South Ossetia: alea jacta est

That’s Latin for “throw the dice high”, and that’s what it looks like Georgian leader Saakashvili has done.

I’m no longer the Fistful’s Man In the Caucasus — I left in March, after the violence in Armenia. Doug Merrill is now the go-to guy: he’s in Tbilisi, very close to the action. But he’s asleep right now, and it looks like some of our readers are still awake, so FWIW here’s an impression from a distance. Half-informed, amateur war analysis follows.

Who started it? — Looks like Georgia. The sniping earlier came from both sides, but the Georgians have clearly launched a major ground offensive, and that doesn’t just happen by accident.

Why? Why? — What follows is a mishmash of guesses. Take it with a big grain of salt.

South Ossetia has always been vulnerable to a blitzkrieg attack. It’s small, it’s not very populous (~70,000 people), and it’s surrounded by Georgia on three sides. It’s very rugged and mountainous, yes, but it’s not suited to defense in depth. There’s only one town of any size (Tsikhinvali, the capital) and only one decent road connecting the province with Russia.

That last point bears emphasizing. There’s just one road, and it goes through a tunnel. There are a couple of crappy roads over the high passes, but they’re in dreadful condition; they can’t support heavy equipment, and are closed by snow from September to May. Strategically, South Ossetia dangles by that single thread.

So, there was always this temptation: a fast determined offensive could capture Tsikhinvali, blow up or block the tunnel, close the road, and then sit tight. If it worked, the Russians would then be in a very tricky spot: yes, they outnumber the Georgians 20 to 1, but they’d have to either drop in by air or attack over some very high, nasty mountains. This seems to be what the Georgians are trying to do: attack fast and hard, grab Tsikhinvali, and close the road.

So, is it working? — It’s too early to tell, but it’s not looking good. There’s not much solid information, but it appears that (1) the Georgians don’t have firm control of Tsikhinvali yet; (2) they don’t seem to be anywhere close to the tunnel; (3) the Russians have reacted with unexpected speed and energy, so that Russian troops are already on the ground in the province, and (4) the Russians have grabbed control of South Ossetia’s airspace. Things are still fluid, but it’s not looking good for the Georgians.

(Saakashvili’s actions this afternoon seem to reflect this. He’s visibly shaken, and he’s been yelling for help from the US and the EU. That’s not going to happen.)

Why did Saakashvili try this now? — Here’s my guess, based on my impression of Saakashvili’s character.

Saakashvili is an ardent nationalist who doesn’t view the disputes with Russia rationally. To him, they’re painful and continuing insults to the national soul.

More importantly, Saakashvili is a gambler. That’s because he lacks patience. He’s charming and clever, but he bores easily. He’s also facing internal political difficulties ; they weren’t likely to unseat him, but probably raised his frustration level. And when faced with frustration, his instinct is to look for a brilliant, dramatic stroke to cut through it.

So, Saakashvili was stupid? — That might be too strong. But it looks like he made a couple of bad assumptions.

It appears he thought the Russians wouldn’t fight, or wouldn’t fight well. He seems to have that they were either not really committed to South Ossetia, or that they’d be too screwed up and disorganized to respond quickly to a fast offensive. The first of these was probably a foolish assumption — the Russians have made it clear that they’re committed — but the second wasn’t. Keep in mind that the recent Russian military record in the Caucasus does not inspire pure fear. Yes, Putin crushed the Chechens, but only after the Russians had been humiliated in the first war and then had brought overwhelming force in the second.

But while the assumption wasn’t foolish, basing a major offensive on it probably was. Yes, the Russian military is sometimes disorganized and incompetent, but you can’t consistently count on it.

It also looks like Saakashvili, or someone, thought the Russians would be distracted. The Olympics, perhaps, but more “itt’s August, everyone is on vacation”. That sounds silly, but it’s not completely — it’s hard to overstate how much things shut down in these countries in August. Government offices empty out, courts and Parliament close, and even senior defense officials may vanish to very distant beaches and cabins for days at a time.

But, as it turned out, not: the Russian response may be a little chaotic, but it’s looking vigorous and fast. Someone was minding the store.

— I note in passing that this “let’s try something in August” trick has been done before… most notably by the Austro-Hungarian Ministry of War, in August 1914. Hm.

It should also be noted that Russian intelligence has put a fair amount of effort into penetrating Georgia. So it’s possible the campaign plans were compromised from fairly early on.

So what happens now? — Well, it’s guesses piled on guesses at this point, but if Georgia can’t get into a strong position quickly they’re going to be in a very difficult situation. Another day or two should tell.

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