against him – Saakashvili will soon become Georgia’s main liability. It seems to be only a matter of time that Georgian political elites will demand his ouster.

It won’t be easy for the White House Department of Human Resources to find another English-speaking, U.S.-educated and married to a Dutch woman lawyer who will be as “pro-democratic” and “pro-Western” as Saakashvili.

And that hurts too.

We are being told that Russia is losing a “propaganda war.” So what? Russia has never been famous for winning propaganda wars. In fact, it had lost almost every propaganda war it was engaged in the past.

But it’s in a perfect world where propaganda wars are the only ones in which to fight. Ours is an imperfect world. And in this perfectly imperfect world – as Russia has painfully learned from humiliations in the recent past – it is the victory in a “real” war that matters.

Saakashvili may have learned this lesson too. For him, though, it might be too late.
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