Russia Suffers a Bloody Nose in Georgia

TBILISI, GEORGIA   Viewed from Georgia, Russia suffered a significant bloody nose in its August invasion. Russia dislodged Georgian soldiers and ethnically cleansed South Ossetia and Abkhazia, setting up puppet regimes in both breakaway regions. But Russian armed forces performed poorly and Moscow sustained economic and political damage.              

What I learned in briefings from defense and diplomatic officials -- many of them bright young people in their early 30s -- is being confirmed by reports filtering out of Russia.  Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia told me that 1700 Russian soldiers were killed, as compared with 167 Georgians, and that 17 Russian combat aircraft were shot down, including a TU-22 strategic bomber.

While these numbers cannot be completely confirmed, observers saw the Russian armored armada bogged down in mountain passes, exposing it to accurate long-range rockets.  The Russians admitted losing four aircraft, including the bomber; sources in Moscow claimed the count was much higher.  The loss of the $200 million TU-22, piloted by a 53-year-old reservist who bailed out and was captured by Georgians, exposes  stunning Russian weakness.  The TU-22 was being used for reconnaissance.  Contemporary armed forces use pilotless drones for reconnaissance to minimize risk to personnel and costly equipment.

Russia's principal war aim was to depose Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, according to Giga Boueria, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister.  This would square with a presentation I heard at a conference on regional security in Istanbul, while en route to Georgia, from a Russian official who exclaimed that the Georgian president is "a war criminal' who should be placed on trial.  When the Georgians -- a proud Christian Orthodox people who have maintained their independence for a millennium and a half notwithstanding cycles of Russian and Turkish domination -- rallied around their American-educated president, the Russians shifted to another justification, i.e., that they acted to protect Abkhazians  and Ossetians to whom they had conveniently issued Russian passports.

That the Russians initiated the war seems clear from their long-planned co-ordinated, if poorly executed, land and amphibious assaults, as well as from intercepted Russian communications showing that Russian armor poured into Georgia through the Roki tunnel before Georgians responded to a mortar barrage in  South Ossetia.  The Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer apprised the Russian performance:

"The main task of the Russian invasion-to cause a total state failure and fully destroy the reformed Georgian army, making NATO membership impossible-has not yet been achieved."

The economic toll of the war on Russia has been significant.  Investors, fearing a Cold War or worse, pulled investments out of Russia.  The Russian stock market  plunged so precipitously last week -- far more than Western markets -- that trading was halted for two days.  Russia's central bank announced a massive drop in foreign currency reserves.  Investor's Business Daily concluded: 

"Investors are fed up with rampant militaristic nationalism, red tape, corruption and anti-investor sentiment in   Putin's Russia.  Some have decided to head for the door and take their money with them."

The Duma is being asked to increase military spending by 25%.  While Russia will spend a lot to restore national pride and times have changed in many ways, the Kremlin can not forget that President Reagan militarily outspent the Soviet Union into oblivion.

Russia will have to ponder whether its conquests outweigh the political costs.  25 Georgian villages were razed, 64,000 new refugees were added to already staggering totals.  I visited civilian areas of Gori where cluster bombs were used.  Russia's claim that Western recognition of Kosovo's independence justified its aggression is unpersuasive because the lives of Kosovans were imperiled under Serbian rule.  Russian pressure on Georgia is designed to help Moscow monopolize energy supplies.

Last week, the Atlantic Council -- NATO's legislative arm -- held a long-planned meeting in Tbilisi.  Whether Georgia eventually becomes a NATO member is a complex subject concerning which member states are divided.  But Georgians I spoke with were heartened by the words of NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer:  "NATO will help Georgia not only with word, but with actions too.  The doors of the alliance are wide open to Georgia."

US Defense Secretary Gates spoke to our European allies last week  about how Russia's actions jeopardized a  constructive relationship.  While cautioning NATO to be careful about making commitments, he emphasized the importance of completing commitments once made.  Gates echoed what Georgians told me:  "The Georgia incursion will, over time, be recognized as a Pyrrhic victory and a costly strategic overreach."  Whether this proves true depends on how Russia pursues its grievances against other neighbors it once ruled, especially Ukraine, Estonia and Poland.

Joel J. Sprayregen, a Chicago lawyer,  spent last week in Georgia observing damage from war and meeting government officials.
TBILISI, GEORGIA   Viewed from Georgia, Russia suffered a significant bloody nose in its August invasion. Russia dislodged Georgian soldiers and ethnically cleansed South Ossetia and Abkhazia, setting up puppet regimes in both breakaway regions. But Russian armed forces performed poorly and Moscow sustained economic and political damage.              

What I learned in briefings from defense and diplomatic officials -- many of them bright young people in their early 30s -- is being confirmed by reports filtering out of Russia.  Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia told me that 1700 Russian soldiers were killed, as compared with 167 Georgians, and that 17 Russian combat aircraft were shot down, including a TU-22 strategic bomber.

While these numbers cannot be completely confirmed, observers saw the Russian armored armada bogged down in mountain passes, exposing it to accurate long-range rockets.  The Russians admitted losing four aircraft, including the bomber; sources in Moscow claimed the count was much higher.  The loss of the $200 million TU-22, piloted by a 53-year-old reservist who bailed out and was captured by Georgians, exposes  stunning Russian weakness.  The TU-22 was being used for reconnaissance.  Contemporary armed forces use pilotless drones for reconnaissance to minimize risk to personnel and costly equipment.

Russia's principal war aim was to depose Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, according to Giga Boueria, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister.  This would square with a presentation I heard at a conference on regional security in Istanbul, while en route to Georgia, from a Russian official who exclaimed that the Georgian president is "a war criminal' who should be placed on trial.  When the Georgians -- a proud Christian Orthodox people who have maintained their independence for a millennium and a half notwithstanding cycles of Russian and Turkish domination -- rallied around their American-educated president, the Russians shifted to another justification, i.e., that they acted to protect Abkhazians  and Ossetians to whom they had conveniently issued Russian passports.

That the Russians initiated the war seems clear from their long-planned co-ordinated, if poorly executed, land and amphibious assaults, as well as from intercepted Russian communications showing that Russian armor poured into Georgia through the Roki tunnel before Georgians responded to a mortar barrage in  South Ossetia.  The Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer apprised the Russian performance:

"The main task of the Russian invasion-to cause a total state failure and fully destroy the reformed Georgian army, making NATO membership impossible-has not yet been achieved."

The economic toll of the war on Russia has been significant.  Investors, fearing a Cold War or worse, pulled investments out of Russia.  The Russian stock market  plunged so precipitously last week -- far more than Western markets -- that trading was halted for two days.  Russia's central bank announced a massive drop in foreign currency reserves.  Investor's Business Daily concluded: 

"Investors are fed up with rampant militaristic nationalism, red tape, corruption and anti-investor sentiment in   Putin's Russia.  Some have decided to head for the door and take their money with them."

The Duma is being asked to increase military spending by 25%.  While Russia will spend a lot to restore national pride and times have changed in many ways, the Kremlin can not forget that President Reagan militarily outspent the Soviet Union into oblivion.

Russia will have to ponder whether its conquests outweigh the political costs.  25 Georgian villages were razed, 64,000 new refugees were added to already staggering totals.  I visited civilian areas of Gori where cluster bombs were used.  Russia's claim that Western recognition of Kosovo's independence justified its aggression is unpersuasive because the lives of Kosovans were imperiled under Serbian rule.  Russian pressure on Georgia is designed to help Moscow monopolize energy supplies.

Last week, the Atlantic Council -- NATO's legislative arm -- held a long-planned meeting in Tbilisi.  Whether Georgia eventually becomes a NATO member is a complex subject concerning which member states are divided.  But Georgians I spoke with were heartened by the words of NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer:  "NATO will help Georgia not only with word, but with actions too.  The doors of the alliance are wide open to Georgia."

US Defense Secretary Gates spoke to our European allies last week  about how Russia's actions jeopardized a  constructive relationship.  While cautioning NATO to be careful about making commitments, he emphasized the importance of completing commitments once made.  Gates echoed what Georgians told me:  "The Georgia incursion will, over time, be recognized as a Pyrrhic victory and a costly strategic overreach."  Whether this proves true depends on how Russia pursues its grievances against other neighbors it once ruled, especially Ukraine, Estonia and Poland.

Joel J. Sprayregen, a Chicago lawyer,  spent last week in Georgia observing damage from war and meeting government officials.