By Israel Shamir
A fast guy had thought that a wallet was unattended,
and tried to snatch it. But to his distress, he was stopped in his
tracks by a burly wallet owner. This might be a fair description of
Saddam Hussein’s effort to snatch Kuwait. It also fits the war over
Georgian President Saakashvili thought he could take South Ossetia while
nobody was looking; while everybody was busy
watching the Olympiad. In order to maximise the surprise factor, he
declared barely three hours before the snatch that he would never send
Here the similarity ends. While Saddam succeeded in
taking Kuwait, Saakashvili failed to take over the SO. Saakashvili’s
strategy also was different, and more reminiscent of the Israeli
conquest of 1948: he wanted to have Ossetia without its native folk, the
Ossetians. To this end he bombarded the SO capital, Tskhinvali, causing
a mass exodus of the people – some thirty thousand of them, or almost
half of population crossed the high mountains to the Russian side. The
Russians rolled in and kicked Saakashvili’s troops out.
So far, so good.
Saakashvili has had it coming for a long time. His flirtation,
no, his heavy petting with the US and Israel, his fervent
anti-Russian sentiments, his Kartveli nationalism had led him and his
country to trouble. Like young Fidel, he wanted to turn his land into a
match to set the global fire. He was the first to be burnt.
Russia fulfilled its residual imperial duty: as the successor of
the Soviet Union, it is duty bound to guarantee some well-being of its
erstwhile junior member-states. Russia could not allow Saakashvili to
ethnically cleanse the Ossetians, for practical reasons, too: fifty
thousand refugees from South Ossetia would destabilise the North
Russia demonstrated that beyond its bark, it has bite, too.
Probably other adventurous neighbours, namely pro-American leaders of
Estonia, Poland, and the Ukraine will entertain second thoughts before
their next paroxysm of anti-Russian sentiment.
Russia proved that it can use force quickly, efficiently and with
moderation. There was none of the old Soviet overkill; rather it was a
moderate and modest, well-executed military operation. The best thing
about it was its brevity, two or three days of actual fighting and the
rest just a bit of mopping-up.
Russian leadership proved that they are not scared by
Washington’s rhetoric. This is a very good thing after so many years of
complicity and impotence.
Military defeat may be very good for the Georgian soul. Georgians
are wonderful people, warm, handsome, pleasant and generous. However,
they are ferocious nationalists of the tribal kind. Like some of their
neighbours, they tend to see others mainly through an ethnic prism. The
first thing the Georgians did when they became independent in the wake
of 1917 Russian Revolution was to expel all Armenians and confiscate
their property. Joseph Stalin also acted in the Georgian way when he
expelled the Chechens from their mountains and the Germans from Prussia.
Georgia is by no means homogeneous: it is populated by a few smaller
ethnic groups, in addition to the Kartveli majority (or at least
plurality). Since Georgia became independent a second time, in 1991, the
Kartvelis have tried to deal with the minorities by harsh methods,
undermining their culture and language and even expelling them on the
first suspicion. This was the reason three autonomous areas of the
country decided to split off from Georgia. SO is one of the three, but
unless the Kartvel nationalism would be reined in,
Adjars, Svans and
other ethnic communities may rebel, too. Military defeat might just
cause the Georgians to re-think their attitude towards their immediate
Though Russia did not send in its troops in order to remove
Saakashvili, this does not make such an outcome any less desirable.
Saakashvili is dangerous for Georgia, Russia, Ossetia and the world.
What a pity he did not lose the general elections a few months ago; what
a shame that other candidates met with untimely deaths under suspicious
circumstances or were jailed. One may hope the true patriots of Georgia
will kick him out and choose a better president, opting for neutrality
and for friendship with Georgia’s neighbours including Russia.
Georgian communists expressed their distaste with the
Saakashvili’s attack; they would like to lead their country back into a
close union with Russia. It should be considered: many Georgians, say
the Communists in their letter from Tbilisi, would love to see the end
of Saakashvili’s adventurism.
A neutral and neighbour-friendly Georgia would be able to
re-integrate South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Kartvel and Mingrel
refugees would be able to return into their villages. The Caucasus is so
poly-ethnic that mutual expulsions and transfers are unacceptable.
This is the time to stop anti-Georgian propaganda in Russia and
anti-Russian propaganda elsewhere. Russia has a long tradition of
friendship with the Caucasian nations, with Georgians, Ossetians,
Circassians; the tradition has been well established by Leo Tolstoy,
Lermontov and Griboedov. Let it prevail. As Marshal Stalin would say,
Saakashvili come and go, but the Georgian people endure forever.
Europeans showed more understanding of the Russian
action than some might have expected. There was no mass hysteria, and
the Ossetians were allowed to express their viewpoint. Israel stopped
its supplies of military hardware to Georgia. While American leaders
responded to the victory of Russian arms with expected verbal severity,
they wisely avoided any action likely to enhance the military standing
of Saakashvili. They could have made an airlift of American armour to
Tbilisi, they could have shown more muscle, but they did not.
This was the true mystery of the campaign. Did the
Americans encourage Saakashvili? Did he act at his own foolhardy will?
There may be a few explanations of the enigma.
Every Georgian president has tried to regain the lost provinces,
so Saakashvili could have decided to give it a try, perhaps being
carried away by the magic of auspicious triple eight, as his offensive
was begun on 8.8.8.
Saakashvili may have failed to understand the Americans. This
happened to Saddam Hussein when he snatched Kuwait. He was convinced
that the Ambassador
had given him the green light for the
The Americans and Saakashvili may have failed in their
prognostication. They interpreted Russian inaction in the past as a
harbinger of their inaction in the future. On 8.8.8, a pro-American
Russian newspaper Gazeta.ru predicted that the Russians would not move
their forces and would swallow the defeat, as otherwise they would have
The Americans are planning some kind of operation in Iran, and
they encouraged this Georgian diversion to keep the Russians busy. This
could still be the case, as in its present position Russia has a weak
hand in the UN to deal with the American demands or with direct
Iran expressed its support for the Russian operation and
condemned the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia. The New York Times and
similar papers editorialised that the US should not push Russia too
hard, in order to get Russian approval for anti-Iranian sanctions or
My preferred version of events is that the Americans
(and the Israelis) encouraged the Georgian president as they were
curious to see the Russian reaction and to observe the preparedness of
the Russian Armed Forces. In military parlance, such a minor operation
is called “contact reconnaissance”, or just a “feeler”. No one could be
certain how the Russian army would operate. In 1996, having been sent to
retake the rebellious Grozny, the Russian Army ran away in disarray
leaving its burning tanks behind. Since then, the Russians had not fired
a single shot in anger; they have been very much a mystery for the West.
In such a situation, there is no substitute for a bout of actual
fighting, and Saakashvili unwittingly presented this opportunity to the
This is rather an optimistic view, as the following
comparison will make clear. In the 1930s, the Japanese occupying
Manchukuo faced the Russians. The Japanese did not know whether the
Soviet Russians would fight well or run away, as they had easily
defeated the Russian Imperial Army in
war but had taken a beating
from the Bolsheviks in 1918. This is why they carried out a contact
reconnaissance raid at Khalkhyn Gol (Nomonhan) to take the measure of
Russian resistance. After General Zhukov destroyed their attacking
force, they decided to keep peace with Russia, and despite many pleas by
Hitler, Japanese troops stayed put.
If this reading is right, we may be optimistic.
Weakness invites war; the Neocons attacked Iraq because it was the
weakest link. Now, the Russian army demonstrated its fighting
capability, the Russian diplomats have confirmed their abilities and the
Russian society has shown itself remarkably united. Russia is not so
weak as to invite pressure or war.