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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

The bear is back

August 17, 2008

By Richard M Bennett
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
August 16, 2008

Despite being rather moth-eaten and while still missing a claw or
two, the Russian bear is definitely back in business.

The conflict with Georgia over its troublesome breakaway provinces
has as much to do with nationalistic pride and the Kremlin's wish to
reassert itself on the international scene as a determination to
protect the predominately Russian citizens of South Ossetia or the
determinedly independent-minded Abkhazians.

Despite constant assertions by Washington that Russia risks isolation
for its military actions of the past week, it is arguable

that it is United States itself that faces the greatest dilemma.

To enforce any form of diplomatic or economic "punishment" on the
Russians, Washington desperately needs the wholehearted support of
the international community and its closest allies in particular.

For a variety of reasons, this might not be forthcoming.

The former communist countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia are
increasingly and rightly wary of the growing confidence of Russia's
leadership and the resurgence of Russian military capability.

Western Europe remains significantly reliant on Russian energy
supplies and particularly at a time of the increasing instability of
international markets.

India and China may well be loath to support Washington, particularly
as both nations would wish to keep a free hand in dealing with areas
such as Kashmir or Tibet. While not directly comparable, both these
long-running problems are similar enough in that the protection of
the lives and rights of their citizens may require military action at any time.

It cannot be seriously denied that Washington itself also desperately
needs Russian cooperation in the "war on terror" and to be "on side"
over the Middle East and Iran in particular.

Even in the newly ebullient and forceful mood prevailing in the
Kremlin, Russian leaders must still be painfully aware that their
overall military strategic position remains weak. The Kremlin needs
Western technology and the willing acceptance of Russia as a major
power once again.

It remains unlikely that Russia will seriously involve itself in
major military adventurism in the near future, nor does it seem
likely that the West will seriously attempt to enforce sanctions
against the Kremlin.

There is simply too much at stake on both sides. A deal will be most
likely struck behind closed doors in New York or Paris or Moscow.
Empty rhetoric will fill the airwaves and the only long-term loser
will be Georgia itself.

Put simply, realpolitik or the triumph of reality over ideology will
most probably and rightly prevail this time. That said, the conflict
has still raised serious issues over international cooperation,
understanding and trust.

Conflict or the threat of conflict has bedeviled Georgia, its
breakaway provinces and its international relations, particularly
with Russia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Saakashvili - nationalist crusader

President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power after November 2003
elections on a wave of nationalism and with the promise of recovering
both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In the past four years, the acquisition of significant numbers of
more modern armored vehicles, artillery, multiple rocket launchers,
small arms, armed helicopters, reconnaissance drones and much else
could not have failed to raise alarm in the breakaway provinces and
in the Kremlin.

Western intelligence services were also fully aware of military
developments and indeed significant numbers of US and Israeli
military personnel helped the Georgian special forces in particular
in preparing for large-scale counter-insurgency operations ...
exactly the type of training required for any serious attempt to
suppress the citizens of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who were
certain to violently resist any Georgian takeover.

This current conflict was born out of a crisis that has been
simmering since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's)
action in the former Yugoslavia and has most certainly come to boil
since February 2008, when the breakaway province of Kosovo achieved a
degree of doubtful international acceptance as an independent state,
but only, it is suggested by many observers, after considerable
pressure was exerted on its allies by the United States.

There is little or no difference between Russia's actions to ensure
the right of self-determination of the South Ossetians and the
US/NATO support for the Kosovans.

It could be argued that Russia may indeed have a valid point in
suggesting that it is intensely hypocritical of Washington and London
to demand that Georgia should have its sovereignty respected when
Serbia, Iraq, Somalia, Panama, Afghanistan and others have had their
sovereignty ignored by the US and its allies, sometimes with a degree
of genuine justification, but on occasions simply on the flimsiest of
evidence that would certainly not have survived the close scrutiny of
a court of law.

M K Bhadrakumar's masterly summing up of the political background to
the conflict (The end of the post-Cold War era Asia Times Online,
August 13, 2008) should be studied closely by all who wish to have a
grasp of the great game played in the region between Washington and Moscow.

Military build-up

The lead-up to the military confrontation was however entirely
predictable and indeed was flagged quite openly to all who wished to
take notice.

In 2005, the Georgian army was openly involved in large-scale
training for integrated infantry, armored, artillery and air support
operations which would appear to have had no other possible purpose
but the retaking of the breakaway provinces by military force.

The significant buildup of firepower, so tragically demonstrated by
the Georgians' wanton destruction of the capital of South Ossetia,
Tskhinvali, and vastly increased ammunition stocks and logistic
support, allowed the Russian GRU (military intelligence) to draw the
right conclusions.

Saakashvili would use force, only the timing remained uncertain.

It is significant that the United States was fully aware of the risk
of conflict. The American Foreign Policy Council in Washington in its
Russia Reform Monitor reported on July 11:

     Russia has admitted its fighter jets overflew the breakaway
Georgian territory of South Ossetia in a sortie that took place just
hours before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tbilisi
with a message of support ... Speaking in the Georgian capital on
July 10, Rice said Russia needs "to be part of resolving the problem
... and not contributing to it." However, she also said she had told
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that "there should not be violence".

On July 12:

... Georgian media have been reporting an alleged Russian Defense
Ministry plan to storm the Kodori Gorge in the breakaway Georgian
republic of Abkhazia, to which Russia plans to respond by publishing
details of alleged Georgian plans to launch a military incursion into
South Ossetia.

On July 15"

Last week, Georgia recalled its ambassador in Moscow to protest the
Russian overflights, while Russia said they were aimed at preventing
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from launching a military
operation against the separatist South Ossetia region.

So by the beginning of August, the Russian intelligence services had
a fair idea of both Georgia's intentions and its likely tactics, but
still no firm evidence of timing.

A week of war
The Russian 58th Army with its headquarters in Vladikavkaz was on
alert and responded reasonably quickly and effectively to the
Georgian invasion of South Ossetia on August 6 and 7. The use of
massive artillery and multiple rocket barrages against the largely
open and undefended city of Tskhinvali has been well documented,
though little hard evidence has emerged of ether ethnic cleansing or
genocide by either side elsewhere in this conflict.

However, the violent Russian response left no one in any doubt as to
the outcome. Supported by attack aircraft and helicopters from the
4th Air Army, units of the 58th Army of the North Caucasian Military
district, including elements of the 20th Guards, 19th and 42nd Motor
Rifle Divisions, swept down into South Ossetia.

They succeeded in first blocking the Georgian advance north and then
quickly pushed them into a humiliating retreat back across the border
and eventually out of the town of Gori, the birthplace of Josef Stalin.

They were further supported by units of the Russian 76th and 98th
Airborne Divisions and the 45th Independent (Spetsnaz) reconnaissance
regiment from the Moscow Military District, who reinforced both South
Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Within a matter of days, virtually the entire Georgian command and
control system had been severely degraded, along with radar stations,
air defense and what remained of the air force at bases such as
Alekseevka and Marneuli.

Georgian army infantry units including the First Brigade from Gori,
supported by the T72-equipped Independent Tank Battalion and probably
reinforced by elements of the Fourth Brigade from Vaziani, were
quickly routed or ordered to withdraw to save what remained of their
fighting capability for the possible defense of Tbilisi.

The Second Brigade at Senaki appears not to have put up a fight when
a column of Russian troops on a short-lived punitive raid pushed deep
into Georgia from Abkhazia on August 11.

Russian special forces are also reported to have made limited
incursions into the ports of Poti and Batumi without significant
interference from the Georgian armed forces.

By August 12, large parts of the Georgian armed forces had ceased to
operate or lacked any central command and coordination. Georgia had
effectively been defeated within six days and without any of its
Western allies doing more than resorting to pointless rhetoric.

Continuing Russian military action would seem to concentrate on
destroying the surviving Georgian military infrastructure around the
borders of South Ossetia and perhaps Abkhazia, including the
well-defended artillery positions that had allowed the Georgians to
heavily shell Tskhinvali.

A new cold war?
Illusions of any certainty of Western military support have been
shattered, and probably for the foreseeable future. The benefits of
the increasingly close diplomatic, economic and military relationship
with the US, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union
may now be called into question by many of the former communist
states and some old ties may now be restored as the only likely
guarantee of regional security.

This indeed could turn out to be a defining moment in the post-Cold
War world, with a redrawing of lines of influence and a reassertion
of national interests. It is a lesson the Kremlin will sincerely hope
has been taken to heart by many of its former allies.

The best that can probably be rescued from the Georgia crisis is to
make it blatantly clear to Moscow that the West will react more
positively in the event of a similar situation developing over, for
instance, the largely Russian population of the Crimea.

It is a potentially massive problem for the incoming US
administration next year, and it is to be hoped that a calm and
measured response from Washington may prove to be decisive in
preventing the major powers from sliding back into a chillier and
increasingly dangerous relationship

Richard M Bennett, intelligence and security consultant, AFI Research.

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