The Caucasus War: It Is About More than “a Kosovo for a Kosovo” Now

The Caucasus War: It Is About More than “a Kosovo for a Kosovo” Now

Created 2008-08-11 08:16

America’s stake in the Caucasus war just went up.

In the past 24 hours, the Russians launched offensive operations beyond the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, marking a dramatic expansion in their war aims — well beyond the putative casus bellum of protecting Russian citizens. (It should be recalled that these “citizens” are Abkhaz and Ossetian locals who were issued Russian passports without, for the most part, ever setting foot in Russia.)

The town of Gori, in Georgia proper, is apparently the first to face a determined Russian assault. Georgian Zugdidi, just south of the second front erupting from Abkhazia, is also apparently occupied, though reportedly ceded by fleeing Georgians. It’s Gori, though, where the real fight is: and a look at the terrain around Stalin’s hometown tells why. This map shows Gori at the southern end of the plain to which the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali is the northern entrance. (Recall that this war began with a Georgian assault on Tskhinvali; they’ve been tossed clear down against the mountains in two days.) Gori sits on a pass leading into a long valley that slopes toward the southeast. About 50 miles at the other end of that valley, against that long blue lake in the lower right-hand corner of the map, is the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

In light of the recent, and somewhat frantic, Georgian offers of truce, there aren’t many reasons to take Gori if the Russians are merely interested in the direct protection of their clients. Though it wouldn’t be entirely out of character for the Russian army to simply bludgeon a city because it’s there, the logic of events lends credence to what America’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, charged today: that the Russians seek the overthrow of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The synopsis of the exchange, at the UN Security Council’s emergency meeting on Georgia, between Khalilzad and Russia’s UN Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, makes for chilling reading:

Mr. KHALIZAD (United States) …. went on to say that Mr. Churkin had referred to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s phone conversations with United States State Secretary Condoleezza Rice this morning, a conversation that raised serious questions about Russia’s objectives in the conflict. Mr. Lavrov had said that President Saakashvili, the democratically elected President of Georgia, “must go”, which was completely unacceptable and “crossed the line”. Was Russia’s objective regime change in Georgia, the overthrow of the democratically elected Government of that country?
Mr. CHURKIN (Russian Federation) …. said “regime change” was an American expression that Russia did not use. As was known from history, different leaders came to power either democratically or semi-democratically, becoming an obstacle to their people’s emergence from difficult situations. The Russian Federation was encouraged by Mr. Khalilzad’s public reference to that, which meant he was ready to bring it into the public realm.
Mr. KHALILZAD (United States) asked whether the goal of the Russian Federation was to change the leadership of Georgia.
Mr. ALASANIA (Georgia) said that, as he had heard Mr. Churkin, the question asked and the answer received had confirmed that what Russia was seeking was to change the democratically elected Georgian Government.
Mr. CHURKIN (Russian Federation) suggested that he had given a complete response and perhaps the United States representative had not been listening when he had given his response, perhaps he had not had his earpiece on.

Dealing with Churkin is rarely pleasant, but the facts in Georgia now — and especially the assault on Gori — render this episode something more than one of his usual tantrums.
Here’s where America’s stake goes up. As I noted when this war kicked off in earnest, the Georgian state blundered into this with eyes open, and Saakashvili is not the sort of man to whom we ought to harness our own policy. Were the Russians content to merely fulfill their putative war aims of 48 hours ago, and strictly occupy Abkhaz and Ossetian territory — in other words, were Moscow content to deliver a Kosovo for a Kosovo — this would be painful but acceptable, and not worth a showdown between America and Russia. A Russian overthrow of the Georgian government, coupled with what must be some sort of occupation, is altogether different. It would mark the explicit debut of Russia as a post-Cold War revisionist state in fact, and not just in rhetoric; it would be an explicit repudiation of the post-World War Two order in Europe, as the first inter-state aggression of its sort since 1945; and it would be an explicit warning to those seeking America’s friendship and the aegis of NATO.
Defending the standards of Europe’s long peace, preserving the strategic outcomes of the Cold War, and upholding the credibility of the institutional guarantor of that peace and the winner of that war: these are things worth acting for — and yes, worth fighting for.
None of this is to argue that the United States must now fight Russia for Georgia. On a pragmatic level, there is no American manpower to spare, and the risk of such a confrontation spreading is too great. The Vice President has told Saakashvili that “Russian aggression must not go unanswered,” and one hopes he has not leapt direct to the idea of armed force. (There is, though, much the West may do to help the Georgians help themselves short of that, from imagery sharing to signals intelligence to resupply.) But we must understand and swiftly come to grips with the realities of what this war costs us, and the institutions — NATO in particular — that protect us.
Already we see that several of our allies, and aspirants to that status, are tremendously alarmed at Russia’s war on Georgia. They understand what it signifies, because they remember all too well suffering aggression from the same source. As that memory drove them to seek refuge in alliance with us within NATO, it befits us to justify their confidence as an ally should. We noted yesterday the extraordinary joint communique from the Presidents of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia that condemned Russia’s “imperialist and revisionist policy in the East of Europe.” Poignantly, the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, is now allowing the Georgian government — whose online portals are blocked by Russian action — to use his own official website to disseminate news and photographs on the war. Most remarkably, Ukraine, which hosts the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, is threatening to bar Russian access to the port. Ukraine was one of the two states denied a NATO Membership Action Plan at the NATO summit last April, specifically because of fears of Russia’s reaction. The other was Georgia.
America’s stake in the Caucasus war just went up. It may be too late to save Georgia — though we ought, within limits, to help Georgia save itself — but it is not too late to contain the damage to America and its allies that Georgia’s tragedy inflicts. As the Russian tanks roll toward Tbilisi, we should think hard about how far we’re willing to go to do it. 

McCain: When I looked At Putin’s Eyes I Saw 3 Letters: K G B – Fixed Links

McCain Says Russia Faces Severe Fallout Over Georgia

Understanding the Caucasus

Understanding the Caucasus

Rick Moran

I am not an expert on the Caucasus (although I play one on this site!)

Seriously, the issues involved in this conflict are sometimes hard to discern. We can be reasonably well informed of some of the history of the region as well as being aware of the stakes involved.

But there are obviously nuances that are at play which if revealed, can give us a better understanding of what is happening. What is Putin’s end game? How bad would it be if Saakashvili were removed by the Russians? What does this humiliation for the Georgian army mean to American interests in the region.

Here a couple of people you should be reading to develop a good basic knowledge of the issues as well as a clear explanation of the military strategy and goals.

Richard Fernandez (Wretchard) of the Belmont Club has several crackling good pieces up at his site. He believes the Russians are far from finished


The most important development is that the Georgians have been driven from Tskhinvali, though it is not clear whether they have given up all positions on the surrounding high ground. Tskhinvali is the “cork in the bottle” leading from the Caucasus passes to the long plain that runs west to east across Georgia. Sky News now says the Georgians are falling back on Gori, which is the key to keeping Georgia intact. If Gori falls, Georgia will be cut in half with Tbilisi to the east and the Black Sea ports to the West. On the map at least, the battle for Gori will be the battle for Georgia.

Whether or not the Russians move on Gori depends on Moscow and international power politics. A map (click on the thumbnail for a big image) below the “Read More” is provided for the reader’s convenience. In my opinion, while it may take a while for the Russians to bring up enough force through their tenuous road link back across the Caucasus, they will eventually be able to marshal enough force to take the Georgian positions. The clock is ticking. Reuters reports the Georgians saying they will fight for positions around Gori.

The BBC is now reporting that Georgia is seeking a ceasefire with Russia. No response from Russia has yet been recorded. “Georgia has ordered its forces to cease fire, and offered to start talks with Russia over an end to hostilities in South Ossetia, Georgian officials say. Earlier Georgia said its troops had pulled out of the breakaway region and that Russian forces were in control of its capital, Tskhinvali.”

Another good site for information ( and to view the conflict from Russia’s perspective) is Russia Blog:

1. War in Georgia: Russia’s aggression against an independent country or Georgian genocide against Ossetian people overlooked by U.S. media?
2. What would have United States done if a bordering country (let’s say Mexico) slaughtered 1,400 U.S. citizens and 10 U.S. marines overnight, leaving dozens of thousands civilian U.S. citizens without food and water?
3. If ethnic cleansings on Russia’s borders shall not be Russia’s business, and shall not result in Russian military response against the aggressor, how can one explain NATO invasion of Serbia, a country that does not share a common border with the U.S.?

Both of those sites are fascinating in that they take the same information and, through a nuanced look at what is happening, offer two basically opposite analyses of what is going on.

But to get both sides of the issue, you can do no better than visit both those sites daily.

A Plea for Help from the Georgian President

A Plea for Help from the Georgian President

Rick Moran

The President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, is witnessing the detailed destruction of his little 26,000 man army while also having to stand by while twice that many Russians invade his country from two directions.

This former US resident and pro-western leader who sent 2,000 troops to help out in Iraq (now home thanks to a US military airlift over the weekend) has penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal asking for help in his confrontation with Russia:


What is at stake in this war?
Most obviously, the future of my country is at stake. The people of Georgia have spoken with a loud and clear voice: They see their future in Europe. Georgia is an ancient European nation, tied to Europe by culture, civilization and values. In January, three in four Georgians voted in a referendum to support membership in NATO. These aims are not negotiable; now, we are paying the price for our democratic ambitions.
Second, Russia’s future is at stake. Can a Russia that wages aggressive war on its neighbors be a partner for Europe? It is clear that Russia’s current leadership is bent on restoring a neocolonial form of control over the entire space once governed by Moscow.
If Georgia falls, this will also mean the fall of the West in the entire former Soviet Union and beyond. Leaders in neighboring states — whether in Ukraine, in other Caucasian states or in Central Asia — will have to consider whether the price of freedom and independence is indeed too high.

Saakashvili lists the series of actions and counter actions that led to the current crisis. While I am sure he overstates some of his country’s moves, there is little doubt that Putin’s desire to annex the break away provinces (since April, the Russians have been giving away Russian passports and identity cards to citizens of South Ossetia and Abkhazia) while using their allies in the separaitist movements to carry out attacks on Georgian civilian and military targets, is the proximate cause of this conflict. Anyone who thinks Georgia is stupid enough to want war with the Russians is crazy.

But this emotional appeal will not do anything to stop the Russian military from gaining any objectives it seeks to attain. It will be interesting to see what the situation will be when the dust settles and the fighting stops. That may be the time when Saakashvili’s appeal can be answered positively.

‘7 Worrisome signs for Obama’

‘7 Worrisome signs for Obama’

Rick Moran
Politico’s Glen Thrush has written an excellent piece on Obama’s “Summer Stall” in the polls and why these 7 warning signs might mean that McCain – despite all the obstacles – might yet pull it out in the end.

1. Race. Although Obama is doing better among whites than Kerry, the race factor may work against him in some states.

2. Virginia is still an uphill climb for Obama. And if he loses Ohio and Florida – a distinct possibility – taking Virginia and some other western states would become vital.

3. Michigan is in play for McCain. Not unsurprising given the unpopularity of Democrats in the state. And if McCain picks home state favorite son Mitt Romney as his running mate?

4. Bad times may be good for Obama but what if the economy really goes south? People may want the experienced hand rather than the rookie.

5. Third party candidate Bob Barr is not going to have the impact of a Ross Perot.

6. History is working against Obama. No Democrat north of the Mason-Dixon line has won since Kennedy.

7. The American people may want divided government. “Fairly or not, folks think he’s pretty liberal and nobody wants a pair of Pelosis running things.”

I should say not.

Obama’s Neo-Isolationism

Obama’s Neo-Isolationism

By Douglas Stone

It’s one of the ironies of modern “progressivism” that it looks to the past for so many of its policies: from the state intervention of the Roosevelt through Johnson years in economic policy, to a form of neo-isolationism in foreign policy and a trade protectionism that smacks of the Smoot-Hawley 1930s. 


Both are discredited, but they form a powerful appeal to today’s Democratic Party, and a form of neo-isolationism seems likely to emerge — even if well-disguised — should an Obama Administration be elected in November.  Not a full-blooded isolationism that at least has the advantage of clarity and consistency but something worse: a halfway house without enough commitment to win through but with enough involvement to get us into trouble.


Obama understands that to win in the post-9/11 environment he must at least appear strong.  So with the exception of trade, he carefully hides isolationist tendencies and tries to make all the right noises, his real thinking only apparent in small and unconscious phenomena; not the sculpted speeches or press releases crafted with an eye to public consumption during the campaign but the offhand and the inadvertent.


The foreign policy id that emerges from behind a scrim of sometimes tough campaign rhetoric is all-too consistent with the values of today’s Democrats:  More than just backing down from a foreign challenge, an Obama Administration may back away entirely — in the belief now current on the left that our mere involvement overseas is provocative; that the hostility the U.S. faces in the world is often entirely understandable, and therefore we should simply stay home.


Obama’s ideal would be to walk softly without carrying a big stick.  Like most Democrats, he is most comfortable with a “soft power” that offers cover in the form of a nod to an inevitable international presence, but without the hard, expensive — and unpopular — policies required to ensure our national security. 


There’s the usual emphasis on education, disease eradication and disaster relief, and treacly nonsense from the candidate about “reaching out to all those living disconnected lives of despair in the world’s forgotten corners.”  And always the desire for talk, talk and more talk.


On his signature issue of Iraq, he not only opposed intervention in 2003 but advocated unconditional withdrawal by early 2008, opposed funding our troops, and has ruled out a long-term presence in that crucial and volatile country such as we have had in Germany or South Korea.  


As a campaign necessity, he now pays lip service to the importance of making policy with reference to “facts on the ground”  and has offered assurances that if elected he will consult with military commanders before making decisions.  Yet he continues to insist that he will adhere to his 16 month timetable for withdrawal — presumably even if the facts on the ground suggest disastrous consequences. 


He will only talk the talk, not walk the walk: This “citizen of the world,” as he called himself in Berlin, simply echoes George McGovern’s “Come home, America,” and damn the consequences.


Ironically, even his emphasis on international organizations and agreements means disengagement.  As always, if everyone is responsible, no one is responsible; and the UN and the other international talk shops Obama favors become convenient black holes for any action more strenuous than a Turtle Bay cocktail party.


Inferences may be drawn from what he hasn’t done:  As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Europe, he hasn’t called a single policy hearing; important speeches on foreign policy have been few and far between; and until it became a political issue, he hadn’t made any plans to visit Iraq in over two years. 


Other clues as to his tendencies appear on his website.  Foreign policy is submerged in a sea of domestic issues; China rates less mention than Darfur or the Congo, while Russia isn’t mentioned at all; there is a notable absence of ringing endorsements of allies who depend on U.S. protection unless they are advantageous to his campaign; and, there is scarcely a mention of NATO, South Korea or other important allies and alliances around the world.


Obama may have given away the game by endorsing the classic false dichotomy of isolationism.  More than once he has told crowds that the money we are spending in Iraq would be better invested at home.  Of course there are always trade-offs.  But one does not preclude the other; cannot preclude the other: If we don’t protect our national security interests overseas there may not be a homeland in which to invest.


Free trade is where Obama’s isolationism becomes explicit.  It’s one of the few principles on which most economists from right to left agree.  But in an effort to appeal to activists and unions who dislike globalization and transnational corporations, Obama outbid Hillary in his skepticism about trade liberalization.  He’s not about to go back to the high tariffs of the Smoot-Hawley era, but as the Wall Street Journal put it, “On the record so far, Mr. Obama is the most protectionist U.S. Presidential candidate in decades.”


He has even gone so far as to suggest that we should renegotiate NAFTA, though he seemed to back down somewhat when Canadians expressed disquiet.  Still, that’s an extraordinary stance in this day and age and is consistent with his stated opposition to free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Central American States (CAFTA). 


Jason Furman, a top Obama economic adviser, has said that the candidate is a “free trader” who is “firmly committed to the multilateral trading system,” but he has also said that our pact with Canada and Mexico has “cost a significant number of jobs.”  Obama claims that he is primarily concerned with environmental and labor issues, but tellingly, he has also repeatedly insisted on “fairness” in trade — a term so fuzzy that it may mask simple protectionism.   And it probably will, with the support of Congressional Democrats who have been agitating to put a halt to more than half a century of increasing world-wide economic interdependence.


This record suggests a Democratic nominee for President who simply doesn’t have his heart and soul in a robust foreign or free trade policy.  The Obama doctrine, if it is lucid enough to be called that, holds that the United States has neither wisdom, right nor economic logic on its side to engage internationally in the ways that have proven necessary for our material well-being, national security and the peace of the world.


Whatever it’s called, it is something perilously close to the kind of isolationism that was discredited over 70 years ago.  Only now, in a more fast-paced world, we may not have enough time to change course before evils are upon us.

Douglas Stone is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy

Cold War II?

Cold War II?

By Stephen Brown | 8/11/2008

With its invasion of Georgia, Russia has announced to the world that its superpower status is back. The Kremlin is once more flexing its military muscles — the same way it did between 1945 and 1991, and the results are turning out to be just as bloody. There are already hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded and refugees.

The tiny region of South Ossetia, located in the Caucuses mountains of southern Russia, is at the center of these tensions. It is a complicated conflict within conflicts. Georgia, which broke away from the Soviet Union after its collapse in 1991, tried to reclaim ownership of South Ossetia, which had separated from its territory about the same time. In another brutal war that ended in 1993, rebellious South Ossetia, which has about 70,000 people (about a fifth are ethnic Georgians) and is about one and a half times the size of the tiny principality of Luxembourg, had successfully defended itself against Georgia’s first attempt to reincorporate it.  


And this time things appear no different. After experiencing initial success in capturing South Ossetia’s capital, leaving sections burning and in ruins, Georgia is now in headlong retreat, facing a ruthless Russian invasion and asking for a ceasefire. But Russia appears deaf to the ceasefire appeal. On Sunday, its tanks were reportedly following the retreating Georgians into their country and closing in on Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. Russian planes were also bombing targets in Georgia, while units from Russia’s Black Seas Fleet took position off of Abkhazia.


The conflict has the potential to spread like a wildfire. Abkhazia, another area that seceded from, and fought against, Georgia in the early 1990s, has now offered to help South Ossetia by opening a second front. It has already started operations against Georgian forces.


So why is this happening? Tensions had been festering between South Ossetia and Georgia for some time. Skirmishes had been going on but had escalated recently. This escalation, in turn, caused America to send 1,000 troops to Georgia in July to conduct joint exercises with Georgian forces.


One of the triggers for the conflict exploding now, however, occurred outside the Caucuses when western countries recognized Kosovo, formerly part of Serbia. This diplomatic manoeuvre upset the Kremlin, which has refused to recognize the new entity. It has also not forgotten that a weak Russia had to watch helplessly in 1999 as an American-led NATO bombed its historical Balkan ally into submission.


Now in retaliation, Russia sees the opportunity to inflict the same fate on America’s Caucasian ally. It reasons that if Serbia is divisible, then so is Georgia. Like the Albanians in Kosovo, the Abkhazians and South Ossetians should have the right to secede if they do not want to remain part of Georgia. And they don’t. As proof, many people in these two rebellious areas, as many as 90 per cent according to one report, have taken Russian citizenship.


Georgia’s desire for NATO membership was also a factor in this weekend’s Russian response. Putin has spoken very strongly against Georgian entry into the western alliance, seeing it as a threatening attempt to encircle Russia as well as an western intrusion into its traditional sphere of influence. This is also how the Kremlin regards the American military bases in Central Asia and NATO’s eastern expansion to its borders.


By attacking Georgia, Russia may have crushed its neighbor’s NATO hopes. The ruthless Russian invasion showed Europe’s more reluctant members they may eventually wind up in a bloody Caucasian war if they accept Georgia into their organization.


In reality, Russia wants the United States out of the Caucuses completely and probably regards its Georgia invasion as the first step toward this goal. America has built a pipeline from oil and gas-rich Kazakhstan through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey that breaks Russia’s stranglehold on supplying energy to Europe, lessening Europe’s dependence on Moscow. And it plans to build another.


It is difficult to judge western-oriented Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili’s reasons for entering into this fierce, terrible and possibly suicidal military adventure. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had previously visited Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and spoke against Russia’s support of the breakaway areas, which Saakashvili perhaps interpreted as a green light to start the war, using the Olympics as a cover.


But according to one source, Georgia last year had only a 22,000 strong army, parts of it American trained, and 200 hundred tanks. The Abkhazian forces alone have about half those numbers, backed by Russia’s tens of thousands. Saakashvili badly miscalculated if he thought he could quickly recover the disputed lost territory and restore Georgia’s territorial integrity.


Most likely Saakashvili, who studied in the United States, is counting on American intervention, since he has already asked for American help. But it is questionable whether an America already deeply engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan is willing to confront Russia militarily. A senior state department official indirectly indicated this, telling the New York Times: “There is no possibility of drawing NATO or the international community into this.”


But there is another reason besides current political ones that prompted the Kremlin’s military action. By invading Georgia, Russia is also following its age-old historical pattern. When Moscow is weak, as it was after 1917 and in 1991, the states on its periphery break away. But when the center is strong, as it is again becoming now, it sets out to reincorporate those very same peripheral states. “Georgia is only the start,” said Saakashvili in an interview with a German newspaper six weeks ago. “Tomorrow the Baltic states, then Poland.”


While America has been fighting the war against Islamic terror, Russia has bided its time, solidifying its power at home and grabbing as much energy resources as possible. Once again, Russia has chosen to show its totalitarian and expansionist strength for all the world to see. America, meanwhile, with hands full in the terror war, appears only able to urge restraint — while one of its key allies potentially faces its own ruin and loss of freedom.

Stephen Brown is a contributing editor at He has a graduate degree in Russian and Eastern European history. Email him at