What Could Have Happened in the Caucasus

Paper read at the conference “Independence of Abkhazia and Prospects for the Caucasus” organized by the Friends of Abkhazia Civil Initiative. Istanbul, Bilgi University, 30-31 May 2009.

The Russo – Georgian Conflict of August 2008 showed many peculiar features, even by the outrageous standards of warfare. These were evident even before hostilities erupted. One must infer that Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, assumed the United States would come to Georgia’s aid, or at least that its might would restrain Russia. Otherwise there is no way to explain why Georgia ignored Russian troop exercises and build up in the North Caucasus in the preceding month. Clearly too, Saakashvili did not take seriously Putin’s rebuke to the West over the recognition by many Western states of Kosovo’s independence, declared on February 17, 2008. Prime Minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, warned then that Russia would seek to redress what it saw as an insult to itself and its traditional ally, Serbia. In this lapse Saakashvili seems to have been joined by those same Western states, which also showed no signs of taking Russia’s objections seriously.

Georgian tactics were also highly peculiar. Georgia seems to have attacked South Ossetia’s regional capital, Tskhinval(i), about midnight Aug 7-8. The initial assault seems to have been quite heavy. Curiously, however, Georgia failed to block the Roki tunnel, an easy task that could have been accomplished with one guided bomb. The Roki tunnel is old and narrow. It is also the most “convenient” route for Russian forces to enter Georgia. Blocking Roki would have kept most Russian forces out, if they entered on August 8. Blocking Roki would have trapped Russian forces if they entered on Aug. 7, prior to the Georgian onslaught, which now seems unlikely. The tunnel is just wide enough for Russian tanks. It would have been easy to have closed it and made Russian entry far more difficult. Georgia failed to heed warnings from the United States Department of State not to use force. Rather, Georgia seems to have bought into the US ethic of military prowess as well as into the US’s lingering estimation that Russia was still in a condition of abject weakness. The vision that American trained Georgian troops could easily “whip” Russian conscripts was something that circulated in certain low-level contacts between Americans and Georgians. While not official, one can still easily imagine the appeal such talk must have had for Saakashvili, whose experience with ousting the local warlord, Aslan Abashidze, and bringing Adjaria to heel early in his administration (May 2004) must have whetted his appetite for force.

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