Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Georgia, or Iran?

The world is agog this morning that Russia is (gasp!) violating a supposed truce with the Georgians. If Russian armor was not in Gori two days ago, AP's story sure indicates that it is this morning. The Russians act like they're going to Tbilisi. (See the map from my 11 August post).
In the west, the Abkhazia separatists, presumably backed by elements of the Russian armored column that was in or by Senski two days ago, are moving too. A "separatist official," speaking of Abkhazia's move into Georgian territory, says that "the border [that is, the Georgia/Abkhazia border] has been along this river for 1,000 years" and that Georgia would have to accept the "new border" and that the Georgian Army had received "American training in running away." I wonder what "river" this official is talking about as the "border"? The Enguri, or the Rioni and its tributaries, much further south?
The Abkhazian official raises a good question: where is the Georgian Army? Presumably it's preparing to defend Tbilisi, to the southeast of Gori.
What appears to have happened is that the Russians stopped for a day, probably to move up fuel supplies; give the Georgians time to smell the coffee, crawl and throw President Saakashavili out (as the Russians have demanded); and, to gauge the reaction to events so far on the part of the Americans and the Europeans. Now, with the tanks refueled, the Georgians intransigent and the Americans uninterested, the tanks are moving south again.
In a Stratfor essay entitled "The Russo-Georgian War and the Balance of Power" George Friedman observes, inter alia:
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?
Interestingly, Richard Fernandez (a/k/a Wretchard), over at Belmont Club, today notes a New York Times story that "long before there was any allegation that the Georgians had entered South Ossetia, the Russian cyberwar apparatus began their campaign against Tbilisi. . ."
Clearly, there was plenty of evidence that should have clued-in the Georgians -- but especially the Americans -- that the Russians were coming. At the very minimum, it should have been clear to all sentient life-forms in possession of such intelligence that the Russians were not playing around, or going to tolerate any playing around, on the South Ossetia issue. Friedman adds up the implications:
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 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 an invasion.
Sorry, but this just does not add up to me. I simply cannot see how (1) the United States could have missed the buildup of Russian forces around Vladikavkaz, north of the Caucasus; or in Abkhazia. Armored columns are active on both the western and eastern Georgian fronts. This means substantial fuel and supply dumps, big concentrations of vehicles, including tankers; almost certainly significantly increased activity in Russian rail yards in the south, particularly at Vladikavkaz, Stavropol and Prokhiadnyy; plus turbulence in Ground Forces units throughout western Russia, as other units were stripped to provide equipment and manpower fillers for units tapped for the southern campaign. The naval movements discussed in the press would have required significant preparation also.
Moreover, I cannot fathom how (2) anyone could miss the significance of Russian cyber-activity against Georgia, alluded to in the Times story. Moreover, (3) both (1) and (2) would have generated a significant amount of Russian communications traffic, that would have been picked up by the Americans. Communications intelligence has always, always been an American high card. Additionally, according to the Times (London), British intelligence was on the case, and expected the war "weeks ago." Surely London shared with Washington, at least on this matter.
The raw intelligence, and everything else, surely makes it clear that the Russians were coming, and so, finally, (4) I simply cannot credit that the processing of the raw intelligence, the analysis, was that far off the mark either. So I don't credit either of Dr. Friedman's possibilities -- failures in intelligence gathering, or analysis.
There's a third possibility, alluded to in passing in the Stratfor piece:
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. . .
(bolded emphasis supplied)
Lets roll with this one a little further. Suppose, suppose, just for a minute, that US decision makers had all of this information. Just maybe, the dog didn't bark?
Georgia and the Caucasus are, as Dr. Friedman indicated, second-order problems for the United States. Not so Iran! The United States has no more vital foreign policy objective in the present era than maintaining its hegemony in the Persian Gulf, strengthening pro-US client regimes west of Iran (Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan), and allies (Israel); and also preventing Iran from either getting a nuclear weapon or otherwise threatening America or its clients.
Things seem to be moving towards a showdown with Iran. Since late 2007, Bush has embraced the European method of working through the diplomats to try to stop Iranian nuclear development. Iran hasn't budged. All evidence shows that Iran is bound and determined to continue down the nuclear road, and that Iran fully intends to produce a weapon. The desire to have a nuclear capability reflects a broad national consensus, even among the many Iranians who hate the present regime. They are not going to be talked out of it.
The Israelis are alarmed, and apparently considering their military options. Are the Americans, more than we perhaps understand, doing the same?
So, Iran is and has to be America's most serious concern at present. For the Russians, matters are different. For the long run, they probably are not happy at the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons, but they very much resent the unipolar world the Americans think that they rule, and want to recover their influence and position in the "near abroad" -- the states comprising the former Soviet Union. For Russia, the Caucasus, and Georgia, are first order concerns. Russia has wanted to control the Caucasus since Peter the Great. Iran, for the present, is a distinctly second-order problem for them, but the Russians are certainly not unhappy to see the Americans embroiled in the Persian Gulf.
Suppose, for a moment that the Russians, implicitly or explicitly, have offered the Americans a quid pro quo. Is it possible that Moscow has told Washington that it might be willing to take a hands-off attitude towards whatever the Americans wind up doing in the Persian Gulf, if the US avoids helping Georgia too much in the Caucasus?
I don't say that such a deal has occurred. But it makes too much sense not to consider the possibility. We will have to wait and observe the Russian attitude when the Iranian pot boils.

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