The Russo-Georgian war and the balance of power
The Russian invasion of Georgia has not changed the balance of power
in Eurasia. It simply announced that the balance of power had already
shifted. The United States has been absorbed in its wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, as well as potential conflict with Iran and a
destabilizing situation in Pakistan. It has no strategic ground forces
in reserve and is in no position to intervene on the Russian periphery.
This, as we have argued, has opened a window of opportunity for the Russians to reassert their influence in the former Soviet sphere.
Moscow did not have to concern itself with the potential response of
the United States or Europe; hence, the invasion did not shift the
balance of power. The balance of power had already shifted, and it was
up to the Russians when to make this public. They did that Aug. 8.
Let’s begin simply by reviewing the last few days.
On the night of Thursday, August 7, forces of the Republic of Georgia drove across the border of South Ossetia,
a secessionist region of Georgia that has functioned as an independent
entity since the fall of the Soviet Union. The forces drove on to the
capital, Tskhinvali, which is close to the border. Georgian forces got
bogged down while trying to take the city. In spite of heavy fighting,
they never fully secured the city, nor the rest of South Ossetia.
On the morning of August 8, Russian forces entered South Ossetia,
using armored and motorized infantry forces along with air power. South
Ossetia was informally aligned with Russia, and Russia acted to prevent
the region’s absorption by Georgia. Given the speed with which the
Russians responded — within hours of the Georgian attack — the Russians
were expecting the Georgian attack and were themselves at their
jumping-off points. The counterattack was carefully planned and
competently executed, and over the next 48 hours, the Russians
succeeded in defeating the main Georgian force and forcing a retreat.
By Sunday, Aug. 10, the Russians had consolidated their position in
On Monday, the Russians extended their offensive into Georgia proper,
attacking on two axes. One was south from South Ossetia to the Georgian
city of Gori. The other drive was from Abkhazia, another secessionist
region of Georgia aligned with the Russians. This drive was designed to
cut the road between the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and its ports. By
this point, the Russians had bombed the military airfields at Marneuli
and Vaziani and appeared to have disabled radars at the international
airport in Tbilisi. These moves brought Russian forces to within 40 miles of the Georgian capital, while making outside reinforcement and resupply of Georgian forces extremely difficult should anyone wish to undertake it.
The Mystery Behind the Georgian Invasion
In this simple chronicle, there is something quite mysterious: Why
did the Georgians choose to invade South Ossetia on Thursday night?
There had been a great deal of shelling by the South Ossetians of
Georgian villages for the previous three nights, but while possibly
more intense than usual, artillery exchanges were routine. The
Georgians might not have fought well, but they committed fairly
substantial forces that must have taken at the very least several days
to deploy and supply. Georgia’s move was deliberate.
The United States is Georgia’s closest ally.
It maintained about 130 military advisers in Georgia, along with
civilian advisers, contractors involved in all aspects of the Georgian
government and people doing business in Georgia. It is inconceivable
that the Americans were unaware of Georgia’s mobilization and
intentions. It is also inconceivable that the Americans were unaware
that the Russians had deployed substantial forces on the South Ossetian
frontier. U.S. technical intelligence, from satellite imagery and
signals intelligence to unmanned aerial vehicles, could not miss the
fact that thousands of Russian troops were moving to forward positions.
The Russians clearly knew the Georgians were ready to move. How could
the United States not be aware of the Russians? Indeed, given the
posture of Russian troops, how could intelligence analysts have missed
the possibility that the Russians had laid a trap, hoping for a
Georgian invasion to justify its own counterattack?
It is very difficult to imagine that the Georgians launched their
attack against U.S. wishes. The Georgians rely on the United States,
and they were in no position to defy it. This leaves two possibilities.
The first is a massive breakdown in intelligence, in which the United
States either was unaware of the existence of Russian forces, or knew
of the Russian forces but — along with the Georgians — miscalculated
Russia’s intentions. The second is that the United States, along with
other countries, has viewed Russia through the prism of the 1990s, when
the Russian military was in shambles and the Russian government was
paralyzed. The United States has not seen Russia make a decisive military move beyond its borders since the Afghan war of the 1970s-1980s. The
Russians had systematically avoided such moves for years. The United
States had assumed that the Russians would not risk the consequences of
If this was the case, then it points to the central reality of this situation: The Russians had changed dramatically,
along with the balance of power in the region. They welcomed the
opportunity to drive home the new reality, which was that they could
invade Georgia and the United States and Europe could not respond. As
for risk, they did not view the invasion as risky. Militarily, there
was no counter. Economically, Russia is an energy exporter doing quite
well — indeed, the Europeans need Russian energy even more than the
Russians need to sell it to them. Politically, as we shall see, the
Americans needed the Russians more than the Russians needed the
Americans. Moscow’s calculus was that this was the moment to strike.
The Russians had been building up to it for months, as we have
discussed, and they struck.
The Western Encirclement of Russia
To understand Russian thinking, we need to look at two events. The first is the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
From the U.S. and European point of view, the Orange Revolution
represented a triumph of democracy and Western influence. From the
Russian point of view, as Moscow made clear, the Orange Revolution was a CIA-funded intrusion into the internal affairs of Ukraine, designed to draw Ukraine into
NATO and add to the encirclement of Russia. U.S. Presidents George H.W.
Bush and Bill Clinton had promised the Russians that NATO would not
expand into the former Soviet Union empire.
That promise had already been broken in 1998 by NATO’s expansion to
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic — and again in the 2004
expansion, which absorbed not only the rest of the former Soviet
satellites in what is now Central Europe, but also the three Baltic
states, which had been components of the Soviet Union.
The Russians had tolerated all that, but the discussion of including
Ukraine in NATO represented a fundamental threat to Russia’s national
security. It would have rendered Russia indefensible and threatened to
destabilize the Russian Federation itself. When the United States went
so far as to suggest that Georgia be included as well, bringing NATO
deeper into the Caucasus, the Russian conclusion — publicly stated —
was that the United States in particular intended to encircle and break
The second and lesser event was the decision by Europe and the United States to back Kosovo’s separation from Serbia.
The Russians were friendly with Serbia, but the deeper issue for Russia
was this: The principle of Europe since World War II was that, to
prevent conflict, national borders would not be changed. If that
principle were violated in Kosovo, other border shifts — including
demands by various regions for independence from Russia — might follow.
The Russians publicly and privately asked that Kosovo not be given
formal independence, but instead continue its informal autonomy, which
was the same thing in practical terms. Russia’s requests were ignored.
From the Ukrainian experience, the Russians became convinced that
the United States was engaged in a plan of strategic encirclement and
strangulation of Russia. From the Kosovo experience, they concluded
that the United States and Europe were not prepared to consider Russian
wishes even in fairly minor affairs. That was the breaking point. If
Russian desires could not be accommodated even in a minor matter like
this, then clearly Russia and the West were in conflict. For the
Russians, as we said, the question was how to respond. Having declined
to respond in Kosovo, the Russians decided to respond where they had
all the cards: in South Ossetia.
Moscow had two motives, the lesser of which was as a tit-for-tat
over Kosovo. If Kosovo could be declared independent under Western
sponsorship, then South Ossetia and Abkhazia,
the two breakaway regions of Georgia, could be declared independent
under Russian sponsorship. Any objections from the United States and
Europe would simply confirm their hypocrisy. This was important for
internal Russian political reasons, but the second motive was far more
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin once said that the fall of the
Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster. This didn’t mean that he
wanted to retain the Soviet state; rather, it meant that the
disintegration of the Soviet Union had created a situation in which
Russian national security was threatened by Western interests. As an
example, consider that during the Cold War, St. Petersburg was about
1,200 miles away from a NATO country. Today it is about 60 miles away
from Estonia, a NATO member. The disintegration of the Soviet Union had
left Russia surrounded by a group of countries hostile to Russian
interests in various degrees and heavily influenced by the United
States, Europe and, in some cases, China.
Resurrecting the Russian Sphere
Putin did not want to re-establish the Soviet Union, but he did want
to re-establish the Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet
Union region. To accomplish that, he had to do two things. First, he
had to re-establish the credibility of the Russian army as a fighting force, at least in the context of its region. Second, he
had to establish that Western guarantees, including NATO membership,
meant nothing in the face of Russian power. He did not want to confront
NATO directly, but he did want to confront and defeat a power that was
closely aligned with the United States, had U.S. support, aid and
advisers and was widely seen as being under American protection.
Georgia was the perfect choice.
By invading Georgia as Russia did
(competently if not brilliantly), Putin re-established the credibility
of the Russian army. But far more importantly, by doing this Putin
revealed an open secret: While the United States is tied down in the
Middle East, American guarantees have no value. This lesson is not for
American consumption. It is something that, from the Russian point of
view, the Ukrainians, the Balts and the Central Asians need to digest.
Indeed, it is a lesson Putin wants to transmit to Poland and the Czech
Republic as well. The United States wants to place ballistic missile defense installations in those countries, and the Russians want them to understand that
allowing this to happen increases their risk, not their security.
The Russians knew the United States would denounce their attack.
This actually plays into Russian hands. The more vocal senior leaders
are, the greater the contrast with their inaction, and the Russians
wanted to drive home the idea that American guarantees are empty talk.
The Russians also know something else that is of vital importance:
For the United States, the Middle East is far more important than the
Caucasus, and Iran is particularly important. The United States wants the Russians to
participate in sanctions against Iran. Even more importantly, they do
not want the Russians to sell weapons to Iran, particularly the highly
effective S-300 air defense system. Georgia is a marginal issue to the
United States; Iran is a central issue. The Russians are in a position
to pose serious problems for the United States not only in Iran, but
also with weapons sales to other countries, like Syria.
Therefore, the United States has a problem — it either must reorient
its strategy away from the Middle East and toward the Caucasus, or it
has to seriously limit its response to Georgia to avoid a Russian
counter in Iran. Even if the United States had an appetite for another
war in Georgia at this time, it would have to calculate the Russian
response in Iran — and possibly in Afghanistan (even though Moscow’s
interests there are currently aligned with those of Washington).
In other words, the Russians have backed the Americans into a
corner. The Europeans, who for the most part lack expeditionary
militaries and are dependent upon Russian energy exports,
have even fewer options. If nothing else happens, the Russians will
have demonstrated that they have resumed their role as a regional
power. Russia is not a global power by any means, but a significant
regional power with lots of nuclear weapons and an economy that isn’t
all too shabby at the moment. It has also compelled every state on the
Russian periphery to re-evaluate its position relative to Moscow. As
for Georgia, the Russians appear ready to demand the resignation of
President Mikhail Saakashvili. Militarily, that is their option. That
is all they wanted to demonstrate, and they have demonstrated it.
The war in Georgia, therefore, is Russia’s public return to great
power status. This is not something that just happened — it has been
unfolding ever since Putin took power, and with growing intensity in
the past five years. Part of it has to do with the increase of Russian
power, but a great deal of it has to do with the fact that the Middle
Eastern wars have left the United States off-balance and short on
resources. As we have written, this conflict created a window of
opportunity. The Russian goal is to use that window to assert a new
reality throughout the region while the Americans are tied down
elsewhere and dependent on the Russians. The war was far from a
surprise; it has been building for months. But the geopolitical
foundations of the war have been building since 1992. Russia has been
an empire for centuries. The last 15 years or so were not the new
reality, but simply an aberration that would be rectified. And now it
is being rectified.
George Friedman is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
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