The Russian invasion of Georgia has not changed the balance of power in Eurasia. It has 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 has opened an 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 balance of power had already shifted, and it was up to the Russians when to make this public. They did that on August 8.
Let’s begin simply by reviewing recent events. On the night of Thursday, August 7, forces of the Republic of Georgia moved 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 (see map).
They 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 it, 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. In view of the speed with which the Russians responded—within hours of the Georgian attack—they had been expecting it and were themselves at their jumping-off points. The counterattack was carefully planned and competently executed, and over the next forty-eight hours the Russians succeeded in defeating the main Georgian force and compelling a retreat. By Sunday, August 10, they had consolidated their position in South Ossetia.
On Monday, August 11, 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 was from Abkhazia, another secessionist region of Georgia aligned with the Russians. (On August 26, Russia recognized South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence, turning the de facto situation of the last sixteen years into a de jure one.) This drive was designed to cut the road between the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and its Black Sea ports, Poti and Batumi. By this point, the Russians had bombed the Georgian 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 forty miles of the Georgian capital, while making outside re-inforcement 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 August 7? There …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Georgia, the US, and the Balance of Power: An Exchange October 23, 2008