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.