Saturday, August 9, 2008

Russia's Correlation of Forces in the Caucasus

Has Russia invaded an American ally? What's the appropriate response from Washington?

Much of the political debate online has only peripherally addressed these issues.

One fundamental element of the current outbreak of war in the Caucasus is
Moscow's growing assertion of sovereign national power. Russia, having grown stronger over the last couple years on the back of petro-ruble recycling, sees the current era of growing preeminence as a means of restoring the earlier eras of Sovet superpower status and great Russian nationalism.

There's some analysis focusing on
the Georgian offensive, suggesting that it was a huge strategic mistake.

An interesting take is
Neo-Neocon's where she admits no special expertise, but sees in Moscow's actions an effort to keep Georgia in its sphere of interest rather than straightforward allied assistance to the Ossetins:

... I’m more inclined towards the first point of view than the second. Perhaps they are not even mutually exclusive.

But as I was mulling over the situation, a quote from Winston Churchill came to mind. It seems as apropos today as it did when he first said it in an October 1939 radio broadcast:

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.
Perhaps Russia actions are difficult to discern or predict, but Svante Cornell offers some perspective:

For months, Moscow's successive provocations in Georgia have left observers suspecting that it was provoking a war in the Caucasus. It seems to have finally gotten what it wanted. The Kremlin's blatant aggression puts at stake not only the future of the most progressive state in the former Soviet Union, but the broader cause of European security.

In recent years, the Kremlin had escalated its interference in Georgia's territories of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia - bombing Georgian territory twice last year, illegally extending Russian citizenship to residents there, and appointing Russian security officers to their self-declared governments. South Ossetia's government in particular is practically under Moscow's direct control, with little if any ability to act independently.

But this flare-up is a direct consequence of Russia's deliberate and recent efforts to engage its small neighbor in military conflict. In April, Russia's President Vladimir Putin signed a decree effectively beginning to treat Abkhazia and South Ossetia as parts of the Russian Federation. This land grab was a particularly galling move because Russia is in charge of both the peacekeeping operations in the conflict zones, and the negotiations over their political resolution. The mediator had now clearly become a direct party to the conflict.

Moscow then sent paratroopers, heavy weapons and other troops into Abkhazia. Although these measures constituted military occupation of Georgian territory, Georgia failed to respond militarily. Instead, with European aspirations in mind, Georgian leaders listened to western calls for restraint, and put their faith in half-hearted western diplomatic initiatives.

Having failed to provoke Georgia to a war in Abkhazia, the Kremlin then tried in South Ossetia. Its proxies, the Ossetian separatist forces, escalated their attacks on Georgian posts and villages, making a response inevitable. Predictably, Moscow
claimed a right to intervene, pouring Russian tanks into the area and bombing Georgian territory - including the country's capital. But why would Russia seek a war in the Caucasus, and why does it matter?
Cornell points to NATO's growing influence in the East, which is now encroaching in the historic Russian sphere of domination, and particularly Georgia' bid to join the Western alliance, as the precipitating factor in the current crisis. I’m intrigued by the timing of the confrontation, which has parallels in 20th-century Russian (Soviet) history.

The Soviets
invaded Hungary in 1956, during the Suez,crisis, Czechoslovakia in 1968, as the U.S. was heavily engaged in Vietnam, and Afghanistan in 1979, after the Iranian Revolution and the seizure of American hostages by "students" in Tehran . Today's Russian leaders, of course, are not inattentive to the world correlation of forces. What better time to fight a war than when the world is focused on the “peace and goodwill” of the Beijing Olympics, and when American forces are deployed in two wars along the old Russian Empire's southern perimeter?

While "
internationalist" foreign policy commentators have hypothesized a neocon raison d'guerre in the current crisis, a more sober analysis may indeed see this period as a genuine presidential testing ground finding John McCain in his element and Barack Obama over his head.