Those who have gazed upon the Caucasus Range with their own eyes [своими глазами] cannot ever forget that vista. The distinct memory of mighty Elbrus, Europe’s tallest mountain, captivates me to this day across the decades. At the fault line between the Ottoman, Persian, and Russian empires, this unique region has seen its share of brutal warfare. Leo Tolstoy glimpsed the promise and peril of the region when he served there as an officer before going off to join Russian forces serving in the hellish cauldron of Sevastopol under siege by French and British forces in the Crimean War. Today, thankfully, the Caucasus is reasonably peaceful and the region has definite potential in all respects—not least as a beguiling crossroads between East and West. Still, with the Syrian War on one flank, and the Ukraine conflict on another, it’s quite easy to see how the Caucasus could be torn asunder yet again by great power rivalry.
Many seem to have already forgotten the short, sharp war that occurred between Georgia and Russia a decade ago. Fortunately, casualties were light on both sides (such that the “war” might even be termed a “skirmish”) and the results of the conflict between a great power and its comparatively tiny neighbor could hardly be a surprise. On the one hand, the conflict seemed to showcase all the mistakes the West could possibly make in its dealings with Russia. There was the flashy young Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, with his Western education, his reformist zeal, and his excellent command of the English language. That smooth talker charmed more than a few American politicians and they came one after another to Tbilisi (Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and even President George W. Bush himself) to pay homage to the upstart country that was not afraid to thumb its nose at the Kremlin. Yet it all came crashing down in August 2008 as Russian mechanized units quickly drove Georgian forces back. Russian forces remain in South Ossetia to this day. On the other hand, this was really the beginning of the Russia’s fundamental break with the West that was only deepened and exaggerated in the wake of the 2014 Ukraine Crisis.
This month, American troops and armor have come to George in force, evidently to make a bold statement to Moscow. Oddly, this deployment of more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers has not been widely reported in the American press for unknown reasons. Our leading papers must be too busy covering Paul Manafort’s tastes in fashion or Maria Butina’s wide-ranging liaisons. An early August article in the Russian newspaper Kommersant offers a Russian perspective on these activities. The title of the piece suggests that “American Troops Marched Right by Russian Border Guards” and explains that on their way to the exercise area that “US forces drove up to within 500 meters of the South Ossetian border [американские военнослужащие проехали всего в 500 м от границы Южной Осетии].”
The exercise, dubbed “Noble Partner” continues through mid-August and involves troops from thirteen nations—including nine from NATO. Training will involve “combat shooting” among other exercise elements “with the goal of increasing the interoperability of the Georgian army with the armies of the United States and other NATO members [с целью повышения совместимости грузинской армии с армией США и других стран—членов НАТО].” The Russian article suggests that about 3,000 soldiers would take part in the exercise, including “perhaps one third” from the US, constituting a “reasonably strong formation [Наиболее крупную группировку].” Other NATO nations participating in the exercise were Britain, Estonia, Germany, France, Latvia, Norway, Poland and Turkey. Non-NATO member participants included Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.
The Russian article notes that several American generals were slated to make an appearance in Tbilisi, including the senior National Guard commander. As if to emphasize Moscow’s wounded pride, the author observes somewhat wistfully that the exercise will take place at a training base, Vaziani, that was occupied by the Russian army until 2001. Adding insult to injury, from the Russian perspective, is that German armored combat vehicles were part of the exercise. Given the more than 20 million killed during the “Great Patriotic War,” one can perhaps understand Russian sensibilities about seeing German armor once again on former Soviet territory. Nor did the Americans travel light. According to this Russian report, “At the end of July, the US Army’s European Command delivered M1A2 Abrams tanks, Stryker and Bradley armored personnel carriers by sea from the Romanian port of Konstanza to the Georgian port off Poti. [В конце июля европейское командование армии США доставило морем из румынского порта Констанца в грузинский порт Поти танки MIA2 Abrams, бронетранспортеры Stryker и БМП Bradley].” These vehicles apparently stopped in the town of Gori (after leaving Poti for the exercise ground) and put on a display of the U.S. armored vehicles in the town’s main square. The author notes the significance of Gori, since during the Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008, that town marked the further extent of advance toward Tbilisi for Russia’s attacking forces.
The exercise no doubt represents a NATO initiative (along with Tbilisi) to send a tough warning message or even a calculated insult to the Kremlin. Observing that the exercise is significantly larger than the 2015 iteration, the Russian author quotes senior Georgian leaders “emphasized the growing dynamic of cooperation between Georgia and the North Atlantic Alliance [обратил внимание на растущую динамику сотрудничества Грузии с Североатлантическим альянсом.]” To be sure, many feel this particular message for Moscow was long overdue given the 2008 war and Russia’s continuing occupation of one-fifth of Georgia’s territory. But there is a serious problem with that approach since this exercise seems to be more a bluff of a highly symbolic nature, rather than a serious effort at deterrence. Even if NATO could somehow get significant armored forces into Romanian ports during a war with Russia—a highly dubious proposition—these NATO tanks would surely end up on the bottom of the Black Sea. Moscow hardly required a brand new set of Kilo-class submarines or a new air-launched Kinzhal anti-ship, hypersonic missile capability to ensure its mastery of the Black Sea (underlined by deteriorating U.S.-Turkish relations). Those new capabilities remove any doubt regarding this scenario, if any indeed existed in the first place. It should be recalled that this balance of power, coupled with Russia’s long history of considering the Caucasus as an area of “core interest,” ensured that when Moscow used force on its southern flank in 2008 and then again in 2014 that neither President Bush, nor President Obama had any good cards to play.
Besides the above obvious dimensions of the geopolitical chessboard in the Caucasus, however, the Georgia situation provides another key insight into the politics of the former Soviet space. Many analysts rightly blame Saakashvili and his antics for provoking the 2008 war. However, his strange journey since departing Georgia may be even more revealing. Of course, he took his populist, anti-corruption, anti-Russian message to Ukraine, got elected there, and then recently began a virulent campaign against the Poroshenko administration in Kiev that has contributed significantly to Ukraine’s never ending political dysfunction. The case of Saakashvili demonstrates not only a high degree of risk-taking and indeed reckless, immature behavior, but also the promise and peril of “homo-Sovieticus”: the continuity of fluid identities across the vast space of the former Soviet Union and well beyond.
The commonalities of culture among the peoples of the former Soviet Union does indeed underline a fundamental problem with reifying national borders within the post-Soviet “liberal order.” Anyone remotely familiar with the history of the USSR knows that Joseph Stalin (a Georgian) set the borders of the republics within the USSR without any sound logic, geo-cultural, or viable economic basis, such that many (if not most) are nonsensical. An illustrative example is the Fergana Valley, one of the greatest cultural centers of Central Asia, that is fundamentally undermined since it is crisscrossed now by several extremely inconvenient national borders that were never intended to be national borders. Nikita Khrushchev (a Ukrainian), as is well known, gifted the Crimea to Ukraine on a whim, but that too was never intended to form a national border. Since the USSR was a single, united whole, these border lines mattered little in previous times. But one should not overestimate their importance in the post-Soviet era either.
Undertaking larger and larger joint military exercises that flaunt heavy weapons like tanks in former Soviet domains, whether in Georgia or in the Baltics, does not comport with U.S. national interests. I have underlined the fundamental mistake of NATO expansion in this Bear Cave series many times and I’m glad to see many senior specialists in international relations agree on that point. Such exercises do not provide real deterrence, but rather amount to symbolic actions that “poke the bear”—an unwise proposition that generally provokes Kremlin countermeasures and thus has significant potential for escalation.
Given the prevalence, moreover, of the phenomena of “homo Sovieticus” with all its positive and negative attributes, we should hardly expect that the multitudes of peoples in the former Soviet states are all agreed on the shape and meaning of various national borders. Flexibility, pragmatism, a deference to local concerns and historical legacies, as well as a healthy respect for geography and the military balance of power should guide cautious diplomacy in attempting to manage the inevitable disputes that will not end anytime soon. Above all, the West is making another history-altering blunder in making the territorial issues of South Ossetia and Crimea as the twin crucibles that decide the future of European security and prosperity. To the contrary, these disputes should be minimized and better relations between the West and Russia should be pursued as the bedrock for both European security and a more cooperative global order more generally.