Georgia’s giant miscalculation

by Gwynne Dyer

The war in South Ossetia is essentially over, and the Georgians have lost. There may be some more shooting yet, but it is now clear that Georgia will never regain control of the rebel territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that President Mikhail Saakashvili has handed Russia a major victory, and that Georgia’s hopes of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are gone. Yet sections of the Western media are carrying on as if the Russians started it and are now threatening to invade Georgia itself.

Now Saakashvili is playing on old Cold War stereotypes of the Russian threat in a desperate bid for Western backing: “What Russia is doing in Georgia is open, unhidden aggression and a challenge to the whole world. If the whole world does not stop Russia today, then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital.” Nonsense. Georgia started this war.

The chronology tells it all. Skirmishes between Georgian troops and South Ossetian militia were more frequent than usual over the past several months, but on the afternoon of Aug. 7, Saakashvili offered the separatist South Ossetian government “an immediate ceasefire and the immediate beginning of talks,” promising that “full autonomy” was on the table. The same evening he ordered a general offensive.

South Ossetian’s president, Eduard Kokoity, called Saakashvili’s ceasefire offer a “despicable and treacherous” ruse, which seems fair enough. Through Thursday night and Friday morning Georgian artillery shells and rockets rained down on the little city of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital, while Georgian infantry and tanks encircled it. Russian journalists reported that 70 percent of the city was destroyed, and by Friday afternoon it was in Georgian hands.

It was obvious that this offensive had been planned well in advance, but this, it appears, was as far as Saakashvili’s plan extended. He assumed that the world’s attention would be distracted by the opening of the Olympics, and that the Russian reaction would be slow because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was off in Beijing.

If he had three or four days to establish full military control of South Ossetia, then he could put a pro-Georgian administration in place and declare the problem solved. Then, with Western diplomatic support and military aid, he could withstand the furious Russian protests and (perhaps) military responses to his action. But all of his calculations were wrong.

There was no delay in the Russian response. A large Russian force was on its way from North Ossetia (which is part of the Russian Federation) by midday Friday, and Russian jets began striking targets inside Georgia proper. By the time Vladimir Putin reached the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz on Saturday morning, the Georgian forces were already being driven out of Tskhinvali again.

By Saturday evening, Georgia was calling for a ceasefire and declaring that all its troops were being withdrawn from South Ossetia to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Saakashvili’s gamble had failed, and any future prospect for Georgia to recover the rebel province had vanished. As Putin put it, the territorial integrity of Georgia has “suffered a fatal blow.”

Not just South Ossetia has been lost for good. Any hope that Georgia could ever recover its other breakaway province, Abkhazia, has also evaporated. On Saturday, the Abkhazian government announced a military offensive to drive Georgian troops out of the Kodori gorge, the last bit of Abkhazian territory that it doesn’t control. With overt Russian military support, it was succeeding. How much does all of this matter?

It matters a great deal to Saakashvili, who is likely to lose power. It matters a lot to the 300,000 Georgians who fled their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia when the two ethnic enclaves, which had been autonomous parts of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in Soviet times, declared their independence after the old Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The Georgian attempts to reconquer them in 1992-93 were bloody failures, and after this second failure it is clear that the Georgian refugees will never go home.

It is a reason to rejoice for most Abkhazians and South Ossetians. Although they share much history and a common eastern Orthodox Christianity with the far more numerous Georgians, they are ethnically distinct peoples with different languages, and they always resented Stalin’s decision to place them under Georgian rule. It will probably be decades before they achieve formal independence or are fully absorbed into the Russian Federation, but either way they will be happy with the outcome.

The Bush administration’s ambition to extend NATO into the Caucasus mountains is dead, which will please the French, Germans and other NATO members who found it bizarre and willfully provocative. Russians, who were the target of the provocation, will be pleased with the speed and effectiveness of their government’s response. Nobody else really cares.

There is no great moral issue here. What Georgia tried to do to South Ossetia is precisely what Russia did to Chechnya, but Georgia wasn’t strong enough and South Ossetia had a bigger friend. There is no great strategic issue either: Apart from a few pipeline routes, the whole Transcaucasus is of little importance to the rest of the world. A year from now the Georgians will probably have dumped Saakashvili, and the rest of us may not even remember this foolish adventure.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.