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August 11, 2008

PROF. KENNETH ANDERSON fact-checks The New York Times' C.J. Chivers on Georgia. "Look: what you’ve offered us is an argument, masquerading as a narrative news story. I’m very interested in arguments, especially on a policy topic as difficult and fraught with risks as this, and I don’t doubt that you have important things to say. But if you want to offer an argument, then, well, argue it. Make claims and then explain the evidence for your premises. You offer us a narrative story that is, let’s be honest, very Moscow-centric, backed by a couple of unnamed US government sources. . . . Mr. Chivers, I don’t doubt you have important things to say about the Russia-Georgia war. So why don’t you report the facts, unadorned, and if you want to argue your opinions, then do so in a plainly stated, argumentative way?"

UPDATE: Okay, I don't like the Russian invasion of Georgia, and I very much hope that it turns out badly for Putin and his satraps. But in light of people calling for massive U.S. action, it's worth noting that there isn't -- and never has been -- very much that we can do. Look at Georgia on a map, and you'll see that there's no easy way to get troops in except by air even if we wanted to, and we can't fight a war against the Russian Army with only air supply. At any rate, a shooting war with the world's second biggest nuclear power seems bad -- I don't think we'd have done it even if Georgia had been admitted to NATO, though it's possible that would have deterred this. If it hadn't deterred it, though, it would have left NATO in a pretty pickle: Betray the alliance's key purpose, or . . . start a shooting war with the world's second biggest nuclear power, over Georgia.

Some thoughts -- which I don't necessarily agree with, but which are worth mentioning -- from Jerry Pournelle:

I continue to thank God that Georgia is not yet yet a part of NATO. NATO is an entangling alliance of the sort that George Washington warned us against, and guarantees our involvement in the territorial disputes of Europe. We have no national interest in the independence of Georgia or any portion of it, and we should have no permanent alliances in Europe to begin with. We have as many good reasons to become friends with the new Russian Republic ( Empire if you like) as we do with most of the continental nations; and none of them need an American alliance. If the balance of power in Europe is out of balance, it is due to the new European nation being built there; and that certainly doesn't need US blood and treasure to defend it.

Russia remains a major nuclear power, and that should not be forgotten. They no longer are part of a criminal conspiracy to take over the world. Their rivalry with China is great and deep, and they have a number of common interests with the United States. Going to war with Russia would be egregiously stupid.

Over at the CounterTerrorism Blog, Walid Phares says something similar.

Of course, if Russia controls the Georgian pipeline routes, it will have more leverage against Europe. But, let's face it, Europe hasn't been showing all that much backbone anyway. But hey, if you want decisive action, there's always the option of making Poland a nuclear power. We can spare some nukes. It's kinda risky, though . . . .

MORE: Some thoughts from reader Curt Johnson. Click "read more" to see them.

Curt Johnson writes:

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been sliding into international irrelevance. Russia's problems are multifaceted, comprehensive, and intractable. On the economic front, Russia has become critically dependant on oil and sales of western technology because of a signal failure to adapt most of their industrial base to survive in a competitive market. The core problem is that during the Soviet era the USSR developed a whole range of indigenous technologies -- everything from computers to telecommunications to military hardware to spacecraft -- that were essentially technological dead-ends. With the Soviet collapse, the gap between western and Soviet technology was too great to bridge and the organization character, training and work habits of Russia's S&T sector ill-suited it to adjust to a market economy. As a result, Russian abandoned almost all R&D efforts during the 90s in favor becoming middlemen for foreign business, making their economy hostage to oil and foreign investment.

Russia's economic problems have of course been greatly exacerbated by attempting to create a market economy in the absence of the Rule of Law, which has lead to what has been aptly described as "Robber Capitalism" with the attendant problems of corruption, capital flight, failure to reinvest, and the ascendancy of organized crime.

Economic and social conditions have undermined the political process; the "new" economy failed to deliver the goods for many Russians, created inversions in the social structure, and enriched many of the most unsavory elements in Russian society. Further, social conditions did not materially change with the Soviet collapse; the Soviet bureaucracy was decapitated but continued to exist and operate. It has evolved in subsequent years, but its character has not radically altered, which has helped Putin reestablish an increasingly authoritarian regime.

The collapse of the Soviet military is well documented. The Russian remnant has recovered somewhat from its humiliating defeat in Chechnya in the mid-90s, thanks mainly the rise in oil and gas prices, but it remains a shadow of it's former self. Military reform, which proved impossible in the 90s, still appears to be elusive; Putin reduced the size of the military, reorganized it, and changed the conscription laws, but perennial problems (corruption and hazing among others) remain. Large amounts of money are being spent on modernizing the military's hardware (especially PGMs) but overall, the evidence that Russia has achieved a modern, fully professional, capable military is weak.

All of these factors are deeply troubling to many (if not most) Russians; the mid-1990s were a traumatic time for them. What they most want to be taken seriously again on the international stage, and most particularly by the US. Putin fully shares this view and his solution has been to inaugurate a sort of "Cold War Lite" , hence his various shenanigans in Iraq and Iran, Alaskan overflights, comments regarding the Arctic, etc. Coupled with this is the fact that the traditional Russian concern with its borders and neighbors is in no way diminished and has in fact been heightened since the Soviet Collapse. The Caucasus hold a special place in Russian collective consciousness in this regard.

The Russian invasion of Georgia is, therefore, basically a psychological exercise to 1) demonstrate defiance of the US to assert their continued relevance, as part of "Cold War Lite" plan; and 2) reassert their dominance over the "Near Abroad" and their "historical" claim to the Caucasus. In this, it is different than the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which were about maintaining the integrity of the Soviet empire. Russia has no empire to maintain, and it unlikely that at this juncture it seeks to acquire one by military force. It is instead most likely a traditionally Russian symbolic act aimed at making them feel good about themselves.

If this view is correct, Russia will stop it's invasion short of toppling the Georgian government when it feels it's point has been made. The severity of messages Putin gets from us will also undoubtedly play a major part in when and how he makes that decision. Russia has much more to lose from a conflict with us than we do, and what they want largely intangible. How much we give them is a dicey question; we have the power to humiliate Russia at very little cost but humiliating the enemy is not always a good idea.

Regarding some specific points raised (though I suspect this will be moot by the time I finish):

We do not need Russia as a counterweight to China, as Jerry Pournelle seems to imply. China is not a problem: they are militarily weak, have serious internal issues, and are more dependant on our investment than is Russia (as China is not an oil producer). Russia, on the other hand, engages in serious mischief and if their economy does not go south when and if the price of oil collapses, they will be more of a problem in the future, not less of one.

The fact that we might be limited to an air war to repel a Russian invasion is not an issue. Such an operation has nothing in common with the near-debacle by Clinton and Clark in Kosovo. Russian military units operating on the offensive, by the nature of their organization and C3, are quite vulnerable to air strikes and we would have complete air supremacy. It is unlikely that the Russians would remain in the field under the credible threat of US air strikes; they would rapidly retreat rather than face the humiliation being seen to be treated as the Iraqi military was, twice.

Finally, Russia is the world's second biggest nuclear power on paper. Operationally, the claim is somewhat dubious.

I suspect they're still big enough.

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