Latynina on the Russian Bully

Yulia Latynina, writing in the Moscow Times:

Late Thursday night, after destroying as much of Tskhinvali as it could with truck-mounted missiles, the Georgian military took control of the city. When giving the command to start the war, it would seem that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili assumed that Russia would never bother to interfere.

This was his major strategic blunder. Moreover, it was a moral miscalculation because any regime that bombs its own citizens — whether in Tskhinvali or Grozny — rarely wins the approval of the international community, regardless of whether or not it was provoked into doing so by an adversary.

As it turns out, the attack was a total military disgrace for the breakaway republic. South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity and his regime exist on Russia’s payroll to maintain a permanent state of conflict with Georgia, but it is clear now that they never bothered to prepare the country for war.

And the money we’re talking about here is not pocket change either. South Ossetia spent $570 million to build a gas pipeline that bypasses Georgia to supply an area that has only 7,000 people. According to some accounts, the unrecognized republic has a budget of $800 million to battle Georgian fighters. Add to this the fact that Moscow says it subsidizes the pensions and salaries of 80,000 “Russian citizens” who live in South Ossetia, although the real number of people holding Russian passports is no more than 30,000. It looks like South Ossetia has borrowed a page from Gogol’s “Dead Souls” by putting fictitious citizens on the books for financial gain.

It’s hard to say where all of that money went, but judging from events, very little of it was spent on the war effort. But neither Kokoity nor his siloviki backers ever intended for South Ossetia to be able to independently protect itself against Georgia. Most important, they needed to drag Russia into the conflict. The 58th Army rolled through the Roki Tunnel, while Russian jets bombed Poti and Gori.

But the most important thing happened later. On Friday, as soon as President Dmitry Medvedev announced that the country had entered the war, state-controlled television immediately reported that tanks had liberated Tskhinvali. In reality, they had been held up because of a bombed-out bridge, and for 2 1/2 days — until Sunday morning — the Georgian military retained control of a major part of Tskhinvali. During all of this time, Russian aircraft razed the city to the ground, decimating Georgian troops as well as any civilians who had survived the initial Georgian missile attacks.

Saakashvili leveled Tskhinvali, purportedly to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity and to liberate South Ossetia from the dictator Kokoity. Russia, with Prime Minister Putin leading the charge, helped finish the job, ostensibly as a peacekeeping mission. During the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Soviet intervention was packaged as “fraternal help to the Afghan people.” Then during the wars in Chechnya, we heard a lot from the authorities about “restoring constitutional order.” Now the Kremlin calls its intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia “a peacekeeping mission.” The tenacity and violence displayed by both sides is understandable because whoever controls Tskhinvali will be the victor. Everything else will be recorded in fine print in the history books.

In the end, Saakashvili clearly underestimated Putin’s personal hatred for him — an enmity that became intense after an aide told Putin that Saakashvili described him as “Lilliputian.” But when Russian officials announced that “we established control over Tskhinvali” 2 1/2 days ago, they actually meant that for two days both sides have been demolishing the city.

The second Chechen war, in which Grozny was wiped off the face of the earth, brought Putin to power. Russia’s first peacekeeping mission, in which Tskhinvali was demolished in a similar fashion, has locked Putin’s undisputed hold on power for many years to come.

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