Streetwise Professor

August 26, 2008

In Your Face

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:40 pm

As I surmised on Sunday, the US Navy (or Coast Guard) will send a ship to Poti, Georgia to deliver humanitarian relief:

The move [Medvedev’s recognition of the independence of the rump states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia] came after the U.S. announced it intends to deliver humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Georgian port city of Poti, which Russian troops still control through checkpoints on the city’s outskirts. The aid will be delivered Wednesday by ship, a U.S. embassy spokesman said.

While Western nations have called the Russian military presence in Poti a clear violation of a European Union-brokered cease-fire, a top Russian general countered Tuesday that using warships to deliver aid was “devilish.”

Many of the Russian forces that drove deep into Georgia after fighting broke out Aug. 7 in the separatist region of South Ossetia have pulled back, but at least hundreds are estimated to still be manning checkpoints, that Russia calls “security zones,” inside Georgia proper. Two of those checkpoints are near the edge of Poti, one of Georgia’s most important Black Sea ports. The Russian military is also claiming the right to patrol in the city.

An Associated Press cameraman was treated roughly by Russian troops Sunday when he tried to film Russian movements around Poti. Georgian officials have said much of the port’s infrastructure — radar, Coast Guard ships, other equipment — was destroyed by the Russians.

In a move that angered Russia, the U.S. sent the missile destroyer USS McFaul to the southern Georgian port of Batumi, well away from the conflict zone, to deliver 34 tons of humanitarian aid Sunday. The McFaul left Batumi on Tuesday but would remain in the Black Sea area, said Commander Scott Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet in Naples, Italy.

A U.S. Coast Guard cutter, meanwhile, was headed for Georgia with a shipment of aid. Embassy spokesman Stephen Guice didn’t give details on which ship would aim to enter Poti, but it appeared likely the smaller Coast Guard ship would aim to dock, with the McFaul possibly remaining on guard at sea. “We can confirm that US ship-borne humanitarian aid will be delivered to Poti tomorrow,” Mr. Guice said.

In Moscow, the deputy head of the Russian military’s general staff lashed out at the U.S. naval operation. “We are worried” about the way aid is delivered on warships, Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said. “This is devilish.” “This aid could be bought at any flea market,” he added.

“Devilish.” Excellent (cue Monty Burns voice.)

Ball’s in your court, guys. Watcha gonna do ’bout it?

The Russians have no good options once USCGC Dallas pulls into Poti–which is just why the move is so devilish (in Russian eyes). Deny the delivery of humanitarian relief to sovereign Georgian territory, and they make it clear that they are in violation of international law; that they are really engaged in a punitive mission against Georgia with the intent of unseating the duly elected government, rather than protecting “Russian citizens”; that they have no intent of adhering to their commitments under the “cease fire” agreement; all while running the risk of an escalation that would jeopardize Putin’s long term plans. Allow the delivery of the aid, and they will appear to be climbing down in the face of US pressure.

This episode suggests that Putin let his rage against Saakashvilli and his hormones get the better of him. This was not the move of a self-controlled judo master. Rather than using his opponent’s momentum against him, Putin’s lunge has put him off balance. He must either beat a retreat, or escalate the situation, thereby weakening Russia’s long term position.

How did Putin get into this situation? It seems driven by overconfidence. Where did that come from? Disdain for the Europeans and the United States? Belief that the Euros would not respond because, well, they’re Euros? Belief that the US would not respond because Bush is tired and distracted, an election is underway, we are “bogged down” in Iraq, and that the European Lilliputians would rein us in? The rather predictable effect of isolation from feedback and reasoned challenge that is the hallmark of autocratic systems ruled by fear? All of the above, and more, methinks.

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