Chess my ass

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.

37 thoughts on “Chess my ass

  1. It’s not a game either.

    Is this a violation of sovereignty or self defense?

    If it’s a violation of sovereignty, the war can be grouped with other Policy followed by countries that ignore laws that are intended to avoid war (e.g. Serbia/NATO, Iraq/Willing Coalition, etc.). Those countries can call their war humanitarian or whatever the hell else that want to use to rationalize it. It doesn’t change it.

    If this can be deemed defensive on behalf of Russia defending Russians, the EU should applaud Russia as it rolls over all of Georgia, just like it did when America rolled over Afghanistan. After it’s done, Russia, Belarus, Serbia, China and India can oversee the peace. Like it?

    This is a war. People are dying. It’s not a game Doug. While it appears that you call some wars good and some bad, you should still calling it what it is not. You should stop using metaphors too.

    It is not a game.

  2. 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. – opinion not a fact, provide sources otherwise
    They’re also ostentatiously ignoring Georgia’s request for a cease-fire. – Didn’t you notice lately that Sukashvili says one thing and does the other? Provocations are among his favorite tools of deception. Just today he announced that he is pulling troops out of SO. Well than who the F*** are the OS fighters still fighting in Tshinvalli then? Russians?
    The majority of Russians do not, in fact, play chess – opinion not a fact

    Verdict: Another home-grown strategist, no facts, no proof, just emotions and fantasies.

  3. Flypaper indeed: this is bringing out Russophobes, Anti-Americans, neoconsymps, Chomskyites, folks who think Israel is somehow at the bottom of it all, and the aging but still tenacious legion of people who just can’t let Kosovo go.

    I lack the patience for it, but somebody needs to write a post on “How the South Ossetia War Proves that My View of the World is _Right_!”

    Doug M.

  4. Hey Doug,

    You forgot to mention the peace freaks and people who hate the death and despair. You also may want to mention people that hate jackasses who name call and insult when chanllenged. Flys for the flypaper indeed. You’re all over it.

  5. Todd, please mind your manners or you’ll be kicked. Consider this a yellow card.

    More generally: there’s a war, and emotions run high. The fistful encourages vigorous debate. However, there are some basic rules: no trolling, personal attacks, repetitive posting, cut-and-pasting long articles, or other violations of basic netiquette. (Also, if you put more than one URL in a comment, the automated spam trap may send it to limbo.)

    Thanks, and pray carry on.

    Doug M.

  6. Gori connects east and west Georgia, Iberia with Colchis,

    – Kartvelia (Georgia Proper in the east) with all of its subject domains to the west, namely Guria, Ajaria, Mingrelia, Svanetia, and Abkhazia. The Russians are trying to briefly cut the two halves, just long enough to signal the Javakheti Armenians that its time to demand ‘autonomy’ from Tblisi. Watch Georgia spiral into chaos. Bingo, Armenia is strengthened and the West’s hold on its new pipeline is weakened.

    Bush has just accused Russia of trying to cause regime change in Georgia, but after a strategic blunder of this magnitude, Georgia’s leadership will be out anyway. Right now, The US is schizophrenic, with Dems and Republicans digging into pre-election oppositions, fearful of any mis-steps. Also, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran loom large. In this case, Russia has won – The US is an object at rest which (according to physics)- will remain at rest.

  7. TC, just a quick note on the Javakheti Armenians. It’s true they don’t love being part of Georgia. (In fact, Saakashvili’s policy of treating them badly was one of the first things that made me think he wasn’t all that bright.) But:

    1) there aren’t many of them;

    2) they have zero military potential — no guns, no military training;

    3) they’re on the wrong side of the country, a couple of hundred km away from where the Russians are now; and,

    4) Armenia itself is going to give less than zero support to any pretensions towards autonomy, never mind independence.

    Armenia has one frozen conflict already; they can’t afford another. Their borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, and they’re linked to Iran by just a single bad two-lane road that closes every winter. 95% of their trade goes in and out through Georgia. If the Georgians decided to cut that link, Armenia would be in a world of hurt.

    So, probably not.

    Cutting Georgia in two: could be. Of course, this would require them to stay on Georgian soil for a while.

    Doug M.

  8. OK.

    My apology for getting personal. If you and yours want call people with different opinions, and all the others you’ve listed above, as flys for the “flypaper” , I will try harder to ignore such personal attacks, as it has no substance.

    I suppose, I’ll call this a Russian Defensive Action (protecting Russian Citizens) allowed under the UN Charter and cheer the massive destruction, waste and death it brings. Like NATO targetting, everything is a viable, legal target. Yea!

    All the while, I’ll pray for a quick capitulation of Georgia, after they bomb downtown Tiblisi. Afterall, Russians need to be protected from Georgian ethnic cleansing and Stallin was a Georgian.

    Sarcasm aside, war is a horrible action that need not occur; not in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Georgia, not even in cases where the EU would benefit. Perhaps Georgia is Sui Generis and exempt from the previous? Perhaps Bildt, Solano, and Atisaari can argue its Sui Generis case.

    Where will it end?

    I am not trolling. A response not necessary.

    Thank You,


  9. Actually Doug,
    there are far more Armenians in Georgia than their are Ossetians and Abkhaz combined. Also, Gori is far closer to Samtskhe-Javakh than it is to Russia. (Georgia is VERY small) . Even the distorted Georgian census puts the Armenians at 54% of the population of the province, and really, its more like 80 or 90. Russia only needs brief chaos in Georgia and full revolt by the Abkhaz, Ossetians, and Georgian-Armenians to permanently weaken Georgia. It can even demand freedom of transit between Ossetia and Javakh in Georgia’s surrender.

  10. If it doesnt pursue this course of action, then Russia will waste its time trying to take Gori, a town which occupies the key east/west transit corridor linking colchis and iberia.

  11. Saakashvili’s policy of treating them badly was one of the first things that made me think he wasn’t all that bright

    Hell to do with “bright.” Saakashvili’s a nationalist of the unreformed, nineteenth-century variety, who just doesn’t get all the modern European neo-nationalist notions about cultural and territorial autonomy for minorities.

    Well, maybe he did get it this March, when he offered that package to Abkhazia, but that was way too late in the day.

  12. Um, Georgia is about 70,000 square kilometers — about the size of Ireland, Scotland, or West Virginia. Small, but not that small.

    The number of Armenians is disputed, but is probably in the neighborhood of 300,000. (The Georgians claim about 240,000; the Armenians say it’s almost double that.) They’re geographically divided, though, with the biggest chunk in Javkhaz province but at least 100,000 living in and around Tbilisi. Also, they’re very mixed with the Georgians, and there’s been a lot of intermarriage and a fair amount of assimilation. Relations are not always comfortable, but there’s nothing like the mutual hatred that we see between Georgians and Ossetians or Abkhaz (or Armenians and Azeris).

    Also, the Armenians have never demanded independence or union with Armenia. They’ve made some very modest requests for limited autonomy, which have gone nowhere. (And which have gotten zero support from Armenia itself.)

    So, they don’t want independence, and Armenia would frantically oppose it.

    Not going to happen.

    Doug M.

  13. Jonathan, nice to see you around again!

    You’re right — though I’d say he’s /also/ not that bright. Tactically clever, but not a serious thinker.

    Making concessions to the Armenian minority would have been easy, safe, and would have gained him a noticeable increment of moral high ground. The fact that he didn’t do it — that, indeed, he chose to tighten the screws on them instead — made me step back and rethink my earlier enthusiasm for him.

    — What really turned me off on Saakashvili, though, was when he revived the cult of Gamsakhurdia. Gamsakhurdia was complete, toe-sucking idiot who led his country into disaster; the current messes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are almost entirely a result of his actions. With the possible exception of Milosevic, he did more damage to his country than any other post-Communist leader. So, when Saakashvili started holding him up as a glorious hero of the Georgian nation, I was nonplussed. (And now it looks like S. is walking in G.’s footsteps. Oh joy. Poor Georgia!)

    Doug M.

  14. Doug M is right on this – there is no possibility that Armenia would support an independence movement for Javakh. It would be suicidal. Armenia hasnt even pressured Georgia for various mistreatment of its Armenian minority.

  15. You know, there’s a book that tries to analyze Maoist strategy in terms of go (weiqi). And of course Obama’s poker playing is now part of the conventional wisdom. (As is Nixon’s, and Truman’s.) But really, are there no ice hockey metaphors available?

    Next phone call — since they seem to turn into afoe columns — I’ll bring up Google Maps as we talk. shoot, and all this happens right after my Georgian cookbook arrives, too.

  16. Look, I saw an article about how Georgians and Ossetians managed to live together quite peacably and comfortably, even inter-marrying.

    That’s why this article, and the excerpt pasted in below, really struck me. Russia is a bully – there was no need for it to resort to any military force – none. And South Ossetia is full of former KGB agents fomenting conflict for their own personal wealth.

    Because there is no way the regime in South Ossetia can be in any sense called “separatist.” Who there is a separatist? The head of the local KGB, Anatoly Baranov, used to head the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the Russian Republic of Mordovia. The head of the South Ossetian Interior Ministry, Mikhail Mindzayev, served in the Interior Ministry of Russia’s North Ossetia. The South Ossetian “defense minister,” Vasily Lunev, used to be military commissar in Perm Oblast, and the secretary of South Ossetia’s Security Council, Anatoly Barankevich, is a former deputy military commissar of Stavropol Krai. So who exactly is a separatist in this government? South Ossetian “prime minister” Yury Morozov?

    However, alas, I also cannot say this regime is “pro-Russian.” On the contrary, all the recent actions of Eduard Kokoity, the leader of the breakaway South Ossetian government, have run counter to the interests of Russia in the Caucasus — beginning with his embarrassing Russia in the eyes of the international community and ending with his ratcheting up the tensions in the very region where Russia might begin to come undone. South Ossetia is not a territory, not a country, not a regime. It is a joint venture of siloviki generals and Ossetian bandits for making money in a conflict with Georgia. For me, the most surprising thing in this entire story is the complete lack of any strategic goals on the part of the South Ossetians.

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  18. Firstly, regarding the fact that South Ossetia’s “government” is comprised of ex-Soviet apparatchniks, that is not surprising. Pretty much every government in the region is comprised of ex-Soviet apparatchniks. Regarding the lack of strategic goals on the part of the South Ossetians, making money is a strategic goal, isn’t it? If they can get formal independence declared and Russian “peacekeepers” installed on a more permanent basis, then they can settle down to the life of mountain brigands and smugglers without having to be always on the lookout for Georgians coming in and interfering with their hashish profits.

    I honestly have no idea why the South Ossetians chose now to start lobbing artillery shells at Georgian villages, or why Georgia decided it was okay to send half their army into South Ossetia after them rather than just lob some artillery shells back their direction. Both appear to have been relying on the fact that they had a major power backing them. South Ossetia appears to have been correct in their assessment of Russian backing for their venture. Unfortunately for Georgia, the major power they had backing them was the United States, which, I’m sure, sent a *very* strongly worded letter of protest to the Kremlin, yessiree, in response to Russia coming in and kicking their rear. I’m sure that Russia is just stunned, stunned I say, by the most formal and obtuse language of this strongly worded letter of protest that they most assuredly received as the U.S. response to their Georgian venture. Why, a few more strongly-worded letters, and they might even decide to… to… start a fire in one of the Kremlin’s fireplaces with them and roast marshmallows! Yeah!

  19. Interesting discussion.

    When we cut through to the heart of it, it still remains as a fact that for some reason, Georgia thought they could go to all out war on Ossetia and partly level the capital on the day V. Putin stood beneath the russian flag in Bejing, and get away with it. I see Brezinski is comparing this to Stalin vs. Finland in an interview at Huffington Post. Rather, this reminds me of the finnish continuation war, where the Finns decided to trust their alliance with Germany and invade Russia themselves. Did not work out so good.

    The fact that Georgia shelled a town full of russian citizens remains. Int. Red Cross has confirmed that both the hospital and university was bombarded and ruined. I wonder how the georgians thought prior to this decision. Must have been vodka involved.

  20. Pingback: South Ossetia roundup #3 « Amused Cynicism

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  22. Uh, the Continuation War of 1941 is also a really, really bad metaphor, for a variety of reasons. For starters, there were absolutely no separatist issues or minority questions in play.

    Second, the presentation how “the Finns decided to trust their alliance with Germany and invade Russia themselves”… well, no. The Finnish government in 1941 was still smart enough to play it safe and wait for the Third Reich and the other Axis coalition partners to invade the USSR _first_, before joining the party.

    Saakashvili didn’t follow this policy… but then again, he did not have the same luxury, given that there was not exactly any hope that the NATO was going to start a ground offensive against Russia.

    Assuming that there has to be a parallel from the history of Finland (… I don’t know why, but this seems to be suddenly in vogue…), the Aunus expedition of 1919 might be the closest analogy. Exception: during that campaign, the minority question was working in reverse.

    I’ve noticed Brzezinski’s comment how “morally and strategically, Georgia is the Finland of our day”. The comment is inaccurate, offensive and repulsive. I’m not the kind of a person who’s prone to glorifying the Winter War with some mythical aura, but frankly… once again, whatever else may be said of Finland in 1939, the country did not provoke the Soviet invasion by the repeated persecution of its minorities and an idiotic military adventure.

    Bottom line: Finland was a victim in 1939, whereas Georgia today isn’t. It’s painfully obvious that Saakashvili bears the ultimate responsibility. But, to paraphrase Churchill, if there was a dispute between Russia and the Hell, one would expect Brzezinski and his cronies to cheer for the Satan.

    I’m extending to Brzezinski the same “get stuffed”-comment that I already gave to Saakashvili. From what I’ve been able to gather, the Finnish press is reacting to these comments much in the same way that I am.

    Finally: if the moral bankruptcy of the so-called “colour revolutions” wasn’t already obvious before, this should pretty much prove it. I reacted to the said political changes with cynicism already when they happened, although I definitely did not want to be proved correct this resoundingly.


    J. J.

  23. Pingback: South Ossetia: Still simmering | Nosemonkey’s EUtopia

  24. J.J. Fair enough point. My motive was to criticise Brezinski, not Russia in this instance. But one dimension I think is totally missing from both sides is the issue of criminal activity and competing black/grey/white capital flow. Georgias move was in no political sense rational, so I am starting to wonder if this was a mafya conflict just as much as a “political” conflict.

  25. Something about the timing of all this hasn’t been explained. If Georgia was choosing the time, then they should have chosen a date later in the year, when Russia’s overland supply opportunities would have been iffy. Something happened to make Saakashvili think that if he didn’t do it now, he might not have the opportunity to do it in a couple months.

  26. Here is a report about the Russian military inside of Georgia, bombing and shelling, among other targets, the Tbilisi airport. Protecting Russian citizens?

    Also, Russia has deployed its Black Sea Fleet from the Ukrainian port of Sevastapol – and Ukraine has announced that it would not let them return.

    Russia is, and has always been, a crazy bully, and it must be stopped. When it comes to government, Russia cannot be trusted.

    The most categorical statement to date has come from Ukraine, a strong Georgian ally. On August 10, Ukraine warned that Russia’s actions could draw it into the fray. Ukraine may bar Russian navy ships deployed from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastapol from reentering the port, an August 10 statement on the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s web site reads.

    Georgia claims that Russian ships from Sevastapol have landed some 4,000 troops at Ochamchira, a coastal town in Abkhazia, in a bid to open a second front in the conflict.

    The government also claims that Russian ships are preventing other vessels bearing grain supplies from docking at Georgian ports. Lomaia estimates that Georgia has a 30-day supply in reserve.

    “In order to prevent the circumstances in which Ukraine could be drawn into a military conflict … Ukraine reserves the right to bar ships which may take part in these actions from returning to the Ukrainian territory until the conflict is solved,” the statement affirmed. Ukraine, like Georgia, seeks entrance into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a move which Russia fiercely opposes.

  27. That the Russians were able to move what looks like whole divisions into the fight in mere days makes it appear as though they were either moving the troops there prior to the outbreak of fighting. I’ve heard of 600+ AFVs moved into Ossetia so far and that doesn’t count whatever is boiling out of Abkhazia.

    There may be two reasons that the Georgians did what they did. 1. They may have found out the Russians were moving that many troops into South Ossetia and wanted to preempt because once the troops moved in, there would be no way to recover S Ossetia. 2. The Russians just ‘improved’ the railroads and roadways into Abkhazia. IIRC, they were about to do the same thing into Ossetia. Again, if the Russians did a major overhaul of the logistical pathways into and out of Ossetia, Georgia would never recover that territory. In either case, this was an act of desperation, IMO.

    Unfortunately, Saakashvili didn’t read the tea leaves right whatosoever, didn’t plan for this well, and didn’t execute this terribly well either. The single most important objective was NOT the capital of Ossetia, but holding (or blowing) that tunnel to Russia. That they didn’t find a pretext for bringing home some of their best troops in Iraq first is a bit dismaying.

    Either way, Saakashvili just ahd an epic fail. If the Russians press home like they may, baibai Georgia.

  28. Oh, an interesting point was made in the Ares blog, Aviation Week’s blog. The main thrust of the article is that Russotech air defenses work well on RussoTech Air Forces, but the quote, which I am not so sure I buy, but is interesting was…

    “The Russians have gone to great lengths to try and implicate the Ukraine in the Russian Air Force losses, even going as far as to suggest that an SA-5 sold to the Georgians by the Ukraine was responsible for the Backfire loss,” a second U.S. analyst says. “That’s clearly not the case, but shows the Russian attempt to bring the Ukraine into the periphery of this event by implication…

    If true, that’s a lot of pressure that’s going to be brought to bare on Ukraine, if not more than mere pressure.

  29. Hey Doug,
    looks like the georgian prez agrees today with the comment I made yesterday: “Russia has effectively cut the country in half”. I will be interested seeing how this story develops.

  30. Russia normally has several hundred thousand troops and a couple hundred jet aircraft in the area, because, uhm, remember Chechnya? As in, 20 miles from Vladikavkaz, where Russia keeps major armor and jet forces ready in case Chechnyan fighting breaks out again? Vladikavkaz, as in, 30 miles from South Ossetia?

    No conspiracy needed as to why Russia had forces — and their best forces, armed with T-90 tanks — in the area. This area has been a tinderbox for years. One thing is clear, however, that they had an operational plan for going into South Ossetia and executed it. But then, the United States has an operational plan for invading Canada, so that means nothing. Militaries make operational plans all the time and file them away in case they’re ever needed, but the fact that the U.S. has a plan for invading Canada does not mean that the U.S. actually is expecting to invade Canada. It apparently took 11 hours between the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia and the Russians getting underway from Vladikavkaz (it takes about an hour for armor forces to get from Vladikavkaz to South Ossetia and everybody seems to agree that Russian forces got there 12 hours after fighting started). That is hardly “Russian forces ready and waiting to enter South Ossetia” territory. That is exactly what you would expect if the Russians were taken unawares and had to organize a response from a base an hour away from South Ossetia.

  31. Have you looked at the terms of the unconditional ceasefire?

    A Georgian National Security Council official said the document signed by Saakashvili called for an unconditional cease-fire, a non-use of force agreement, a withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory, including the South Ossetia region, and provisions for international peacekeeping and mediation.

    I don’t think the Russians are being all that unreasonable in rejecting an unconditional ceasefire that has conditions which amount to them giving up.

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  33. > The single most important objective was NOT the capital of Ossetia, but holding (or blowing) that tunnel to Russia.

    Actually, it seems that objective was to pound heavy artillery over Tskhinvali and leave tunnel intentionally open so Ossetians can flee to Russia. Plain ethic cleansing.

    Off course, West will never accept that their ‘democratic’ president of Georgia was planing ethnic cleansing.

  34. Plain ethic cleansing

    Well, there are tens of thousands of Ossetians living within Georgia proper, and Saakashvili (who is certainly no democrat) has never engaged in anti-Ossetian propaganda as such.

  35. Well, there are tens of thousands of Ossetians living within Georgia proper, and Saakashvili (who is certainly no democrat) has never engaged in anti-Ossetian propaganda as such.

    However, he did authorize heavy rocket bombardment of South Ossetia and conveniently left tunnel open, so Ossetian can flee to Russia.

    Even during Croatian ethic cleansing of Serbs, they left Serbs in major Croatian cities (mostly) at peace. Point of ethic cleansing is to reduce minority to manageable level (from 12% to 2-3% in case of Serbs in Croatia).

  36. But really, are there no ice hockey metaphors available?

    Putin shoots, he scores!

    Or, to put it in sitcom terms, Saakashvili thought he was going on a three-hour tour of the Oahu coast, but wound up shipwrecked on a desert island.

  37. Kosovo has around 2 million people 90% Albanian.
    N.Mirtovica (Region) has 60 000 people 90% Serbian (Self Governed and Autonom).
    Georgia has around 4 million people 90% Georgian.
    S.Ossetia (Region) has 70000 people 90% Ossetian (Self Governed and Autonom).
    If Kosovo will invade N.Mitrovica will face the Mighty Serbian Army.
    Kosovars are not Making this mistake because they “know very well their self and the enemy”.
    Georgian didn’t know “their self and the enemy” and were succumbed.

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