Russia vs Georgia, outside the Olympics

And the dubious wisdom of provoking a stronger, aggressive adversary

A military misadventure under the cover of the Olympics did happen. But in South Ossetia (where?), a Russian majority region in Georgia.

Georgia, more than any other former Soviet republic has been the site of a geopolitical tussle between Russia and the West. In the military space, the Georgian armed forces have, on the one hand, have drawn into a close relationship with the United States. Russian troops, on the other hand, have used their presence in South Ossetia (where they are peacekeepers in the conflict between the South Ossetian rebel militia and the Georgian armed forces) to harass Georgia.

Now, Georgians would rightly have a lot to complain about this unhappy state of affairs. But considering he has at most 30,000 troops and political support from the West, what could have caused Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, to provoke a war with Russia? The Georgians might have calculated that they would take Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, cut off the tunnel and the sole road link that connects to Russia, under cover of the Olympics before the Russians had a chance to react. There being no airstrips in the region, the Russians would be hard pressed to deploy troops and equipment quickly, buying the Georgians time to secure a favourable diplomatic settlement.

At this time, it looks like the Georgians miscalculated. Georgian troops failed to take Tskhinvali and the Russians escalated sharply in response. President Saakashvili called for the US to intervene—but other than support at the UN, the United States isn’t going to enter into a military conflict against Russia. In any case, assuming that taking Tskhinvali and shutting off the road would end the matter was foolhardy—for Russia might well have decided (and could yet decide) to open a new front wherever it chose to.

However this conflict might end, two things are clear. First, Russia has made its Vladimir Putin’s “this far and no further” warning to NATO’s expansion more credible. If the United States and the European Union do not try to challenge this position, it is possible that Eurasian balance-of-power will move towards a new stability. This need not imply a new “cold war” as some suggest. Second, political risk attached to oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russian control will remain high or increase even further.

As for South Ossetia, the West can hardly raise any issues of principle should Russia go to the extent of annexing it entirely. Prime Minister Putin has only to cite the recent example of the US and EU position on Kosovo. For surely, if the Kosovars had a case to break away from Serbia, South Ossetians should hardly be blamed for breaking away from Georgia? Shoe, other foot, and all that.

Related Links: A number of good posts on this issue in the blogosphere. Starting from Nikolas Gvosdev who has several posts covering the issue. Robert Farley has two detailed ones (via the Duck of Minerva, where Daniel Nexon offers his take). Richard Gowan contemplates international options at Global Dashboard.

9 thoughts on “Russia vs Georgia, outside the Olympics”

  1. Am I the only one who sees an eerie parallel with the times when South Vietnam was carved out of Vietnam? Britain’s grand strategic goal in Europe has been preventing the rise of a single dominant power that has after the Entente Cordiale and the two Wars been done awa ywith. But the US still works with that goal, because its stakes are much, much higher, and a Russia that is dominant in the Wast – having subdued Chechnya, and its erstwhile colonies, will turn to securing its East. and Russia’s long term plan – with a 30-50 year horizon is to engage China while fortifying itself to an unassailable extent in the East so that it can vie for control of the Pacific – resuming what the Czar tried and failed in at the battle of the Tsushima Straits. The US will try a lot to prevent this, even if it means leaving China with the impression of growing power (China’s I mean) in the Pacific, so that it pre-empts Russia’s options. But Russia thinks differently and if it has learned anything isn’t about to fight the wars of the past. Its Bear flights seem to be only for show, and it is surely working on a very asymmetric response to the US dominance of the seas. The US is today the power it is because its very farsighted politicians and statesmen – Jefferson and Seward – and some incredibly short-sighted bumblers – Napoleon the Czar. sadly everybody reads history.

  2. “Second, political risk attached to oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russian control will remain high or increase even further.”

    How is that? If anything the opposite is true.

    Anyway, I have to disagree with the entire notion that Georgia somehow has to follow Russian dikat while Russia plays its unending games. Georgian geography is unfortunate but it should do as it pleases. Russian play the Russian minority game even better than the Islamists play the muslim minority games in non-muslim countries. I am not sure why Saakashvili picked this time to take back S.Ossetia because beyond olympics, he hasn’t been popular in Georgia for a while. Actually there is another open front for Russia already to the west and north. Anyway, Georgians need a third option beyond being slaves to Russians or getting slapped around by it. It’s another matter if the west can provide it.

  3. Chandra,

    The Baku-Ceyhan-Tbilisi pipeline is within range of that conflict. The conflict adds to recent disruption caused by Kurdish terrorists in Turkey. [More here]. Nabucco, WhiteStream and Ionian-Adriatic, other natural gas pipelines in the Eurasian corridor that seek to bypass Russia suffer from similar political risks (geopolitical, macro-political, terrorism and war). Relative to pipelines controlled by Russia, or where Russia has a stake, these pipelines are riskier.

    The moral position on this affair is one thing. But that does not free President Saakashvili from the business of looking before leaping. As Dr Gvosdev writes in one of his posts, it would be rather unfortunate/unpardonable if someone in the West encouraged the Georgians to take this route.

  4. I don’t think it’s clear that Saakashvili started this. Things have been on boil for at least a week. The Russians may be efficient but apparently they are super efficient to move 150 tanks over Georgia’s border within a day or so where it takes normal nations few weeks to get ready. I am sure there is a moral somewhere there.

    Also most trouble to pipelines in central asia countries comes from Russian supported rebel groups. Even then pipelines can be secured or a disrupted pipe line can be fixed in few days. The alternative is to have Russia have foot on everyone’s throat – even for energy that doesn’t belong to it, from transit and end user countries. So much for stability. The Germans learned their lesson for the last episode and is spending like crazy on solar panels – to bad its not a tropical country. It’s true that if the sissy Europeans don’t have stomach to fight, which they increasingly don’t, they shouldn’t stand up in the first place or encourage others to. It’s lot less cheaper and less bloodier to toe the Russian line.

  5. Chandra,

    It’s clear Saakashvili started it, although it’s very likely that the Russians pushed him into it. And why did the Russians feel the need to do this? Because Georgia was swinging over to the West…and so on. In any case, problems of this nature are not solved by morals and principles, but by power.

    Your second paragraph supports my point about higher political risk. Seen as the world is, it’s riskier to get into supply arrangements that thumb their nose at the Russians. That is not to say that this is a good thing or even that we should like it…

  6. Chandra,

    You seem to expect Russia to remain quiet when its sphere of interests is encroached upon. That is like expecting Kennedy to ignore Soviet missile batteries in Cuba. A NATO bunkering point in the Black Sea? Even the struggling Czardom of the day in the 1850s did not take its interests lightly when it felt threatened by a Franco-British-Ottoman-Italian alliance, thus launching the Crimean War which was at least in geographical extent a tue “world war”. There’s another country that fought a war with old Russia – the USSR, skirmihe victoriouly but withdrew at the right moment, to enjoy peace and prosperity for for decades, without joining the NATO and even for a brief while working with the Nazis. Finland anyone? Sakashvili’s naivete seems to be exceeded only by his advisors – most of whom I am sure are not from Georgia – not even from Europe. There are very large pockets of Russian enclaves on Russia’s Western and SW borders in lands that were in the USSR. We saw how Ukraine continues to be played for its strategic value. This is not the Russia that kept furiously silent during the Balkan campaign of a decade ago. Again, there are no villains or heroes, and for India taking sides in this affair, mouting tropes like freedom, democracy etc., would make it look foolish. Russia has roared back into the world economy powered by its mineral wealth. It would be foolish to imagine it would keep quiet when others try to bypass its export routes and deprive its share of value added.

  7. kaangeya, what’s foolish not what Russia does, but everyone else is doing. Just because Russia wants to walk over its neighbors it doesn’t make it right and others don’t have to fold.

    It’s nice to know that because Russia is powerful it can walk into another country without repercussions. Hitler and the Japanese were after all counting on such ‘realism’.

    I don’t expect India to say a thing – after all we don’t say anything even if our own strategic interests are involved like, say, in Tibet and we have a peculiar love for dictators (hence we raised our voice when US invaded to bring down a dictator).

  8. Chandra,

    As you know all too well, this blog can neither be accused of anti-Americanism, nor of being pro-Russia, nor of being pro-dictator.

    So I will ask you to indulge me when I say you are putting too much credence in Western media reports. People who have been to Tbilisi in the last few years will tell you the extent of American presence in the country. There is a strong US military training presence in Georgia as well. I’m not the one to put value judgements on any of this—for the US has the right to do what it needs to to promote its interests and similarly the Russians. But those who take a particular action must be prepared for the consequences of their actions.

    What should India do about this? I think it would be meaningful to say all parties must stop violence and go in for a diplomatic solution.

  9. Nitin, I was talking about world reaction, not your blog – at least the later comments. Yes, the Americans themselves say they have significance presence in Georgia – for one thing Saakashvili has been asking for it since he got elected – and probably advising on the ground now.

    Yes, of course the losers have to pay. But what bother me is S.Ossettia is not even claimed by Russia, yet it walks over the border with full force. Sure it’s powerful. What happened to the chorus of UN authorization and all the peaceniks jumping up and down just a few years ago!!

    Anyway, I wasn’t reacting to your take per se…I suppose we have an internal J&K mess – some thing positive may come out of it, after all – to worry about another mess.

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