Streetwise Professor

August 19, 2009

Condemned to Repeat It (?)

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:23 pm

The debate over the culpability over the Russo-Georgian War focuses on the events of August 7-8.   Although these events are important, and many, including yours truly, have analyzed them in some depth, I have also emphasized that a full accounting cannot be based on these days alone.  Instead, it is essential to consider the events leading up to the commencement of hostilities, going back some years.

A new book, The Guns of August 2008: Russia’s War in Georgia, does just that, and makes it clear that the watershed date is 1999–the time of Putin’s ascension to the premiership.  That change in government marked the beginning of escalating Russian pressure on Georgia.  In particular, the chapter by Andrei Illarionov lays out in precise, chronological order, the ratcheting of coercive measures and provocations that ultimately culminated in war.  Illiaronov makes a compelling case that a combination of imperial ambitions and personal animus and resentment (especially within the Russian military) drove Russia to take hostile actions against Georgia, very few of which were met by Georgian reprisal or reaction in kind.  Russia did not like Georgian independence.  They did not like it under Shevardnadze (whom most Russians blamed for the breakup of the USSR).  They liked it even less under Saakashvili.  They were determined to cut Georgia down to size–whoever led it.  The arming of the South Ossetians and Abkhazians (the armaments provided the former, says Illiarionov, were worth 150 percent of the province’s GDP!), the support and promotion of the most extreme leaders (especially in South Ossetia), aggressive espionage, economic sabotage (especially of energy infrastructure), the withdrawal from the CFE treaty, the abrogation of CIS sanctions regarding Abkhazia, the violations of Georgian airspace (including attacks on Georgian facilities), the shootdowns of reconnaissance drones, the deployment of regular forces to Abkhazia, the repair of the Abkhazia-S. Ossetia rail link, and on and on and on, all point to a long term strategy of destroying Georgian independence. Given all of these developments, if the war hadn’t begun on 7-8 August, 2008, it was only a matter of time–and very little time at that–before it did.

Iliaronov and Pavel Felgenhauer also provide considerable evidence supporting the proposition that the Russians planned an attack and initiated the hostilities in August 2008.  I’ve stated repeatedly that even if Russian troops did not enter the Roki Tunnel before Georgia opened up with its artillery on Tskhinvali, they could not have arrived on the South Ossetian capital’s outskirts even on the mid-afternoon of 8 August if they were not in movement order, waiting to implement orders to advance issued well before 7 August. Illiaronov and Felgenhauer provide much additional circumstantial evidence that an attack was already in the works when the Georgian guns opened fire and their missiles flew.  Of particular interest to me were the disclosures that: the Northern Caucasus Military District leadership deployed to Java on 6 August; the leadership of the Leningrad Military District (!) deployed to the lower Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia on the same date; on that date as well all shops and offices in Tskhinvali were closed, and the evacuation of civilians accelerated; and the Russian Deputy Defense Minister, the Deputy Chief of Military Intelligence, and the Commander of the 58th Army met with the Ossetian leadership in Tskhinvali on 2 August.  All of this is consistent with the implementation of a plan to engage in hostilities.  The well-known presence of 50 Russian journalists in the days before the battle began also suggests that something was underway already well before Georgia acted.

To this, add something not in the book; the hacking story I wrote about a few days back.  The Telegraph has more details:

A report by the United States Cyber Consequences Unit claims that last year’s cyber attacks on Georgian websites were carried out by independent groups of civilian hackers with a special relationship to the Russian government.

“Many of the cyber attacks were so close in time to the corresponding military operations that there had to be close co-operation between people in the Russian military and the civilian cyber attackers,” the report said. “Many of the actions the attackers carried out, such as registering new domain names and putting up new websites, were accomplished so quickly that all of the steps had to have been prepared earlier.

“Given the speed of action, the signal to go ahead also had to have been sent before the news media and general public were aware of what was happening militarily.”

This provides further evidence of advance planning, involving all elements of the Russian security apparatus–including its criminal branches.

The escalation of Ossetian artillery fire on 28 July, which touched off the spiral to war, must also be laid directly at Russian feet.  (For those oh-so-sympathetic to Russian “peacekeepers” and Ossetian civilians, note that on that date the Ossetians opened fire on OSCE peacekeepers–note the lack of quotation marks there–and “villages with mixed populations under Georgian control.)  Why is this a Russian responsibility?  Because members of the Russian force structures held all of the ministerial positions in the South Ossetian security structures.  Thus, the Ossetian military was Ossetian in name only; it was under Russian command.

Felgenhauer addresses some issues that exercised me during the short war and its immediate aftermath, most notably the failure of Georgia to bypass Tskhinvali and make a more robust effort to block the Roki Tunnel.  He states that the Georgians misread Russian intentions to launch a full-scale assault, and their intelligence failed to grasp the size and strength of the Russian force.  As a result, although it did attempt to bypass Tskhinvali for the most part, and did make an attempt to seal the tunnel, its forces were inadequate for the task. According to Felgenhauer, the Georgians now state that if they had known Russian strength, and the Russian’s intention to attack into Georgia, they would have prepared a static defense around Gori and Tblisi.

The most depressing chapter of the book is Steve Blank’s.  He analyzes the actions of the EU and the US in the lead up to the war, and during its aftermath.  It does not make for comfortable reading.  Blank is justly scornful of both.  Blank makes a compelling case that the EU seemed to be making a concerted effort to make Neville Chamberlain look good by comparison.  It misread Russian intentions, and with the United States, did enough to encourage Georgia to pursue deeper ties with the West to enrage Russia, but didn’t provide the support it needed to deter Russia or to help Georgia withstand the pressure.  The worst of both worlds, in other words.

The most important errors were the NATO Summit in Bucharest, and the decision to recognize the independence of Kosovo with no regard for its broader implications.  Blank (and David Smith) note that the decision to deny a Membership Action Plan to Georgia actually encouraged Russia to move forward.  In particular, the Europeans, and especially Angela Merkel, stated that no nation could join NATO if it had unresolved territorial issues.  Well, that was an invitation to Russia to make damn sure that Georgia’s territorial issues were never resolved.  The decision to recognize Kosovo was also insanely stupid since it gave Russia the perfect pretext to act as it did.  Hence, given these virtual invitations, it is no surprise that the war broke out mere months later when the weather was optimal and various preparations, most notably the completion of the rail link mentioned above, were complete.  Thus, Angela Merkel and George Bush share much of the blame for the war.

Blank also rightly excoriates the Europeans for their pussillanimity  after the “cease fire.”  The Russians have violated its terms repeatedly, with nary a peep from France (that negotiated the deal) or any other European nation.

Lastly, Blank makes the very excellent point that connects Russian foreign aggressiveness with its institutional weakness:

Beyond exposing neo-imperial cravings, these episodes showed that the undemocratic nature of the relationship between the state and the unreformed defense establishment enabled the latter, along with complicit politicians, to engage in military adventurism without the likelihood of control by the political process.  Not only does such a situation thwart the establishment of democracy in Russia–a principal security goal of the West–but it hinders the stabilization of the post-Soviet world.  When these same Russian neo-imperial cravings were indulged in 2008, the other side produced no effective riposte in spite of ample warnings.

. . . .

Such Russian meddling imperiled the development of more open political institutions in Russia. . . . It also rekindled the notion that Russia had an inborn right to such a sphere of influence. . . . Russia, in short, seeks to freeze the process of European integration and replace it with a regional bipolarity.

And this is the truly scary part.  It appears that the EU and the US have learned nothing from the events of last August, and the nine year prelude to the outbreak of war.  Remarkably, the financial crisis has made Germany and Merkel even more subservient to Russia.  The EU and the US still seem largely oblivious to Russian intentions, and ignorant of the Russian mindset as described by Blank.

This is occurring when the kind of escalation that preceded the Russo-Georgian War is commencing with Ukraine.  The hysterical comments emanating from Moscow, the diplomatic tiffs, the blatantly offensive and undiplomatic letter from Medvedev, all point to a ratcheting of pressure on Kiev.  Now, there is nothing in Ukraine comparable to the frozen conflicts in Georgia, but that does not mean that there are not other tensions that Moscow can exploit to create a crisis situation.   In the short run, it is likely that Moscow is calculating that it can influence the Ukrainian presidential election in a way that advances its interest without risking a more dangerous confrontation.  But that is a very dangerous game that could well spin out of control.  With the boneless wonders in Brussels; Merkel at the Russians’ feet, and Berlusconi and Sarkozy not far behind; and a US administration dreaming of reset and distracted by Afghanistan and the health care imbroglio; an aggressive Russia looking back on the experience of the Georgia War may well be emboldened to taking the next big step in its ambition to restore a simulacrum of the Russian Empire.

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  1. Do the Abkhaz and South Ossetians prefer Georgia over Russia?

    What of the Georgian miltary buildup in the years leading up to last year’s attack on South Ossetia?

    This last question also relates to the statements of Georgian officials prior to last year’s attack on the need to takeover South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in conjunction with a plan to launch military action as a means of achieving this goal.

    Regarding Ukraine, that former Soviet republic shows a noticeable amount of kinship (in one form or another) with Russia. A recent Gallup poll finds 85% percent of Ukrainians disapproving of the job performance of their country’s leadership, up from 75% in 2008 and 73% in 2007. The 4% of Ukrainians who approve is not only the lowest rating Gallup has ever measured in former Soviet countries, but also the lowest in the world.

    With this in mind, Medvedev’s letter could be seen as showing support for the majority of Ukraine’s citizenry. Regardless of how one views his note, it’ll probably not make much of a difference in influencing the upcoming presidential vote in Ukraine. Overall, the anti-Russian folks will remain as such, with the pro-Russian elements not changing their minds. The more neutral of Ukrainians will (for the most part) see fault with Yushchenko and Medvedev, in a way that will prolong their existing stance.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — August 20, 2009 @ 2:08 am

  2. Unapologetically one-sided as usual.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 20, 2009 @ 3:00 am

  3. “According to Felgenhauer, the Georgians now state that if they had known Russian strength, and the Russian’s intention to attack into Georgia, they would have prepared a static defense around Gori and Tblisi.”

    In which case there would have been no war at all…

    The Georgian twisting and squirming to dodge responsibility for the Saak’s lunatic bombardment of a city containing Russian soldiers on a peacekeeping mission grows more spectacular by the day.

    “I’ve stated repeatedly that even if Russian troops did not enter the Roki Tunnel before Georgia opened up with its artillery on Tskhinvali, they could not have arrived on the South Ossetian capital’s outskirts even on the mid-afternoon of 8 August if they were not in movement order, waiting to implement orders to advance issued well before 7 August.”

    Stipulating the truth of this, Russian armed forces doing stuff on Russian territory =/= initiating hostilities.

    Comment by rkka — August 20, 2009 @ 3:58 am

  4. Here’re some other perspectives which run counter to what the Professor posted:

    Comment by Cutie Pie — August 20, 2009 @ 4:09 am

  5. There is another very simply and logical reason why Geogria did not attempt to initially secure the Roki Tunnel.

    Namely, Saakashvili wanted the scared and shell shocked civilians of Tskhinval(i) to flee north through the tunnel and thus, depopulate the Republic of South Ossetia of actual South Ossetians. First, Saak bombarded a sleeping civilian population just hours after assuring all that he would not use force. Then the population of S.O. flees to saftey through the tunnel to North Ossetia. Finally, the Georgian army secures the tunnel in the south to prevent Russian troops from entering and South Ossetians from returning. The plan looked great on paper in the weeks leading up to August 8th but in reality failed miserably.

    Comment by Eugene Forsen — August 20, 2009 @ 7:40 am

  6. According to the kremlinoid Pootie Pie, since Obama has faced some disapproval in the US, that must mean that Americans want kinship with roosha.

    To spell it out for the obtuse Pootie Pie, and other kremlinoids – demanding government in your own country does not mean that the people want “kinship” with roosha.

    Medvedev’s fart across the border into Ukraine is just one more example of Rasha’s perpetual temper tantrum, and Rasha’s perpetual goal of creating and imposing misery everywhere.

    How quaint and sweet that a little kremlinoid should characterize Putvedev’s shart as “support for Ukrainian citizenry.”

    Criticizing Yushchenko, and engaging in diplomat temper tantrum wars does not “support” any citizenry.

    It merely supports Putvedev, and illustrates imperial ambitions.

    Sending money to individual citizens – that would have shown “support.” As it is, it’s just Dima flapping his yap, in typical Rashan kremlinoid demagoguery.

    SWP, you hit on a key element – the German “leadership,” current and former. Rasha went in through Gazprom and made sure to bribe as much of the German “leadership” as it could. That included putting a former German Chancellor on Gazprom’s Board of Directors, so that Germans became shills for Rasha.

    Germany is not the only country where the Rashans operate on the basis of “everyone has his/her price.”

    Comment by elmer — August 20, 2009 @ 8:56 am

  7. Elmer Fudd is ignoring a recent Ukrainian poll result, while providing a misleading spin on some other mentioned points.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — August 20, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

  8. Oh, look, Putler Pie has given us the view from the bizarro parallel universe or kremlinoids! Oh, joy! Oh, peachy keen!

    Comment by elmer — August 20, 2009 @ 11:09 pm

  9. Leave it to a crazed Ukrainian ultra-nationalist like Elmer Fudd to follow-up in such a manner.

    Fortunately, most Ukrainians don’t think like him.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — August 21, 2009 @ 1:32 am

  10. “Unapologetically one-sided as usual.” SUBLIME DURAK was talking about himself, right?

    The single most important fact about the Georgia conflict is that Russia invaded and annexed Abkhazia for ABSOLUTELY NO REASON. The Georgian devil did not set ONE HOBNAILED TOE in Abkhazia, yet Russia invaded anyway. It has NO EXCUSE for this action, and simply tries to sweep it under the carpet. The move against Abkhazia, no matter what you think about Ossetia, proves without question that Russia was engaged in imperialism and aggression, and Russia’s moves to ban UN and OSCE observers in recent months puts the exclamation point on it.

    Wiggle as you will, Russophile idiots. You cannot escape these two simple, undisputable facts.

    Oh and, by the way: There is simply no doubt that Abkhazians want real independence, not to be a part of Russia. But they won’t get it, and sooner or later will become another Chechnya, just like Ingushetia and Dagestan. Good luck with that, Russians.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 21, 2009 @ 7:07 am

  11. Not likely IMO.

    The bottom line remains that the South Ossetians and Abkahz prefer Russia over Georgia and that Saakashvili’s government initiated last year’s attack.

    BTW, besides Kosovo, Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, there’s the “Turkish Republc of Northern Cyprus,” which is internationally recognized by only one nation.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — August 21, 2009 @ 8:02 am

  12. S/O. Very succinct critique. I encourage you to write a detailed rebuttal to Illarionov’s chronology, or to construct an alternative narrative (a) with a similarly detailed factual basis, and (b) which contradicts his conclusion that the August War was the culmination of a series of moves designed by Russia to throttle Georgia.

    Cutie Pie. What South Ossetians? Recent reports state that the population has plunged, and those that remain are mired in abject poverty and criminality. “Sovereignty” is a bitch sometimes. Re the Abkhazians, they have always been less at ease with Russian domination, and are becoming even more uneasy as it is increasingly clear that they are just a Muscovite satrapy, although it is true that they prefer that to Georgian rule.

    Don’t know the relevance of your “BTW” point. Are you just pulling your usual tactic of bringing up some pathetic case so you can say “See, Russia isn’t the only one,” and to allow you to repeat your motto: “Not the Worst!”?

    But isn’t it interesting that of the other cases you mention, 4 are in ex-USSR; and Russia has played a thoroughly unconstructive role in 3?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 21, 2009 @ 10:23 am

  13. Professor

    You recently posted about Turkey without noting some issues. On the other hand, you highlight similar issues (human rights, disputed territory, viewing the past) when it comes to Russia.

    Pardon my seeking a more even-handed route when discussing global issues.

    On your “unconstructive” point, this can be said of many unresolved conflicts on the basis that such an issue (in this instance, disputed land) remain ongoing. Others besides myself don’t see Kosovo as a great example of success.

    Russia is playing a major role in the Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria situations. On the other hand, its recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence serves to decrease whatever influence and chance of increasing influence with Georgia. I see fault with that diplomatic move, unlike Russia’s counterattack of last year, which included the taking out Goergian military assets.

    You’re really into a certain kind of lingo (“Musovite”).

    Comment by Cutie Pie — August 21, 2009 @ 11:40 am

  14. I don’t need to write up an “alternate” chronology when it’s already been done.

    The War he actually got – Patrick Armstrong (chronology)
    The Legal Case for Russian Intervention in Georgia

    In addition, the statements of some former members of Saakashvili’s Cabinet as to how he had firm plans of his own to return Ossetia & Abkhazia into Georgia’s orbit years beforehand, e.g. by Irakli Okruashvili, who can hardly be described as a “Russophile”.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 21, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

  15. Points which were earlier communicated at this thread and perhaps well worth communicating again to underscore key particulars which are overlooked by some.


    Getting back to your characterization of Russia in the disputed territories, you might be interested in this commentary and discusion on Transnistria:

    These areas have fundamental differences regardless of Russia. There was a Moldovan attack on Transnistria in the early 1990s. Rather then see Russian mischief making, one can view Russia playing a constructive role in stabilizing that dispute.

    The other conflicts involve other non-Russian players who’re pursuing there own preferences. No post-Soviet Russian involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia could’ve lead to a mass ethnic cleansing to Russia’s borders and continued instability in those two lands.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — August 21, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  16. This is a pathetic new low even for the lice-ridden likes of SUBLIME DURAK. Ridiculously dishonest propaganda like this is offensive not because it endangers us but because it makes Russia look like a nation of apes capable of nothing better. Even a hardened Russophobe like me is made sick by such a suggestion. With “friends” like these Russia needs no enemies.

    Patrick Armstrong’s conclusion that Russian forces were not moving into Ossetia when Georgia attacked is based on NOTHING MORE than his claim that although the President of Georgia said they were in a TV address on August 25th, he did not say so in an earlier TV address on August 8th. There are ZERO actual facts in Armstrong’s silly screed proving that Russian forces were not on their way into Georgia when it moved against Ossetia. What’s more, he doesn’t even cite to the TEXT of the president’s speeches, but to NEWS REPORTS ABOUT THEM, which are obviously incomplete. Did he even read the speeches? Who knows! Facts are not his goal, it is clear.

    Moreover, Armstrong is willfully misleading readers about the content of the Georgian president’s remarks. It is perfectly clear from ALL the Georgian president’s speeches that GEORGIA WAS UNDER ATTACK BY OSSETIAN ROCKETS when it moved into Ossetia to silence them. THAT, and THAT ALONE, is the reason for the August war. Georgia begged Russia, for MONTHS, to stop the attacks. Russia, instead of doing so, ITSELF repeatedly violated Georgian airspace, as the UN and EU have both formally concluded. The discussion about invading Russian troops is ONLY about Georgia’s use of heavy firepower in and beyond the Ossetian capital to stop those troops from entering, firepower which is blamed for civilian casualties. But Russian forces killed FAR more civilians in than Georgian forces did, and Russian forces MOVED INTO ABKHAZIA even though Georgian forces DID NOT SET FOOT THERE. What’s more, it is PERFECTLY CLEAR that Russia moved to oust Georgian forces the minute they crossed into Ossetia. NOBODY disputes that.

    SUBLIME DURAK doesn’t care to tell readers that Armstrong is a Russophile quack closely affiliated with the Kremlin mouthpiece Russia Blog, which has been lying about the August war from the beginning.

    The fact that he can’t even try to support his absurd claims with a remotely objective source, and instead relies upon Russophile psychpaths like Amstrong and Petro, is all one needs to see how utterly vacant his propaganda really is.

    This mendacity is typical of those who support the clan of proud KGB spies that govern Russia. The desperation is predictable, as they are humiliated by having seen THE ENTIRE WORLD reject Russia’s call to recognize Ossetia and Abkhazia. Their lies will bring Russia down just like they brought down the USSR.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 22, 2009 @ 8:22 am

  17. THE ENTIRE WORLD isn’t going so bonkers over Turkey being the only state to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

    Likewise, Russia hasn’t been ostracized because of its recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence.

    Once again, one can question that independence recognition, while agreeing with Russia’s counterattack and taking out of Georgian military assets.

    BTW, Tymoshenko has essentially taken this position (by not denouncing the Russian counterattack and not supporting the independence recognition), with Yanukovych supporting the Russian government (on its counterattack and independence recognition), with Yushchenko sympathizing with the Georgian government.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — August 22, 2009 @ 10:38 am

  18. Legal scholar Ethan Burger on the legality of Russia’s actions towards Ukraine and Georgia:

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 22, 2009 @ 4:31 pm


    Comment by Cutie Pie — August 22, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

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