Friday, August 8, 2008

Oh, Russia, you're incorrigible!

It's on! It is owwwn, shit is going down, shit is going down! Does this mean the Olympics mean something again? Does Ivan Drago become culturally relevant again? GWS sure hopes so.

So, ok, we get it---this is what happens when the guard changes in Russia: the new leader sits quietly for a minute, shakes some hands, kisses some babies, then bombs a Caucasian breakaway region back into the Stone Age. The Russian people then fall in behind their valiant leader because, as far as GWS can tell, that's just what Russians do: Putin came into office with dismal approval ratings, but after creating a bloody shirt around which people could rally, he led Russia into the disastrous Second Chechen War and was eventually loved by most Russians and referred to as "Daddy." Putin left office with nearly nine in ten Russians approving of his work

CNN quotes Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili as saying "This is the worst nightmare one can encounter," which might qualify as the understatement of the year. Georgia has called for a total mobilization of its armed forces, about 70,000 pairs of boots all told; Russia, by contrast, fields an ground army of just under 400,000 men, including 35,000 paratroops. Moreover, Russia's air force will dominate the skies over Georgia throughout this conflict, and Russia's massive numerical superiority in armor and artillery will be difficult for the Georgians to resist. Haven't we seen this somewhere before?

From the most recent statements coming out of Moscow, Tblisi, and Tskhinvali, GWS predicts that this will be Chechnya 2.0, and that this time, the Russians will have learned from their mistakes in Grozny. Oh, sure, there'll be plenty of fuck-ups---this is, after all, the only army that gave its soldiers booze during World War II (100 mL of vodka per day per infantryman). The Russian army still depends on 190,000 unomotivated, unprofessional conscripts and is far from a model force. Still, they should crush Georgian resistance using the same tactics Russian armies have employed in aggressive wars for the last 50 years: loose rules of engagement, heavy reliance on artillery and mobile rocket platforms, and a crushing advantage in manpower and materiel.

GWS's take is that the Russians are launching a fairly naked war of aggression. Claims of protecting ethnic Russians ring hollow considering the way Russia has treated the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus. Besides, ethnic nationalism is sooooo 20th century. Russia timed this move to correspond with the opening of the Beijing Games, and given the South Ossetian government's response to the crisis ("Russian tanks? What Russian tanks? Oh those Russian tanks? Those are, um, milk trucks."), Russia is not acting unilaterally.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took it upon himself (isn't Dmitri Medvedev the Russian president??? Sorry, stupid question) to tell the world that "war has started" in Georgia. No shit! Thanks Vlad, you shifty little ex-KGB bastard. GWS sees a bit of The Wire's Avon Barksdale in Putin---Medvedev might be telling him they can get out of this street game and become legit, become bid'nissmen, quit screwing around with small-time, dangerous little corners of the world like South Ossetia. Vlad takes a drink and tries to hide the contempt in his voice, then makes his priorities clear: "I want my corners."

The big escalation here from the low-level saber-rattling that has defined the South Ossetian problem for the last few years was when Georgian planes bombed a Soviet (oops, sorry, Russian) armored column headed for Tskhnivail and Georgian ground forces fired on Russian attack planes. In what will become, GWS predicts, a running narrative, the South Ossetians claimed that the armored column was, in fact, a humanitarian column. GWS isn't buying it---can someone teach these people to lie plausibly, please? Otherwise, the drama goes right out of this whole thing...

The international response to this crisis is likely to be muted, in part because of the Olympics, in part because Russia's trying to annex a relatively geopolitically meaningless territory, and in part because Russia's ultimate gamble will pay off: while South Ossetia has the potential to turn into another Chechnya, Russia's unlikely to lose this war and even if it does, it will have solidified a de facto sphere of influence approaching its Cold War borders. The Georgians have to think more short-term: dig in, booby-trap everything, and pray you can hold out until after Michael Phelps wins his medals and the world (hopefully) starts paying attention.

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