On August 7, 2008 Georgia attempted to re-exert control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. This simple 5 day war has shaken the foundations of European security.
The timing of the military action by Georgia was decidedly odd. Almost 25% of the Georgian military was fighting with America in Iraq at the time. The majority of the rest were stationed around the other breakaway region of Abkhazia and had to be repositioned in the week long initial skirmishes. A strange time to retake South Ossetia most would think. However Georgia, with intercepted signals, claims that the Russian 58th Army entered Georgia prior to its attack on South Ossetia. Russia claims a routine troop rotation was underway until Georgia attacked and then they responded with the entire army group. If either side is correct then Georgia started its military attack on South Ossetia with the full knowledge of eventual Russian military involvement.
What was Saakashvili thinking? David was taking on Goliath indeed! He sent his 3 battalions of troops with modern US weaponary, who picked up old AK-47’s to fight with along the way, up against the Russian 58th Army that he apparently knew was already entering South Osstia. It is clear that Georgia started the massive artilery attack on South Ossetia from independent OSCE observers on the ground and briefly occupied it’s capital of Tskhinvali with infantry forces.
Now, Mr. Saakashvili is highly educated with a Master of Laws degree from Columbia University in the US. One would suppose that he honestly didn’t believe that he was going to defeat the Russian 58th Army, even with limited military knowledge. So what did Mr. Saakashvili think would happen? There are a few different thoughts:
1. The Russians were only trying to scare him and would not actually attack. This seems highly unlikely as fighting in the Kodori Gorge had sporadically been taking place for months already. Georgia also had video footage of Russian troops setting up heavy artilary in the area which was denied of course but decidedly changed the balance of power in the Gorge. Further a Russian Mig had already destroyed a Georgian drone plane purchased from Israel when flying over Abkazia. It was abundantly clear Russia would indeed use the 58th Army in South Ossetia.
2. Georgia could inflict enough losses on Russia and deter a full Russian invasion. This could be possible given all the military support the US had been pouring into Georgia over the last several years. All this new shiny military equipment does tend to make non-military trained leaders think they can win a war, even when the other side has a military over 100 times larger. However Mr. Saakashvili knows Russia well having grown up in the Soviet Union. He knew that a Putin led Russia could not lose face from a stalemate or defeat by the Georgian army. He knows Russia would pour more military resources into the conflict and ensure a win, just like in Chechnya. It’s unlikely that he thought the Georgian Army could fight Russia to a draw.
3. Georgia was trying to draw its main supporter, America, directly into the military conflict. Given the recent heavy US military support this might have been Mr. Saakashvili’s intention. However the US was burdened in both Iraq and Afghanistan already. Militarily there wasn’t much of a US option available. However the largest issue, a direct US – Russia military engagement, would require Russian actions that endangered the entire world to gain political support in a war weary USA. It is possible but unlikely that Mr. Saakashvili thought America would fight beside him against Russia. The timing was completely wrong and the situation wasn’t serious enough.
4. Georgia was trying to solidify support and protection from America into the foreseeable future. Knowing that Russian army units were passing through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia, Mr. Saakashvili ordered the full assault to begin. He envisioned a very brief confrontation with Russian forces and a complete withdraw of Georgian forces followed by a ceasefire. A little damage done to both sides over a few days, hopefully more on Russia, and a full stop of the battle. No need for full military preparations as he was already planning to fully withdraw as soon as Russia started seriously fighting.
This explains the very swift Georgian retreat from South Ossetia after capturing the capital city. Georgian forces didn’t even try to regroup in Gori just outside South Ossetia, although this was a well prepared military installation from which the initial attack was staged. Georgian troops completely fled all the way to Tblisi. The Georgians knew the significance of a Russian attack on it’s capital Tblisi. This would be seen worldwide as a Russian military takeover of Georgia entirely. While the Russians cleaned Tblisi of irritants and proclaimed provocation, the world would be demanding serious repercussions for the destruction of a soverign country. Mr. Saakashvili calculated the Russians would likely not attack Tblisi given the very high political price. It is also very possible that the US diplomatically drew a line in the sand at Tblisi in private talks with Russia. What is also possible, and most concerning, is that Mr. Saakashivili knew where that line would be drawn by the US before the conflict even started. Given the US leadership of Mr. Bush and his team over the past 7 years this possibility is better than your typical conspiracy theory that some might call it.
It is always difficult to try to understand the decisions that any politican makes nowadays. However with hindsight and enough information reasonable deductions can be made about the past. Historical analysis of World War II shows an amazing understanding of the decisions politicians made at the time. I must caution people that desisive conclusions can not be made. However the evidence in this conflict is mounting up.
Surely people who doubt this analysis of Georgian motives in the conflict would ask why does Georgia want even more support from the US? There is further evidence to demonstrate this as well. NATO had recently turned down the US request to fast-track Georgian membership. It was stalled under a NATO clause that required new members to have no ongoing internal territorial disputes. There was no possible solution to South Ossetia and Ahbkasia situation and Russia wasn’t even considering it. The US had tried to bypass this clause with NATO members and failed already. Georgia could not get NATO membership in the near future. Further with a US election coming it wasn’t clear if Georgian support would even remain. Given the very high levels of support previously it would be hard to imagine more support, unless there was a bigger threat for Georgia.
A little war with Russia would nicely outline a serious threat to Georgia. NATO would have to reconsider Georgian entry to stop Russian aggression. Even Europe, unknowingly heading for another gas crisis due to Russia, would be highly interested in protecting Georgia and it’s independent gas supply route around Russia. A gas supply that was never threatened by Russia during the conflict. A calculating leader like Mr. Saakashvili, Master of Laws from Columbia, might just order a full assault on South Ossetia, rolling the dice and yelling out “C’mon Seven!” as he watched his military fight.
Ultimately the Georgian conflict was no modern David and Goliath story. It was much more like a modern day story every child sees happen at school. A little kid in the playground punchs a much bigger kid and runs away. The little kid runs right to his mother and grabs her leg, sure in the knowledge that his mother will protect him. The big kid stomps and threatens but can not do much about it. Until mom is busy reading her book of course. Then the little kid always gets hit.
I wonder what the dice told Mr. Saakashvili? I think after a lot of Georgian suffering he finally rolled a seven. Georgia will likely have a more secure future with the US and NATO after all the political ripples finish around the world. The price of freedom is often very high.