On the second day of its conflict with Georgia forces, Russia's military strategy is becoming increasingly clear. With an overwhelming advantage in firepower--and near-complete control of the air--Moscow is going for the knockout punch, attempting to drive Georgia forces from the breakaway region of South Ossetia, and (perhaps) other areas as well.
As the Wall Street Journal notes in today's lead editorial, the latest conflict in the Caucasus is a study in miscalculations. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a close U.S. ally, has long pledged to retake South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia. The recent fighting apparently began when Mr. Saakashvilli sent his forces into Ossetia, attempting to reassert his control, once and for all.
But the Georgian leader apparently miscalculated. Within hours, Russian armored columns, backed by helicopters and aircraft, were rolling into the disputed areas, supporting "peacekeeping" forces that were already there. By some accounts, Moscow's forces have already reversed early territorial gains by Georgian forces; they have also conducted numerous bombing runs against airfields, port facilities and other strategic targets outside Ossetia and Abhazia, killing thousands of civilians.
By late Saturday, Georgian officials were requesting a cease fire--and help from the West. Readers will recall that Tbilisi has actively pursued NATO membership, and created one of the true, democratic regimes in the former Soviet bloc. Until a few days ago, more than 1,000 U.S. military advisers were in Georgia, providing training for the nation's armed forces. The two militaries have also worked closely in Iraq, where Georgia provides the third largest contingent of foreign security forces.
With those ties, Tiblisi is hoping that the U.S. and NATO offer more than "strong denunciations" of Russian military moves, and support for Georgia's territorial integrity. However, Washington and its European partners have no stomach for a possible conflict with Moscow--in Russia's vertiable backyard--so western efforts will be limited to diplomacy.
The Russians understand this, and that's one reason they're escalating military activity. Various media outlets report that Moscow's Black Sea Fleet is steaming south, preparing for amphibious operations along the Georgian coast. That would open a second front for the Tbilisi's out manned military, placing a further strain on defenders.
At this point, it's unclear what message the U.S. and NATO are sending to the Russians. As the WSJ observed earlier today, Russian Prime Minister Putin, who has discussed the crisis with President Bush in Beijing, needs to hear that imperialism in the Caucasus will have consequences for Moscow's relations with the west.
But no one seems ready to deliver that type of blunt warning to the Russia. Mr. Putin got a friendly hug from Mr. Bush before their meeting, and a few months ago, Germany vetoed plans to put Georgia and Ukraine on track for eventual NATO membership. That fact wasn't lost on Vladimir Putin, either.
Whatever his miscalculations, Mr. Saakashvilli represents the type of pro-western reformer that the U.S. has long sought in the eastern bloc. That's why the strike against Georgia (ultimately) represents an attack on democracy. If Russia presses its attack past the disputed regions--and continues its indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas--Washington and its allies will face a difficult choice.
No one wants a ground war in the Caucasus, but at what point will they draw a line against the Russians? And will they take a stand before (or after) the first T-90s roll toward Tbilisi?