« Previous Post | Next Post »

Guest Voice

Georgia's Miscalculation

By Anatol Lieven

I was in Georgia as a stringer for The Times (London) when the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict first erupted at the end of 1990, in the context of the gathering decay of the Soviet Union. I must say that I never could have imagined then that this obscure dispute would one day hold the potential for creating a major international crisis.

This conflict has its roots in three factors: First is the desire of the Southern Ossetes, who up until 1990 formed an autonomous region of the Georgian Soviet republic, to unite in one state with their co-ethnics in North Ossetia, an autonomous republic of the Russian Soviet republic (now the Russian Federation.)

This desire was further increased by Ossete fear of violent Georgian nationalism and hatred of ethnic minorities under then Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a tradition that the Ossetes see as having been revived under the present Georgian President, Mikhel Saakashvili. Spurred by this nationalism, the Georgians in December 1990 sent troops into South Ossetia after the region declared its own sovereignty - like the Russians in Chechnya or the Moldovans in Transdniestria, but unlike the peaceful Russian response to Tatarstan's declaration of sovereignty, or the Ukrainian response to Crimean independence moves. This Georgian move was defeated by Soviet Interior Ministry troops, but began the war which has rumbled on intermittently ever since. It was followed by the Georgian government declaring the abolition of the South Ossete autonomous region and its incorporation into Georgia proper.

Finally, of critical importance ever since 1990 has been first Soviet and now Russian military support for the Southern Ossetes. This comes from a mixture of strategic and emotional motives. Initially, backing the Ossetes (and their allies the Abkhaz) in their opposition to Georgia was seen as a way of blocking first Georgian independence from the Soviet Union and then moves to ally with the West. Increasingly, however, Russians have accepted that maintaining influence over Georgia is hopeless, but they are deeply unwilling to see Georgia join NATO, since it would further Russian humiliation. In addition, the Ossetes are the oldest Russian allies in the Caucasus who have provided troops to the Russian army in many wars. Russia does not wish to abandon them and the Abkhaz, and fuel yet more ethnic unrest among their compatriots in the Russian North Caucasus.

As far as the Georgians are concerned, of course, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are simply part of their national territory, guaranteed as such under international law, and to be recovered at all costs. Promises by NATO leaders to bring Georgia into the alliance at some stage in future, and ostentatious declarations of support from Washington, appear to have convinced the Georgian administration that if they began a new war with Russia over South Ossetia, the West would be compelled to come to their aid. Hence the Georgian military move into South Ossetia in recent days.

In this however the Georgians appear to have miscalculated very badly. Russia has made it clear over the years that it has no intention of suffering defeat in South Ossetia or Abkhazia. It is exceptionally unlikely that the U.S. will send troops to fight for Georgia, or even impose serious sanctions on Moscow, given the certainty of a Russian response against vital U.S. interests in other areas (notably Iran). And if Russia exerts even a fraction of its strength, the Georgian forces will be crushed. The only very faint hope from this miserable situation is that yet another defeat might conceivably persuade the Georgians to let South Ossetia and Abkhazia go, at which point Georgia's path to join NATO and perhaps even one day the EU would be vastly easier.

Anatol Lieven is Professor in the Department of War Studies at King's College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. He is author of several books on the former Soviet Union and its successor states, where he worked as a correspondent for The Times (London) from 1990-1996.

Email This Post | Del.icio.us | Digg | Facebook

Please e-mail PostGlobal if you'd like to receive an email notification when PostGlobal sends out a new question.

Comments (48)

Russian in Russia:

Saakashvilli trigged WW3. How many brother's people will die on this war?

KFritz:

Does anyone know what degree of influence the US used (if any) to persuade the Georgian President NOT to take the Russian bait and launch a full scale attack? Were the US Embassy and CIA reps asleep at the switch, ineffectual, or insufficiently backed by Washington?

arjay1:

Anatol Lieven's last paragraph is pretty accurate, but somehow it is hard to believe that any government could be unaware of a massive, six month build-up of military force on its border. If you know you are outgunned by perhaps ten to one, you don't move a small force into the middle of the big one. Something doesn't 'sequence', as operations research people say.

indeparty:

Please note the following event series around the world.


2002- Totalitarian Chinese navy begins construction of strategic blue water interdiction base at Sanya, Hainan Island, and Enhances Paracel Islands deep water bases. Military combination, with additional bases in Myanmar, Indian Ocean, give control of all energy movement in Asia.
2004- Venezuela buys many MIG-29 fighter-bombers at below cost from totalitarian Russia. MIG-29s have ability to interdict all energy movement through Panama Canal and destroy off-shore platforms in Gulf of Mexico with guided munitions. Russian military facilities in Cuba and Venezuela (MIG-29s can only be effective with Russian pilots) gives control of all Gulf of Mexico energy activity.

2005- Russia supplies at cost 18 advanced MIG-29s to totalitarian El Obeid, Sudan and 20 to totalitarian Yemen, on either side of the entrance to the Red Sea. Thirty five percent of oil going to European democracies passes through Red Sea.
2006- Russia blocks energy transport through Ukraine to European democracies, causing 9 billion Euros damage.
2007- Totalitarian Russia shuts off Druzhba pipeline to European democracies, causing 14 billion Euros collateral damage.
2008- Iran, a totalitarian surrogate of Russia, warns it will close Gulf of Hormuz (their right to do so: used to be Persian empire provinces) if attacked by democracies. Maintains several interdiction bases there including sunburn type anti-ship missiles.
2008- Venezuela purchases advanced Russian SU30 bombers, complete with Russian military facilities and troops to fly them. SU30s have no defensive capabilities, only long-range interdictive weapons.
2008- Totalitarian Russia destroys half million barrel a day oil pipeline in Georgia ‘protecting’ Russian citizens a hundred miles north of the pipeline. Oil line is only European link to Turkmenistan, whose 800 million barrels of oil have been purchased under cost by Russia and China.
Where are the conspiracy theorists when you need them?

Mickey:

Russia sends a love poem to Ukraine via the war in Georgia: don't run away from me or this could happen to you too.

The world is watching how the U.S. betrayed its ally Georgia as the Georgian troops retreat from the Russian Tanks. Now no countries will ever trust the U.S. after this betrayal.

The U.S. bend over when faced with threat from the commie KGB Putin. The U.S. weakness before the Russians is on display to the world. This is a total humiliation for the Americans.

It's like the old western gunslinger movie where Putin says to Bush: "Do you feel lucky" "Go ahead, make my day". And Bush blinks!

This proves to the world Bush is a bully to small kids(e.g. Iraq) but a coward to someone(e.g. Russia) of his own age.

TT:

(corrected post)

ANON
No, I don't work for any Russians, I am far away from that region. But and however, independence also means responsibility. It also means behaving properly. Georgia has started this and it must pay.

As for the 70+ year old idea of oil control, people that produce oil want to sell it just as much as people that use it want to buy it. And then the producers will spend their money. It is called the global economy.

SKEPTIKOS:
You are right, look in the direction of Israel that has more than 700 military industry personnel in Georgia right now, they have sold much of the new gear to Georgia, as Georgian defence spending is now 30 TIMES what it was two years ago....they are spending all of their oil transit money on the Baku-Ceyhand route on arms. Read some Israeli papers online and they are all openly worried about Israelis holed up in a Tiblisi hotel!

TT:

ANON
No, I don't work for any Russians, I am far away from that region. But and however, independence also means responsibility. It also means behaving properly. Georgia has started this and it must pay.

As for the 70+ year old idea of oil control, people that produce oil want to sell it just as much as people that use it want to buy it. And then the producers will spend their money. It is called the global economy.

SKEPTIKOS:
You are right, look in the direction of Israel that has more than 700 military industry personnel in Georgia right now, they have sold much of the new gear to Georgia, as Georgian defence spending is now 30 TIMES what it was 20 years ago....they are spending all of their oil transit money on the Baku-Ceyhand route on arms. Read some Israeli papers online and they are all openly worried about Israelis holed up in a Tiblisi hotel!

Anon:

TT,

Do you work for the Russian intelligence services? Working to peel off the Georgians so you can better control Europe's oil supply and that nice pipeline that runs through there?

Anon:

TT,

Do you work for the Russian intelligence services? Working to peel off the Georgians so you can better control Europe's oil supply and that nice pipeline that runs through there?

skeptikos:

There must be some bigger issues in this than meets the eye. Can a fledgling Georgia try to take on Russia. It must be knowing well that if it tries anything in South Ossetia Russia will not keep quiet. Still it did and got its nose bloodied. This foolish misadventure should be some political move by bigger players.

James In Milwaukee:

So for the sake of a tiny trash heap of a nation the world teeters on the brink of holocaust. No thanks! Let them stew in their own pot of ethnic hatred and berserk nationalism.

TT:

Given that Georgia has proven itself to be unable to act as an independent and a grown up country, the following action plan must be implemented:

1. Complete surrender of Georgia, followed by full disarming of it. Like Germany in 1945.

2. Removal of Sakashvili and regime change, with Sakashvili sent to The Hague for war crimes, right next to Karadizc.

3. Full administration of Georgia by Russia, like the Russian Sector in Berlin for 50 years, or alternatively fully annex Georgia, alternatively treat it like occupied territories (like The West Bank or Gaza) for an initial term of 50 years.

Some people simply don't deserve democracy and independence like an adult, cannot handle it if it even bit them on the nose.

MinnieB9:

What I really don't understand is the hysteria by Saakashvili to forcibly reunify S Ossetia.

First of all, there are many more pressing things his country needs. Not just arming them was counter productive if there was no immediate goal in mind, but the money spent on the arms was better spent on generic economic development. It's not like the US isn't spending money by the 100s of billions on arms already.

Second of all, what was the problem that required Bush and Cheney and James Baker to be so surreptitious and furtive.

If the US wants Georgia to be its strategic partner and set up bases, why not just do it forthrightly, just do it. Tell Congress, hold hearings and let Saakashvili do the same.

We want bases in the Caucuses, there ya go.

Do Cheney and Bush already have contracts with Central Asian nations for their pipeline, guhreat, show them to us, we will all applaud and maybe the price of oil will come down, Hurray.

Do they want bases in the Caucuses a couple hr away from the north of Iran, again, what's stopping you, why the furtiveness, just tell Congress and vote on it, tell Saakashvili and let him get a vote on it.

why invade a province and kill 1000s of people and displace 30 000 more.

Let's say Bush and Cheney DID see a strategic advantage in having the contact and basis under the umbrella of NATO.

If NATO countries are demurring, US is under no obligation not to make their own above board agreements that everyone knows about.

Go ahead, make your offers in the full light of day and let the American people and the people of Georgia take the decisions on the face value.

Of course, my opinion is, even when they say they are being upfront, Bush and Cheney will confabulate, that is taken into account.

But let's at least start with the openness plan.

Hey, Ahmedinijad and Vladimir, the Stars and Stripes could be waving at a neighborhood close to youhoohoo. Maybe Georgia needs like a new Walmart or a GM plant.

mark williams:

We need to send in American troops to fight Russian aggression. Georgia is a democratic state fighting another democratic state--Russia. We must preserve democracy around the world. Georgia is following our western value while Russia does not. We must destroy those who do not value western values.
But I'm not joining the Marines. I'm just keyboard warrior like the rest of you people and some reporters. hahahaaaa

MinnieB9:

Thanks for a great article. Also some heartening comments, so different from the bellicosity I have been hearing on TV.

I don't think Bush is retreating however, I think they are calculating when and how they can send troops to ***help*** Georgia.

Bush, Cheney and Jim Baker want the Caspian oil pipeline so much they can taste it. That's how it looks.

Also any distraction now looks good since they have been warned about a firm timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

From the map of Central Asia, it looks like Georgia is only a couple hr flight time from the north of Iraq and about ditto from Iran. It is also conveniently nearby the NATO fuelling center of Turkey.

I'm concerned we may soon be seeing the shiny faces of Katie, Brian, Charlie, Wolf and Forrest as they give us the call by call on our new War. Christiane Amanpour and Dana Priest could be answering their pagers right now.

It does not look good.

Malangi:

The Georgian President shall be tried for war crimes. He killed more than 2000 innocent human beings by starting this bloody war. Bush of USA is not to blame, he is convicted murdrer by world opinion. I wonder as to why would the rest of western leader support crimes against huminty.

Richard:

Mr. Lieven,

please send you analysis to your colleague, Mr. Kagan, currently posting for the same issue. He could learn to bring forward facts and details instead of stereotypes and pure propaganda.

SoMG:

Send in Jimmy Carter!

SamEllison:

Anatol Lieven is one of my favorites, WaPo would do well to make room on a page often for him.

100% Russian Spirit:

Nothing in the world costs of a baby's tear, not to say a life! Saakashvili is a murderer. He shall go to the hell! All the Georgia's administration are the criminals. They're responsible for those thousands of women, babies and elders killed sleeping at night. Bush and Rice should be considered as the murderer's patrons.

Durvasha:

Couple questions come to mind.
Did we give a green light for this georgian operation?
If we did, how dumb can we get? Did we expect russia to withdraw to thier borders and suck thier thumbs?

If US was not in the know, How dumb this guy(Shax) have to be. What kind of ally do we have?
Goes to war without letting us know!

I just pray it is not the first case.

Mickey:

Russia sends a love poem to Ukraine via the war in Georgia: don't run away from me or this could happen to you too.

The world is watching how U.S. betrayed its ally Georgia as the Georgian troops retreat from the Russian Tanks. Now no countries will ever trust the U.S.

The U.S. bend over when faced with threat from the commie KGB Putin. The U.S. weakness before the Russians is on display to the world. This is a total humiliation for the Americans.

It's like the old western gunslinger movie where Putin says to Bush: "Do you feel lucky" + "Go ahead, make my day". And Bush blinks!

This proves to the world Bush is a bully to small kids(e.g. Iraq) but a coward to someone(e.g. Russia) of his own age.


Hugo:

Excellent article. It seems to be well balanced and informed. My heart is with the georgians, but my head is not. I think they should have crafted a well thought out foreign policy. If they are interested in being part of the "West", they have to act accordingly. This should mean not only promoting Democracy in its own territory, but also avoiding military situations of questionable support. I think that they have gotten themselves involved in a bad mess. Being a neighbor to Russia must be quite a terrible thing.

Tochari:

Ukraine has now declared that it "reserves the right to deny re-entry of Russian Naval ships to their Crimean bases." Think about that for a few moments. Wouldn't that force Russia (read Putin-he IS Russia in this era) to invade dismember Ukraine too? It would seem to me to be unavoidable for Russia (Putin).

Follow up: would that turn the scenario into one mimicking Europe, September 1939? What would be the options for NATO (EU + US) then? What would they most likely do?

playa:

Don't bother Bush. he's hard at work watching a basketball game in Beijing to bother about this crisis.

Suckashvili:

Have You asked the georgia's anti-human crimes' proofs? For those who needs to hear/watch the georgians' crime kills click here: http://www.vesti.ru/videos?vid=143587&cid=9&doc_type=news&doc_id=199964&p=1 Repeat, they just killed about 2,000 civil humans already. Be objective while judging smb.

Don:

There are some real uninformed and clownish responses here. If the US and Europe make an invitation to Georgia to join NATO, I say the odds are 100% better that Russia doesn't pull this nonsense. Speaking of Russia - Moscow specifically - created this mess when they made S. Ossetia and Abkhazia part of Georgia. Then OSCE compounded the mess by letting the Russians pretend that they were leading peacekeeping forces in the two regions in the mid-1990s. What a farce, everyone knows how Russia is about as impartial as a WWF referee. They supplied arms and flew air support for separatists in both regions, as they do now.

If Kosovo is such a precedent for these regions, why isn't Moscow letting Chechnya do their own this instead of installing a puppet and waging war (genocide, some could probably argue?) there?

I don't excuse any adventures that the U.S. has made over the years, but the Russians consistently make the U.S. look smooth in comparison with their pathetic forays into countries they have no business being in (see Afghanistan for example) and their overhanded measures with respect to oil and gas.

Bethesda Native:

Good job Russia !

Kick Georgia's butt all day and all night !

Georgia made a huge mistake by siding with George Bush in the illegal invasion of Iraq and Georgia is also a big ally of Israel, the world's last remaining Apartheid State !

Georgia has made many suicidal mistakes since running away from the Soviet Union 20 yrs ago !

Anonymous:

I wonder who in hell encouraged the stupid president of Georgia to launch an attack to recover South Ossetia. If Russia had not responded the way it did, it would have been terribly humiliated and Abkhazia would have followed immediately. Then, North Ossetia would have started to act independently, out of mistrust of Russia's ability and willingness to defend Russian peoples. That would have destabilized the Russian government unpredictably. Who could have thought the Russian government would not understand this. And, as a previous commentator pointed out, the US behaves very aggressively toward those who can't defend themselves, but will never take on somebody their own size. The geopolitical and geostrategic consequences of this, are for now unpredictable, but certainly not good for the US

Andres:

This war has buried many hopes but created an intriguing possibility for better ties between the West and China. That's according to Steve Levine, a veteran foreign correspondent. He provides a refreshingly rational coverage of this ongoing war in Georgia. Levine covered previous wars in the Caucasus (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Chechnya, Nagorny Karabakh) and his view offers a rare insight: http://oilandglory.com/2008/08/georgia-russia-and-rethinking-china.html

Cold Warrior:

Perhaps the lessons of George Kennan are not so obsolete as we thought. The appropriate response to Russian expansionism should be containment on all fronts. The empire is still evil; it has just changed its name.

Joseph:

Putin has sent a loud and clear message to President Bush. It's time for NATO to re-think it's continued expansion right up to the border's of Russia. Georgia needs to realize that all offers of economic and military aid aside, American interests are primarily mercantile and self-serving, and they reflect a strong desire to surround Russia, via her former Soviet Republics, with American power and dominance. The goal, a de-fanged Russia, and one which will sell it's oil and gas at the right price. Putin realizes this. As for American interests being self-serving, we just need to look to China, where America has no problems being in bed with a country and a form of government far more autocratic and dictatorial then Russia's. The bottom line, the former Soviet Republics have all been sent a message. You have to make peace with Russia, like it or not, and forget the siren call of supposed wealth and riches from the West. When push comes to shove, they won't be there for you anyway.

Mickey:

Russia sends a love poem to Ukraine via the war in Georgia: don't run away from me or this could happen to you too.

The world is watching how U.S. betrayed its ally Georgia as the Georgian troops retreat from the Russian Tanks. Now no countries will ever trust the U.S.

The U.S. bend over when faced with threat from the commie KGB Putin. The U.S. weakness before the Russians is on display to the world. This is a total humiliation for the Americans.

It's like the old western gunslinger movie where Putin says to Bush: "Do you feel lucky" + "Go ahead, make my day". And Bush blinks!

This proves to the world Bush is a bully to small kids but a coward to someone of his own age.

Mickey:

News just in, the U.S. betrayed its ally Georgia and the Georgian troops retreat on the way. Now no countries will ever trust the U.S.

The U.S. bend over when faced with threat from the commie KGB Putin. This is a total humiliation for the Americans.

It's like the old western gunslinger movie where Putin says to Bush: "Do you feel lucky" + "Go ahead, make my day". And Bush blinks!

This proves to the world Bush is a bully to small kids but a coward to someone of his own age.

wanderer:

Yes, Freddie hiatt and Anie Applebaum, lying shills for Bush who helped him lie us into the disasterous Iraq war, would have done well to inform themselves of the facts in this article by the well-informed Mr. Lieven.

Unfortunately, they are both Bush-cheerleaders to the core, and so remain vociferously ignorant of the truth about the South Ossetian situation.

I am so glad I pay no money to this pathetic rag, the remains of a once-great newspaper. How's the stock price, WaPo?

candide:

Let Russia be Russia!

read your experts:


Too bad Hiatt didn't read this before his reflexive zionist blast at Russiain in his editorial yesterday.

The Washington Post, editorially and front page, is truly runnaway stupid.

George:

Saakashvili - mourder, liar & provocateur ...

gerald:

The way the Georgian administration are acting towards the Ossetians, cannot possibly convince anybody that they share 'our values' more than Russia does.

The Caucasus is a complicated puzzle. Letting the Ossetians "go", will not set the right precedent. A genuine autonomy may be a better choice. Unfortunately its implementation will take some time, given the, in a way understandably, nationalistic feelings of newly independent Georgians.

Don Williams:

If anyone is interested in the REAL story here, I suggest they google the search phrase: "Caspian Sea" and Oil and Cheney.

portia:

Thank you for a most informative article. Surely history shows that bluffing between great powers is very dangerous. We encouraged democracy movements in Ukraine and Georgia where it threatens Russia the most but will not and can not protect them if the Russians take a stand. Someone has been encouraging the Georgians to think they could get away with this and that the west would help them out. It's time to stop betting with other people's lives. It was our job to make sure the Georgian government knew exactly what our intentions were so they didn't miscalculate like this.

Ergo Sum:

Excellent and most informative article. The obvious lesson here is that the US should keep out of all these regional and tribal squabbles, and not trample in where even angels fear to tread. If we are not the only superpower any more, so be it. Let one of the other new superpowers take care of it for a change.

Homunculus:

In response to Vanitskys earlier post: You hit the nail right on the head bud. You couldn't be more on target, the Wests railroading of Kosovo's poor precedent should have us all worried for things to come. It would be childish to not see reciprocity in competing interests of a similar nature.

vanitsky:

It is a surprise that after idiotic editorial ralated to the issue WaPo is making a deeper look into the issue.

Still, we all should remember that establishment of the KOSOVO PRECEDENT - against which Russia had been warned US & EU for a long time - changed the rules of game completely.

If the principle of not changing after WW2 borders
is not applicable any longer, S.Ossetia and Abkhzia (declared independence from Geogia in 1992!!) will do refernce to the Kosovo precedent and demand independence.

And this is just the beginning. The first what comes onto mind is the Kurdish problem: a 60+ miilion nation torn between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Azerbajan. It's just matter of time when it explodes. And the timer is short, I guess.

None:

I'm no expert, but I'm not sure I agree with the conclusion that Georgia intentionally triggered the war with the aim of enlisting western aid. Several facts make such a strategy irrational and therefore unlikely:

1) With US forces so committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with no chance any other country would intervene militarily, Georgia cannot possibly have been expecting any foreign military assistance.
2) With Russian support essential on Iran, serious diplomatic pressure also would be very unlikely.
3) The timing was terrible for provoking international outcry in Georgia's defense. The conflict started on the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympics, no less, and has probably received substantially reduced coverage directly as a result.

The Georgians would have been aware of all of this beforehand, and so while I can offer no better explanation it seems to me that understanding the current conflict as a Georgian attempt to trigger a conflict to draw the West in on its side is fallacious.

Anonymous:

The president of Georgia the mad fascist! 00:06 AM Georgia has begun intensive bombardment of Tskhinvali. Shortly before 12:00 AM Moscow time from the Georgian villages Nikozi and Ergneti bombardment from large-caliber instruments of capital of South Ossetia Tskhinvali, and also South Ossetia villages has begun. Representatives of not recognized republic have declared that the Georgian armies have actually begun war and storm Tskhinvali. While Russian Tskhinvalis have entered was already destroyed by Georgians, and city dwellers sat in cellars under bombardment. Thus thousand refugees run from war to Russia, instead of to Georgia, to an ohm that Georgians instead of Russian have killed thousand Osset. And on the account of oil: Representatives of press-service BP, the company-operator of an oil pipeline of Bacu-tbilisi-ceyhan , have declared, that cannot confirm the message on the bombardment, made by the Georgian authorities. " We did not receive any information on bombardment ", - representatives of press-service BP have declared.

Anonymous:

That is the story. Georgians are pathetic and their President is emotionally disturbed. They are trying to involve the whole world to save their stupid and primitive pride. I feel sorry for people dying for the sake of the craziness of Sakashvili, who cannot live without excitement. Russians are to be blamed too, but Georgians are the provocateurs of this calamity.

eclectic elder:

Thank you for the background information. Now I understand better what is happening. Well done.

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send us your comments, questions and suggestions.