russia: still a toothless bear after georgia.
on august 17, 2008, walter laquer submitted a brief monograph to harvard’s middle east strategy blog, middle east strategy at harvardhttp://blogs.law.harvard.edu/mesh/, at the olin institute: weatherhead center for international affairs, discussing the geo-political reach of russia’s incursion into georgia. in that article, entitled “russia and the middle east,” http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/mesh/2008/08/russia_and_the_middle_east/, professor laquer argues that russia has benefited from its recent action, in that its neighbors and former subjects will now fear and respect her more, perhaps even as in the old glory days of the soviet union, and that western and american influence in the former eastern bloc and in the caucuses and the –stans is markedly damaged.
i did not agree with this assessment when i read the article, and do not agree with it upon reflection.
follows an analysis of the article i wrote for a friend, with whom I exchanged correspondence about the article, after she had forwarded it to me.--
this is a most interesting article. i do not know if you are on the middle east strategy at harvard (m.e.s.h.) mailing list, but it would be quite interesting an interesting page to have on one’s mailing list. there is at http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/mesh/ a comment to the main article by walter laquer which is quite interesting, and which posits that the russians may be exposing themselves to forces which tend to the nationalistic breakup up and splintering of russia, wholly as much as exploiting geo-political opportunities for state expansion, and expansion of their interests into the middle east.
before i reply to professor laquer's specific remarks, i am going to make some preliminary remarks of my own, which may help to provide an understanding of the framework controlling my analysis and view. i was educated at whitman college by conservatives, several of whom were university of chicago educated, as undergrads and to be professional scholars in the u. chicago graduate schools. they were extremely grounded in factual, historical and theoretical contexts as controlling how one looked at things. also, as i get older, i take comfort in what marcus whitman, the murdered evangelical missionary to the walla walla indians and the namesake of the college, is reputed to have said, numerous times, as the story goes, and that is, "all my plans require time and distance:" as, indeed, all human endeavors require, as the russians will require in accomplishing those goals, and as the west will require in asserting its own geo-political interests while blunting russian expansionism, given a few needed deep breaths in this georgian adventure.
first, as to the far historical context. -- russia is huge, but it governance has always been associated with a centralized and autocratic rule centered in moscow if we look at the city, or muscovy if we look at it as a provincial matter: the dominant population being muscovites, or "white russians." the origins of the white russians is a matter not wholly clear, but legend has them as being of scandinavian origin, traveling up the great interior rivers into the region. the problem with russian autocratic rule is that there has never been enough autocrats to govern the entire mess, so there has been a constant tension back and forth between the power asserted from the center and the power or resistance to centralized power exerted in the provinces: there have been, historically, two main ways that this relationship has played out. one, the provincial populations have always made a heavy contribution of people and talents to the administrative center, and to the cultural center, a classic instance of imperial brain drain, e.g., the outer areas having their genius sucked into the administrative center. persons from the provinces have, as a matter of fact, governed russia: stalin was a georgian seminarian, as a matter of fact, but apparently not a very good one, being a little wayward from his faith. as an added irony, the first head of present day georgia was very high up in the soviet hierarchy before the collapse of the soviet regime. two, the central authority has always relied heavily on hired gun cops to serve as a military or police function in keeping the provincials in line. the romanoffs, for instance, favored the don & ukrainian cossacks as both palace guard and crushers of revolt and rebellion, while the soviets favored police apparatus such as the k.g.b., mr. putin's alma mater, to perform like functions.
russia has a great history. but, russia, unfortunately, has never figured out this tension, and it has always been a source of the ebb and flow of the russian state, the waxing and waning of its political and historical strength, especially in exercising and keeping dominion over it provincial, …, well, dominions.
in some sense the matters in georgia are nothing more than this phenomenon in a contemporary context. south ossetia lies in north georgia. north ossetia lies in southern russia. it is not horribly surprising that conflict should exist between russia and georgia over this region, especially given that georgia has been in the russian sphere of influence for many hundreds of years, and has been in russia and most recently in the soviet union for many years. conflict between them is endemic.
the near historical context. -- at its height, the soviet union occupied 1/6 of the earth’s land mass. it was a huge country, with vast resources, very little of which could be extracted or exploited because of the extent of the land; the lack of communication and transportation infrastructure; the lack of population density over much of this landmass; its tremendous strain upon habitation because of weather conditions, long and hard winters, short growing seasons, and much of the land being encased in mud when not frozen, e.g., the taiga; and the stupidities and inefficiencies of the soviet planned economies.
the soviets broke up. to this day, in a typical exercise of russian paranoia, they attribute this to the machinations of the united states, rather than their own failings. but, the nickels and dimes lie at their doorsteps.
when the soviet union collapsed, it was bankrupt, dead broke. it could not pay its bureaucrats for their labor, and it could not pay its servicemen, nor in a lot of instances in the outer regions of the country, could it even feed or house its servicemen and their family. oft times when paid, they were paid in a script more worthless than the russian ruble was at the time.
the soviet union collapsed, and the soviets were ejected from many regions and countries who simply did not want anything more to do with the russians. they were essentially kicked out right along with the ejectment and overthrow of the puppet provincial soviets by the indigenous populations. soviet bureaucracy and military might disintegrated, their influence and control over the provinces withered away into nothing, and the soviet regimes put in place by the russians were deposed.
let us put this in some perspective.
this was not the result of great upheaval between the russians and their dominions. the russians were not, for instance, run out of georgia, ukraine, armenia and the great -stans by armed revolt, though some of their provincial soviet regimes were treated rather ignominiously. nor, were the communists and socialistic politicians, former bureaucrats, and academicians set in place for 70 years necessarily ejected or killed by outraged partisan populations: for the most part, they were there, and stayed as you might expect people to stay after 70 years of rule.
let us put this into some further perspective.
you should look very closely as the photographs in your wonderful posts on georgia. look at the russian troops. they are in the most rudimentary uniforms, the uniforms being of all types, none matching, some of the troops wearing winter wool pants, others (and i just noticed this yesterday) wearing tennis shoes and sports sneakers, without helmets or flack dress, and wearing all kinds of boots and the like.
the troops do not even have the basic indications of insignia of rank or function on their uniforms. it is very hard to identify officers and noncoms amongst them. and, if you will notice, in many of the photographs, the russian troops are wearing little white strands of cloth wrapped around their uniformed arms, on either side, which i take was an informal tag adopted by the troops so that they could distinguish themselves from the georgian defenders, many of who would have been outfitted just as they, as a military part and parcel of the soviet union.
look at the pictures of the invading military hardware. there are involved very few main battle tanks, more light infantry tanks, and a preponderance of armored personnel carriers, tracked and wheeled, and a few sundry trucks. nowhere is there depicted any large soviet remnant columns moving around the Georgian countryside, it is mostly five or six or seven vehicles and a sundry truck or two moving about.
as noted in the comment i sent in on that post the indications were not of large scale engagements, but of a piecemeal engagement of the georgians, in which the soviets probably had the advantage of a pretty thorough job of intel on the part of its "peacekeepers" to locate and identify georgian forces, which advantage the georgians did not enjoy against the russians.
why do i mention this?
until the last few years, and the development of their oil trade, russia was dead broke, and her military was destitute. i mean dead broke. and, nonfunctioning, a condition in which many of its vaunted division existing mostly on paper and in military parking lots. had the russians been able to exert any authority militarily or governmentally over its provinces, it would have stayed in them. but, it could not. so it left.
this is the context in which russia invaded georgia.
not as a superpower.
and, when russia gets done invading georgia, it will not have suddenly been transformed into a superpower.
its military is still in shambles. its units are mostly what are called "skeleton" units, characterized by paper organizational charts without the necessary conscripts or manpower to fill unit designations, and its equipment, which is old and decrepit, parked in regimental and divisional parking lots. certain units, near moscow and the key cities, will be in better shape, with better uniforms, more powerful and up to date equipment, but they are not a very imposing military, as compared to the united states, and even as compared to the joint force of the europeans.
the soviet remnant invaded georgia with a rag tag military, undermanned and with inferior equipment and very little by way of logistical or supply train, and when they get done overrunning georgia, they will still have a rag tag military, undermanned and with inferior equipment and very little by way of a logistical or supply train, and this is why they will not push forward into syria or iran any time soon. they would have a hard time doing it without being opposed, they just have no ability to move stuff on a large scale basis, and that goes for armor, infantry, artillery, and especially in terms of air power. they are a second rate or third rate military power, and any objective understanding of their recent past, and any critical look at their invasion effort should support that conclusion.
as i have said many times, i do not see them able to project military power into the middle east, or into the former caucus republics such as ukraine, and others, if met by any significant opposition by the n.a.t.o. allies or the united states. for the russians to think that they could go toe to toe against american armor and infantry is pretty much laughable, especially given that american air superiority would dominate the tactical and strategic battlefield.
but, as we have also discovered, the soviets have found that the euro's will stand for nothing. and, that the americans can be pushed, if not pushed too hard at any one time.
so, it is within this context, long winded that it is, that i undertake to look at professor laquer's remarks.
i think, in the main, the professor does not give due weight to the soviet need for "time and distance" in which to achieve their aims. for all the alarmist cries that have gone up all over the world, and, even i must admit on my own computer screen, it has only been about ten days since all of this started. that is hardly time to effect geo-political change on the world.
what have, in point of actual fact, the russians accomplished? they have run the bully's roughshod over a country which had very little resource by which to resist the soviet onslaught. and, what does this roughshod treatment (and, by the way, this is a horribly apt description, because that is exactly what the soviet forces were, roughshod, ill clad and rag tag) signify about the actual military status of the soviet union/russia, in the real world? well, look at in terms of military might, it shows that the soviet union/russia is still not a military apparatus that could contend with the west, were the west possessed of the wherewithal to stand against the soviets.
because of the recent monetary and fiscal woes of the russians, though they may have done military research and development while in the doldrums, this has not been reflected in the deployment of any major military systems, at least not having to do with armor, artillery, or other mechanized infantry systems; nor have any advanced airplanes or avionics or aerial weapons systems been developed that have been deployed; and, its navy lies in either vladivostok or in north sea ports, largely decommissioned hulks or mothballed.
this is not going to suddenly change in the coming months or even in the coming years.
the russians have discovered one thing out of all of this, however, and that is the propaganda value of bluster, bluff, intimidation and big talk. they have witnessed what the iranians have done militarily against the west, and what they have accomplished diplomatically by bluff and bluster, all the while possessing almost no legitimate military power to any appreciable degree. it would not take the united states much time at all to reduce iranians military to a battered mess, all with the expenditure of very few american lives.
they have discovered that this bluff and bluster is confused as substance in the west, that posturing and grabbing one balls in theatrical defiance of one's foe's is confused by the western press as being of substance.
so, for instance, some puffed up russian general has threatened poland with nuclear attack if it deploys an american missile system and allows america to build a base upon polish soil. yesterday, or today, condi rice did something without apparently fucking it up beyond all belief, and poland and the united states signed an agreement to go ahead with the construction of the base, and the placing of american missiles upon polish soil.
so, let us address professor laquer's remarks, as they appear in his paper.
the professor opens his remarks by contending many of the russian/soviet aims in the former -stans can be accomplished without military or bureaucratic occupation, and presumably without setting up puppet soviet republics as in the old days, simply by intimidation. so much is probably true, and probably not too much to be alarmed about. there is not too much in the former soviet –stans that anyone in the west has perceived as having strategic or material value, so in strictly geo-political terms, who cares? this hardly amounts to empire, does it?
while saying that, professor laquer recognizes that soviet/russian hegemony is in all probability not to be extended into the baltic regions, e.g., estonia, lithuania, latvia, which, while he doesn't mention it, are members of the european union, and nato, if memory serves me correctly. though he denigrates the european resolve to withstand russian expansionistic tendencies, apparently he still recognizes in the euro's sufficient resolve to come to the aid of member states of the european union, and of n.a.t.o. this is a direct recognition of the fallacy of his argument, in my opinion, and a matter which is glossed over very quickly by the good professor.
this, in and of itself, is a direct recognition that soviet expansionism occurs upon if not the tacit approval of the european states than at least upon its active acquiescence. this is a caution that the professor's seeming enthusiasm for the prospects of soviet expansion into europe, and into the former eastern bloc nations, is to be taken with a grain of salt.
his predictions in so far as the ukraine and moldavia being very hesitant to stand up to the soviets bears some examination. the ukraine was the former bread basket of the soviet union, and the home of the don cossacks: it is a great grain growing region, much akin to our own midwest. and, the ukraine was a substantial part and contributor to any financial health as experienced by the soviet union.
i think the good professor is guilty of an intellectual sin when he equates the ukrainian positions with that of the georgians. ukraine is home to kiev, one of the major cities of europe, and sevastopol, a city on the black sea which has port facilities leased to the russian black sea fleet. the ukraine has a population of some 46 million people, about 75% of whom share a common ethnicity, and most of whom are orthodox christians: this does not compare unfavorably with russia's population of about 142 million people, spread out over 1/8 of the world's land mass.
moreover, the ukrainians had europe’s second largest military, second only to that of russia, at the breakup of the soviet union. though the manpower of the ukraine military is now reduced, the ukraine still has a military force of about 300-350,000 men, down from a force level of 780,000 while part of the soviet union: it must be comprehended, therefore, as having a pretty substantial ready reserve of trained men at its disposal. it had at one time the world 3rd largest nuclear arsenal but gave that up as a signatory to the s.t.a.r.t. treaties, and is currently not acknowledged to have any nuclear weapons. (you don't suppose they have any tucked away, anyplace, do you?)
i do not think the urkrainians quaking in their boots over the russian incursion into georgia. certainly, such adventurism would not be lightly regarded by the ukrainians, who have long ties of both friendship and animosity with the russians, but i think the ukrainian military assessment would have to be that the rag tag group that invaded georgia would not have such a free hand with their own forces. and, as exists with the baltic states, though ukraine is not a member of nato or the euro union, it has greater ethnic, social and geo-political ties with europe than georgia apparently was able to call upon.
i think the ukrainians likely to be of more ability to antagonize russia that the good professor admits, and much more readily capable and disposed to defy russian desires of expansion into and conquest of those territories now ruled by the ukraine. i do not see the ukraine being pushed around or influenced into the russian camp by russia’s recent invasion of georgia, as intimated by professor laquer.
as to the impact that this georgian matter will have in the former eastern bloc states, it seems to me that the good professor overstates his case significantly, again.
now, on the one hand he says that the europeans are of no matter in this area, and that neither the russians nor the eastern europeans are likely to give them much truck or pay much attention to them, the euro's having been lapsing into insignificance for a good long while. yet, what did the good professor say of the baltic region? why, precisely the opposite:
The Baltic republics on the other hand are weak but indigestible; military occupation is ruled out, the game is not worth the candle.
well, if they are so damned weak, wherein lies the risk of a georgian style foray into the baltic states, because, surely, their reach to the sea is of almost incalculable worth to the russians, a plum ripe for picking, as it were. the trouble is, of course, that little detail already mentioned, that being the membership of lithuania, estonia and latvia in the european union, and in n.a.t.o. so i guess maybe europe is not entirely toothless in the russian perception, according to the good professor. he would have it both ways, but he cannot, and in the end he has to acknowledge that were the russians, at this time and within this context blunted and confronted by a resolute europe, then the russians would have to give way.
this is not a mere inconsistency in the professor's argument, a little tear in the cuffs, this is a rent crotch in the pantaloons of his position.
now, just whom the professor favors in all of this is a little nebulous, but as a good machiavellian he advises the soviet/russian behemoth to proceed with historical patience and not haste in its expansion to geo-political world power status, in the caucus and in the middle east:
Ideally, the restoration of the Russian sphere of domination (or at least influence) should proceed gradually, even slowly. It was Stalin's mistake after World War Two that he proceeded hastily, which generated resistance, including the emergence of NATO
this is a dead giveaway. this is an implicit acknowledgment that if the soviet remnant is challenged in its expansion via georgia, it has neither the conventional military strength nor the monetary wealth, or as a player which aspires as a country to exert geo-political might, or as a would be again empire, to push the matter forward. And, under no circumstances, could the russians push their way through an american military standing in their path.
he talks of russian military strategists predicting war with the united states in 10 or 15 years. this may be an accurate timeline for the chinese to think they can take us on, and they have embarked on a building program enabling them to be able to do so should they deem it in their best interests, but even they don't seem that eager. and, i don't think the russians even remotely have the ability to building their military to such a state in a mere ten or 15 years: the economic and demographic indicators just are not there. the fact is, that demographically and economically, the russians are enjoying an unseasonable spring bloom for the time being, but that the bloom will quickly wear off the russian rose as declining natural resources and demographic burdens such as a low birth rate, high incidence of alcoholism, a virulent tuberculin epidemic, and the combination of a very high islamic immigration and birthrate perform the same double whammy on the russians as it is in europe. indeed, in the “dissent” to professor laquer’s article mentioned and linked above, that author suggested that the middle east and islam are coming to russia, and not the other way around.
here is the crux of the matter, insofar as the good professor's arguments and sentiments go, and again, here is where i think he gives way the intellectual game:
What will be the impact of these trends on the Middle East? Ideally, it would be wise to wait with any major action in the area until Russian domination in its closer neighborhood is established. But if opportunities for a Russian return to the Middle East arise, they should be used. ...
The main aim will be to weaken America's position in the Middle East. ...
The attack on South Ossetia provided Russia with an unique opportunity; ... .
Such opportunities will not frequently return, and other opportunities will have to be created by the Kremlin—probably by exploiting existing conflicts such as those in the Middle East.
in short, the russians were gifted with a chance to extend their reach a little bit by diplomatic blunders exercised by condi rice and nicholas sarkozy over the invasion of georgia, but the russians should not expect that to happen to their benefit as a matter of continuing course.
in other words, removing the professorial gloss from his analysis, the russians do not have now and will not likely have in the foreseeable future, the wherewithal to press their way into the middle east unless unopposed by the west, and unless they can exploit regional conflict in the middle east and find the west with their collective pants and will to resist down, as it has proven the case in georgia.
in essence, it will be wise for the russians to wait on trying to exploit their success in georgia, won against a weak and defenseless foe, for all practical purposes, rather than taking the west on directly at this point, because they do not have the military and economic power to carry off such a conflict. in other, less academic, words, the united states would kick the living shit out of the russians right now, if the russians could find a way in which their behaviors would be sufficiently provocative to force the united states to bring the full brunt of its military upon the russians.
there is a little secret in all of this, seldom discussed. but, while the united states is depicted and described as being pushed all over the board all over the world, ... , it is all over the world, projecting power into its farthest reaches, and influencing politics all over the world. we are, by contrast to most of the world, very secure within our own borders, with our underlying economies and societies in good shape, functioning, and reasonably anticipated to remain so into the foreseeable future. georgia borders russia, has been part of russia for centuries, while we are new to the world, and, while our influence in georgia has not been proven determinative in any sense of the word, neither has it been negligible, but a recognized influence.
i am not an admirer of american diplomacy in this whole thing. had we reacted quickly and decisively, I think we could have pushed the russian incursion right back into russian, and had we moved the assets into position quickly to do so, i think the russians would have left georgia very quickly. i think that rice and sarkozy pushed a “ceasefire” agreement down the Georgian throats that not even the russians had the temerity to demand at first. in short, i think sarkozy and rice forced a russian occupation upon georgian that the russians were not inclined to demand, except upon their recognition of the west’s stupidity in the gift of condi rice’s persons.
but, this circumstance does not make russia either a superpower, or a country able to project power globally in any geo-political sense. it just make condi rice stupid, hardly a unique circumstance.
the final comment on the good professor's article is this. he admits that for the soviets/russians/tsarists to make any inroads into the middle east, opportunities will have to present themselves.
in other words, they cannot force their way in, it will have to await the u.s. ejectment from the region for other reasons, or have the willful acquiescence of the united states for the soviet remnant nosing their limited way back into the region.
i saw today where the chinless assad is in russia hoping to buy weapons, and the russians are hoping to work a deal for a mediterranean port for their navy. now, some may quake and quail over this, and talk about the soviets projecting power into the mediterranean. but, this perception is based again, not within the context of soviet & russian military history, economic history, or current fact.
it is based upon an emotional reaction to largely symbolic and propagandistic posturing on the part of the soviet remnant and syria.
right now, the russians do not have a blue water navy, capable of exercising strategic power. they have a carrier which is capable of carrying 17 fighter planes, and is not capable of being at sea much more than a week under full steam, before having to be refueled, and cannot stay at sea much longer than a month before having to return to port for repairs and stores. they have one aircraft carrier as the back bone of a navy, which carrier has been in port under repair for more than half its existence since being commissioned. the carrier had its keel laid in 1985, and was commissioned in approximately 2004. they have no other carriers presently being built.
it will be a long time, a very long time, before russia can exert a naval influence in her near coastal waters, let alone push into the med.
and, as an historical fact, they have never been able to figure out how to use a navy.
they are not going to be able to make themselves into a world power by cutting deals with a fellow with no chin, at least not today, and not tomorrow, and probably not for a long time.