War In The Caucasus

Vital versus just ‘interests’? I think this really should be the main question the establishment elite guardians of our foreign policy discourse should be asking themselves: do we have any vital interests at stake in Georgia and should Georgia be a part of NATO?

You all know my answer. No, to both.

Now, I am not saying the BTC isn’t important to our interests. Like it or not, folks, we need oil. But I just don’t see BTC rising to the level of vital strategic interests for us. And I don’t see any vital interests effected by Russian support of the annexation or independence of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, just as I saw no vital interests at stake in Kosovo, or our intervention in the Balkans writ large. This is not, I repeat, not to say there aren’t any interests involved, just none that are vital, worth going to war over. The Russians realized this in Kosovo and we should have the common sense to realize the same thing in Georgia. It’s not our neighborhood so just leave it be.

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The other key question that should be asked is this: is Georgia vital to Russian interests in the region? I can’t answer that question to my own satisfaction yet, but I do know that as a matter of the Russian psyche it’s important to be seen dominating the near abroad once again. Yes, I know Joshua, this is CW. But I think there is more to it than just national psyche. I wrote a long time ago that Tbilisi is the fulcrum the Caucasus balances upon and the party that controls (I’m not saying annex here) Tbilisi pretty much controls the Caucasus. And controlling the Caucasus leads to at least one important Russian goal, at least from where I sit, an end to the encroachment and looming encirclement of an American-led NATO. The US would bristle at being encircled by a military alliance (even if it’s vitality had been diluted into nothing so much as a political club, but still). So, look at it from the Russian perspective for a moment. (An important caveat that really need not be said: I’m not ‘rooting’ for anyone here, simply explaining the situation as I see it.)

I do also think Joshua has a point that Russia’s actions are geared towards scuttling Georgia’s chances at NATO ascension and the more important invitation to the Ukraine. That suits me just fine. As I have said many times, Georgia doesn’t belong in NATO, nor does the Ukraine, which really is the bigger prize here. There are reports that the Ukraine provided the Georgian’s with critical air defense equipment, equipment that led to at least two confirmed downing of Russian jets. The Ukraine is Russia’s best defense against invasion. Look at Charles XII’s disastrous invasion of Russia during the Great Northern War, or Napoleon’s invasion, or more recently Operation Barbarossa. Strategic depth is essential to the Russians because the terrain is easy to invade. So, when thinking about the Caucasus I think it’s really important to keep in mind the ‘deep game’ of Putin, which is preventing the Ukraine from leaving Russia’s orbit.

In a sense it is a ‘revisionist question’ as the other Josh outlines. And it is one that won’t soon be solved.

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Sean Paul Kelley

Traveler of the (real) Silk Road, scholar and historian, photographer and writer - founder of The Agonist.

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  • Is this the First War between Russia and a Former Soviet State?


    My question must seem naive, “Are political leaders of countries certifiably insane?” A small country militarily attacks a former super power, then anticipates countries will come to his aid and save his ass! If Russian leaders were smart, they’d deliver Mikhail Saakashvili, aka, “Georgian Screwball,” to the Hague and have his faculties tested.

  • Separatist rebels and Russian forces launch attack on Georgian stronghold in Black Sea territory

    * Luke Harding in Moscow
    * guardian.co.uk,
    * Sunday August 10 2008 13:33 BST

    The conflict in the Caucasus today erupted in Georgia’s second breakaway province of Abkhazia, where separatist rebels and the Russian air force launched an all-out attack on Georgian forces.

    Abkhazia’s pro-Moscow separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh said his troops had launched a major “military operation” to turf Georgian troops out of the mountainous Kodori gorge, which Georgian forces control as a strategic foothold in the breakaway Black Sea territory.

    He said “around 1,000 special Abkhaz troops” were involved. They were attacking and pounding Georgian positions using “warplanes, multiple rocket launchers and artillery”, he said.

    “The operation will enter the next phase as planned. And you will learn about that,” he promised, adding that he would create a “humanitarian corridor” allowing residents living in the district to flee.

    The offensive appeared to mark a dangerous new front in the conflict between Georgia and Russia – following Georgia’s apparent withdrawal from its other breakaway region of South Ossetia today.

    Georgia immediately accused Russia of planning and executing the attack on the Kodori valley – a small but strategic enclave just inside Abkhazia, and controlled by Georgian forces since 2006.

    Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said: “They have started the operation to storm Kodori gorge.” Asked who was behind the operation, he replied: “The Russian army.”

    Speaking in Tbilisi, Georgia’s parliamentary speaker David Bakradze said he had “irrefutable proof” that the Russian military was masterminding the “plan”. He urged residents to stay calm, adding “the enemy will be offered all resistance”.


  • This is where morality comes in; and in Realpolitik, there is no morality. The West did imply they would bring Georgia into the fold. The Russians have been stating for years they would begin to aggressively protect their interests outside of Russia proper (you refer to Russia’s strategy above). However, Western leaders (in general) are currently weak geopolitically, because they have been exposed as being ‘reluctant’ when directly confronted. Their political structures are not as suited for hot conflict, especially when unpopular, as the rest of the world. Look at Afghanistan. Russia is daring the West to intervene militarily in any way in Georgia.

    So, as for interests/vital interests; Darfur? Congo? Chad? Somalia and the rest of the Horn of Africa? Lebanon? Burma? These are just for starters. What about potential failed states? Should we care about them if they fail? Does the West intervene militarily if Pakistan implodes? What about North Korea? Mexico? What would the world do if India and Pakistan went to war? Make statements about ‘ceasing hostilities’? Post- Olympic Taiwan, anyone? Just asking. Isolationist or interventionist? The only actors I see in most of these cases would be the US and a few allies, if anyone acted at all.

    The West likes to make a lot of flowery speeches about spreading Democracy and freedom but isn’t willing to die for the principle unless absolutely forced to.

    I’ve followed the situation in Georgia somewhat closely for about 2-3 years after a little historical research and I am not surprised this happened. However, I am surprised at the timing. From what I can tell, Russia has carefully planned this operation. It is obvious based on how quickly their forces are being deployed and the fact that Russians had been holding exercises and massing troops on the border while the Georgians were holding exercises with the US in July. I saw a quote somewhere from a US adviser saying of the Georgians “We gave them the knife, lets see if they use it.” I really think Georgia felt it had no choice, that it was now or allow Russia to continue to plan for de facto or actual annexation/de facto occupation. Apparently, the US advised strongly against this increased Georgian military action, preferring the status quo, for the now obvious reasons. It really doesn’t seem to matter who really started shooting first; events had been escalating for a couple of months.

    I’d like to focus on the people of Georgia, Ossetia and Abkhazia for a moment. I feel badly for them. Just like the Iraqis, they are feeling the brunt of ‘Realpolitik’. Civilians are not a vital interest; they are a political consideration. Americans, other than our military and and very few others, don’t have any idea what it is like to actually live in a war zone. To wake up one day, and instead of going through your normal routine, you awake to war. It must be terrifying on a human level beyond anything Americans can imagine.

    I think there is a good chance the Georgian government won’t survive this. Georgia still had a lot of issues on the road to democracy, but now I believe that hope is gone. I think that and the message to other former USSR states is the real shame. Then again, this has been true for sometime in the world. Brutal dictator of a country that has no strategic interest to anyone? Who cares? Iraq and Kosovo, along with Western preoccupation with in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Middle East in general has helped us get here, in my opinion.

    Having said all of this, I agree with your general position from a geopolitical standpoint with regards to Georgia being of vital interest. I just wanted to focus more on the reality of these conflicts to the civilians that always bear the brunt of the burden as well as the fears of those that dread their country may be next, regardless of the aggressor.

  • Putin has stated that the greatest catastrophe of modern times was the breakup of the Soviet Union, or words to that effect, demonstrating that he doesn’t understand modern times. Any leader considering himself or herself a guardian of national power and sovereignty fails to understand modern times. Now is the time for the Balkanization of everything, including nations where the separate states, provinces and regions are not held together by some bonding network of mutual interest such as the US made up of “free and independent states” that have a strong network bond.

    The Tbilisi regime of Mikheil Saakashvili has failed to build and maintain the network bond needed to counter what has almost certainly been a period of agitation and networking by Russian infiltrators fomenting unrest and, finally, overt rebellion.

    The correct response is to initiate a period where the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are provided an opportunity to vote on their affiliations. First there must be a complete halt to all conflict. Then a UN mediation team must be appointed to go there and collect testimony from the various parties and the people. Then there must be a waiting period of some years while each nation, Russia and Georgia, state their compelling reasons why the regions should be in one nation or the other. Finally, a UN-monitored election in each region would decide the matter.

    Industrial warfare is now obsolete. We can’t afford it on at least two levels. The first is that the cost is too great in terms of direct costs, the lives lost to death and injury and economic losses. The second is the indirect losses, meaning damage to the environment which affects much more than the nations involved. The great industrial war barons must give it up and move on. Their time is over. We all now know too much and the world is sufficiently networked that we are not going along with the various schemes of those seeking to make riches from the wanton destruction and human misery of industrial warfare.

    We probably, as a collection of governments on the planet based on traditional values with insufficient commitment to actually thinking things through in a comprehensive manner with a contingencies focus, have not yet learned the lesson, that industrial war is obsolete. This would be an opportunity to embrace sane thinking and avoid more pointless conflict.

    Ventura CA USA

  • I am certain that the Georgian security forces are already planning 4th Gen warfare attacks deep in Russia, maybe Moscow or St. Petersburg, which will inflame and encourage the other crazies to start making bombs.
    Stalin didn’t come out of the void.
    And maybe our special ops from Iraq can take their lessons learned and pass them on to the Georgians, their good buddies.
    Meanwhile, the average folks either cheer or finally look on in horror at the waste, if they are lucky enough to avoid the IED’s.
    Putin and Bush are blood brothers, after all. Didn’t Bush see it in his eyes.

  • I suspect it’s been Abkhazia that Russia’s been after all along. Ossetia is of less strategic value. With Abkhazia in Russion hands, Georgia’s cut off from the West.

    Time to go back and re-read some Zbigniew Brzezinski.

  • From civil.ge:

    The official Georgian government account of major developments for August 10:

    05:45 – A Russian jet entered Georgian airspace from Dagestan and dropped three bombs on a Tbilisi airplane factory.
    07:00 – Georgian Government Forces withdrew from Tskhinvali.
    07:40 – Russian jets bombed the village of Urta in Zugdidi district.
    08:45 – Ten Russian jets attacked Upper Abkhazia, one of which was downed by Georgian Government troops.
    09:00 – The Government of Georgia reported 45 soldiers and 47 civilians had been killed.
    15:00 – Russian airplanes bombed the village of Knolevi in the northern Kareli district.
    15:10 – Russian troops and Abkhaz separatists launched a ground attack on upper Kodori Gorge.
    16:10 – Russian aircraft bombed the only remaining bridge on the highway linking east and west Georgia, causing a fire on the bridge. The fire has been put out, and traffic restored.
    16:05 – Gori was bombed by Russian planes.
    17:30 – Georgia announced a ceasefire and said troops had been withdrawn from the conflict zone.
    19:05 – Russian aircraft dropped a bomb on Tbilisi Civil Airport.
    19:10 – TbilAviaMsheni aviation factory was bombed by Russian warplanes again.

    By noon of 10 August there were 20-25,000 IDPs from the regions of Tskhinvali and Gori, as a result of Russian attacks. The number of IDPs is growing quickly.

    Six thousand Russian troops entered Georgia through Roki tunnel overnight; as well as 90 tanks; 150 Armored Personnel Carriers and 250 artillery gunships.

    Four thousand Russian troops landed at Ochamchire port in Abkhazia, from the Black Sea port of Sevastopol.

    And, from Reuters:

    How Russian and Georgian Forces Stack Up

    Russia Georgia
    Army 395,000* 32,000**
    Main battle tanks 23.000 128
    Armored personnel carriers 9.900 44
    Artillery pieces 26.000 109
    Attack aircraft 1.809 8
    Helicopters 1.932 37

    * Estimate includes 190,000 conscripts. Russia has a further 419,000 in paramilitary forces
    ** Georgia has asked parliament to increase troop strength by a further 5,000

  • The American Energy Crisis

    While you and I head to the beach, pool, mountains this weekend, a shooting war has sprung up not 200 miles from NATO’s lines in the FSU republic of Georgia.

    This is serious stuff. Russia HAS no Loyal Opposition. No peaceniks. No San Francisco Left. Russia is ALL business, murderous and barbarous, and MUCH more dangerous than the FSU. In this moment of the “Chess Game”, this most recent move is ALL about Iran. And Russia is now CLEARLY supporting Iran with military assets, just in case anybody in Washington missed it.

    This is Russia’s moment. The OECD countries are in a terrible economic position, and hence a weakening political position. It has been my position that:

    an energy crisis = a food crisis.

    The price of oil isn’t merely about oil. It is about food, the U.S. dollar and power-politics. Westerners, however, are always “mystified” when the Russians seem to act contrary to their own economic interest (as if economic interests were the only interests). It is true that Russia has benefitted from high energy prices. More significantly, Russia will benefit even more when the U.S. dollar collapses. – JR Nyquest

    You see, I am not the only guy that thinks the U.S.$ is on the ropes (and yes, it is still on the ropes despite the fact that the Euro is now falling versus the U.S.$. Who said either one of these currencies survives?). The difference is… I am just trying to make a living forecasting what’s next in the markets… While Russia is trying to destroy the U.S. via its currency and the world wide price of oil. Think me dramatic? Yeah, well I think only a FOOL thinks that Russia is any improvement over the old U.S.S.R. The guys running the Russian show have consolidated their power, jettisoned property, political, and human rights, clearing the decks to take full advantage of the energy crisis facing the U.S. over the next 5 years.

    This is the world we live in.

    Mentatt (at) yahoo (d0t) com

    I did inhale.

  • Georgia’s government was inserted by a synthetic, US-backed and NGO-synthesized operation. The goal was to cause more trouble for the Russians and try to splinter up the southern fringe.

    The talk about ‘independence’ for small regions, supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, George Soros’ Open Society Institute, etc., are oriented around breaking up Yugoslavia-like blocs and replacing them with small leaders that are more pliant for Wall Street. Open societies for hot money and foreign ownership, rather than large multi-ethnic bloc states that can negotiate as larger players on the stage, resist international domination, and run export-led industrial development processes (Iraq, Yugoslavia are two good examples).

    Along with this comes lots of drug trafficking (Kosovo’s KLA) etc., as well as using international Islamic militants to dog the Russians (Afghanistan redux, Al Qaeda in Bosnia, Chechnya).

    Georgia’s government supposedly bumped up military spending from $30 million to $1 billion, and it appears that Israeli mercenary types have been training up the Georgians, all part of the anti-Putin Israeli agenda. (box in Iran’s northern fringe, along with Israelis training up Kurds and Turks) Or maybe not… but it needs to be checked out.


  • I have been to the Ukraine several times, and the people I speak to there are against joining NATO. In late March, I was there and I witnessed protests against it as well as against w. A recent poll in April indicated only 21% of Ukrainians supported joining NATO.

    In 2006, I kayaked with some friends from Abkhazia near Sochi and again in 2007 in the Sayan Mountains. They just want to be free from Georgian oppression. I am not sure about how the Georgian people feel about NATO, but friends I have discussed it with from there were split about the issue.

    As for President Mikhail Saakashvili, I agree with canuck. He needs to have “his faculties tested.” On or about August 7, he launches a major offensive into South Ossetia, then on August 10 he states, “We are not crazy”, in response to Russia’s retaliation and his “offer” of a unilateral cease fire. I think he is, indeed, crazy. He brought this on himself, and now he is not happy with the consequences.

    FYI: I have been following the hostilities in the Western news as well as the Russian news. According to one source, an American NATO adviser was captured with a Georgian demolition team.


  • News Analysis
    In Georgia and Russia, a Perfect Brew for a Blowup
    By C. J. CHIVERS

    As the bloody military mismatch between Russia and Georgia unfolded over the past three days, even the main players were surprised by how quickly small border skirmishes slipped into a conflict that threatened the Georgian government and perhaps the country itself.

    Several American and Georgian officials said that unlike when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, a move in which Soviet forces were massed before the attack, the nation had not appeared poised for an invasion last week. As late as last Wednesday, they said, Russian diplomats had been pressing for negotiations between Georgia and South Ossetia, the breakaway region where the combat flared and then escalated into full-scale war.

    “It doesn’t look like this was premeditated, with a massive staging of equipment,” one senior American official said. “Until the night before the fighting, Russia seemed to be playing a constructive role.”

    But while the immediate causes and the intensity of the Russian invasion had caught Georgia and the Western foreign policy establishment by surprise, there had been signs for years that Georgia and Russia had methodically, if quietly, prepared for conflict.

    Several other long-term factors had also contributed to the possibility of war. They included the Kremlin’s military successes in Chechnya, which gave Russia the latitude and sense of internal security it needed to free up troops to cross its borders, and the exuberant support of the United States for President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, a figure loathed by the Kremlin on both personal and political terms.

    Moreover, by preparing Georgian soldiers for duty in Iraq, the United States appeared to have helped embolden Georgia, if inadvertently, to enter a fight it could not win.

    American officials and a military officer who have dealt with Georgia said privately that as a result, the war risked becoming a foreign policy catastrophe for the United States, whose image and authority in the region were in question after it had proven unable to assist Georgia or to restrain the Kremlin while the Russian Army pressed its attack.

    Russia’s bureaucratic and military groundwork was laid even before Mr. Saakashvili came to power in 2004 and positioned himself as one of the world’s most strident critics of the Kremlin.

    Under the presidency of Vladimir V. Putin, Russia had already been granting citizenship and distributing passports to virtually all of the adult residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the much larger separatist region where Russia had also massed troops over the weekend. The West had been skeptical of the validity of Russia’s handing out passports by the thousands to citizens of another nation.

    “Having a document does not make you a Russian citizen,” one American diplomat said in 2004, as Russia expanded the program.

    But whatever the legal merits, the Kremlin had laid the foundation for one of its public relations arguments for invading: its army was coming to the aid of Russian citizens under foreign attack.

    In the ensuing years, even as Russia issued warnings, Mr. Saakashvili grew bolder. There were four regions out of Georgian control when he took office in 2004, but he restored two smaller regions, Ajaria in 2004 and the upper Kodori Gorge in 2006, with few deaths.

    The victories gave him a sense of momentum. He kept national reintegration as a central plank of his platform.

    Russia, however, began retaliating against Georgia in many ways. It cut off air service and mail between the countries, closed the border and refused Georgian exports. And by the time the Kodori Gorge was back in Georgian control, Russia had also consolidated its hold over Chechnya, which is now largely managed by a local leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his Kremlin-backed Chechen forces.

    Chechnya had for years been the preoccupation of Russian ground forces. But Mr. Kadyrov’s strength had enabled Russian to garrison many of its forces and turn its attention elsewhere.

    Simultaneously, as the contest of wills between Georgia and Russia intensified, the strong support of the United States for Mr. Saakashvili created tensions within the foreign policy establishment in Washington and created rival views.

    Some diplomats considered Mr. Saakashvili a politician of unusual promise, someone who could reorder Georgia along the lines of a Western democracy and become a symbol of change in the politically moribund post-Soviet states. Mr. Saakashvili encouraged this view, framing himself as a visionary who was leading a column of regional democracy movements.

    Other diplomats worried that both Mr. Saakashvili’s persona and his platforms presented an implicit challenge to the Kremlin, and that Mr. Saakashvili made himself a symbol of something else: Russia’s suspicion about American intentions in the Kremlin’s old empire. They worried that he would draw the United States and Russia into arguments that the United States did not want.

    This feeling was especially true among Russian specialists, who said that, whatever the merits of Mr. Saakashvili’s positions, his impulsiveness and nationalism sometimes outstripped his common sense.

    The risks were intensified by the fact that the United States did not merely encourage Georgia’s young democracy, it helped militarize the weak Georgian state.

    In his wooing of Washington as he came to power, Mr. Saakashvili firmly embraced the missions of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. At first he had almost nothing practical to offer. Georgia’s military was small, poorly led, ill-equipped and weak.

    But Mr. Saakashvili’s rise coincided neatly with a swelling American need for political support and foreign soldiers in Iraq. His offer of troops was matched with a Pentagon effort to overhaul Georgia’s forces from bottom to top.

    At senior levels, the United States helped rewrite Georgian military doctrine and train its commanders and staff officers. At the squad level, American marines and soldiers trained Georgian soldiers in the fundamentals of battle.

    Georgia, meanwhile, began re-equipping its forces with Israeli and American firearms, reconnaissance drones, communications and battlefield-management equipment, new convoys of vehicles and stockpiles of ammunition.

    The public goal was to nudge Georgia toward NATO military standards. Privately, Georgian officials welcomed the martial coaching and buildup, and they made clear that they considered participation in Iraq as a sure way to prepare the Georgian military for “national reunification” — the local euphemism of choice for restoring Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian control.

    All of these policies collided late last week. One American official who covers Georgian affairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity while the United States formulates its next public response, said that everything had gone wrong.

    Mr. Saakashvili had acted rashly, he said, and had given Russia the grounds to invade. The invasion, he said, was chilling, disproportionate and brutal, and it was grounds for a strong censure. But the immediate question was how far Russia would go in putting Georgia back into what it sees as Georgia’s place.

    There was no sign throughout the weekend of Kremlin willingness to negotiate. A national humiliation was under way.

    “The Georgians have lost almost everything,” the official said. “We always told them, ‘Don’t do this because the Russians do not have limited aims.’ ”

  • Civil.ge

    UN Security Council session has seen sharp exchange of barbs between the Georgian and Russian, on the one hand, and Russian and U.S. diplomats on the other on August 10.

    Speaking at the public debate of the Security Council session the U.S. ambassador in the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Georgia’s President “Saakashvili must go.”

    “This is totally unacceptable; that crosses the line,” he added.

    Khalilzad then looked asked the Russian diplomat if Moscow was looking for “regime change.”

    Churkin did not directly address the question but said there are leaders who “become an obstacle,” Reuters reported.

    “Sometimes those leaders need to contemplate how useful they have become to their people,” Churkin told journalists after the session.

    Meanwhile, Georgia’s UN ambassador, Irakli Alasania, who was invited to participate at the Council’s public debate, said it was “Russia’s intention to erase Georgian statehood, to exterminate Georgian people.”

    And the Russian diplomat accused Tbilisi of waging “genocide” against the South Ossetian people – the allegation Alasania said was “Soviet propaganda” and a pretext to justify its military aggression against Georgia.

    He also said Russia intended to repeat what it did in Chechnya.

  • John Helmer | Moscow | August 11

    ATO – One word explains why the United States, NATO and the EUnion have obliged themselves to sit on their hands, while Russia defends its citizens and national interests in the Caucasus and liberates Georgians from the folly of their unpopular president, Mikheil Saakashvili. That word is Kosovo.

    For all Russians, not only those with relatives in Ossetia, the near-total destruction by Georgian guns of Tskhinvali is a war crime. The deaths of about 2,000 civilians in the Georgian attack, and the forced flight of about 35,000 survivors from the town – the last census of Tskhinvali’s population reported 30,000 – has been described by Russian leaders, and is understood by Russian public opinion, as a form of genocide. Ninety percent of the town’s population are Russian citizens.

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