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. Continue reading