reflections

Aug 11, 2008 | 01:51 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Lessons Learned from Georgia

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The war between Georgia and Russia appears to be drawing to a close. There were Russian air attacks on Georgia on Sunday and some fighting in South Ossetia, and the Russians sank a Georgian missile boat. But as the day ended the Russians declared themselves ready to make peace with Georgia, and U.N. officials said the Georgians were ready to complete the withdrawal of their forces from South Ossetia. At this point, the Russians have achieved what they wanted to achieve, quite apart from assuring South Ossetia's autonomy. First, they have driven home the fact that in the end, they are the dominant power not only in the Caucasus but also around their entire periphery. Alliance with the United States or training with foreign advisers ultimately means little; it is not even clear what the United States or NATO would have been able to do if Georgia had been a member of the alliance. That lesson is not for the benefit of Georgia, but for Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Azerbaijan, and even Poland and the Czech Republic. The Russians have made it clear that, at least at this moment in history, they can operate on their periphery effectively and therefore their neighbors should not be indifferent to Russian wishes. The second lesson was for the Americans and Europeans to consider. The Russians had asked that Kosovo not be granted independence. The Russians were prepared to accept autonomy but they did not want the map of Europe to be redrawn; they made it clear that once that starts, not only will it not end, but the Russians would feel free to redraw the map themselves. The Americans and Europeans went forward anyway, making the assumption that the Russians would have no choice but to live with that decision. The Russian response to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia drives home the point that the Russians are again a force to be reckoned with. There has been sharp rhetoric from American and European officials, but that rhetoric can't be matched with military action. The Europeans are too militarily weak to have any options, and the Americans have quite enough on their plates without getting involved in a war in Georgia. In some ways the rhetoric makes the Russians look even stronger than they actually are. The intensity of the rhetoric contrasted with the paucity of action is striking. The Americans in particular have another problem. Iran is infinitely more important to them than Georgia, and they need Russian help in Iran. Specifically, they need the Russians not to sell the Iranians weapons. In particular, they do not want the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles delivered to the Iranians. In addition, they want the Russians to join in possible sanctions against Iran. Russia has a number of ways to thwart U.S. policy not only in Iran, but also in Afghanistan and Syria. These are areas of fundamental concern to the United States, and confronting the Russians on Georgia is a risky business. The Russians can counter in ways that are extremely painful to the United States. There is talk that the Russians might want a new government in Georgia. That is probably so, but the Russians have already achieved their most important goals. They have made it clear to their neighbors that a relationship with the West does not provide security if Russia's interests are threatened. They have made it clear to the West that ignoring Russian wishes carries a price. And finally, they have made it clear to everyone that the Russian military, which was in catastrophic shape five years ago, is sufficiently healed to carry out a complex combined-arms operation including land, air and naval components. Granted it was against a small country, but there were many ways in which the operation could have been bungled. It wasn't. Russia is not a superpower, but it is certainly no longer a military cripple. Delivering that message, in the end, might have been the most important to Russia.

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