War in the Caucasus

Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvilia, is quite the gambler. Information is still sketchy, but it appears that on Friday, after weeks of skirmishing in South Ossetia, Saakashvilia attempted a fait accompli by mounting a full-scale invasion of the separatist republic while the world’s attention was on the opening of the Beijing Olympics. It is now clear that he committed a grievous strategic error.

Georgia is riddled with separatist regions, the remnants of bloody civil wars that occurred in the aftermath of Georgia’s independence after the Soviet Union collapsed. Following his election after the 2003 “Rose Revolution” Saakashvili managed to peacefully regain government control of one of these statelets, the southwestern province of Ajaria. South Ossetia and Abkhazia maintained their de facto independence as Russian protectorates. Tension between Russia and Georgia has increased dramatically over the past year as Russia has used Western recognition of Kosovo’s independence as a pretext to press its influence in Georgia via its two protectorates.

Russian hostility to Georgia is rooted in its own historic sense of vulnerability, which does not permit unfriendly regimes to exist along its periphery. Saakashvili, educated in the U.S., has oriented his country to the West, seeking NATO membership and greater integration with Europe. To Russia, this constitutes an unacceptable intrusion on its sphere of influence. In April, NATO resisted U.S. prodding to accept both Ukraine and Georgia, though German chancellor Angela Merkel privately assured Saakashvili of eventual membership. Indeed, it doesn’t make much sense for Saakashvili to attack now, since NATO membership was a certainty within a couple years. But now, Georgia’s chances may be irreparably damaged; it seems unlikely that the Alliance would admit a loose cannon that is willing to provoke war with Russia.

And war is exactly what this is. Western officials and media confidently predicted that the hostilities would come to a close as soon as Russian forces had regained control of South Ossetia. That’s not going to happen. This war gives Russia the perfect opportunity to reassert itself, to announce to the world that it is no longer the hapless basket case that it was during the 90s, to demonstrate its power to other states along its border that are wavering toward Europe and the West, and to warn the U.S. and NATO to stay out of its backyard. Putin and Medvedev are not going to give up such an opportunity.

Russia’s ambitions are clearly evident in its actions. There are reports that it is massing forces in Abkhaziaand using its Black Sea Fleet to blockade Georgia’s western coast. Most tellingly, it has attempted to bomb the Baku-Supsa pipeline, which carries Caspian oil westward, and has even attacked out of Ossetia toward Gori, through which the pipeline passes. Russia’s war aims probably include consolidation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the destruction of Georgia’s military power, and the removal of Saakashvili.

The Georgians made a key tactical error when they failed to destroy the Roki tunnel, which links South Ossetia with its northern Russian counterpart. The Georgians no doubt kept it intact to allow the Russian “peacekeepers” and South Ossetians to retreat north after the Georgian attack. Leaving the tunnel intact has allowed the Russians to pour reinforcements into the south. Georgia has no hope of military victory, and its repeated ceasefire offers and public comments indicate the increasing despair of Georgian officials.

They may have been hoping for U.S. assistance, but it is unlikely that the U.S. approved of Saakashvili’s actions, or was even notified beforehand. Thus, the U.S. will not offer any meaningful aid to Georgia, aside from diplomatic support. But Russia risks overplaying its hand. If the Russians advance on Tbilisi or otherwise pose a threat to the existence of the Georgian state, the U.S. will have no choice but to intervene. Furthermore, the war might push Eastern Europe closer to NATO and the U.S. as they seek to avoid becoming Russia’s next victim.

Most Americans have never heard of South Ossetia and their attention is focused on the Olympics, but that is a poor measure of the significance of this war. Years from now, this war will be considered the inaugurating event for a new era of Great Power competition. What is certain is that it’s going to get much worse before it gets better.

And so, history continues…