Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A little war

'A Little War That Shook The World: Georgia, Russia, And The Future Of The West' is a book by Ronald D. Asmus that covers the Russia-Georgia "war" of August 2008. It covers the background and and outlines the ratcheting up of tensions over the years leading up to the war and the outbreal of hostilities, covers the war and eventual ceasefire, then considers what lessons ought to be drawn... The author's main thesis is that this entire affair was/is much more than a regional issue, but a geopolitical decision by the Russians to prevent Georgia from "going West", and an attempt by Russia to reestablish its hegemony over its neighboring states... The author places the main blame with Russia while arguing that Georgia made many mistakes that played into Russia's hands. He also argues that the entire episode represented "a failure of Western political will and strategic imagination", and that the West made some mistakes that contributed to the eventuality of war (i.e. Kosovar independence). Finally he says that the framework in Europe needs to be re-examined, and a new strategy developed on how to deal with Russia.

TimesOnline review
Reviews on amazon.com
Reviews at Barnes & Noble
Foreign Affairs capsule review
Ungodly suffering - Review by The Economist

This blogger finds the book to be mostly on the money... A few thoughts/observations:
  • The author seems to have a big soft spot for Mikhail Saakashvili. While Asmus concedes that Saakashvili made some mistakes and allowed himself to be tricked by the Russians into committing rash actions, the author generally ascribes good, democratic, and limited, intentions to Saakashvili and implies he just finally buckled under the strain. Asmus compares Saakashvili to a "... kid on the playground who has been taunted, picked on, and bullied for a long time until he finally snaps..." (Page 49) with "... his political survival on the line..." Thus, Saakashvili cast more in the role of victim, and not one who planned for and/or took a very active role in pushing for the recovery of the lost regions...
    • For example, the author talks about limited Georgian war aims being reflected in Georgian diplomacy. Asmus' example of these "limited" aims is that when during the crisis U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice proposed a three point ceasefire plan, Saakashvili "agreed to the essence of the package..." Clearly, a limited aim to maintain the status quo... Well, perhaps not! Asmus noted that while "agreeing" to this ceasefire, Saakashvili "... refused to allow the return of the Koikoty government and insisted on new elections to decide who would govern the region." (Page 40) Combine this insistence with the recounting elsewhere (Page 81/82) of Saakashvili's strategy of attempting to use "soft power" (development aid, etc.) to appeal to the local population "over the heads of the separatist leaders" and this "agreement" doesn't seem quite so anodyne or limited, but rather part of his on-going, calculated strategy to recover the region.
    • A number of times Asmus says that Saakashvili made decisions and initiated actions "... based on the intelligence he had..." However, there is no indication given if the intelligence turned out to be correct or if it was wrong, and this blogger finds this a rather strange, and curiously passive formulation... As if designed to, once again, minimize any possible Saakashvili culpability.
    • Finally, combining the fact that Saakashvili's heroes are Kemal Ataturk, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, and King David the Builder (Note: Ataturk pulled Turkey into modernity and imposed democracy, Mannerheim's claim to fame was fighting the Red Army, while King David reunited Georgia...) with the fact that on coming to power Saakashvili promised to recover the lost regions... (Page 74) it seems clear enough that Saakashvili's aims were not "limited" in any sense.

  • Asmus is right that one of Georgia's root mistakes was when it allowed (or was forced to allow) Russian troops as "peacekeepers" in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Also, his contention that the root of conflict here is much larger than just the issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and actually a conflict between Russia and Georgia re the latter's desire to break free of Russian influence. However, while true, it seems that Asmus pays somewhat short shrift to the complexity and nastiness of the situation in these two areas and how difficult it will be to achieve a peaceful and long-term stable solution to their issues.
  • Asmus mentions the Russian military "exercise" ('Kavkaz 2008' or 'Caucasus 2008') held just two weeks before the war broke out, that allowed Russia to ready and pre-position forces, and perhaps carry out a "dry run". However, he does not mention the 'Immediate Response 2008' training exercise that Georgia conducted with the U.S. in the same time frame. While IR08 was focused more on Iraq-style military scenarios, the omission of a mention of joint Georgian -U.S. military training just days before the outbreak of the war is curious given the wealth of detail provided on every other military and diplomatic demarche prior to, during, and after the war. (note: in point of fact, a small number of U.S. troops were still in Georgia during the war!)
  • This blogger wonders why the Russians did not take Tiblisi. Per Asmus the way was wide open - the Russians (and Putin in particular) were determined to oust Saakashvili; Georgia "was cut in half"; the road to Tiblisi was open; the Georgians would be unable to stop the Russians; and the West (NATO, France, the U.S. and others) did not have a way to prevent this. While Asmus has a wealth of detail on practically every other matter he is silent on this issue, not even speculating, but skipping over this detail.
  • This blogger found it interesting that NATO, the OSCE, and other bodies ignored Georgian efforts to get them involved in the deteriorating situation (Page 145), with some senior leaders so insufficiently alarmed that they did not alter their vacation plans! Also, that on at least two different occasions things bogged down because aides to Putin and aides to Saakashvili were too afraid to disturb the slumber of and wake their respective bosses!
  • The biggest issue that this blogger has with Asmus' book is his treatment of the entire issue related to the role of NATO, something which is pivotal. Absent Georgian aspirations to NATO membership, entertained and supported by a number of countries in the West, and the Russian objection thereto, none of this might have happened. (Note: this point will be expanded upon in a separate blog entry).
Bottom line: recommended...

Updated April 22nd: Remainder of review at A little war - II

Some previous blog entries on Georgia:
An inconvenient truth - Nov 26th, 2008
Georgia update... - Nov 22nd, 2008
Georgia - Sep 7th, 2008
Immediate Response?!? - Aug 25th, 2008
Georgia (updated) - Aug 15th, 2008
Two-edged sword (South Ossetia) - Aug 11th, 2008

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