Various sources are reporting that the Russians have rolled out of South Ossetia and into Georgia proper, and are mounting a major attack on the town of Gori. Gori is about 15-20 km south of the South Ossetian border, and about 70-80 km from Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Russian forces are also massing along Georgia’s border with Abkhazia, preparing to open a second front there.
The Russians are also sending signals about regime change; Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Russia “no longer sees [Saakashvili] as a partner”. They’re also ostentatiously ignoring Georgia’s request for a cease-fire.
I don’t have a lot of analysis to add here, but let me throw out a couple of things. One, I keep reading people writing “oh, the Russians have been so clever here — see, they’re playing chess”. Jesus Christ, people. Can we PLEASE declare a moratorium on this totally stupid metaphor? The majority of Russians do not, in fact, play chess. And why don’t we ever hear about Chinese playing go, or Turks playing nardi?
Enough with the chess. This isn’t chess. It looks like Georgia got suckered into doing something stupid, and the Russians were ready for it, and are taking the opportunity to stomp Georgia good. But there’s nothing particularly chess-like about that.
Second, if Russia really is entering Georgia in force, it’s about to become a different sort of game altogether. Russia has no reason to do that unless it’s gunning for regime change. Attacking Gori is right at the bleeding edge of plausible self-defense; Gori is near the border, and has been the forward base for Georgian operations in South Ossetia. But going beyond Gori, landing forces on the Georgian coast, or attacking in force out of Abkhazia, would be something else again.
There are undoubtedly plenty of people in Moscow who’d like to try. Russia’s leaders view Saakashvili as obnoxious and dangerous: for American readers, it’s sort of like how conservative Republicans feel about Fidel Castro. You know how, for fifty years now, a certain minority of Americans have entertained fantasies about landing in Havana and slamming that sonofabitch up against the wall? Like that. Except the Russians have the power to actually do it.
Will they? It’s hard to believe. Their actions so far could be a prelude to invasion. But they’re also consistent with a more reasonable set of goals: driving the Georgians well back, damaging their ability to make war, and inflicting maximum humiliation on Saakashvili’s government. And if part of this has been about Putin demonstrating his primacy over all rivals, then a short victorious campaign — as opposed to a longer war for regime change — seems like the best outcome for him.
We’ll see soon enough.