#30 - JRL 2009-151 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
August 14, 2009
Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel:
A Year after the Five-Day War
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov
Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Alexander Rahr, Sergei Roy

It has now been a year since the Russian army rolled back Georgia’s forces following their attack on South Ossetia in August of 2008­the first real war between Russia and a former Soviet state. It is about time to take a serious look at what Russia gained or lost from this operation. Has Russia accrued prestige and power as a result of this war, or has it suffered deterioration in its international position? Is it now treated with more respect or more caution in Europe and in the post-Soviet space? Has the war with Georgia stopped NATO enlargement? Has the war weakened Saakashvili’s regime in Georgia? Has it strengthened Medvedev’s presidency?

On the political front, the gains seem to balance out the losses. Russia defended its own citizens and key allies in the region. It crushed the Georgian army and destroyed the political credibility of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili at home and abroad, by exposing him as a reckless adventurer who could draw the West into a military conflict with Russia.

It sent a powerful signal to Europe and the United States that Russia’s interests and sensibilities should not be ignored, particularly in the former Soviet Union, which President Dmitry Medvedev called “the zone of Russia’s privileged interests” after the war. And indeed, the war basically destroyed any prospects of Georgia’s membership in NATO, making it abundantly clear to the alliance that as a NATO member, Georgia will be a huge security liability. Most observers agree that Georgia’s chances for joining the alliance are now virtually nonexistent, and in private, many NATO governments accuse Saakashvili of adventurism last August.

Russia’s unilateral recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states and the deployment of Russian military bases there helped secure their borders against attacks by Georgian forces, but it has failed to bring Moscow the much-desired international support for this action. Only Nicaragua for some strange reason recognized their independence, while even the Union State member Belarus refused to do so. Russia has essentially been isolated on this issue.

In military terms, the results are mixed. Although the Georgian army disintegrated and withdrew as the Russians advanced, major deficiencies in operational planning, personnel training, equipment readiness and conducting modern joint combat operations became evident. Up to six Russian combat planes including one strategic bomber were shot down (half of them by friendly fire).

Intelligence gathering and target recognition were poor, resulting in serious collateral damage from air attacks in major population centers like Gori. All of these problems exposed by the war had the positive effect of expediting much-needed reforms in the Russian military. The army, however, managed to shore up its image by quickly achieving its objectives, and exhibiting a significant degree of discipline and self control. It proved that it remains a viable fighting force.

In economic terms the losses outweigh the gains. The military operation itself cost Russia about $500 million. Capital flight from Russia during the war reached $10 billion and currency reserves decreased by $16 billion (not counting the ensuing financial crisis). Reconstruction aid to South Ossetia and Abkhazia cost about $1 billion, not including the construction costs for the two Russian military bases there. The Vedomosti newspaper estimates that overall, the war cost Russia $27.7 billion, making it an enormously expensive venture.

So what is the balance sheet for Russia’s war with Georgia a year ago? Has Russia gained prestige and power as a result of this war, or has it suffered deterioration in its international position? Is it now treated with more respect or more caution in Europe and in the post-Soviet space? Has the war with Georgia stopped NATO enlargement? Did Russia miscalculate in unilaterally extending its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states? Why has Russia become isolated on this issue? Has the war weakened Saakashvili’s regime in Georgia? Has it strengthened Medvedev’s presidency?

Alexander Rahr, Director, Russia Studies Program, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin:

The West has forgotten the Georgian war quickly. Georgia and Saakashvili are not important enough to start a new Cold War with Russia. The West needs Moscow's support on many other issues, like Iran. The West has therefore forgiven Moscow for the annexation of Georgian territories­rightly so, because the West is not capable of solving the territorial-ethnical conflicts in the post-Soviet space on its own. The present status quo suits everyone.

If Moscow decides to stay in Sevastopol after 2017, there will be no conflict over this issue with the West. The West is not Russia's problem, though. The other CIS states were not willing to support Russia in its Caucasus policy, either. Russia's authority in the CIS has been undermined.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

It is difficult not to have sympathy for the more than 250,000 persons who have been displaced as a result of the fighting in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the last 20 years. We must not forget that those soldiers who died in the fighting, irrespective of their citizenship, are human beings, with families and loved ones. Ultimately, ordinary persons are the victims of the decisions made by political and military leaders. It is a shame that those persons in Moscow and Tbilisi (specifically Putin and Saakashvili) are not forced to spend their nights in the "communities" where these people have been "settled." Maybe having these two "leaders" resolve their disagreements by having a chess or fencing match might not be a bad idea.

Without a doubt, Russia's "incursion" into Georgia one year ago might have a similar impact to the [Nazi] Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia. In the near-term, the Western democracies seemed impotent. In the years immediately following they took ineffective steps aimed at enhancing their security, such as increasing defense spending and the production of their weaponry. They thought they were buying time. They entered into alliances, which rather than deterring aggression, had the effect of expanding the geographic scope of any conflict that might arise. What they did gain was an evolution in the thinking of key individuals, both those exercising power and those willing to fight to defend their homelands and friends (while hopefully avoiding getting killed in the process).

Declarations of principle in the absence of action do not alter behavior. Russia is currently an observer to the Organization for Cooperation and Development in Europe (OECD). Unlike the WTO, the Russian government has not declared that obtaining full membership in the OECD is a priority. Its members, especially those who are also members of the Council of Europe, the European Union, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, should ask themselves whether a country that does not accept the sovereignty of its neighbors should be allowed to join the "club.” Where are the people who can speak with moral authority today? Could we even hear or read them, given the information flood we are subjected to on a daily basis?

The benefits to Russia of severing Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not entirely clear. There is considerable violence in the Caucasus targeted against Russian authority. Some may choose to describe this as terrorism; others might use the term "insurgency," but a few might describe it as a civil war. In any case, this situation is a drain on the Russian economy at a time when the Russian economy has just experienced a ten percent decline in GDP during the first six months of the current year.

The world economic crisis occurred due to a large number of assumptions that proved fallacious: the misguided belief that corporations and persons acting in their own self-interest produces positive results (or, to put it in a more crass way, "greed is good"), that governments could effectively regulate their country's economic actors; that criminal laws could deter "white" collar crime; and that international organizations could respond to critical situations.

The thinking underlying Russia's policy toward Georgia may be based on similar false assumptions. Few neutral observers will contend that the Russian military is an effective fighting force. The concept of "deterrence" does not apply with respect to the countries in the "near abroad" (with the possible exceptions of the Baltic States and Ukraine).

President Barack Obama was entirely correct when he said off the cuff that prime minister Putin still has one leg in the Cold War. When the two met, there apparently was no dialog: Obama politely sat through a lecture that reflected a thinking of a different era.

With time, the price of energy may increase, but conservation measures and technology will make Russia less important as an exporter of raw materials, particularly as new supplies are discovered. Canada's one-page supplement describing its importance as an energy supplier to the United States probably had much greater impact than all of the special "advertising" supplements the Russian government placed in the Washington Post.

The more sophisticated members of the Russian elite, either in the government or the business community, need to demonstrate leadership -- convincing the Russian population that so long as Russia is viewed as a threat and not a partner, its long-term economic outlook is not bright.

Sergei Roy, Editor, www.gurdian-psj.ru, Moscow:

A year on, the Five Day War in the Caucasus still touches raw nerves. The ruins of Tskhinvali are still there, the memories of the dead are unbearably fresh, and the lies about who struck the first blow are as brazen as ever. Enough time has passed, though, to fit the events within a broader frame.

One of the results, perhaps the main one, of that conflict is greater clarity or, to use a converse formula, less indeterminacy both in the international relations and domestically. Of the entire plethora of statements and counterstatements in the wake of the war, I was struck most forcibly by Putin’s revelation that, when news of the bombardment of Tskhinvali came, Russia’s leaders tried to get in touch with those of the United States, using the hotline that is specifically laid for such crises. There simply was no response from the other side. Dead silence at the other end.

This certainly looks like a definite sign of that “other side’s” direct complicity in Saakashvili’s bloody gamble. The United States knew of it beforehand, and whether it encouraged it by inaction or vigorous prodding is of academic interest only. The latter option suggests itself most powerfully. After all, no one pours in money, weapons, instructors, advisers, etc. to no purpose. There was a purpose, and it was ugly.

Then there was the absolutely unanimous reaction of the Western media, which took Georgia’s side automatically and unquestioningly, even resorting to slimy tricks like passing pictures of destroyed Tskhinvali for those of Gori. This reaction may have been reflex Russophobia, but the overriding unanimity in the teeth of factual evidence still suggests careful conditioning and “embedding” as well.

Information-wise, it was Russia contra mundum for quite a while. It took the BBC three months to produce a more or less truthful film, when all it would have taken to show who the criminal aggressor was a single BBC reporter with a camera on the spot. However, for them “on the spot” was at Saakashvili’s side, in Tbilisi and in Gori.

Clearly, the battle lines drawn at the time of superpower rivalry, though they have since shifted geographically, are still there, though one of the rivals is gone and its successor, Russia, has done everything it realistically could (ideologically, politically, militarily, economically, culturally) to embrace and please the West. Everything, that is, except disappearing entirely.

But disappear it must. To that end, all options are apparently “on the table,” including the employment of a lunatic client for what is militarily known as reconnaissance in force.

One shudders to think what would have happened if Boris Yeltsin and his coterie had been still in power at such a juncture. Russia would have eaten humble pie again, as a prelude to indefinitely continuing to consume the same nourishment in the future.

Thank God (and Putin/Medvedev) things happened the way they did. To quote Mikhail Lermontov’s apt line, “Bezhali robkie gruziny” (The timid Georgians ran away). Nicolas Sarkozy did a fine damage-limitation job for the West, but defeat is defeat. Joe Biden may talk as loud as he pleases, but Russian military bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are there to stay.

Now Russia is safe from similar assaults, at least for some time, and that time is best employed by licking its armed forces into shape, or at least bringing to an end this continual orgy of defense “reform.”

Yet another obvious result of the war makes one recall a Soviet cliché, “the nation’s moral-political unity,” the sort the United States is justly proud of. The people were solidly behind the country’s leadership, with the “Georgiaphiles,” a.k.a. domestic Russophobes, in the usual tiny, if vociferous minority.

One can only feel sad that it takes a great misfortune like war to produce this unity. Yet it is a hopeful sign for future tribulations­of which Russia is sure to have more than its fair share.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

On the night of August 7 to August 8, 2008, the army of the Republic of Georgia initiated its assault on the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali. Video clips of the intense artillery barrage are widely available on the Internet. Tens of “building killer” Grad rocket launchers, each with a capacity of up to 40 missiles, blanketed a sleeping non-combatant urban population, ethnically mixed: Ossetians, Georgians, Armenians, Jews and Russians. Simultaneously, Russian peacekeepers, present in the city under international auspices, were attacked by the Georgian military.

Just a few hours earlier the president of Georgia had assured on television his entire country, and the people of South Ossetia, of his government’s peaceful intentions. Given the logistics of assembling weapons and personnel for the nighttime attack, these assurances by Saakashvili were being made even as preparations for assault were in full action. On August 8, the Georgian media reported the “military conquest of Tskhinvali”­ they were not yet bashful about their aggression.
This attack by Georgia violated a 14-year truce, which had been implemented to develop a peaceful solution to a problem which itself was the result of ethnic suppression by the Tbilisi authorities in the early 1990s.

Under the circumstances, Russia’s response was consistent with actions of other countries in similar situations, for example the United States in Grenada (1983) and after the terrorist attack of September 11, which resulted in the invasion of a sovereign country (Afghanistan), identified to be a terrorist haven.

The above facts are mentioned to explain that Russia’s alternatives under the circumstances were nil. Russia was presented by Tbilisi with a military attack against its own soldiers, the destruction of defenseless cities and an incipient ethnic cleansing (or worse) on her own doorstep. One must wonder what delusions of impunity were preying on Georgia’s leadership and its consultants when they prepared and launched their military attack.

Did Russia gain or lose overall from these events? Given the lack of realistic alternatives, the question is moot.

The current lack of wide recognition of the sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is not without precedent in other parts of the world, including the bosom of NATO itself. What has happened is the waste of 14 years of diplomacy, and effectively a re-definition of the original problem. There are many novel forms in which this matter can be resolved peacefully, over time. Evidently, a change of government in Tbilisi is a prerequisite: one does not see Saakashvili as willing to admit the failure of his adventure.

As to the other aspects of the 5-day war, it is definitely a watershed. Russia has demonstrated with force that there are limits to its forbearance and reliance on diplomacy alone. What is surprising is that until August 2008, there was a widespread view that such a limit did not exist, or was purely theoretical. Again, as noted before, all sovereign countries have such limits, beyond which they are tested only at peril. As noted above, the United States has repeatedly demonstrated such a limit, so did the UK (the Falklands’ War) and other nations, as well.

Although hostile anti-Russian propaganda regarding these events continues in some quarters, possibly due to inertia (or clinical obsessive psychosis) the world community of nations is applying here the timeless and unsurprising axiom: every sovereign country will exercise power to protect its citizens, its military and its vital national interests.

Previously, Russia had displayed numerous public signals of its limits and determination (and surely made even more clear representations privately). Apparently, these signals were not heeded by some. Those folks will have to be more attentive in the future.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

I would take severe issue with Frolov's characterization of the gains for Russia. Even before this war there was no way Georgia was going to get into NATO. Saakashvili's failings were well known in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin, and so there was no point to the war. As for the other gains, demanding a sphere of influence in the CIS (which Russia in any case cannot sustain) was counterproductive and has antagonized every member of the CIS, reigniting suspicion in Europe.

The situation in the Russian military is much worse than Frolov says, because as the Russian press has made clear, the money is not there to consummate the desirable defense reforms, and corruption and criminality in the armed forces is through the roof. The money to rebuild South Ossetia and Abkhazia was predictably stolen, and Russia is saddled with its own version of Georgia irredenta that causes permanent tension throughout the region and makes the fire in the North Caucasus even more dangerous.

The EU is now vigorously contesting Russia over energy, and the United States will not acquiesce to the idea of a sphere of influence either, although Moscow seems to think that the “reset” button means just that. This, as I have already written elsewhere, was a war that nobody won, and it was a war that did not have to be fought. Rather, it was a war that Moscow wanted and incited, not Georgia, and the evidence is overwhelming if one reads the new book by Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, “The Guns of August 2008.”

Unfortunately, Moscow suffers from the same delusion that George Bush did, namely that it suffices to be tall in the saddle and that this constitutes a victory even if you neglect the building of support for your policy. This isn't true in Russia any more than it is true here, and as Frolov notes, the bills that Moscow accrued have long since started to come in and outweigh the benefits of this war.

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