Tbilisi overestimates combat potential

MOSCOW. (Alexander Khramchikhin for RIA Novosti) - Several early conclusions can already been drawn from what is now happening in South Ossetia.

One of them is that the Georgian president has apparently vastly overestimated his army's combat potential. Admittedly, Mikheil Saakashvili's armed forces are far ahead of the bunch of rabble and bandits that made up Georgia's army during Zviad Gamsakhurdia's tenure. But the number of troops with sufficient combat training is still limited, and so is modern military equipment. Over 90% of the equipment available is obsolete.

Saakashvili's plan was obvious. He wanted to invade Tskhinvali, which is very close to the border, to establish Dmitry Sanakoyev's government there and declare it the only legitimate government of South Ossetia. That would have made the remaining part of South Ossetia invaded by Russian aggressors.

It is also possible that a quick and successful takeover of Tskhinvali could have demoralized the South Ossetian forces, and the Georgian army could have continued its march northward almost unimpeded.

But that plan failed. Georgia began its campaign with unthinkable atrocities - shelling residential areas of Tskhinvali with Grad multiple rocket launchers, which is nothing less than a war crime. Then Georgian forces engaged in drawn out street fighting with South Ossetian troops. And, once regular Russian units pulled into the region, Georgia was left with no chance of victory whatsoever, as the whole of its army is roughly equivalent to one of Russia's motorized rifle divisions.

Therefore, since Georgia's projected blitzkrieg failed, it has lost the war - that much is obvious. On the other hand, it has clearly gained some political success, as Russia faces being labeled an aggressor by the international community.

Moscow indeed found itself in a viscous dilemma once Georgian forces invaded the self-proclaimed republic. Neither of its options was acceptable. It could either let down South Ossetians and be condemned by North Ossetians as a traitor, or begin an invasion of a sovereign state without a UN mandate and be condemned by the world at large as an aggressor. There was no other option available.

Russia chose the latter evil, wisely estimating it as the lesser of the two. It is preferable to be labeled an aggressor than a traitor. Incidentally, Russia is one of the five lucky nations having the right of veto in the UN Security Council - the only body authorized to define a country's actions as "aggression."

So, what happens next? Georgia is in no position to mount a guerilla campaign against Russian troops in South Ossetian territory, as it will have trouble finding more than a negligible number of the local population harboring anti-Russian sentiments.

Theoretically, Georgia might try and resume regular action by sending its troops to attack Tskhinvali and adjacent areas once again. But that would be at best risky, and at worst disastrous. This kind of attack already failed when Georgian troops were fully prepared and had not yet suffered casualties, and when there was only a very limited Russian force in the region. In another attack the remaining Georgian troops and equipment could be quickly expelled with even heavier losses.

Nor is re-supplying an option. New equipment deliveries from Eastern Europe would take too much time for simple geographical reasons. And it would take even more time to train personnel to use the new equipment - probably months.

NATO involvement is equally impossible. European armies wouldn't risk taking on Russia for fear of huge losses. The same goes for the United States, which is also bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and cannot afford to be distracted.

So Georgia's only possible ally is Turkey. It is close enough to the theater of conflict to provide help quickly, and does not fear losses. But Tbilisi might not want Turkish help, fearing that Georgia might end up invaded by Turkey in some way. Turkey would want a lot to involve itself in an operation implying open military confrontation with Russia - including extensive economic and military assistance from the U.S., and guarantees of EU accession from Europe. It is improbable that Washington, let alone Brussels, is so concerned with Georgia's fate to pay that price.

So it looks like Tbilisi has vastly overestimated both its own military potential and the willingness of the West (primarily the U.S.) to rush to Georgia's rescue. Grand declarations are one thing, but involvement in a military conflict with Russia is quite another.

Moreover, his reckless South Ossetian raid has greatly jeopardized Georgia's chances of NATO accession. By successfully presenting Russia as a military aggressor, Saakashvili has shown Western leaders that if Georgia joins NATO, the members of the alliance may have to send their forces to fight a deadly war against Russia. West European leaders will now do anything to avoid any involvement with Georgia.

Which leads us to the conclusion that the conflict will soon return to a purely political dimension. Russia must bear in mind, however, that there is not just an unfriendly nation on its southern border but a deadly enemy. It is much harder to negotiate with an enemy, but this is something Russia will inevitably have to do.

Alexander Khramchikhin is head of research at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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