While the Russians claim to have agreed to a cease-fire, they haven’t actaully, you know, ceased firing. Russian forces are in or around Gori and today CNN is showing tape of Russian forces in the Georgian port city of Poti. And while the Russians appear to be able to gain territory, are they achieving their strategic objectives?
Remember, in strategy, merely gaining ground is not the goal. Even gaining ALL the ground is not the goal. The goal is to impose your political will on your oponent. So what are the Russian goals. We see them as threefold:
- Depose the current government of Georgia and install one friendly (or submissive) to Moscow.
- Discourage other former states of the USSR from aligning themselves with the west.
- Show the west as too weak to assist former USSR states.
So how are the Russians doing? The end state is unclear, but my feeling is that the longer this goes on, the less the Russians will gain. Currently Saakashvili is holding rallies with huge numbers of Georgians in attendance. Furthermore, the Presidents of Poland and the Baltic states have all traveled to Tblisi to express support for Georgia. And our President has announced humanitarian assistance to Georgia, to be delivered by the US Air Force and the US Navy. Based on these indicators, it would appear that the Russians have not met their strategic goals, in spite of tactical success on the battlefield.
The humanitarian efforts by the US are interesting. The Russians will likely not dare to interfere with them for fear of widening a conflict that they had planned to be short and relatively painless. They cannot attack airfields or ports that the US is using for fear of causing US casualties during a humanitarian mission. Even the Russians have to give lip service to public opinion. The non-trivial risk of starting a shooting war with US forces is not what they were looking for.
Further, this humanitarian presence makes it less likely that Russia will continue its attack during this putative cease fire. If the Georgians can maintain some territorial integrity over the coming days and weeks, the Russian presence in Georgia will draw more criticism and sanctions from the west. They can hardly continue to claim to be protecting their “peacekeepers” in Ossettia and Abkazia by invading Georgia.
It appears Georgia has been trading space for time. This is a very old tactic and it just may work this time. The Russians were prepared for considerable criticism for their aggression, even building a considerable maskirovka to justify it. But the longer the conflict goes on, the higher the political price they will pay.
As we see it, Russia has very few days left to conquer Georgia before that price becomes too high. But they may well be able to conquer Georgia in those few days.