The Russo-Georgian War and the Balance of Power
George Friedman at
12 August 2008
"On the night of Thursday, Aug. 7, forces of the Republic of
Georgia drove across the border of South Ossetia, a secessionist region of
Georgia that has functioned as an independent entity since the fall of the
Soviet Union. On the morning of Aug. 8, Russian forces entered South
Ossetia, using armored and motorized infantry forces along with air power.
South Ossetia was informally aligned with Russia, and Russia acted to
prevent the region’s absorption by Georgia. ... It is very difficult to
imagine that the Georgians launched their attack against U.S. wishes....The
war in Georgia is Russia’s public return to great power status. This is not
something that just happened — it has been unfolding ever since Putin took
power, and with growing intensity in the past five years. Part of it has to
do with the increase of Russian power, but a great deal of it has to do with
the fact that the Middle Eastern wars have left the United States
off-balance and short on resources."
The Russian invasion of Georgia has not changed the balance of
power in Eurasia. It simply announced that the balance of power had already
shifted. The United States has been absorbed in its wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, as well as potential conflict with Iran and a destabilizing
situation in Pakistan. It has no strategic ground forces in reserve and is in no
position to intervene on the Russian periphery. This, as we have argued, has
opened a window of opportunity for the Russians to reassert their influence in
the former Soviet sphere. Moscow did not have to concern itself with the
potential response of the United States or Europe; hence, the invasion did not
shift the balance of power. The balance of power had already shifted, and it was
up to the Russians when to make this public. They did that Aug. 8.
Let’s begin simply by reviewing the last few days.
On the night of Thursday, Aug. 7, forces of the Republic of Georgia drove across
the border of South Ossetia, a secessionist region of Georgia that has
functioned as an independent entity since the fall of the Soviet Union. The
forces drove on to the capital, Tskhinvali, which is close to the border.
Georgian forces got bogged down while trying to take the city. In spite of heavy
fighting, they never fully secured the city, nor the rest of South Ossetia.
On the morning of Aug. 8, Russian forces entered South Ossetia, using armored
and motorized infantry forces along with air power. South Ossetia was informally
aligned with Russia, and Russia acted to prevent the region’s absorption by
Georgia. Given the speed with which the Russians responded — within hours of the
Georgian attack — the Russians were expecting the Georgian attack and were
themselves at their jumping-off points. The counterattack was carefully planned
and competently executed, and over the next 48 hours, the Russians succeeded in
defeating the main Georgian force and forcing a retreat. By Sunday, Aug. 10, the
Russians had consolidated their position in South Ossetia.
On Monday, the Russians extended their offensive into Georgia
proper, attacking on two axes. One was south from South Ossetia to the Georgian
city of Gori. The other drive was from Abkhazia, another secessionist region of
Georgia aligned with the Russians. This drive was designed to cut the road
between the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and its ports. By this point, the
Russians had bombed the military airfields at Marneuli and Vaziani and appeared
to have disabled radars at the international airport in Tbilisi. These moves
brought Russian forces to within 40 miles of the Georgian capital, while making
outside reinforcement and resupply of Georgian forces extremely difficult should
anyone wish to undertake it.
The Mystery Behind the Georgian Invasion
In this simple chronicle, there is something quite mysterious:
Why did the Georgians choose to invade South Ossetia on Thursday night? There
had been a great deal of shelling by the South Ossetians of Georgian villages
for the previous three nights, but while possibly more intense than usual,
artillery exchanges were routine. The Georgians might not have fought well, but
they committed fairly substantial forces that must have taken at the very least
several days to deploy and supply. Georgia’s move was deliberate.
The United States is Georgia’s closest ally. It maintained about 130 military
advisers in Georgia, along with civilian advisers, contractors involved in all
aspects of the Georgian government and people doing business in Georgia. It is
inconceivable that the Americans were unaware of Georgia’s mobilization and
intentions. It is also inconceivable that the Americans were unaware that the
Russians had deployed substantial forces on the South Ossetian frontier. U.S.
technical intelligence, from satellite imagery and signals intelligence to
unmanned aerial vehicles, could not miss the fact that thousands of Russian
troops were moving to forward positions. The Russians clearly knew the Georgians
were ready to move. How could the United States not be aware of the Russians?
Indeed, given the posture of Russian troops, how could intelligence analysts
have missed the possibility that the Russians had laid a trap, hoping for a
Georgian invasion to justify its own counterattack?
It is very difficult to imagine that the Georgians launched their attack against
U.S. wishes. The Georgians rely on the United States, and they were in no
position to defy it. This leaves two possibilities. The first is a massive
breakdown in intelligence, in which the United States either was unaware of the
existence of Russian forces, or knew of the Russian forces but — along with the
Georgians — miscalculated Russia’s intentions. The second is that the United
States, along with other countries, has viewed Russia through the prism of the
1990s, when the Russian military was in shambles and the Russian government was
paralyzed. The United States has not seen Russia make a decisive military move
beyond its borders since the Afghan war of the 1970s-1980s. The Russians had
systematically avoided such moves for years. The United States had assumed that
the Russians would not risk the consequences of an invasion.
If this was the case, then it points to the central reality of this situation:
The Russians had changed dramatically, along with the balance of power in the
region. They welcomed the opportunity to drive home the new reality, which was
that they could invade Georgia and the United States and Europe could not
respond. As for risk, they did not view the invasion as risky. Militarily, there
was no counter. Economically, Russia is an energy exporter doing quite well —
indeed, the Europeans need Russian energy even more than the Russians need to
sell it to them. Politically, as we shall see, the Americans needed the Russians
more than the Russians needed the Americans. Moscow’s calculus was that this was
the moment to strike. The Russians had been building up to it for months, as we
have discussed, and they struck.
The Western Encirclement of Russia
To understand Russian thinking, we need to look at two events.
The first is the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. From the U.S. and European point
of view, the Orange Revolution represented a triumph of democracy and Western
influence. From the Russian point of view, as Moscow made clear, the Orange
Revolution was a CIA-funded intrusion into the internal affairs of Ukraine,
designed to draw Ukraine into NATO and add to the encirclement of Russia. U.S.
Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had promised the Russians that NATO
would not expand into the former Soviet Union empire.
That promise had already been broken in 1998 by NATO’s expansion to Poland,
Hungary and the Czech Republic — and again in the 2004 expansion, which absorbed
not only the rest of the former Soviet satellites in what is now Central Europe,
but also the three Baltic states, which had been components of the Soviet Union.
The Russians had tolerated all that, but the discussion of
including Ukraine in NATO represented a fundamental threat to Russia’s national
security. It would have rendered Russia indefensible and threatened to
destabilize the Russian Federation itself. When the United States went so far as
to suggest that Georgia be included as well, bringing NATO deeper into the
Caucasus, the Russian conclusion — publicly stated — was that the United States
in particular intended to encircle and break Russia.
The second and lesser event was the decision by
Europe and the United States to back Kosovo’s separation from Serbia. The
Russians were friendly with Serbia, but the deeper issue for Russia was this:
The principle of Europe since World War II was that, to prevent conflict,
national borders would not be changed. If that principle were violated in
Kosovo, other border shifts — including demands by various regions for
independence from Russia — might follow. The Russians publicly and privately
asked that Kosovo not be given formal independence, but instead continue its
informal autonomy, which was the same thing in practical terms. Russia’s
requests were ignored.
From the Ukrainian experience, the Russians became convinced that the United
States was engaged in a plan of strategic encirclement and strangulation of
Russia. From the Kosovo experience, they concluded that the United States and
Europe were not prepared to consider Russian wishes even in fairly minor
affairs. That was the breaking point. If Russian desires could not be
accommodated even in a minor matter like this, then clearly Russia and the West
were in conflict. For the Russians, as we said, the question was how to respond.
Having declined to respond in Kosovo, the Russians decided to respond where they
had all the cards: in South Ossetia.
Moscow had two motives, the lesser of which was as a tit-for-tat over Kosovo. If
Kosovo could be declared independent under Western sponsorship, then South
Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two breakaway regions of Georgia, could be declared
independent under Russian sponsorship. Any objections from the United States and
Europe would simply confirm their hypocrisy. This was important for internal
Russian political reasons, but the second motive was far more important.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin once said that the fall of the Soviet
Union was a geopolitical disaster. This didn’t mean that he wanted to retain the
Soviet state; rather, it meant that the disintegration of the Soviet Union had
created a situation in which Russian national security was threatened by Western
interests. As an example, consider that during the Cold War, St. Petersburg was
about 1,200 miles away from a NATO country. Today it is about 60 miles away from
Estonia, a NATO member. The disintegration of the Soviet Union had left Russia
surrounded by a group of countries hostile to Russian interests in various
degrees and heavily influenced by the United States, Europe and, in some cases,
Resurrecting the Russian Sphere
Putin did not want to re-establish the Soviet Union, but he did
want to re-establish the Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union
region. To accomplish that, he had to do two things. First, he had to
re-establish the credibility of the Russian army as a fighting force, at least
in the context of its region. Second, he had to establish that Western
guarantees, including NATO membership, meant nothing in the face of Russian
power. He did not want to confront NATO directly, but he did want to confront
and defeat a power that was closely aligned with the United States, had U.S.
support, aid and advisers and was widely seen as being under American
protection. Georgia was the perfect choice.
By invading Georgia as Russia did (competently if not brilliantly), Putin
re-established the credibility of the Russian army. But far more importantly, by
doing this Putin revealed an open secret: While the United States is tied down
in the Middle East, American guarantees have no value. This lesson is not for
American consumption. It is something that, from the Russian point of view, the
Ukrainians, the Balts and the Central Asians need to digest. Indeed, it is a
lesson Putin wants to transmit to Poland and the Czech Republic as well. The
United States wants to place ballistic missile defense installations in those
countries, and the Russians want them to understand that allowing this to happen
increases their risk, not their security.
The Russians knew the United States would denounce their attack. This actually
plays into Russian hands. The more vocal senior leaders are, the greater the
contrast with their inaction, and the Russians wanted to drive home the idea
that American guarantees are empty talk.
The Russians also know something else that is of vital importance: For the
United States, the Middle East is far more important than the Caucasus, and Iran
is particularly important. The United States wants the Russians to participate
in sanctions against Iran. Even more importantly, they do not want the Russians
to sell weapons to Iran, particularly the highly effective S-300 air defense
system. Georgia is a marginal issue to the United States; Iran is a central
issue. The Russians are in a position to pose serious problems for the United
States not only in Iran, but also with weapons sales to other countries, like
Therefore, the United States has a problem — it either must reorient its
strategy away from the Middle East and toward the Caucasus, or it has to
seriously limit its response to Georgia to avoid a Russian counter in Iran. Even
if the United States had an appetite for another war in Georgia at this time, it
would have to calculate the Russian response in Iran — and possibly in
Afghanistan (even though Moscow’s interests there are currently aligned with
those of Washington).
In other words, the Russians have backed the Americans into a corner. The
Europeans, who for the most part lack expeditionary militaries and are dependent
upon Russian energy exports, have even fewer options. If nothing else happens,
the Russians will have demonstrated that they have resumed their role as a
regional power. Russia is not a global power by any means, but a significant
regional power with lots of nuclear weapons and an economy that isn’t all too
shabby at the moment. It has also compelled every state on the Russian periphery
to re-evaluate its position relative to Moscow. As for Georgia, the Russians
appear ready to demand the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili.
Militarily, that is their option. That is all they wanted to demonstrate, and
they have demonstrated it.
The war in Georgia, therefore, is Russia’s public return to great power status.
This is not something that just happened — it has been unfolding ever since
Putin took power, and with growing intensity in the past five years. Part of it
has to do with the increase of Russian power, but a great deal of it has to do
with the fact that the Middle Eastern wars have left the United States
off-balance and short on resources. As we have written, this conflict created a
window of opportunity. The Russian goal is to use that window to assert a new
reality throughout the region while the Americans are tied down elsewhere and
dependent on the Russians. The war was far from a surprise; it has been building
for months. But the geopolitical foundations of the war have been building since
1992. Russia has been an empire for centuries. The last 15 years or so were not
the new reality, but simply an aberration that would be rectified. And now it is