Caucasus: The Snatch
by Israel Shamir on 21 Aug 2008 0 Comment

A Snatch or a Contact Reconnaissance - meaning of the Caucasus and the Manchu Incident:


A fast guy had thought that a wallet was unattended, and tried to snatch it. But to his distress, he was stopped in his tracks by a burly wallet owner. This could a fair description of Saddam Hussein snatching Kuwait. This also fits the war over South Ossetia.


Georgian President Saakashvili thought he could take South Ossetia while nobody was looking; while everybody was watching the Olympiad. In order to maximise the surprise factor, he declared barely three hours before the snatch that he would never send troops in.


Here the similarity ends. While Saddam succeeded to take Kuwait, Saakashvili failed to take over SO. Saakashvili’s strategy was also different, and reminiscent rather of Israeli conquest of 1948 – he wanted to have Ossetia without the native folk, the Ossetians. To this end he bombarded the SO capital, Tskhinvali, causing a mass exodus of the people – some thirty thousand of them, or almost half of population, crossed the high mountains to the Russian side. The Russians rolled in and kicked Saakashvili troops out. So far, so good.


(1)   Saakashvili had it coming for a long time. His flirt, no, his heavy petting with the US and Israel, his fervent anti-Russian sentiments, his Kartveli nationalism led him and his country to trouble. Like young Fidel, he wanted to turn his land into a match to set the global fire. He was the first to be burnt.


(2)   Russia fulfilled its residual imperial duty: as successor of the Soviet Union, it is duty-bound to guarantee some well-being of its erstwhile junior member-states. Russia could not allow Saakashvili to ethnically cleanse the Ossetians, for practical reasons, too: fifty thousand refugees from South Ossetia would destabilise North Caucasus.


(3)   Russia demonstrated that beyond bark, it has bite, too. Probably other adventurous neighbours, namely pro-American leaders of Estonia, Poland, Ukraine will entertain second thoughts before their next paroxysm of anti-Russian sentiment.


(4)   Russia proved that it can use force quickly, efficiently and with moderation. There was no old Soviet overkill; rather moderate and modest, well-executed military operation. The best about it was its brevity, two-three days of actual fighting and the rest some mopping-up.


(5)   Russian leadership proved they are not scared by Washington’s rhetoric. This is very good after many years of complicity and impotence.  


(6)   Military defeat may be very good for the Georgian soul. Georgians are wonderful people, warm, handsome, pleasant and generous. However, they are ferocious nationalists of tribal kind. Like some of their neighbours, they tend to see others mainly through ethnic prism. The first thing the Georgians did when they became independent in the wake of 1917 Russian Revolution was the expulsion of all Armenians and confiscation of their property. Joseph Stalin also acted the Georgian way when he expelled the Chechens from their mountains and the Germans from Prussia. Georgia is by no means homogeneous: it is populated by a few smaller ethnic groups, in addition to the Kartveli majority (or at least plurality). After Georgia became independent second time, in 1991, the Kartvelis have tried to deal with the minorities by harsh methods, undermining their culture and language and even expelling them on the first suspicion. This was the reason three autonomous areas of the country decided to split from Georgia. SO is one of the three, but unless Kartvel nationalism is reined in, Adgars, Svans and other ethnic communities may rebel too. Military defeat may cause the Georgians to re-think their attitude to their immediate neighbours.


(7)   Though Russia did not send its troops in order to remove Saakashvili, it does not make such an outcome less than desirable. Saakashvili is dangerous for Georgia, Russia, Ossetia and the World. Pity he did not lose the general elections a few months ago; shame that other candidates met with untimely death in suspicious circumstances or were jailed. One may hope the true patriots of Georgia will kick him out and chose a better president, opting for neutrality and friendship with Georgia’s neighbours, including Russia.


(8)   Georgian communists expressed their distaste with Saakashvili’s attack; they would like to lead their country back into a close union with Russia. It should be considered: many Georgians say the Communists in their letter from Tbilisi, would love to see the end of Saakashvili’s adventurism.

(9)   A neutral and neighbour-friendly Georgia would be able to re-integrate South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The ethnic Georgian, Kartvel and Mingrel refugees would be able to return to their villages. Caucasus is so poly-ethnic that mutual expulsions and transfers are unacceptable.


(10) This is the time to stop anti-Georgian propaganda in Russia and anti-Russian propaganda elsewhere. Russia has a long tradition of friendship with the Caucasian nations, with Georgians, Ossetians, Circassians; the tradition has been well established by Leo Tolstoy, Lermontov and Griboedov. Let it prevail. As Marshal Stalin would say, Saakashvili come and go, but the Georgian people endure forever.


Europeans showed more understanding of the Russian action than expected. There was no mass hysteria, and the Ossetians were allowed to express their viewpoint. Israel stopped its supplies of military hardware to Georgia. While American leaders responded to the victory of Russian arms with expected verbal severity, they wisely avoided any action likely to enhance the military standing of Saakashvili. They could have made an airlift of American armour to Tbilisi, they could show more of muscle, but they did not.


This was the true mystery of the campaign. Did the Americans encourage Saakashvili? Did he act at his own foolhardy will? There could be a few explanations of the enigma.


(1)   Every Georgian President tried to regain the lost provinces, so Saakashvili could have decided to give it a try, perhaps being carried away by the magic of auspicious triple eight, as they began their offensive on 8.8.8.  


(2)   Saakashvili may fail to understand the Americans. This happened to Saddam Hussein when he snatched Kuwait. He was convinced that Ambassador Gillespie gave him the green light for the operation.


(3)   The Americans and Saakashvili may have failed in their prognostication. They interpreted Russian inaction in the past as a harbinger of inaction in the future. On 8.8.8, a pro-American Russian newspaper predicted that the Russians will not move their forces and will swallow the defeat, for otherwise they would have acted earlier.


(4)   The Americans plan some kind of operation in Iran, and they encouraged this Georgian diversion to keep the Russians busy. This could still be the case, as in its present position Russia has a weak hand in the UN to deal with American demands or with direct aggression.


(5)   Iran expressed its support for the Russian operation and condemned the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia. The New York Times and similar papers editorialised that the US should not push Russia too hard, in order to get Russian approval for an anti-Iranian sanctions other measures.


My preferred version of events is that the Americans (and Israelis) encouraged the Georgian President as they were curious to see the Russian reaction and observe preparedness of the Russian Armed Forces. In military parlance, such a minor operation is called “contact reconnaissance,” or just a “feeler”. No one could be certain how the Russian army would operate. In 1996, having being sent to retake the rebellious Grozny, the Russian Army ran away in disarray leaving its burning tanks behind. Since then, the Russians had not fired a shot in anger; they have been very much a mystery for the West. In such a situation, there is no substitute for a bout of actual fighting, and Saakashvili unwittingly offered this opportunity to the West.


This is rather an optimistic view, as the following comparison will make clear. In 1930s, the Japanese occupying Manchukuo faced the Russians. The Japanese did not know whether the Soviet Russians will fight well or will run away, as they had easily defeated the Russian Imperial Army in 1903-4 war but had taken a beating from the Bolsheviks in 1918. That is why they carried out a contact reconnaissance at Khalkhyn Gol (Nomonhan) to take their measure of Russian resistance. After General Zhukov destroyed their attacking force, they decided to keep peace with Russia, and despite many pleas by Hitler, the Japanese troops stayed put.


If this reading is right, we may be optimistic. Weakness invites war; the Neo-cons attacked Iraq because it was the weakest link. Now, the Russian army demonstrated its fighting capability, the Russian diplomats confirmed their abilities and the Russian society has shown itself remarkably united. Russia is not so weak as to invite pressure or war.


Courtesy Israel Shamir [shamireaders]

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