Russia’s Georgian Message: “We’re Back”

By: Greg C. Reeson

Late in the day on August 7, Georgian military forces entered the breakaway republic of South Ossetia in Georgia’s north central region in an effort to reclaim control of the hotly contested province. Less than 48 hours later, Russian troops entered the fray, ostensibly to protect Russian peacekeepers and Russian citizens in South Ossetia, advancing to a point less than 50 miles from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. In the wake of a French-brokered cease-fire, Russia’s true motives have become increasingly clear.

Russian motivations for intervening in Georgia on behalf of South Ossetia can be summarized as follows. First, Russia was anxious to counter U.S. influence in the Caucasus, having watched for years as Georgia and the United States increased diplomatic, economic, and military cooperation, and as the Georgian government pushed for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Georgia under Mikhail Saakashvili, prodded and supported by the United States, has been taunting Russia for a very long time. Moscow finally decided it was time to act, using South Ossetia as a means for pushing back against U.S.-led western encroachment.

Second, Russia wanted to send a clear message not only to the nations of the Caucasus region, but to all states that once comprised the former Soviet Union. Make no mistake about it, the audience targeted by Moscow included Ukraine, which has, like Georgia, been distancing itself from Russia while fostering closer ties with the United States, and Poland and the Czech Republic, former Soviet satellite states now serving as hosts for U.S. ballistic missile defense systems. The message: cooperation with the west can be dangerous, and may not be tolerated.

Finally, Russia wanted to show the world that it was well on its way to a full recovery from the dismal times that had followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. While Moscow understood that it had not regained its former superpower status, it was intent on demonstrating that it was capable of asserting itself as a regional power, with the means and the will to impose its wishes on neighboring countries if it felt the need to do so.

Some have speculated that Russia’s support of South Ossetia was in part payback for western support of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. I find that argument a little hard to swallow. It is true that Russia had expressed its opposition to Kosovo’s independence, and had warned of the potential consequences of western support for the redrawing of borders in the Balkans. But to suggest that Russia was willing to use armed intervention to support the independence of a breakaway province on its periphery is a bit of a stretch. Rather, it is more probable that larger, more complex issues, like those cited above, were instrumental in Russia’s decision to go to war with Georgia.

So, what did Russia accomplish with its intervention in South Ossetia and its invasion of Georgia proper? Strategic Forecasting (STRATFOR), a private geopolitical intelligence firm based in Austin, recently argued that Russia had demonstrated three things with its Georgian expedition. The first was that the Russian military was capable of mounting a successful operation. This was important for Russia, for many in the west had discounted the ability of the Russian military to undertake meaningful offensive action given the degradation in equipment and resources that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The success of Russian forces in South Ossetia and Georgia, Russia’s first offensive action since the fall of the Soviet empire, made it clear that Russia has regained some of its former military capability and is once again capable of operating militarily in its border regions.

Second, STRATFOR says, the Russians demonstrated that they could defeat a U.S.-trained military force. I would argue that the jury is jury is still out on this one, and the verdict is far from being assured. The United States has been providing military assistance and training to Georgia for years, but that assistance and training has been focused on two tasks: counterterrorism activities and Iraq. Neither of those tasks is suited for the type of war launched by the Russians. Given the immediacy of the terrorist threat in nearby Chechnya and the ongoing conflict in Iraq, U.S. trainers were not preparing Georgian soldiers to conduct traditional force-on-force combat operations against Russian invaders.

Third on STRATFOR’s list was that Russia had demonstrated the United States and NATO were in no position to intervene militarily. This comes as a surprise to no one. With U.S. troops committed to two active theaters of combat, Afghanistan and Iraq, there simply are no additional forces available for contingencies that may arise elsewhere in the world. NATO, which has been reluctant to fulfill its promised troop contributions in Afghanistan, could hardly be expected to intervene against the Russians on behalf of a non-NATO member.

About all the United States and Europe can do for Georgia right now is to provide humanitarian assistance and diplomatic rhetoric at the United Nations. Even that is more symbolic than substantive. The Russians control the main east-west road in Georgia and the seaport of Poti, limiting the freedom of maneuver of those providing outside assistance. At the United Nations, Russia holds veto power in the Security Council, making it impossible to even get a U.N. resolution critical of Russia’s actions. The real lesson here is that U.S. and European allies are now feeling vulnerable, unsure whether they could rely on outside assistance in the face of aggression from a resurgent Russia.

Russia still has a long way to go in its attempt to reclaim its former superpower status. But its intervention in Georgia has demonstrated that Russia is once again a power to be reckoned with, and that its wishes, often dismissed out of hand in the years following the end of the Cold War, can no longer be ignored. Russia’s invasion of Georgia was designed to put the west, and the United States in particular, on notice: Russia is back.

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