At Large

Showdown in Georgia

Moscow draws the line on NATO expansion and Russian territorial losses.

By 8.11.08

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There are many explanations for the Russian invasion of South Ossetia, but the truth is quite simple. Russia seeks to destabilize Georgia in a long-range plan to return that nation to control by Moscow.

The historically pro-Russian South Ossetians had made a point in 1991 of declaring their independence from Georgia and with Russian aid fought a brief civil war with Georgia that ended with the Ossetians running their own internal affairs. It was a relatively happy compromise until 2004 when the new president, the pro-American, English-speaking Mikheil Saakashvili, insisted on the full return of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Sporadic fighting has existed between the Georgian army and Russian-backed militia forces since then, but there was no major thrust by the Georgians. The Russians bided their time until the regional politics and the U.S. strategic pendulum had swung away from a possible full scale American military commitment.

For a while insiders in Moscow's think tank world spoke openly about the Kremlin's willingness to drop their objection to Georgia's joining NATO if they would accede to South Ossetia and Abkhazia rejoining Russia. It was a theory challenged by the history of Vladimir Putin's negotiating stance that never has given an inch in the battle against the extension of NATO influence.

The details of the exchange of blows that originated the recent bloodshed depends on who is spinning the tale. The incontrovertible fact is that when called on by the South Ossetia militia, the Russians were ready with hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles. Here was an offensive force in place, ready for H-hour.

The artillery exchange was devastating, but targeting on both sides was focused on populated areas rather than discriminated military objectives. As a result civilian casualties have been extraordinarily high in relation to military losses. Russian air superiority has also accounted for heavy destruction in the Georgian city of Gori.

Basically it's been Chechnya all over again, and that is exactly the type of indiscriminate warfare at which the Russian Army is so adept. From the Russian military standpoint their job is not so much a matter of defeating an opposing army as it is inflicting maximum destruction on all who oppose them, civilian and military. This combination of psychological and physical warfare is an essential element in the Russian Army's basic doctrine in dealing with recalcitrant areas of the former Soviet Union.

The ultimate question is whether the Russians will be satisfied with the return of South Ossetia and all of Abkhazia in northwest Georgia to Russian sovereignty. One thing is clear: the Putin/Medvedev government not only wants the message delivered that they will not accept any further consideration of Georgia's joining NATO, Russian forces are ready and able to take all of Georgia if necessary.

Both the politics and military advantage is on Moscow's side. America's European allies are not about to support a military effort to intervene on Georgia's side against Russia -- nor does the U.S. currently have the capability. From a strictly political standpoint Moscow has the Kosovo/Serbia sovereignty issue as precedent and is making that point with China's support.

Washington has wanted to be the "white knight" in the Georgia/Russia contest of wills. Georgia represented an independent democratic outgrowth of the breakup of the USSR. It was also an enticing foothold in the southern Caucasus. As Russia has grown as a petro-power, Moscow has counterattacked diplomatically and politically with effect.

While the Pentagon assigned scores of training cadre to build up Georgia's armed forces to serve in Iraq, Washington also was providing assistance to Georgia's military overall. From Moscow's standpoint this was proof positive of American complicity in Georgia's defiant insistence that South Ossetia was rightfully theirs.

Putin had decided long before he ceded the presidency of Russia to Medvedev that it was essential for Russia to take a military stand on the increasing NATO encroachment on Russia's borders. The Georgia/South Ossetia/Abkhazia issue provided that line in the sand.

This conflict in the southern Caucasus has been a conflagration waiting to happen. Make no mistake. Moscow will have its army take it all the way to Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, if necessary.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.