A Short Victorious War

Kevin Drum does a pretty good job summing it up:

Russia… got what it wanted: control of the two disputed provinces, a military humiliation for Georgia, and a successfully executed shot across the bow that proves they can still play in the big leagues. It wasn’t cost free — Europe has been pretty consistent in its condemnation of the invasion, and all the former Soviet satellites are now even more united in their loathing of Russia than before — but it was close. From Russia’s point of view, it was a nice, surgical operation that pretty much accomplished everything it was supposed to.

I’d nitpick that not “all the former Soviet satellites” loathe Russia; Armenia is pro-Russian (and the Armenians have been absolutely delighted with this war and its outcome), while Belarus and most of the Central Asian republics have lined up behind Moscow. But yeah, the Poles and the Baltic States are having kittens.

That said, let me comment briefly on some other consequences here.

— If the war really has stopped, then it show a pretty high degree of thoughtfulness and self-control on the part of Russia’s current leadership. They pushed it right up to the point where there’d be major international repurcussions… and then they stopped.

— This was a serious humiliation for Georgia’s military. The Georgian army seems to have accomplished very little except to kill some civilians, and in a couple of cases apparently retreated without a fight.

— The Russians didn’t hit the BTC pipeline! Isn’t that interesting? All sorts of implications there.

— The internal Russian politics remain somewhat murky. Various commenters are saying that this shows Putin is firmly in charge, and that it’s a humiliation for Medvedev. I agree with the first point, but am less sure of the second. Medvedev seems to have taken over the peace negotiations; this suggests a deliberate division of labor and image, with Putin as the man of action and Medvedev as the diplomat and peacemaker. I’m no kind of Russia expert, though, so more informed comments are welcome.

— Saakashvili looks likely to survive just fine. Georgians have rallied around him, and getting rid of him now will be seen as surrender.

— That said, it’s still a big win for Russia. They’ve shown force, resolve, and a startling degree of preparation, efficiency, and self-discipline — not virtues most of us associate with “Russia”. So, Russia FTW.

That said, Russia’s long-term fundamentals are still not great; it remains a corrupt, authoritarian petro-state with a declining population and a per capita GDP lower than Portugal’s. Russia is much stronger than it was five or ten years ago, but there’s a clear limit to how far that goes.

— One thing that hasn’t been discussed much is the impact on other conflicts around the region. Azerbaijan — which shares borders with both Russia and Georgia — has been arming for a rematch with Armenia over the lost province of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeris have been using pipeline revenues to build up their military, and they’ve made it clear that the status quo (Armenia occupying the province, plus a large buffer zone clawed off around it) is unacceptable. This may make them a bit more thoughtful. It’s unlikely the Russians would intervene directly in a second war over Karabakh, but who knows? And seeing his next door neighbor throw the dice and get clobbered has to make President Aliyev thoughtful.

— Meanwhile, the North Caucasus remains a mess. It’s a bubbling stew of bickersome ethnic groups, currently ruled by pro-Moscow warlords, but poor, unstable, and riven by mutual hatreds. It’s relatively peaceful at the moment, but long-term this region has the potential to be a major strategic headache for Moscow. So Russia’s show of force may have a salutary effect here, at least in terms of deterring the various groups from doing anything stupid. It’s worth noting that the various North Caucasus leaders all rushed to pledge support and offer “volunteers” for the fighting.

— Finally, let’s not forget that the Russians are still occupying chunks of Georgia, including the key port of Poti. The temptation to stay — and humiliate Georgia further — may be strong. But if they continue to play this as smart as they have, they’ll be leaving soon.

22 thoughts on “A Short Victorious War

  1. Is Armenia pro-Russian due to a government that, for one reason or another, doesn’t accurately reflect the will of the people, or have Armenians historically been friendly towards Russia?

    It seems odd to me that two countries, so close together, who were both subjugated by Russia for so long, have such different attitudes to their former rulers.

  2. I’m partly tempted to classify the present-day neo-Kremlinology as a political pseudo-science.

    The dynamics of the Russian internal politics are a valid topic to be observed, of course, but the Western commentators sometimes seem to be reading too much from between the lines these days. The questions of “What did they _actually mean to say_ by this?” and “Who’s _really in charge_?” are starting to look just a little bit ridiculous, at least when they’re presented in a situation when the intentions and the message are already perfectly plain.

    … back to the topic, the comment on the “division of labour and image” is close to the target, in my opinion. As for the arguments of how the war somehow proves how “Putin is firmly in charge”… well, yeah, Putin is firmly in charge in _his role as a Prime Minister_, but didn’t we know that already?

    The fact is that Medvedev was not merely in charge of the peace negotiations. He was also the man who, from the day one, publically demanded Georgia to withdraw; he was the man who publically stated that it was his responsibility to answer to the Osset requests of intervention; and he was the man who gave the final order for the tanks to roll in.

    So, he wasn’t the “good cop” in the conflict, never mind whatever the Western press might like to claim. And I don’t really understand the argument that this was a “humiliation” for him, or that he was “lost in Putin’s shadow”.

    If anything, I’m seeing the opposite. The war has demonstrated that Putin is satisfied with what he has, and is willing to play the second fiddle in the winning team. Medvedev gets the credit both for his resolve as well as for his willingness to make peace.

    … once again, with the caveat that all this may be simply some good political PR. Still, I can’t really understand the tendency to place everything on Putin’s doorstep. But then again, as long as he’s around, he’s easy to single out.

    Also, wingnut comments and the habitual anti-Russian attitudes in certain neighbouring states aside, I think that it’s fairly obvious that the Russians definitely won the media war in this one. If the conflict in Chechnya was the Russian equivalent of Vietnam, in PR terms, this was their equivalent of the First Gulf War.


    J. J.

  3. Phil, you may try to explain that point of view to an average Georgian. Saakashvili’s policy was certainly disastrous, but as far as they’re concerned, it was also _justified_.

    He doesn’t have the same handicap as Gamsakhurdia, sadly enough. As already noted, deposing him would be admitting defeat. There have probably been needlessly many historical precedents cited during this conflict, but well, I already made the Nasser analogy yesterday.


    J. J.

  4. @Phil, nobody knows what the future holds — but, yeah, I’d bet money that Saakashvili will still be in power a year from now. Elections aren’t due for a while, he’s not the sort to resign, and who’s going to overthrow him? The army? Don’t think so.

    The closest analogy I can think of is Milosevic — and remember that even after losing his third war in a row, it took 16 months for Slobo to fall. And then it only happened because (1) the economy was still tanking, (2) people were getting really sick of gangster misrule, gross corruption, and being the pariahs of Europe, and (2) he foolishly tried to steal an election that he probably could have won anyway. Saakashvili’s rule has been (so far) both lighter and less corrupt than Slobo’s.

    @Paul, there’s a rule of thumb: in Europe, small countries that have historically shared a land boundary with Russia are likely to have a strong streak of Russophobia (Poland, Romania, Hungary, Georgia), while small countries that are one country away from Russia are more likely to be Russophile (Serbia, Bulgaria, Armenia).

    In the particular case of Armenia, Russia was long seen as their protector against the Turks. The Russian reconquest of Armenia in 1921 was a much faster and easier affair than their war in Georgia, for just this reason. More recently, a small but symbolic contingent of Russian troops have been in Armenia for over a decade now, garrisoning some posts along the Turkish border.

    Also, the Armenians believe that Russia supports them in Karabakh. I’m not sure that’s true, but they believe it.

    @Jussi, as noted, IANA student of Russia; thank you for your comments. My impression is the Putin/Medvedev thing is largely a question of public and elite perception within Russia, which in turn is largely a question of how things are presented by the Russian media. Since I have just enough Russian to order in a restaurant, I’m not really qualified to analyze this.

    The Gulf War analogy, OTOH, is a question of international perception. I’d say the jury is still out on that. Here in Germany, for instance, the emerging consensus seems to be “the Georgians were reckless and mad, thank goodness we kept them out of NATO, they’re not really European, they were asking for it — BUT the Russians are brutes who responded with too much force.” Obviously this may be influenced by uniquely German issues, from modern pacifism to historical memories. But I think the next few days will be significant, as the narrative of Russian motivations is still taking shape.

    Doug M.

  5. Medvedev has expressed support for the Azeri position on Karabagh. But, also wants to buy up all the natural gas in Azerbaijan (same link).

    I think the deal the Azeris will have to make is this: Pipe less oil/gas to the West and Russia will not intervene in Karabagh.

    However, Armenia is apparently very supportive of the Russian efforts in Georgia, and Russia still has bases there. Could it be 1920 all over again?

  6. The “responded with too much force”-argument was also presented in this country, equally, to describe both the Georgian and the Russian actions.

    Me, I’m a pragmatic. As one Australian fellow once noted: someone shows you a fist, you show ’em a knife; they show you a knife, you show ’em a pistol; they show you a pistol, you show ’em a fifty-cal pigshooter. Et cetera. This explains the Russian actions.

    The Georgian actions cannot be explained. There’s a corollary stating that if that chap with a knife is supported by another, bigger chap with a fifty-cal pigshooter, well, you’d better have a lot more to show than just a pistol.

    I’m still completely dumbfounded that a supposedly nationalist leader hadn’t learned this dictum before embarking on a confrontation against Russia. I mean, one would _think_ that it’s rather obvious, no?

    As for the media… well, yes, we’ll see that in the coming days. However, it’s definitely clear that Saakashvili screwed up his PR pretty badly. Whereas Dzohar Dudayev always radiated with charisma, Saakashvili gave an impression of a stuttering, trembling coward, sweating like a stuck pig. He didn’t seem good even in the one thing that he was _supposed_ to be good at; defying Russia.

    And his statements were complete, total SNAFUs; when he was asked whether the claims of 1’400 Ossets murdered by Georgian forces had any validity, he retorted, in a mumbling tone, “Tskhinvali doesn’t even have that many inhabitants”.

    (The claims of ethnic cleansing aside – which certainly do seem either exaggerated or even fabricated – Tskhinvali has 30’000 inhabitants.)

    I’m surprised that he managed to drum up as much international support as he did, which is, as noted, an indication of some pretty ironclad russophobia in certain countries.

    However, if the Russians are willing to allow an impartial UN or OSCE investigation of the supposed atrocities or violations on the battlezone, that’s another media victory for them. And at the moment, I can easily see them accepting such a proposal, if it’s made.

    Allowing EU peacekeepers to secure the South Ossetian borders would obviously be a _massive_ media victory – and wouldn’t really cost Russia anything, in practical terms – but sadly, that’s not likely to happen.


    J. J.

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  9. However, if the Russians are willing to allow an impartial UN or OSCE investigation of the supposed atrocities or violations on the battlezone, that’s another media victory for them. And at the moment, I can easily see them accepting such a proposal, if it’s made.”

    Actually I can’t see the Russians make that promise. At least not now. There are reports of Gori and Georgian villages in the area being looted&pillaged and burned. Whether it’s done by Russians and/or N-S.Ossesitans is unclear but don’t forget we are dealing with the same sort of Russian troops that have been busy in Chechnya in the past. They didn’t like independent observers, press or nonsupervised media running about then either.

  10. The reaction of the Russians may seem overblown but I think it is rational. They have been irritated by Georgia many times – beginning with Chechen supply lines over Georgian territory and ending with the Georgian preparations for an invasion in Abchazia. And each time they have either been unable to do anything against it or they have been internationally criticized for the little what they did. This time they do it differently: they put the maximum pressure on Georgia in the hope to finally end its military adventurism. It may cost them goodwill now, but if it saves them from incidents in the future this is a good investment.

  11. Maybe Saakashvili’s plan wasn’t such a terrible idea, they just failed to execute it: after all, if they managed to blow up the Roki tunnel, the Russians would have had absolutgely no way to bringing heavy artillery and armour across the mountains. The miscalculation could have been the fact that the “peacekeeping” troops the Russians had in South Osetia appear to have been really quite elite, considering the rather low death counts being given on the Russian side and the ferocity of the battle in Tskhinvali.

    If the tunnel had been blown up and Russia was unable to do anything, this would have immediately led to a lot of trouble in the Caucasus, since it would have been obvious to the various small nations (including the North Osetians) that the Russians are unable to do anything to protect them/stop them. So maybe we should see the disproportionate use of force here as an action to show that the Russians are well in control of their southern flanks.

  12. I think the Russians lost a bit more than goodwill today, namely something important called “credibility”. The Russian president yesterday stated actions would end because their goal had been accomplished. If they really kept their word that would have been decent situation from an international perspective. But current facts on the ground tell otherwise. I wonder who’s really directing those troops now.

    Until now the Russia’s were doing ok in the propaganda war but as of today they !@#$ed things up.

  13. It’s not like the Russians did nothing to provoke Georgia’s action! I think Saakashvili took a gamble that he could carry it off quickly enough that the Russians could not react, and he could present a fait accompli: we control S. Ossetia in name but they get autonomy, but we control it, not you. He underestimated Russia’s preparedness, which is not such a huge mistake.

    I don’t think Russia actually cares about European condemnation, as it happens. It’s not like we’re going to stop buying their fossil fuels.

  14. Doug,

    Just as a small aside, but I don’t know why you keep making the comparisons between Russia and Portugal (of all places). Portugal’s GDP per capita is quite significantly higher than Russia (around $22,000 vs $15,000), but I don’t see how this is a meaningful comparison.

    Portugal is an advanced, high-income economy; I don’t see how having a lower GDP per capita than Portugal is a sign of economic weakness. (Incidentally, Russia’s GDP per capita is lower than any EU member state save for Romania and Bulgaria).

    Also note that Russia’s GDP per capita is more than three times that of China and almost twice that of Brazil.

  15. Uh, there _are_ OSCE observers in South Ossetia already right now, you know, although they are still not allowed to enter Tskhinvali? Where do you think those reports are coming from in the first place?

    Also, Medvedev has already proposed a permanent OSCE mission to South Ossetia.

    I have no doubt that the reports from the havoc in Gori and elsewhere are broadly accurate. It’s sad, of course, but then again, it’s not much different from the general chaos that briefly reigned in Bagdad after the American conquest. These things are what one would expect to happen even in a conventional war; it’s still not on the same level as the events in Yugoslavia or Chechnya.

    The statements on “unknown armed men” and “unmarked military vehicles” would suggest that the people involved in the looting are mostly local militias, and probably not regular soldiers of the Russian forces.

    I’m fairly certain that the Russian soldiers have played it rough during the campaign, but I sort of doubt that they’d be grabbing toilet seats as souvenirs. That pattern fits more with local Ossets attempting to update their own dwellings with Georgian furniture and plumbing.


    J. J.

  16. Mihai,

    The comparison is Putin’s, not mine. When he was first running for President, back in 2000, he made much of the fact that Russia’s pcGDP was far under Portugal’s. (IMS he also pledged to fix that. Which is why he hasn’t talked about it for a while now.)

    Brazil doesn’t have Great Power pretentions. China does, but then it has ten times Russia’s population — and the Chinese are a lot more circumspect about their sphere of influence. (Though they certainly do have one.)

    Doug M.

  17. Mihai:

    Hmm. Going by Wikipedia’s lists of countries sorted by PPP-adjusted


    and nominal


    GDP per capita, Portugal clusters together with Estonia and Slovenia in the $20-22K range, a bit below South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Russia’s figures on both metrics are 50% below the level of the three EU countries. Russia’s GDP per capita on both metrics, in turn, is perhaps 20-25% than those of Argentina, Chile, Turkey, and Mexico, 50% higher than Brazil’s, and three times larger than China’s. How that translates into living standards insofar as income inequality gets into the picture, I don’t pretend to know, although if this list


    is at all accurate the post-Communist countries and Turkey are doing substantially better than the rest.

    But. If we’re doing lazy geopolitical-stargazing, we sould be looking not so much at per capita figures as aggregate figures. Luxembourg’s well-off but is it a world power?
    Looking at things in that respect


    Russia turns out to be wedged between Canada and Brazil at the higher end of the scale and India and South Korea at the lower end. China, Spain and the other G8 countries are above Russia, but Turkey and especially Mexico (along with Australia and the Netherlands).

    What does all this mean? Um. Mainly that Russia’s a large and relatively wealthy country, but that it isn’t all that large or all that wealthy in the wider scheme fo things. That’s all.


    “Brazil doesn’t have Great Power pretentions.”

    Not classical great power pretensions, but it seems to be definitely interestign in doing something. Brazil managing to get its variant of Portuguese accepted as the standardversion of that language, trade deals with Angola, something going on in South America … Russia’s counterpower?

  18. Doug:

    “When he was first running for President, back in 2000, he made much of the fact that Russia’s pcGDP was far under Portugal’s. (IMS he also pledged to fix that. Which is why he hasn’t talked about it for a while now.)”

    Complicating things still further, Russian pcGDP is two-thirds that of the Estonia-Portugal-Slovakia club in the $20-22K band but a quarter above pcGDP in Turkey, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico and one half higher than
    Brazil. Against this, Wikipedia suggests that income inequality in the lower-middle post-Communist EU group, Russia, and Turkey is substantially less than that in Latin America (surprise?).

    If we’re talking about aggregate national strength, then Russia is bracketed by Russia, Brazil, Mexico, India, South Korea, and Canada. (Medvedev better watch out about the Lomonosov ridge …) India and South Korea have their own interests, I know next to nothing about Mexican foreign policy, and at least from my perspective there’s something going on with Brazil, but well. Russia’s only one member of a club, I mean to say, not all that prominent.

  19. “I don’t think Russia actually cares about European condemnation, as it happens.”
    Yeah? Then why did the Russians go through the UN before invading….oh, wait.

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