The latest reports indicate that Russian forces have captured the Georgian airbase at Senaki, in Georgia proper. We have to ask why Russia is now pushing on, and what its strategy may be. We also have to question the media’s rather curious comparisons between Russia’s conventional military power, and that of Georgia.
Let’s take the second question first. The media have been making wildly odd comparisons between Russia’s military and that of Georgia. It is hardly valid to compare the two. We knew before the conflict began that Russia has one of the largest militaries in the world, and has recently been undergoing something of a revival under Putin. Georgia’s conventional forces are no match, and never were.
But even a cursory look at the CIA factbook page would tell an alternative story. The Russians face serious problems if they attempt to prolong the conflict. First is the Caucuses mountains themselves, second is the Georgian winter, third is the simple fact of almost 1,200,000 Georgian men between the ages of 16-49 who can fight. Even reducing this figure to men who have received the compulsory 18 months military service would still leave several hundred thousand men, fighting with the simple motive of defending their homeland. There is also the fact that Georgian households invariably have one or two assault weapons each, in what is by Western European standards a rather militarised society. If worse comes to worse, these are men willing to fight, who know the territory and how to use it. A guerilla war would be easily fought by Georgia, and prove hugely taxing on Russian forces in the region. As StragetyPage notes:
Until a few years ago the “reserves” constituted the entire body of conscripts discharged over the past 15 years. But this pool, of about 250,000 men, was just that, a pool. The “reservists” were not subject to periodic refresher training, and so no more than perhaps 10 percent of them could be considered useful in the event of activation. Beginning four years ago, Georgia instituted a more rigorous reserve training program. An active reserve has been created, which apparently numbers over 10,000 men, and is expected to grow to as many as 100,000 over the next few years, as conscripts (drafted at 18 to 18-24 months) leave active service, and enter 5-10 years of reserve duty.
While Georgia doesn’t have the money for modern equipment (it’s stuff is mostly Russian Cold War vintage), it does have enough professional soldiers from the old Red Army, and a military tradition going back centuries. Much to the discomfort of Russia, the United States has been supplying Georgia with military trainers and some equipment. Partly, this is in response to Georgian help in Iraq. Georgia first sent 800 peacekeepers to Iraq, and began increasing that force. Currently there are 2,000 Georgian troops in Iraq, where they obtain useful operational experience.
That apart, Russia is asking for trouble if it continues on its current path. There is a reason the Russian Empire could never control Georgia, and a reason the Russian language is not the first one. Geography is one of the main reasons, the Georgian people are another.
So what is Russia doing? Demonstrating its new found military strength. Taking no shit from Georgia. Ignoring the international community. Using the language of its US: “We bombed Gori because the Georgian forces were using civilian infrastructure as cover to launch attacks on us.”, “Our peace enforcement mission is seeking to protect Ossetians…”. And this is how it is played to the Russian population. No doubt many Russians are delighted at this new found military projection of power.
But will Russia escalate it to a point, and then wait and see, or will it push on? It’s hard to say. To me it seems they have achieved whatever objectives they set out to attain, and any further push into Georgia would be counter productive.
Read: Zbigniew Brzezinski’s interview in HuffPo.
Charlie Whitaker has a similar roundup to myself.
Oh and have a look through my Caucasian Politics archive, I have posts on Ossetia and Abkhazia going back four years.
Russia-Georgia is a Georgian blog about the conflict.