The Battle of Gori is over. The battle of Tblisi is about to begin.
That is the grim reality of the on-going war between Russia and Georgia. Having successfully opened a second front in Abkhazia--and pushing out of South Ossetia--Russian forces routed Georgian defenders in Gori and are now advancing on Tblisi, only 50 miles away.
Late today, Georgian officials claimed that a "full-scale" invasion was underway, and their country was being "overrun" by Russian troops. Media accounts from Gori indicated that local defenses had collapsed, and Georgian forces were in full retreat toward Tblisi.
At this point, there seems to be little doubt about Moscow's ultimate aim: removal of the Saakashvilli regime, which has been a persistent thorn in Russia's side. While U.S. transports are redeploying 4,000 Georgian troops from Iraq, their arrival will make little difference in the battle to come. With an overwhelming advantage in firepower (and complete control of the skies), the fall of Tblisi is only days away, at best.
On his way home from the Beijing Olympics, President Bush issued his toughest statement on the crisis to date, calling Russia's advance "unacceptable" in the 21st Century.
I am deeply concerned by reports that Russian troops have moved beyond the zone of conflict (in South Ossetia), attacked the Georgian town of Gori and are threatening the Georgian capital, Tblisi," Bush said.
Mr. Bush and European leaders have pressed Russia to accept an immediate cease-fire, and mediation of its dispute with Georgia. But those pleas have fallen on deaf ears, as Moscow presses its attack toward Tblisi.
According to AFP, U.S. military officials expressed "surprise" at the speed and timing of the attack. One said there was "no obvious build-up" of Russian forces along invasion routes through South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But other sources suggested that the operation had been in the offing for several months, requiring extensive planning and preparations.
But, with Russian troops already deployed as "peacekeepers" in the region, advance elements for an invasion were already in place. Additionally, with Moscow's 10:1 advantage in personnel, there was little need to deploy additional units.
With the west offering little more than strongly worded statements, Russia has little reason to discontinue its offensive. Indeed, there is some debate as to what the U.S. and its allies could reasonably do, given the pace of the Russian invasion.
Well, for starters, NATO should consider a deployment of air defenses to Tblisi and other strategic locations in Georgia. There is evidence that the Russians are bombing indiscriminately, causing significant civilian casualties. Moving NATO Patriot batteries into Georgia, backed by alliance air and battle management assets, would prevent Moscow from attacking civilian targets and critical infrastructure, including those oil pipelines.
NATO undertook similar operations in the early 1990s, to prevent Serb fighters from striking civilians in Bosnia. Operation Deny Flight established constant air defense patrols that denied Serbian MiGs and Galebs from ranging into Bosnian territory, as they did in the early years of the conflict.
The recent attacks on civilians in Georgia provide a pretext for a similar effort now. Deployment of Patriot units and air assets would be accompanied by the transfer of new defensive weaponry to Georgian forces, allowing them to mount a more credible defense. Those deliveries would be provided by an air bridge through Turkey, allowing a steady flow of weaponry and humanitarian aid to our allies in Tblisi.
Unfortunately, that sort of campaign won't happen this time around. For starters, Mr. Bush and other western leaders have simply waited too long, and more importantly, none of them have the stomach for a fight with Russia.
Besides, even if NATO had the resolve to challenge Mr. Putin, the first Russian tanks will be in Tblisi well before that first Patriot unit could be shipped to Georgia. And, at the current pace of the Russian advance (and accompanying air campaign), airfields in Georgia will soon be unusable, preventing airlift operations, or the deployment of combat aircraft.