Writing in the Moscow Times defense expert (and Yezhedevny Zhurnal deputy editor) Alexander Golts explains how Russia’s government is obsessed with the past:
The thinking in the Kremlin matches the realpolitik of the 19th century. Moscow’s leaders view the relationships between states as an endless conflict in which a few weaker “pawns” can unite to stand up to a stronger opponent and in turn place the enemy’s “king” in a difficult position. According to the rules of realpolitik, tiny Georgia with its separatist regions provided a perfect way for Moscow to carry out a series of manipulations aimed at the United States and the West.
Kremlin strategists did not even hide their desire to keep the self-proclaimed republics in a condition of managed chaos. The existence of separatist enclaves turned out to be a reliable guarantee that Georgia would not be granted NATO membership. That is what motivated Moscow to distribute Russian passports to the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When the West ignored Russia’s wishes by recognizing Kosovo’s independence, the unrecognized territories in the Caucasus seemed like a convenient tool for exacting revenge. Recall how, back in April, then-President Vladimir Putin gave orders to state agencies to grant official recognition to documents issued by the authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as if they were, in fact, independent states.
Yet Russian fans of realpolitik did not learn one of the theory’s most important rules: that when interstate crises reach a boiling point, they must be resolved through war. Moscow based its calculations on the conviction that its overwhelming military superiority coupled with the West’s lack of desire to get involved in another conflict would dissuade Tbilisi from attempting a military solution.
And here we see their mistake. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili risked everything by cutting through the net that Russian strategists had painstakingly woven to keep Georgia hemmed in. A simple review of the chronology of events indicates that even before he called for a unilateral cease-fire, Saakashvili had begun preparations for a massive attack against Tskhinvali. After all, it takes more than a few hours to plan the tactical deployment of tank and artillery divisions. Some might call this a cunning ploy and others a permissible military ruse. I will say this: Whatever the Georgian army has done is no different from the purported war crimes for which former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is now standing trial in The Hague. Serbian artillery stationed on the hills surrounding Sarajevo systematically destroyed the separatist capital. This is exactly what the Georgian army has done by taking positions overlooking Tskhinvali.
By overturning the chessboard, Saakashvili has put Moscow’s political grand masters in the position of zugzwang: Any of the moves open to Moscow will inevitably lead to its own defeat. The Kremlin’s hand is limited to issuing a political and diplomatic condemnation of Tbilisi’s actions — which means abandoning tens of thousands of Russian citizens in South Ossetia to their fate. For Moscow to protect Tskhinvali, it would have to send in its troops, and this would clearly cast Russia in the role of aggressor in the eyes of the international community. Russia would obviously become one more party to the conflict and would lose its right to act as a mediator in the dispute.
It is no coincidence that Moscow was still vacillating 12 hours after the Georgian operation had begun — and this despite the fact that a plan for a military response apparently already existed. It happens that large-scale military maneuvers, which the North Caucasus military district had just finished, had been scripted for the possibility of a conflict in the adjacent territory. On Friday, not a single person could be found in Russia willing to take responsibility for articulating Moscow’s position — a clear demonstration of the effectiveness of the dual power vertical. If there had been a need to employ military force, it was when the Georgian army launched its operations and not after a significant delay.
By the way, even with the outbreak of the worst crisis in three years, it took the members of Russia’s Security Council until noon to finally gather and begin their deliberations.
Russian forces began moving only by the second half of the day. From that point on, the Russian military began fighting the only way it knows how — by carrying out airstrikes against Georgia’s main bases and taking its time to dig in around the outskirts of Tskhinvali to wait for special forces troops to drive out Georgian artillery. Meanwhile, battalions of tactical groups selected from the country’s paratrooper divisions were formed to be sent into the conflict zone. How many times in the past have we heard talk of plans to form mountain brigades and battle-ready divisions to be deployed in the North Caucasus military district? Where are they now?
Meanwhile, it is Moscow and not Tbilisi that is most interested in bringing the hostilities to an end as quickly as possible. If Moscow cannot “force peace” within two or three days and withdraw its troops, the consequences will be ugly. Russia has already been labeled as an aggressor. If the war drags on and if Russian troops occupy Georgian villages, the world will say that mighty Russia unleashed a war against tiny Georgia. This is why Moscow’s participation in a new war in the Caucasus already signifies a political defeat for Russia.