Small Wars Journal

Russia-Georgia: Early Take

Fri, 08/15/2008 - 6:47am
The impact of the Russian attack on Georgia is still being assessed around the world, in that slow-motion way that global events have on governments. Getting the full picture of what's going on will take a few weeks yet. But this much seems to be clear.

First, there's no illusion about who's running Russia. Vladimir Putin is clearly the effective head of state, flying from the Beijing Olympics to southern Russia to oversee military operations and to dominate Russian TV. The return of strongman rule to Russia, and particularly one who regards the demise of the Soviet Union as a historic catastrophe, is now a fact of international life to which we will all have to adjust to.

Second, Putin and his government are attempting to establish the legitimacy of a Russian sphere of influence that looks very much like a reestablishment of the old Soviet empire. This is the core of an enormously sophisticated information campaign that is having some success -- at least around Washington -- in appealing to the realpolitik crowd who look for excuses for inaction in the case of a Russian invasion of their democratic neighbor. The invasion of Georgia was accompanied by an information campaign based on the idea that Russia has a right to intervene anywhere that the "dignity" of Russian minorities is threatened. Since there are Russian minorities in every former Soviet state of the old empire, this is an attempt to establish a "sphere of influence" precedent that must chill newly independent states still struggling with democracy.

From a military perspective, the first impression is that the Russians laid an effective "strategic ambush" for Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvilli, inciting anti-government attacks in South Ossetia by local militias and then responding to the Georgian offensive with a well-planned and rehearsed offensive of their own. Even when viewed through the imperfect lens of news media scrambling to catch up to events, military experts understand that the joint and combined-arms attacks Russia staged in the opening hours of the war were anything but spontaneous. For historians, a retrospective on Nazi Germany's offensive to "protect" the Sudaten Czechs shows a striking similarity of purpose and method.

The Georgian armed forces were obviously not prepared for the Russian counteroffensive. Having recently purged older, Soviet-trained officers from its top commands, the Georgian military lacks doctrine, cohesion and experience; U.S. military assistance has been focused on preparing Georgian soldiers for duty alongside U.S. forces in Iraq, not in larger-scale, combined-arms warfare, and it shows. At this writing, the Georgian armed forces have virtually disappeared, their patrol boats sunk at their docks and their infantry collecting somewhere near the capitol city; Russian forces have broken contact and breakaway militias are rampaging in areas in and around South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

To observers familiar with the sight of Russian troops riding to battle on the back decks of BMPs, the Russian campaign looked like previous warfare in Afghanistan and Czchneya. But in this case, the familiar Soviet-style, firepower-intensive armed campaign was preceded by a sophisticated cyberattack against Georgian information systems and, more ominously, a prelaid global information campaign that both advanced the Russian argument for its right to intervene and fed both the news media and wavering Western politicians with trumped-up details of Georgian atrocities. Look for the information campaign to intensify as Russian troops settle into positions in Georgia, where their location will become negotiable in the next phase, which will clearly be to drive the pro-Western Saakashvilli government from power. The Russians have "got" modern war, however outdated their "kinetic" operations may appear. In their operational concept, the information war preceded, and is superior to, actual combat operations on the land and sea. Western military authorities, whose ability to influence information operations of this type are nonexistent, can only look on in frustration.

What does this mean for the U.S. and for U.S. strategy? The first, obvious, lesson is that great-power competition is back, and it is not only with a remote and only vaguely challenging trading partner like China. Russia is now an active menace. Whether "old Europe" quite understands the problem is for the moment moot -- the newly-formed ex-Soviet democracies have the message loud and clear, as their timely and courageous support for the Saakashvilli government shows. As scholar Fred Kagan said recently, there is a "new axis" of anti-Russian democracies around the edge of the old Soviet empire. Supporting those states and securing their future must be a top priority for the U.S. and NATO, while Russia passes through the Putin phase and perhaps into a more benign future -- the encouragement of which should be the top priority for U.S. and Western diplomacy. If this sounds like containment, well, it is.

For military strategy, the U.S. should immediately revamp its foreign military assistance programs to those countries, including a post-invasion Georgia. The intent of U.S. aid now should not be aimed not only at preparing forces for low-intensity conflict -- because most of these states have their own problems with breakaway militias and extremist terrorism -- but also at deterring Russian high-intensity, combined-arms attacks. Advanced integrated air-defenses (the Georgians had none), antitank munitions, precision weapons all must be provided so that Russia can no longer plan a walkover like the one we have witnessed. Military assistance groups should be stationed in frontline states, and m military exercises conducted calibrated to bolster the defensive capabilities of local armies. The Russians will cry foul, but their military authorities will understand what they are seeing -- no more easy campaigns. Military aid must include methods and training in our best techniques for computer network defense, a move that -- given the global nature of computer networks -- will integrate our allies' defenses with ours.

Finally the U.S. government, even in this time of political transition, must be steadfast in exposing for the world's media the true story of what is happening here. This is not a time to surrender the information field to the Russians in a futile effort to "protect sources" or surrender to reflexive classification. The war for history has started, and the Russians are already leading by several laps. Given the nature of an inquisitive and pervasive worldwide news media -- that the Russians so far have manipulated brilliantly -- the truth will eventually out, but only if the Western democracies insure that the facts are out there.


Tulius (not verified)

Sat, 08/16/2008 - 1:32am

Your comments on the media coverage of these events interest me. If they refer to U.S. media, then I must disagree. An important example: Gorbachev was on Larry King Live on Thursday, Aug. 14. He blamed Saakasvili's belligerence for the recent eruption of armed conflict. This was then followed immediately with King's interview of Saakashvili himself, giving the Georgian President the last word, and thus the upper hand in that particular front of the 'information war.' Saakashvili used the opportunity to lament, somewhat convincingly, that Gorbachev, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and a figure whom Saakashvili used to respect, has essentially sold-out to the current Russian government. Saakashvili has been all over the U.S. media stations, conducting interviews directly from his office, as well as a press conference with Rice by his side. The U.S. media's coverage of this conflict has been blatantly pro-Saakashvili (not pro-Georgian, but pro-Saakashvili - there is a difference between the two, and it is an important one), who, as U.S. viewers are repeatedly told directly by him, is strongly supported by 'the people of Georgia.'

The historical circumstances that have caused the conflict, circumstances which favor the Ossetian and Abkhazian opposition to Georgian integration, are ignored; instead, the BTC pipeline is constantly brought up in U.S. media, with the Wall Street Journal strongly implying in an 'objective' piece in its Thursday, Aug. 14 issue that Russian bombers attempted to destroy that pipeline, as well as another pipeline located to the north of the BTC pipeline.

This is a conflict involving two empires that have been around for quite some time - the U.S. and Russia. However, as far as imperial claims to territory are concerned, Russia is in the right here. Russia was a powerful empire that launched a major offensive into the Caucasus before Karl Marx was even born - so simply labeling this most recent conflict as a continuation of Soviet rule is not wholly accurate. The history of the Caucasus is unlike that of Eastern Europe, which swayed back and forth between various empires throughout the centuries. The Caucasus, however, have been firmly under Russian control for almost two centuries, which means that a U.S. educated lawyer like Saakashvili will not be allowed by the Kremlin to push north by launching a military offensive on disputed territory controlled by Russian-backed forces.

AMac (not verified)

Fri, 08/15/2008 - 9:51pm

Literally everybody agrees that the West and in particular the U.S. should <i>engage</i> with the Russians. The only sticking point is the meaning of the word. People have adopted various narratives, and the correct version of <i>engagement</i> then follows.

There are those who think the Russians baited Shakaashvili and then calculatedly encouraged their proxy militias to cleanse ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia and South Ossetia while TV eyes were glued to Beijing.

Needless to say, they will have a rather different view of what <i>engagement</i> should look like than those who see Putin as simply re-establishing Russia's natural, historical, and justified sphere of influence, even in the face of pesky flea bites from puppets of the U.S.

So, per the post, what is old (the range of Western views of German actions in the 1930s) is new again.

xbradtc (not verified)

Fri, 08/15/2008 - 5:01pm

<em>A better solution to Russians reemergence would be to engage with them, and treat there like the great power they are. Not some rogue state to be strategically isolated. Since the fall of the soviet union they have been offered slight after slight, as Kissenger said, super powers don't retreat for ever.</em>

Merocaine, I would argue that Russia has been given chance after chance to join with the West and step up to being a great power. They have consistently acted in a manner to offend the West, bully former Soviet states and forment unrest in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The West has taken little or no action to dissuade Russia from this. Russia hasn't been retreating. We have.

Bill Keller (not verified)

Fri, 08/15/2008 - 4:55pm

This is a very good clarion call for the nature of a dynamic change greated by a rejuvenating autocracy lead by a very tough man and fueled by the wealth of energy sales. The supplementing of an attack with unleased groups of paramilitary thugs is very troubling. This nation and societal distruction of a barbarian nature.

Putin has rediscovered the value of the brown shirt.

Merocaine (not verified)

Fri, 08/15/2008 - 1:19pm

Hmmm, I watched a different war, in the war I watched Georgia won the media campaign hands down.
Most news organization quickly forgot Georgia launched the initial attack, or that the Georgians shelled civilian area with Grad launchers. The story quickly reverted back to the cold war narrative once the Georgians began there media campaign. IMHO the Russians still have a lot to learn about modern media wars.

A better solution to Russians reemergence would be to engage with them, and treat there like the great power they are. Not some rogue state to be strategically isolated. Since the fall of the soviet union they have been offered slight after slight, as Kissenger said, super powers don't retreat for ever.

Ken White

Fri, 08/15/2008 - 12:33am

Aggressive proposal. I could quibble around the edges. Georgia's very decentralized Air Defenses worked fairly well, for example and PGM require sophisticated ISTR or aircraft. Agility and competence beat computers -- and mass. Particularly marginally trained mass...

However, I suspect the biggest problem is that the likelihood of Congress supporting the ideas is beyond slim. Not to mention the EU reaction...