Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

The Strategic Lessons of Georgia

The Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force has just been used effectively — and not by the U.S., which tried to prevail on the cheap with its 2003 invasion of Iraq. This time around, it might as well be rechristened the Putin Doctrine, given what the Russian military has done to Georgia over the past two weeks. In the aftermath, assorted soldiers and graybeards in the Pentagon, the National Security Council and government warrens around the world are evaluating the military lessons of Moscow's move into the Caucasus. Just what does it mean for the way war is waged in the 21st century?

Military strategists see it as vindication for their continued calls for heavy, armor-centric warfare, while geo-strategists take it as a lesson in the dangers of a small country baiting a bigger and nearer foe when its key ally packs little more than rhetorical firepower, at least in the short term.

Despite U.S. embarrassment at the humiliation of its Georgian ally, the U.S. Army's tankers and artillerymen at Fort Knox's armor school have been encouraged by the success of the Russian army's blitzkrieg. Moscow's triumph suggests that there is wisdom behind Defense Secretary Robert Gates' insistence that the U.S. be prepared to wage "full-spectrum operations" — not just the past five years of irregular warfare that America has been engaged in, with small units of soldiers patrolling Baghdad streets and Afghan mountains.

Just as most of Saddam Hussein's troops melted away under U.S. firepower in 1991 and 2003, Georgia's forces crumpled under the Russian assault. While Georgians made up the third-largest allied contingent in Iraq, they were engaged in irregular warfare there, for which they had been trained by the U.S. But they were in no way prepared for Moscow's onslaught.

Another point strategists have taken note of: the Russians' apparent use of computer-generated attacks on Georgian servers and websites in the days before the invasion. While much of the hacking sounded like old-time Soviet agitprop — particularly reports of alleged Georgian genocide against ethnic minorities in South Ossetia — military schools will be studying the fact that such an electronic assault moved in tandem with the real invasion. How much did it help the Russians achieve their goals, either on the battlefield or in public opinion around the world?

The other lessons: don't tease the bear, because it may just be smarter than you. It appears the Georgians fell into the yawning trap set for them by the Russians. For years both sides had fired on the other, and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili decided that this summer was the time to root out the separatists — many with freshly issued Russian passports — in South Ossetia. When his forces moved into the province on Aug. 7, the Russian bear pounced. By all accounts, the Georgians moved first militarily. By most accounts, the Russians were simply awaiting that provocation, biding their time, with massive columns of armor ready to roar south once Georgia crossed into South Ossetia. Now that their troops occupy both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, they seem intent on remaining there as purported peacekeepers. Pentagon officials this weekend acknowledged that there was nothing the U.S. could do to drive them out.

Whether or not a renewed Cold War works in Moscow's favor in the long term remains to be seen. Moscow may not be able to halt expanding NATO, as former members of the Warsaw Pact do not seem less eager to join the Western Alliance. While Putin and his troops have succeeded in lashing out at Georgia, such action against former Warsaw Pact allies like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland — all now NATO members — would be suicidal. But for the near term, the Putin Doctrine is now in play.