The first thing to understand about the war between Russia and Georgia is that Georgia has lost. As Doug Muir explains, seizing South Ossetia required the quick severing, and then holding, of a single key route leading from the Caucasus peaks to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. A look at the terrain tells the tale: Tskhinvali’s north side is to the mountains, and its south faces toward a broad plain in which the Georgians already controlled the major routes. As an operational problem, the solution was self-evident. Seize the north-south route to Tskhinvali, and the conquest of South Ossetia resolves into an exercise in alpine insurgency – unpleasant but winnable.
The Georgians did not get it done. Having failed to seize the Tskhinvali approach, the next best option is to interdict its traffic. Russian air power, which appeared to have a Georgia-wide romp in the past 24 hours, almost certainly renders this impossible. Here, then, is the circumstance that the Georgians face: their warmaking assets will only decline (the hasty recall of Georgia’s Iraq contingent notwithstanding), while Russian power in-theater will only grow. Georgia’s military has benefited from significant American training and equipment since 2002 – but it simply does not have the manpower to face down a Russian Army accustomed to victory through sheer mass.
The real question for Georgia, then, is not whether is will win or lose – it has already lost – but how bad its loss will be. The worst case scenario is a Russian occupation and annexation. Fortunately for the Georgians, that’s also the least likely. Less unlikely is some sort of Russian occupation coupled with a Russian-driven regime change that puts Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on the street – if he’s lucky. This might not be the tragedy for Georgia it seems, given Saakashvili’s rather astonishing incompetent gamble in leading the country into the present war. Most likely is that the Russians fully occupy South Ossetia, along with the other secessionist region of Georgia, Abkhazia; declare them both independent or somehow annexed; and thoroughly punish the Georgians with a countrywide air campaign targeting what meager infrastructure there is. Georgia at war’s end – which may well be mere days away – will be definitively dismembered, and smoldering in body and heart.
So much for the probable outcome. What remains is what, if anything, America should do. The policy reflex, certainly, is to blame the Russians for this catastrophe, and act accordingly. Indeed, the Russians bear much blame – not least for their Kuwaiti-tanker stratagem with South Ossetia’s residents, who were issued Russian passports freely so Moscow might have a pretext to intervene. Yet if the Russians acted with malice, the Georgians under Saakashvili acted with stupidity. The separation of South Ossetia rankles the good Georgian nationalist’s heart – but that’s about it. South Ossetia’s economy barely deserves the name: to paraphrase Muir, it’s populated by peasants who drive sheep uphill in summer, and downhill in winter. It did not enrich Georgia, nor do its people want to be Georgian – and if Georgia wishes to claim it nonetheless, there is still no urgency to the task. A smart Georgian government would have brought Georgia to some meaningful prosperity over the years, and left the impoverished Ossetians demanding for reunion with a thriving nation. Biased though he may be, the Chairman of the Russia’s State Duma Security Committee, Vladimir Vasilyev, said it well:
Georgia could have used the years of Saakashvili’s presidency in different ways – to build up the economy, to develop the infrastructure, to solve social issues both in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the whole state. Instead, the Georgian leadership with president Saakashvili undertook consistent steps to increase its military budget from $US 30 million to $US 1 billion – Georgia was preparing for a military action.
That Mikheil Saakashvili thought it better to have hundreds of young men die instead – by launching an attack upon a town garrisoned by Russians! – is a damning indictment of his judgment. No nation ought to base a policy, and still less an alliance, upon this unreliable actor.
If there is a rationale for American action, it lies in American self interest in showing that America’s friends may count upon it. Georgia fought alongside the US in Iraq, and there is some debt owed for that. In that vein, America might commit itselve to resupply – though not direct to forces in the field – and it might guarantee Georgian sovereignty, though not Georgian territorial integrity. Short of a threatened extermination of Georgia (which does not seem at issue), there is nothing at stake here to justify a US-Russia war. Those accustomed to invoking appeasement and Munich at moments of foreign crisis may recoil at this – but that historical parallel is barely applicable here. Russian Putinism, for all it rightly repels our moral sensibilities, is not an existential foe of the West like Nazism, Communism, or Islamism. Its advance is not intrinsically America’s loss.
Whether America’s policymaking apparatus will have the wisdom to discern this is another matter. The Secretary of State’s statement gives us some clue as to the outline of American policy, but what matters is the accompanying action. There is a rumor that the President will speak on this from Beijing shortly. Meanwhile, the war in the Caucasus goes on.