While I haven’t posted anything on this war yet, rest assured I’m paying attention. There are several problems getting good grip on events, however. There are conflicting stories from both sides over the timeline and events transpiring so far. Not surprisingly, both Russia and Georgia are attempting to control media coverage to produce favorable press. Deciding which parts of the coverage are true is difficult.
A little background. Georgia is one of the many smaller states that broke away when the Soviet Union collapsed. Falling under the nominal control of Georgia were two regions, South Ossettia and Abkahzia. Both regions were ethnically different from the Georgians. The Russians have long supported separatist movements in both regions, extending Russian passports to any residents who wanted them. They also encouraged these separatists to use violence in the furtherance of their goals, then stepped in with Russian troops as peacekeepers in both regions as a solution to the violence. Separatists in South Ossettia continued attacks on Georgian troops under the cover of these Russian peacekeepers. Georgia, which has been strongly aligned with the west since its independence, decided to attack the capital of South Ossettia, Tskhinvali, hoping the opening of the Olympics would distract world attention. Their operational security was poor. The Russians were clearly prepared, and by the end of the first day, large Russian units had crossed into South Ossettia and began pounding Georgian units. Georgia’s plan had been to secure Tskhinvali and block the only road into the area before Russian units could reach the area. They failed largely as a result of their lack of surprise. Knowing full well that the Georgian attack was coming, the Russians were able to inject their forces into the region and secure their lines of communications into the area (by lines of communication, we mean supply routes, not phone lines and such). The Russians also felt no compunction about confining the conflict to South Ossettia. They used artillery and airpower against Georgian positions inside Georgia and attacked the airfields the tiny Georgian air force could use.
The Russians also moved to open a second front, by mobilizing the Abkahzian separatists and moving troops into Abkahzia and engaging the Georgian’s tiny navy in the Black Sea.
Georgia has clearly bitten off more than it can chew. They have withdrawn from South Ossettia and are defending the town of Gori. Their entire navy consisted of two missile boats, one of which has been sunk by the Russians as of Sunday. There are unconfirmed reports that the Russian have sunk two vessels.
This graphic shows just how small the area is. The line from Tskhinvali to Gori is only 17 miles. It is about another 30 or so to the capital of Georgia, Tblisi.
This second image is a wider view of the top, showing the position of Georgia on the Black Sea. Abkahzia is in the Northwest corner of Georgia.
And I stole this map from the excellent Information Dissemination, who has been all over this conflict. While he has a naval slant towards this, he also has great links to the war as a whole.
One of the big problems the Georgians face is that they have a tiny army, only about 26,000 strong. And 2000 of those troops are in Iraq fighting alongside us there. The Georgian government has asked the US to move those troops back to Georgia. Here’s a graphic showing the size of the Georgian forces and the size of the Russian forces:
While the Russians obviously haven’t put their whole army into this fight, they have much larger reserves to move to the battle. Once the Georgians deploy their army, that’s it. That’s all they have. And it would be a mistake to think that the Russian forces are the same ones who fared so badly in the first Chechyan war. These are the soldiers who won the second Chechyan war. They are far better trained, and thanks to Russian petrodollars, are far better equipped. The Georgian forces, while using Soviet equipment, are stuck using older, less effective versions.
The Georgians have pretty much been defeated in South Ossettia. The question becomes, what next. Will the Russians attempt to overrun Georgia itself? Probably not. While they have the forces to do so, it is not likely their intention. They can achieve their goals without doing so. Will they instigate a fight in Abkahzai? Quite possibly. If they do, there isn’t a whole lot the Georgians can do about it.
So what are the Russian goals? Russia has long seen the Georgian alignment with the West as a major thorn in their side. By undertaking this limited operation, they have weakened Georgia without any real risk of intervention by the Western nations. DrewM over at Ace’s tells us that one political goal is the removal of Georgia’s pro-western President, Mikheil Saakashvili.
In addition, the Russians have sent a message to a lot of other small nations that once fell under their sway. First, play ball with Russia, or you too might suddenly find yourself with a “separatist movement.” Second, they have demonstrated that they are willing to use naked force to achieve their goals, and world opinion be damned. Third, those small nations have been put on notice that the West, in the form of NATO and the EU will not lift a finger to help them.
UPDATE: Of course, Castle Argghhh! has a great post on this topic. Be sure to check out this map from the comments.