Mary Dejevsky: The biggest loser from Georgia may be Russia

If, as some claim, Russia set a trap for Georgia, why was its initial response such a scramble?
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The Independent Online

You probably think that, at least from Moscow's perspective, big bad Russia won its small war with plucky little Georgia. You may even believe – plenty do – that Russia is now licking its chops, as it surveys the possibilities beyond its other borders. You would be wrong.

After spending last week in Russia, and meeting not only Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, but President Dmitry Medvedev, and other leading players on the Russian side of this sorry story, I have to conclude that, despite its technical victory, Russia has been left more damaged in almost every respect than its adversary.

Crucially, Russia lost the PR war. Georgia's propaganda machine was more modern, more nimble and more persuasive than Russia's, even when its information was proved to be incorrect. One result is that it is not just John McCain's moose-shooting running mate, Sarah Palin, who can confidently state that Russia launched an unprovoked invasion of Georgia, but swathes of Western opinion, including foreign policy specialists who should know better.

In part, Russia is paying the price for its past. Although almost two decades have elapsed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has failed to convince the world, and especially its neighbours, that it is not an expansionist power. The moment Russian troops entered Georgia proper, the comparisons were with Prague in 1968.

It counts for nothing that the buffer zones where Russian troops halted were enshrined in a 1994 agreement, or that Moscow completed the first stage of its withdrawal ahead of the schedule negotiated by President Sarkozy. To the outside world, Russia had reverted to type. An exasperated Mr Medvedev said that the West needed fewer Sovietologists and more Russia-ologists. Indeed.

If Russia was trounced in the PR war, the real war exposed more tangible Russian weakness. Its generals insist that their troops accomplished a textbook operation, and could – if that had been their objective – have taken the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, in four hours.

But, as the deputy chief of general staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, admitted, Georgian troops were able to reach the centre of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, before Russia mounted its response. Russia then lost 64 troops and four planes in less than 48 hours. With superior – Nato-standard – equipment, including night-sight, the Georgians initially had the upper hand.

As General Nogovitsyn declined to admit, but is clearly true, Russian intelligence was also defective. Georgia's offensive took the Russians by surprise: neither Russian peacekeepers based in South Ossetia nor the top brass in Moscow anticipated that the Georgians would act as and when they did. If, as some claim, Russia set a trap for Georgia, why was Russia's initial response such a scramble?

No wonder Russia's civilian leaders have announced that they are bringing forward the planned modernisation of the military. Georgia's US-trained and equipped services scored more combat points against its tired old enemy than either side cares to admit.

Yet for Russia to accelerate military modernisation up the pecking order means that other social and infrastructure projects may be delayed. Both Medvedev and Putin stress how much work has to be done to bring Russia materially into the 21st century. With inflation persistently high and popular expectations even higher, diverting resources to the military carries risks.

Russia's immediate recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states has also had a cost. Abroad, it made Moscow look expansionist, even as it clung to what remained of the moral high ground as the aggrieved party. At home, it piles up Russia's financial and military obligations – which may be why the Kremlin summarily rejected South Ossetia's call to be incorporated into Russia. It clearly sees closer relations with these enclaves as more of a burden than a blessing, economically and diplomatically.

Worst of all, perhaps, the war has soured President Medvedev's relations with the West almost before they have begun. It appeared to be with regret that he referred last week to the sharp language he felt obliged to employ when Georgia's foreign supporters took the line they did – as though this was not the President he had wanted to be. So long as Russia sees its interests so demonstrably threatened, though, he risks being the prisoner of his country's hardliners – be they generals, MPs or patriotic voters. That is unfortunate for the West, which had hoped for a post-Putin thaw, but it marks at least as big a loss for Russia.