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The Limits of Power; the Burdens of Leadership
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 8/20/08

As much of the world watched the Olympics, a celebration of good sportsmanship and friendly international competition, Russian tanks began rumbling into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two restive, semi-autonomous provinces on Georgia’s northern border with Russia. They didn’t stop there, but continued south into Georgian towns and cities, seizing a military base. The invasion was accompanied by air and artillery attacks, killing and injuring many civilians and causing much damage to homes and infrastructure.

The governments of Russia and Georgia blamed each other for provoking the violence. South Ossetia contains a mixture of villages populated by ethnic Ossetians and Georgians who apparently managed to get along well enough until Georgia gained its independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union. South Ossetia voted to join Russia. Abkhazia voted for independence and many of the Georgian residents either moved or were driven out. An uneasy peace has prevailed since with Russian military peacekeepers present along with a few U.N. officials. Russia provided much of the population in the disputed regions with Russian passports and clearly intends to protect their interests. Georgia regards the two provinces as an integral part of its territory.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

Russia insists that the Georgians are at fault for sending troops to attack the Ossetians. Georgia maintains that it was only attempting to restore order in a breakaway province. Which side deserves the most blame is, perhaps, arguable but what is undeniable is that the Russians overreacted massively. The Russian bear has turned surly again and by invading a sovereign country whose bid for NATO membership was backed by the U.S., Moscow has created a crisis that threatens a resumption of the Cold War.

The Republic of Georgia is a wedge-shaped country to the south of Russia strategically located with warm-water ports on the Black Sea. Home to the late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, it is about half the size of our state of Georgia and its population of about six million is only about 4% that of Russia’s. Georgia presents no military threat to Russia, of course, but its strong pro-U.S. and western stance is a cause of much irritation. Most importantly, it provides an energy transmission corridor from the Caspian Sea oil fields to the Black Sea with a pipeline that carries about 850,000 barrels of oil a day, mostly for European consumption, that is not subject, at this writing at least, to Russian control. Damage to this pipeline, built by a consortium of western energy companies, could have serious consequences for European countries and make them further dependent upon Russian energy sources which can be turned off to punish those who dare to displease Moscow.

Russian premier and strongman Vladimir Putin, with whom President George W. Bush was said to have a warm personal relationship and whom Bush once described as a trustworthy fellow, left no doubt who was still in charge in Moscow by flying from Beijing, where he was attending the games, to North Ossetia on the Russian side of the border. Mr. Bush remained at the games but lost little time in strongly condemning the Russian aggression and expressing support for Georgia’s democratically elected government. He then ordered U.S. forces to provide relief operations, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Paris and Tiblisi to confer with French and Georgian officials in helping to broker a ceasefire.

What to do next? Nobody wants a military engagement with Russia, least of all our overextended military which is hardly in a position to respond to another major conventional contingency. Should we have seen this coming? Well, yes. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow has watched its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Western and Central Asia shrink as former Soviet republics aligned themselves with the United States and the west. NATO, which was created to contain the Soviet threat, continued to expand right up to Russia’s doorstep. The United States obtained agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to base ABM sites in those countries, once members of the Soviet Bloc. Putin, who clearly wants to restore Russia to the position of strength, prominence and influence that the USSR once enjoyed, is encouraged by high approval ratings from the Russian people who are traditionally strongly nationalistic and who resented Moscow’s fall from superpower status.

Mr. Bush says he still supports Georgia’s membership in NATO and that Georgia’s territorial integrity must be assured. Ms. Rice warned that a return to the days of Soviet-style puppet states dominated by Moscow was unacceptable. That puts them on a collision course with Mr. Putin who doubts that Ossetians and ethnic Russians can now live peacefully with Georgians under Georgian rule and is promoting a change of government in Tiblisi. Meanwhile, Russia has threatened Poland with severe consequences if it permits U.S. ABM sites on its territory. Some of the former Soviet Bloc nations are already members of NATO, whose treaty defines a military attack on one member as an attack on all. If a line is not to be drawn at Georgia, where will it be drawn? In Ukraine, Putin’s next most likely target? Estonia? Latvia? Lithuania? Poland? History has such a way of repeating itself.

The world has suddenly become a more dangerous place. Nations that live in the shadow of the bear that have aligned themselves with the U.S. will look to Washington for leadership and protection. Americans will soon choose a new leader who will assume the world’s most powerful and responsible position and who will be commander-in-chief of our armed forces. Whoever that turns out to be, a first order of business needs to be a realistic assessment of our military capacity to confidently meet multiple threats and to provide a range of options for dealing with them. Relying exclusively on diplomacy and sanctions without credible military capacity to back them up if necessary is rather like scolding a hungry bear, hoping he will go away.  CRO

copyright 2008 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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