On. My. Mind.
Obviously, I'm intensely concerned about the fighting in Georgia. It's war and I categorically don't like it, but it's my next-door-neighbour involved in major combat operations that have obvious imperial motives. That's uncomfortable. An op-ed piece in today's Aftenposten (a Norwegian paper) talked about how we can better understand now the rush the Baltic states had in entering the EU and NATO. If there is one thing this war is making clear, it is that Russia is a country that is not to be trusted as an international player. If we were paying attention in Chechnya, we already knew that, but this war if anything makes it clearer.
I haven't really been paying attention to Easter Europe/Western Asia for a good long while, so I have to admit this caught me unaware. Fortunately I happened to wind up at a dinner day before yesterday where one of the guests had just stepped off the plane from Tbilisi and the other had recently travelled in Abkhazia recently. Now I'm in the process of reading up on what's happening, and here are some of the things I'm reading:
Wikipedia already has a thorough article on what they are calling the 2008 South Ossetia War. Press "refresh" frequently. Depressing aside: Wikipedia has an icon specifically for articles on ongoing warfare.
A Fistful of Euros has some really interesting coverage, with one of their contributors actually in Tbilisi. The comments on their posts seem to be drawing a lot of really unpleasant English-speaking Russian nationalists, but the debates are still good.
This post in particular cleared up the tactical situation a lot:
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.
And this one is very unpleasant:
And here's another piece in The Guardian called "The War that Russia Wants".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.
Also see this Fistful of Euros piece on the "retro" feel of the war. I understand what they mean. This war feels more understandable than most wars these days, in some sense.In recent years, the Kremlin had escalated its interference in Georgia's territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - bombing Georgian territory twice last year, illegally extending Russian citizenship to residents there, and appointing Russian security officers to their self-declared governments. South Ossetia's government in particular is practically under Moscow's direct control, with little if any ability to act independently.
But this flare-up is a direct consequence of Russia's deliberate and recent efforts to engage its small neighbor in military conflict. In April, Russia's President Vladimir Putin signed a decree effectively beginning to treat Abkhazia and South Ossetia as parts of the Russian Federation. This land grab was a particularly galling move because Russia is in charge of both the peacekeeping operations in the conflict zones, and the negotiations over their political resolution. The mediator had now clearly become a direct party to the conflict.