Saturday, August 23, 2008

The real meaning of the South Ossetian war: Part II - what's next?

I ended my previous article about The real meaning of the South Ossetian war with the words: historians will probably look back at the month of August 2008 as the moment when Russia decided to strike back at the Empire for the first time. Today, I want to pick up this conclusion and take a look at what might happen next. But before looking into the future, I want to return to one aspect which I think needs to be stressed: the US and NATO really got humiliated, whacked, whopped, thrashed, thumped - pick your expression - on all levels and the Imperial High Command understands this perfectly.

Predictably, the faithful corporate media came to the immediate rescue of its masters and immediately began publishing an avalanche of articles aimed at putting a face-saving spin on this humiliation. Let's take a couple of examples:

Where the Russians ready or not?

That topic has been the source of endless amusement for me. The corporate media which is used to the usual condescending nonsense about the "poorly trained" Russian military could simply not explain how the Russian response to the Georgian attack could be so fast. It therefore concluded that "the Russian were ready to attack". Some of the most politically correct media outlets even said that the Russians attacked first. Simultaneously, other sources indicated that the US intelligence community saw no signs of Russian preparations and that it was caught totally off-guard. It is obvious that neither Saakashvili nor his American masters were ready for what happened.

So, either the Russians were fine ready and the US intelligence community is the most useless, overpaid, over-rated and incompetent on the planet having missed the Russian preparations, or the Russians scrambled the resources they had locally and they did a superb job. So which is it?!

Actually, it is probably a mix of both. The 58th Army, which is responsible of the North Caucasus Military District including Chechnia, is one of the most combat ready of the Russian armed forces, at least its ground forces element (its airpower was less convincing). Since Russia had been issuing regular warnings at the UNSC that the Georgians were planning an attack there is little doubt that the Russian military intelligence was fully aware of the potential for a Georgian attack. What they seemed to have done is to carefully plan a response, but without actually concentrating detectable means and forces. In other words, the Russians were confident that the 58th Army would be capable of a lightening response if and when so ordered. So while it is normal that the US intelligence community did not detect (non-existing) attack preparations such a force concentrations in assembly areas, this also shows that it was unable to detect the more subtle signs of Russian, shall we say, 'alertness' in the North Caucasus MD and that is rather shameful for the most expensive intelligence community on the planet.

Besides the 58th Army, Russian Airborne Forces were also scrambled to the rescue of the Russian peacekeepers, as were a number of Spetsnaz units. Lastly, the Black Sea fleet ships left port almost immediately after the Georgian attack. This clearly shows that the overall readiness of Russian forces has been far superior to what US military analysts expected and that the Russians were very successful in concealing their capabilities. Another bad point for the US intelligence community which missed it all.

This war is yet another intelligence fiasco for the US and its allies. But then, what can one expect from an intelligence community which managed to survive 9/11 and the disastrous 2006 war in Lebanon without a single head rolling...

What about the US and Israeli trained Georgian forces?

Even more nonsense has been written about the performance of the Georgian military. My absolute favorite article on the topic is entitled US trainers say Georgian troops weren't ready which is replete with a full cornucopia of lame and outright idiotic excuses for the Georgian defeat (the most hilarious one being "The Americans were training them to use the U.S. military's M-4 rifles, he said. But when fighting broke out, the Georgians went back to the Soviet AK-47, the only weapon they trusted. They appeared incapable of firing single shots, instead letting off bursts of automatic fire, which is wildly inaccurate and wastes ammunition" which shows that its author does not even understand the basic difference between US rifles and Russian AKs).

So let's ask the basic question: Which is it? Were the Georgians well-trained or not?

If yes, than all these excuses only serve to hide a most embarrassing fact: US and NATO doctrine, training and weapons suck. There is simply no other way of putting it. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and in this case the eating leaves a rather disgusting taste: being totally defeated in four days is really pathetic for a presumably top of the line force.

If the Georgians were not ready for combat, then the US tax payer is wasting millions of dollars for useless training programs for military forces abroad. I mean - come on! - the Georgians had been trained by US and Israeli special forces for over a *decade*, their equipment was upgraded and modernized (including their tanks and air defense systems), all their gear was top of the line US stuff (from Marine-like goggles to fancy Humvees) and their engagement doctrine was 100% NATO stuff (and not this primitive "Russian style" fighting with "incompetent NCOs" and a "rigid command structure"). A decade is enough to built up an army from scratch, but the Georgians learned nothing from the best and the brightest in the business. How is this possible?! Maybe the best and the brightest are not really so good after all?

The most desperate corporate newsreports blamed it all on the '"huge" Russian army trampling the "tiny" little Georgian nation, some even mentioned 6'000+ Russian tanks. Nonsense, of course, as what matters is not the size of the entire Russian military but the actual size and capabilities of the Russian forces committed to the war in South Ossetia.

Take a look at this great little article entitled Georgian army may be tough nut for Russia to crack written just before the Russians eviscerated the Georgians in 4 days. Let me quote the best paragraph:

Russia as a regional power enjoys, of course, overall superiority over the Georgians, in the short term with a much stronger air force, and in the longer term with the Kremlin's potential ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of troops and conquer Georgia - provided the men in the Kremlin have the will to take the losses needed to eliminate their doughty opponents.

Amazing, no? I particularly love the "hundreds of thousands of troops" part. In reality, the most quoted figure of Russian soldiers participating in the war is about 10'000 soldiers, included the ones in Abkhazia which never participated in the combats in South Ossetia. The real figure of soldiers, MBT or APCs really does not matter. What matters is that the Russian force was not substantially larger than the Georgian military and that only a part of the 58th Army was actually involved in the war.

The reality is far simpler. First, while the Georgians were very well trained and equipped by NATO standards, anyone from the former Soviet Union can tell you that the Georgians are not exactly famous for being tough soldiers. In contrast, the 58th Army had just won a long a difficult war against the Chechens, formidable soldiers by all accounts, and dealing with the over-confident Georgians proved to be not much of a challenge for it. Second, the US and NATO are not good at ground warfare, at least not nearly as good as the Russians. The West, as usual, got it all wrong about Chechnia after seeing a bunch of un-trained Russian recruits sent inside Grozny by Pavel Grachev getting smashed up by Chechen fighters but failing to notice the subsequent brilliant operation to re-take the city in the first days of January 1995. Anyway - the bottom line is simple: the US protege in the Caucasus got everything and anything he wanted, he started the conflict as ready as can be, and he still got crushed a rather small Russian force.

One of the biggest weakness of the US military culture is that it actually believes its own propaganda about its alleged superiority. From WWII, to Korea, to Vietnam, to Lebanon, to Somalia, to Grenada (arguably the worst military operation of the 20th century), to Kosovo to Iraq, history is full of examples of the contrary, but still the "best equipped and best trained military in the world" myth is repeated over and over again until it is accepted as revealed dogma by much of the military and the Establishment. Carefully filtrated and spinned accounts of past wars only reinforce this myth in the mids of those who are now struggling to explain the debacle in Georgia. Predictably, such an over-reliance on fancy technologies combined with a "we are the best" mantra results in mediocre military capabilities. What is true in Hollywood is not true in faraway countries.

Condi Rice and her threats

What was the US and NATO reaction to all this? It was best summed up by Condi Rice: "We are determined to deny them their strategic objective". The Russians immediately saw this buffoonery exactly for what is was: hot air. While the purpose of this kind of huffing and puffing was to present a face-saving appearance of resolve, it turned into even more embarrassment when the Russian replied, in essence: and what are you going to do about it?

By the way, what were the Russian strategic objectives?

They were very clearly spelled out by President Medvedev on the first evening of the war. He said that the Russian operation had two objectives:

a) to repel the Georgian aggression
b) to punish those responsible (i.e.: to destroy the Georgian armed forces)

It is pretty darn clear that the Russian had already achieved both of these objectives in 4 days. What Condi Rice is referring to is another, presumably unspoken, Russian strategic objective: to split off South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia. But, again, Condi is entirely missing the point: Russia does not need Abkhazia or South Ossetia and, besides, after what happened these two regions could only be brought back under Georgian control by a bloodbath.

The reality is that Russia has already achieved all its strategic objectives and more: by making Sarkozy signing a document (the six point peace plan) which is unacceptable to the USA the Russians have succeeded in creating tensions inside NATO which resulted in the totally lame NATO statement about the conflict. It is becoming apparent now that even the US-NATO "ultimate weapon", its awesome PR machine, has managed to conceal the bitter reality that the war in South Ossetia has proved that the Empire has become clueless paper tiger who cannot even roar convincingly.

So what next?

There will be a US response to all this. First, NATO will most likely accept both the Ukraine and Georgia as full members. The rule that NATO does not accept countries with territorial disputes will be set aside for the sake of political expediency as accepting Georgia will make the Imperial High Command feel that it took revenge on the evil Russians (there is the possibility that the political crisis in the Ukraine could result in a collapse of the Imperial scheme for this country and that Timoshenko might join forces with the opposition and oppose a Ukrainian entry into NATO). What else could NATO and the Americans do? Deploy parts of their ABM system in Eastern Europe? They already did that. Block the Russian entry to the WTO? It's not like it was about to happen anytime soon. None of that really matters as the Russians do not care.

Sure, the Russians complain a lot about the NATO enlargement and about US radars and missiles in Eastern Europe, but the truth is that they don't care one bit. The Russians fully understand that NATO has ceased to be a military organization a long time ago and that its real purpose is to maintain the US domination of Europe. Militarily, NATO is irrelevant, it cannot even meaningfully help the US in Afghanistan, nevermind taking on Russia. As for the American ABM system, it is just a way to provoke Russia and to spent more money on military programs. In purely military terms all that deployment of US missiles has "achieved" is to turn Poland (and other host nations) into targets for Russian short range missiles, that's it. Other than that these missile will never intercept anything or protect anyone.

No, what the Russians do care about is not the military threat of NATO expansion or the US missiles, but the highly provocative political message its sends Russia: screw you, we will do whatever we please, no matter how provocative. The war in South Ossetia was the Russian answer to this challenge: ok, so will we.

Is there anything the Empire can do besides expanding NATO? Sure! It can return to all the tried and tested methods of the Cold War: finance "dissidents" (let's resurrect Elena Bonner and Sergei Kovalev from their current oblivion), support various "democratic" and religious groups, increase the broadcast time for its propaganda radios, voice plenty of support for any and all minorities in Russia (including gays and lesbians this time?), raise the specter of a rise in Russian Antisemitism and, last but certainly not least, justify even more spending on its already bloated military and intelligence to "counter the threat of a resurgent Russia". "More of the same" will be the order of the day. Expect a Newsweek or Time Magazine cover with Medvedev as the "new Hitler" soon.

An empire on the decline - like the USA - always ends up doing what it is used to do instead of adapting to new realities or learning the lessons of its defeats. Instead of being "result oriented" such dying empires are always fully "activity oriented", they steadfastly hold on to the belief that their ways are right and more of the same will do the trick.

As for Russia, it will remain careful and act only when needed as dying empire is potentially very dangerous and it should not be provoked into some ultimately stupid action (remember the talks about using nukes on Iran?).

There is a basic and crucial asymmetry in this new US-Russian Cold War: the US is seeking world domination ("full spectrum dominance") while Russia has long given up any imperial dreams it might have had. The new, post-Soviet, Russia aims at being a 'normal' nation, treated with respect by others and whose fundamental national security interests will be protected from US imperial designs. Whereas Russia wants a multi-polar world the US wants to hold on to its self-perceived role as the "world sole superpower" nevermind that it is over-extended, basically insolvent, with a virtual currency, a shirking industrial base and that it is hated worldwide. Of course, the US still has momentum, the Saudis will protect the greenback as long as possible, the EU will support the NATO's nonsense, the Chinese will keep Walmarts well stocked and the rest of the world will be careful not to antagonize the dying giant lest it lash out with its cruise missiles and bombs.

While this new Cold War probably not last as long as the previous one, it will probably outlast the short-lived global war on terror (GWOT) which has already lost all traction with the American public. Russia will be the bogeyman again (unless the Israelis do something really stupid and draw the USA into a major war in the Middle-East). Unlike the previous one, this new Cold War will probably not end with a photogenic opportunity like the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Paradoxically, Russia will not even be a key player in this new Cold War as the USA will mostly be busy defeating itself (think about it: no evil KGB plot could have ever contemplated devastating the USA the way 8 years of Neocon power did under Baby-Bush).

The Empire will not die in a Red Dawn -like invasion of Russian paratroopers, nor will it collapse as a result of one major event. Instead, it will gradually crumble as a result of many small strikes, some economic, some military, some political and some social. Sure, the Russians will be glad to add a couple of small strikes of their own, like what they did in South Ossetia, but that's it. The rest of it will be self-inflicted.