Vienna, August 14 – Despite Moscow’s claims that it was only responding to Georgian actions and therefore cannot be called the aggressor, Vladimir Putin in fact already in April set in motion plans to invade Georgia sometime this year and was only waiting for a propitious moment to do so, according to Moscow’s leading commentator on military affairs.
In an extensive article in today’s “Novaya gazeta,” Pavel Felgengauer says that “today it is perfectly obvious that the Russian intervention in Georgia was planned in advance” and that the available evidence shows that the Kremlin had decided “already in April to begin the war in August” (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2008/59/04.html).
The plan, the Moscow analyst continues, was for “the Ossetians to intentionally provoke the Georgians” and then “any response, harsh or soft, [by Tbilisi] would be used as an occasion for the attack.” And if the response of the Georgians was one of restraint, then “the Abkhaz would begin as now the long prepared operation to ‘cleanse’ the upper part of the Kodori gorge.”
“If a war is planned,” Felgengauer points out, “then a pretext will always be found.”
The Russian wheels of war began to role after the NATO summit in Bucharest, one in which Putin participated and in which it became obvious that the Western alliance would sooner or later include Georgia and Ukraine in its ranks, something that the Russian leadership in general and Putin in particular were not prepared to tolerate without a fight.
At that time, Moscow officials said that Russia would use “any means” to block the entrance of Georgia into the alliance. But neither the Western powers nor Georgian President Mihkiel Saakashvili believed that the Kremlin was prepared to violate international law and go as far as it has in recent days.
But after Bucharest, Felgengauer notes, “events began to develop with increasing speed.” Putin directed the government “to develop measures for providing significant help” to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two republics that reject the idea that they are part of the Republic of Georgia.
Then Russian forces knocked out of the sky a Georgian drone over Abkhazia, introduced more heavily armed Russian units in Abkhazia, sent Russian planes into Georgian airspace, and under various “invented” pretexts effectively ended any “diplomatic regulation of the conflict[s]” on Georgian territory.
It is clear, the Moscow analyst says, that Moscow hoped to intimidate Georgia into retreating from its effort to integrate itself into the West and that “in principle Moscow was even prepared to formally preserve the territorial integrity of Georgia in the form of some kind of confederation” if it did so and if it replaced Saakashvili with a leader the Kremlin liked.
But if Georgia did not back down, then Moscow was ready to go to war, he says, and in early August, all the pieces of such an invasion came together: The Caucasus 2008 maneuvers had just been completed, Russian forces in the region were in place, the railway forces in Abkhazia had prepared the way, and Moscow’s propaganda mill had gone into overdrive.
And once these pieces were in place, it was necessary for Moscow to act more or less quickly because as Felgengauer points out “one must not forever hold the forces and fleet at a high level of readiness 24 hours a day.” Moreover, the weather in this region is likely to deteriorate quickly, and thus “the second half of August” was set as the last date to act.
Felgengauer notes that Putin’s behavior in Georgia recalls what the Russian government did in 1999 prior to the invasion of Chechnya. Then too, Moscow decided in the early spring to begin operations in August and September. And Putin used the invasion of Chechen militants into Daghestan as the occasion for shunting Sergei Stepashin aside and invading Chechnya.
But there are two big differences between 1999 and 2008. On the one hand, most of the international community accepted Moscow’s argument that Chechnya was part of Russia, that its leaders were Islamic radicals, and that the Russian authorities had every reason for trying to crush its government.
And on the other, Moscow faces a far tougher military situation and opponent in Georgia than it did in Chechnya. Because the six-kilometer-long tunnel into South Ossetia is so narrow, Russia could introduce forces only “in comparatively small units,” and Russian commanders have acknowledged that Georgian forces are better trained and equipped than they expected.
“The deputy chief of the General Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn,” Felgengauer writes, “has admitted that the armed forces of Georgia [today] are not those which lost the war to the separatists 15 years ago.” They are “contemporary,” “mobile” and “supplied with contemporary weapons.”
By withdrawing in the face of the Russian military invasion, the Moscow analyst points out, “the Georgian leadership preserved its regular army” and by doing so, Saakashvili has “preserved a united Georgia and at the same time the basis of his own regime” and thus is in a position to maneuver diplomatically even as Russian military actions continue.
“The military based and other infrastructure [the Russians have destroyed],” Felgengauer says, “will be rebuild with Western money and that will provide new jobs” for Georgians. Moreover, “the radars and weapons [the Georgians lost in this round of fighting] will be replaced by new and better ones.”
The West will do so, he argues, because “the Russian invasion woke Europe up.” It will not allow the Russians to continue to engage in a kind of peacekeeping which violates international rules. And “for Russia this can mean a military-political defeat as a result of what had appeared to be a successful invasion.”
And the West’s reaction to Russia’s military move will entail serious consequences for Russia and its economic elite. That elite needs integration with the West in order to continue to “grow” its wealth, and it is entirely possible that the objections of that elite to the impact the Kremlin’s actions were having on their wealth led Dmitry Medvedev to accept a ceasefire.
But Moscow’s hopes to overthrow Saakashvili and bring Georgia to heal are not over. The Russian military has introduced a large number of new weapons into Georgia – Felgengauer provides a detailed list – and rumors abound that Moscow will use other means against the Georgian leadership as well.
Consequently, the Moscow expert concludes, “the cease fire will be shaky until international peacekeeping contingents enter Georgia,” something that will change the balance of power in the Caucasus against Russia and a step that Putin and Medvedev will again try to do everything to prevent.