This is an excellent breakdown of the Russian incursion into Georgia and the geopolitical positioning surrounding it:
The Russo-Georgian War and the Balance of Power
By George Friedman
The Russian invasion of Georgia has not changed the balance of powerin Eurasia. It simply announced that the balance of power had alreadyshifted. The United States has been absorbed in its wars in Iraq andAfghanistan, as well as potential conflict with Iran and adestabilizing situation in Pakistan. It has no strategic ground forcesin reserve and is in no position to intervene on the Russian periphery.This, as we have argued, has opened a window of opportunity for the Russians to reassert their influence in the former Soviet sphere.Moscow did not have to concern itself with the potential response ofthe United States or Europe; hence, the invasion did not shift thebalance of power. The balance of power had already shifted, and it wasup to the Russians when to make this public. They did that Aug. 8.
Let’s begin simply by reviewing the last few days.
On the night of Thursday, Aug. 7, forces of the Republic of Georgia drove across the border of South Ossetia,a secessionist region of Georgia that has functioned as an independententity since the fall of the Soviet Union. The forces drove on to thecapital, Tskhinvali, which is close to the border. Georgian forces gotbogged down while trying to take the city. In spite of heavy fighting,they never fully secured the city, nor the rest of South Ossetia.
On the morning of Aug. 8, Russian forces entered South Ossetia,using armored and motorized infantry forces along with air power. SouthOssetia was informally aligned with Russia, and Russia acted to preventthe region’s absorption by Georgia. Given the speed with which theRussians responded — within hours of the Georgian attack — the Russianswere expecting the Georgian attack and were themselves at theirjumping-off points. The counterattack was carefully planned andcompetently executed, and over the next 48 hours, the Russianssucceeded in defeating the main Georgian force and forcing a retreat.By Sunday, Aug. 10, the Russians had consolidated their position inSouth Ossetia.
On Monday, the Russians extended their offensive into Georgia proper,attacking on two axes. One was south from South Ossetia to the Georgiancity of Gori. The other drive was from Abkhazia, another secessionistregion of Georgia aligned with the Russians. This drive was designed tocut the road between the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and its ports. Bythis point, the Russians had bombed the military airfields at Marneuliand Vaziani and appeared to have disabled radars at the internationalairport in Tbilisi. These moves brought Russian forces to within 40 miles of the Georgian capital, while making outside reinforcement and resupply of Georgian forces extremely difficult should anyone wish to undertake it.
The Mystery Behind the Georgian Invasion
In this simple chronicle, there is something quite mysterious: Whydid the Georgians choose to invade South Ossetia on Thursday night?There had been a great deal of shelling by the South Ossetians ofGeorgian villages for the previous three nights, but while possiblymore intense than usual, artillery exchanges were routine. TheGeorgians might not have fought well, but they committed fairlysubstantial forces that must have taken at the very least several daysto deploy and supply. Georgia’s move was deliberate.
The United States is Georgia’s closest ally.It maintained about 130 military advisers in Georgia, along withcivilian advisers, contractors involved in all aspects of the Georgiangovernment and people doing business in Georgia. It is inconceivablethat the Americans were unaware of Georgia’s mobilization andintentions. It is also inconceivable that the Americans were unawarethat the Russians had deployed substantial forces on the South Ossetianfrontier. U.S. technical intelligence, from satellite imagery andsignals intelligence to unmanned aerial vehicles, could not miss thefact that thousands of Russian troops were moving to forward positions.The Russians clearly knew the Georgians were ready to move. How couldthe United States not be aware of the Russians? Indeed, given theposture of Russian troops, how could intelligence analysts have missedthe possibility that the Russians had laid a trap, hoping for aGeorgian invasion to justify its own counterattack?
It is very difficult to imagine that the Georgians launched theirattack against U.S. wishes. The Georgians rely on the United States,and they were in no position to defy it. This leaves two possibilities.The first is a massive breakdown in intelligence, in which the UnitedStates either was unaware of the existence of Russian forces, or knewof the Russian forces but — along with the Georgians — miscalculatedRussia’s intentions. The second is that the United States, along withother countries, has viewed Russia through the prism of the 1990s, whenthe Russian military was in shambles and the Russian government wasparalyzed. The United States has not seen Russia make a decisive military movebeyond its borders since the Afghan war of the 1970s-1980s. TheRussians had systematically avoided such moves for years. The UnitedStates had assumed that the Russians would not risk the consequences ofan invasion.
If this was the case, then it points to the central reality of this situation: The Russians had changed dramatically,along with the balance of power in the region. They welcomed theopportunity to drive home the new reality, which was that they couldinvade Georgia and the United States and Europe could not respond. Asfor risk, they did not view the invasion as risky. Militarily, therewas no counter. Economically, Russia is an energy exporter doing quitewell — indeed, the Europeans need Russian energy even more than theRussians need to sell it to them. Politically, as we shall see, theAmericans needed the Russians more than the Russians needed theAmericans. Moscow’s calculus was that this was the moment to strike.The Russians had been building up to it for months, as we havediscussed, and they struck.
The Western Encirclement of Russia
To understand Russian thinking, we need to look at two events. The first is the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.From the U.S. and European point of view, the Orange Revolutionrepresented a triumph of democracy and Western influence. From theRussian point of view, as Moscow made clear, the Orange Revolution was a CIA-funded intrusioninto the internal affairs of Ukraine, designed to draw Ukraine intoNATO and add to the encirclement of Russia. U.S. Presidents George H.W.Bush and Bill Clinton had promised the Russians that NATO would notexpand into the former Soviet Union empire.
That promise had already been broken in 1998 by NATO’s expansion toPoland, Hungary and the Czech Republic — and again in the 2004expansion, which absorbed not only the rest of the former Sovietsatellites in what is now Central Europe, but also the three Balticstates, which had been components of the Soviet Union.
The Russians had tolerated all that, but the discussion of includingUkraine in NATO represented a fundamental threat to Russia’s nationalsecurity. It would have rendered Russia indefensible and threatened todestabilize the Russian Federation itself. When the United States wentso far as to suggest that Georgia be included as well, bringing NATOdeeper into the Caucasus, the Russian conclusion — publicly stated —was that the United States in particular intended to encircle and breakRussia.
The second and lesser event was the decision by Europe and the United States to back Kosovo’s separation from Serbia.The Russians were friendly with Serbia, but the deeper issue for Russiawas this: The principle of Europe since World War II was that, toprevent conflict, national borders would not be changed. If thatprinciple were violated in Kosovo, other border shifts — includingdemands by various regions for independence from Russia — might follow.The Russians publicly and privately asked that Kosovo not be givenformal independence, but instead continue its informal autonomy, whichwas the same thing in practical terms. Russia’s requests were ignored.
From the Ukrainian experience, the Russians became convinced thatthe United States was engaged in a plan of strategic encirclement andstrangulation of Russia. From the Kosovo experience, they concludedthat the United States and Europe were not prepared to consider Russianwishes even in fairly minor affairs. That was the breaking point. IfRussian desires could not be accommodated even in a minor matter likethis, then clearly Russia and the West were in conflict. For theRussians, as we said, the question was how to respond. Having declinedto respond in Kosovo, the Russians decided to respond where they hadall the cards: in South Ossetia.
Moscow had two motives, the lesser of which was as a tit-for-tatover Kosovo. If Kosovo could be declared independent under Westernsponsorship, then South Ossetia and Abkhazia,the two breakaway regions of Georgia, could be declared independentunder Russian sponsorship. Any objections from the United States andEurope would simply confirm their hypocrisy. This was important forinternal Russian political reasons, but the second motive was far moreimportant.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin once said that the fall of theSoviet Union was a geopolitical disaster. This didn’t mean that hewanted to retain the Soviet state; rather, it meant that thedisintegration of the Soviet Union had created a situation in whichRussian national security was threatened by Western interests. As anexample, consider that during the Cold War, St. Petersburg was about1,200 miles away from a NATO country. Today it is about 60 miles awayfrom Estonia, a NATO member. The disintegration of the Soviet Union hadleft Russia surrounded by a group of countries hostile to Russianinterests in various degrees and heavily influenced by the UnitedStates, Europe and, in some cases, China.
Resurrecting the Russian Sphere
Putin did not want to re-establish the Soviet Union, but he did wantto re-establish the Russian sphere of influence in the former SovietUnion region. To accomplish that, he had to do two things. First, hehad to re-establish the credibility of the Russian armyas a fighting force, at least in the context of its region. Second, hehad to establish that Western guarantees, including NATO membership,meant nothing in the face of Russian power. He did not want to confrontNATO directly, but he did want to confront and defeat a power that wasclosely aligned with the United States, had U.S. support, aid andadvisers and was widely seen as being under American protection.Georgia was the perfect choice.
By invading Georgia as Russia did(competently if not brilliantly), Putin re-established the credibilityof the Russian army. But far more importantly, by doing this Putinrevealed an open secret: While the United States is tied down in theMiddle East, American guarantees have no value. This lesson is not forAmerican consumption. It is something that, from the Russian point ofview, the Ukrainians, the Balts and the Central Asians need to digest.Indeed, it is a lesson Putin wants to transmit to Poland and the CzechRepublic as well. The United States wants to place ballistic missile defense installationsin those countries, and the Russians want them to understand thatallowing this to happen increases their risk, not their security.
The Russians knew the United States would denounce their attack.This actually plays into Russian hands. The more vocal senior leadersare, the greater the contrast with their inaction, and the Russianswanted to drive home the idea that American guarantees are empty talk.
The Russians also know something else that is of vital importance:For the United States, the Middle East is far more important than theCaucasus, and Iranis particularly important. The United States wants the Russians toparticipate in sanctions against Iran. Even more importantly, they donot want the Russians to sell weapons to Iran, particularly the highlyeffective S-300 air defense system. Georgia is a marginal issue to theUnited States; Iran is a central issue. The Russians are in a positionto pose serious problems for the United States not only in Iran, butalso with weapons sales to other countries, like Syria.
Therefore, the United States has a problem — it either must reorientits strategy away from the Middle East and toward the Caucasus, or ithas to seriously limit its response to Georgia to avoid a Russiancounter in Iran. Even if the United States had an appetite for anotherwar in Georgia at this time, it would have to calculate the Russianresponse in Iran — and possibly in Afghanistan (even though Moscow’sinterests there are currently aligned with those of Washington).
In other words, the Russians have backed the Americans into acorner. The Europeans, who for the most part lack expeditionarymilitaries and are dependent upon Russian energy exports,have even fewer options. If nothing else happens, the Russians willhave demonstrated that they have resumed their role as a regionalpower. Russia is not a global power by any means, but a significantregional power with lots of nuclear weapons and an economy that isn’tall too shabby at the moment. It has also compelled every state on theRussian periphery to re-evaluate its position relative to Moscow. Asfor Georgia, the Russians appear ready to demand the resignation ofPresident Mikhail Saakashvili. Militarily, that is their option. Thatis all they wanted to demonstrate, and they have demonstrated it.
The war in Georgia, therefore, is Russia’s public return to greatpower status. This is not something that just happened — it has beenunfolding ever since Putin took power, and with growing intensity inthe past five years. Part of it has to do with the increase of Russianpower, but a great deal of it has to do with the fact that the MiddleEastern wars have left the United States off-balance and short onresources. As we have written, this conflict created a window ofopportunity. The Russian goal is to use that window to assert a newreality throughout the region while the Americans are tied downelsewhere and dependent on the Russians. The war was far from asurprise; it has been building for months. But the geopoliticalfoundations of the war have been building since 1992. Russia has beenan empire for centuries. The last 15 years or so were not the newreality, but simply an aberration that would be rectified. And now itis being rectified.
This is a far more significant event than I’d thought.