Will Georgia Spark a Russian Arms Race?

Russia’s incursion into Georgia is one of the most dangerous turning points in recent years. In my view, it could lead to far more serious consequences for the U.S. than anything like Iraq and Afghanistan.

President George Bush and his successor must make it absolutely plain to Vladimir Putin that such aggression won’t be tolerated. Negotiations are, of course, in order, but my view as a long-time Russia-watcher is that we must play the threat-of-force card since it seems to be the only thing some of them understand.

That said, I found it especially interesting just how obsolete Russian weapons were during the conflict.

First, some caveats. I know this is supposed to be a Virginia blog and that some fellow bloggers will take my head off for straying off topic. Virginia, however, is where the Pentagon and the CIA are located, plus many military and naval bases. Also, Virginia is the No.2 defense industry state. What happens next is of utmost importance to the Old Dominion.

Besides noting the vigor and recklessness of the Russian incursion, some observers have picked up that the Russia strikes in the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and in Georgia proper raise big questions about their military equipment. That intrigues me since the Soviet/Russian defense industry was one thing I paid a lot of attention do when I was a BusinessWeek correspondent in Moscow from 1986-1989 and again from 1993 to 1996.

Aircraft, tanks and assault rifles were some of the few products they seemed to make well. I saw them up close and personal on several occasions, including the Uzbek border where I watched Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989. Four years later, much of the fighting during an anti-Yeltsin coup in Moscow happened just outside my office and apartment where my wife and two children huddled in a bathtub. I’ve waited at armed checkpoints in Azerbaijan and although I was never in Chechnya, I knew a lot of people who were.

On a lighter note, I was once invited to a weapons demonstration by Russian export companies in the city of Vladimir. After a lunch of vodka and heavy appetizers, we went to exhibits where pretty young Russian models displayed mortar tubes and rocket propelled grenades along with lots of leg and cleavage. Then we went out to a firing range and were allowed to shoot any weapon we wanted, including machine guns, despite our somewhat inebriated state. I chose an evil-looking submachine gun, called a “bez-shum” (without noise) because it had a long silencer on its barrel. It made flitting sounds as I squeezed the trigger.

Yet, according to observers such as the Moscow Times, Russian weaponery showed its age in Georgia. The tanks were old T-72s produced in the 1970s to counter NATO armor on the plains of Western Europe. The primary aircraft were close-support Sukhoi-25s, dubbed “Frogfoot” by NATO, which were first used 25 years ago in Afghanistan.

Georgia fielded some of the same weapons, but, according to the Moscow Times, they had been upgraded with night-vision capabilities, unlike the Russian ones. Presumably a bit of the technical upgrades came with help from U.S. and Israeli advisors in Georgia. The Georgians had help with electronic warfare and general training as well, presumably from the same Israeli and U.S. sources. “The Russian forces had to operate in an environment of technically inferiority,” the Moscow Times quoted Konstantin Makiyenko, deputy director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies as saying.

Despite the Georgian’s technical superiority, however, Russia prevailed through brute strength of numbers. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili made a bad move by provoking the fight by sending 7,500 Georgia troops into the contested and heavily-Russian province of South Ossetia that has been fought over since the Soviet Union fell in 1991 and Georgia became independent. Unfortunately for the Georgians, the initiative failed and the Russians responded in force.

Despite Russia’s victory, the conflict revealed shortcomings in Russian tactics along with the aforementioned ones in weaponery. For example, Russian air forces could not prevent the shelling of a convoy and the wounding of a top commander, despite Georgia’s smaller forces, the Moscow Times says.

Old guns and tanks result, of course, from the economic mayhem that befell the Soviet Union after the 1991 breakup. The military and civilian economies had been merged in ways hard to imagine in the West. But Russia is now awash in oil money. One wonders if the poor showing in Georgia and Putin’s belligerence will spark a major arms buildup in Russia, not to mention more aggressive moves in spots around Russia’s border. If so, the U.S., and by extension, Virginia, had better be ready.

Peter Galuszka

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26 responses to “Will Georgia Spark a Russian Arms Race?”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Peter G.

    You are right about the importance of Georgia / Russia to Virginia, and to the rest of the US of A.

    Think how much stronger position US of A would be to do something about Russia, Sololia Pirates, Darfur, etc. if we were not stuck in Iraq!

  2. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    PG: We gotta talk some time about your experiences overseas.

    I’ve blogged on this on my blog, Deo Vindice.

    Frankly, I don’t think this dust up means much new for Virginia, the Defense industry, or Russia’s plans for modernization.

    This is Russia being Russia.

    Consider Panama (89), Haiti (94) and Kosovo independence (08) and the Russian reaction is understandable.

    The accommodation, status quo post bellum, will likely not be pleasant for Georgia. Our reaction should be very measured very carefully.

    Russia isn’t our enemy. Russia isn’t our ally. The U.S. would do well to not make Russia the enemy.

    In coming decades the U.S. and Russian national interests coincide more than they diverge. And we have the same enemy – the Islamists.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Radical Islam is of course a threat but I am really concerned about what happens if Putin tries something like this in the Baltics or he works with Belarus’s dictator at some kind of stab at Poland which may well be getting U.S. missiles and a jet base. My point is that things could get out of hand to nuclear very quickly, which isn’t the case yet with Al Qaeda. Even limited nuclear is horrible to contemplate.
    Having grown up during the Cold War as you have, although I have never been in the military as you obviously have, I still find it hard to believe that places such as Georgia are still being considered for NATO membership. I am having trouble catching up with all of this.
    However, I do not agree that the Russia has a case against the U.S. in places like Kosovo. We helped stop genocide led by their buddies, the Serbs, who have one hell of a lot of blood on their hands. No sympathy there.
    Another point I didn’t bring up is that Russia is also sending signals vis a vis oil pipelines from Central Asia that deliberately avoid Russia by going through Georgia and on to Turkey. Moscow plays hard ball on energy and here is another example.

    Peter Galuszka

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Anoynmous, The short answer is that I can’t really make any convincing argument pro or con on Georgia.
    It has been independent and it has also been Russia’s playground for centuries where everybody and his brat including Pushkin went to get their manhood tested.
    My point is that after the Soviet Union fell apart (remarkably peaceably, overall) since 1991, the world has accepted the borders at that time. Russia has moved in an out since in limited excursions (trans-Dnietser in Moldova, Georgia in 1991, Chechnya twice and now Georgia again).
    Both Yeltsin and Putin have gotten warlike but now it seems that Putin is going a step further and that is what might change things since Georgia is technically a sovereign country.
    Another aspect. Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post years ago did a brilliant story that basically was a timelines showing the link between high oil prices and Russian aggressiveness.
    That’s even more to worry about.
    Peter Galuszka

  5. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    PG:There is no build up of forces around the Baltic. Right?

    It would take a major miscalculation to push too hard where you noted. It could happen, but it is highly unlikely. The object lesson is being made clearly in Georgia.

    NATO has a military partnership with Russia. The logic for alliance with Georgia isn’t as much anti-Russia, although that is the way Russians see it and Georgians see it as a safety blanket, as it is anti-Islamist and rogues.

    Look at the legality of Kosovo – after we signed a treaty that declares Serbian sovereignty – not the circumstances of conflict. If you support Kosovo independence – based on laws and treaties – then it’s hard to not support South Ossetian or Abkahsia (sp) independence or realignment.

    And, of course it is about energy – and Russians playing hard ball.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    I sure hope there’s no troop buildup around the Baltics but it has happened before.
    As for Kosovo, we could get into an argument that goes beyond my competence in international law. But I do not agree that the U.S. moving for Kosov has an application in Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Why:
    (1) Moscow has entered into the Commonwealth of Independent States agreement with its former Soviet republics respecting their territorial integrity in the early 1990s.
    (2) The world has de facto recognized the borders of the split-apart USSR as they were on Dec. 31, 1991.

    I understand that times change, but I think the Russian’s argument on Kosovo is a weak one, cetainly Haiti.

    By the way, my Bolivian driver and customs buster in Moscow had a fun sense of humor. He noted that the Russian acronyn for the Commonwealth of Indepedent States was pronounced like ‘Sang.” Ever the Latin American, he said, “That makes us all “Sang a Nistas.”
    (Get it?)

    Peter Galuszka

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    geeze…what a bummer… all this crap happened just as the neocons were trying to figure out how to come up with enough armed resources to invade Iran…..

    oh…. so many targets and so few armed forces….

    one of these days… somebody (hopefully) is going to figure out that one country relying on unilateral force to deal with any/all countries that we have a beef with – while dissing potential allies as “weak” and “ineffective” is going to result in us standing alone.

    This is not a virtue folks much less a sustainable strategy.

  8. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    I sure hope Bush is a lucky poker player because his opening bet with a pair of deuces is a sure fire way to end up with an all in duel between two wanna be cowboys. Neither of these yahoos are sharp enough to carry a bluff.

    With everything going on in the world, the last thing we need is Bush stumbling into a major confrontation with Russia. Maybe our overextention is what Putin is betting on, but Bush is not exactly a strategic genius.

    The days of rushing hell bent for leather through Indian country with the sole goal of capturing the enemy’s flag are long gone. George played that game in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so far luck has been on his side. Let’s hope the third time isn’t the charm, ending with a Georgian version of the Little Big Horn.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    J.A. Bowden,
    Check out this article in this morning’s (Saturday’s) WS Journal —

    It says that in fact the Russian-Georgian situation is sparking a rethink about U.S. arms and notes criticisms that the Defense Dept. has been too fixed on Iraq/Afghanistan and isn’t thinking about possible future threats from Russia or China.

    At issues are aircraft like the F-22 (based at Langely) and what kinds of ships the Navy will get.

    So, I do think there could be a Virginia connection.

    Peter Galuszka

  10. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    PG: I couldn’t see the article.

    Virginia will get billions in defense spending because regardless of who is Prez, DC is New Rome. (I might suggest that one candidate would be a more likely fiddler there – but that would be a political cheap shot).

    The Army will come out of Iraq eventually – and Iraq may go any number of ways as a nation-state at any moment in the future.

    The Army will continue in Afghanistan for as long as NATO has the will to engage there.

    The massive re-fit of the Army from Abram tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Hum-vs, from the 1980s will be conducted with the Future Combat Systems.

    The Navy should modify its mix of ships to build for more amphibious support to the Marines, but won’t.

    The AF will build as many superior a/c like the F22 and F35 as they can.

    The business side of the military won’t change dramatically. Unless we unilaterally disarm and cut back.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Sorry the link didn’t work. Go to WSJ.com and you should find it easily on the main news page.

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    Sorry the link didn’t work. Go to WSJ.com and you should find it easily on the main news page.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    Russia is to be lauded for supporting the independence of South Ossetia!


  14. Anonymous Avatar

    Anonymous 6:25 p.m,
    I don’t think anyone takes Patrick Buchanan seriously as a Russia expert.
    Give me a break.

    Peter Galuszka

  15. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    PG: Friendly advice…attack the message, not the messenger.

    It’s much more effective.

    I have issues with Pat Buchanan on a number of things. But, when I think he is right, it is like hearing a Hallelujah Chorus singing – it is so clear. But, that is neither here nor there, for anything else he says.

    Fight the issue as it is presented, not in the person of the presentation.

    Respectfully submitted, JAB

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    My opinion is that Buchanan is out of his depth on Russia. Sorry if it offends.

  17. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    PG: I’m not offended in the least. I have very thick skin. Helps when you screw up a lot.

    It wouldn’t matter anyway.

    I’m just suggesting, respectfully, that you blast his ideas. Not his credibility.

  18. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    It’s reassuring to find out that despite the appearance of an easy victory, the Russian army still has significant weaknesses. What do we make of the reports that the Russkies engaged in cyber-warfare? Were the denial-of-service attacks militarily significant, or did they just go after soft targets?

  19. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Cyber-warfare, like information operations, is an umbrella word for a lot of different things.

    If the Russians used their old capabilities for electronic warfare in jamming the Georgian command and control radio nets, then they could have done plenty of damage.

    How much more they did, I don’t know at this time.

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    OK, J.A. Bowden,
    I am out of town and not using my machine and I can’t pick up the rockwell link. From what I remember, my criticism of Buchana is thus:

    (1) He claims that the Georgian President took advantage of distranction by the Olympics to order a military incursion into South Ossetia.
    He take take the initiative, but South Ossetia is recognized globally as GEORGIAN territory, not Russian. He did NOT invade Russia sovereign territory, he undertook a police action in his own country.
    (2) The Grogian president miscalculated since Putin was just waiting for him to take an aggressive action.
    (3) Bush seems to have led Saakasvili to believe that the U.S. would help him, just as Eisenhower led the Hungarians believe he’d help them in 1956 and Johnson led the Czechs believe he’d help them in 1968.
    (4) Slight of hand is nothing new to Putin. When he wanted to start another incursion into Chechnaya in 2000, Russian secret services apparently faked apartment bombings in Moscow that were blamed in Islamic terrorists.
    (5) Regarding a JAB post a few days ago, you say that Russia’s military action is “Russians being Russians.” That’s like saying that when Hitler enterd the Sudetenland or invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939 it was “Germans behing Germans.” At least 2,000 people are dead in Georgia while the Russians are being Russians.
    (6) Pat Buchanan may be OK for insight into the right wing arm of ther Republican Party but he is no Russian expert. I spent 10 years of my life, six in Russia, dealing with Russia and talked to a number of experts, including Yeltsin. Bucahan ain’t there.
    Peter Galuszka

  21. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    PG: Re-(5). I’m not blithe about Russians being Russians. It may read that way, but that isn’t the intent. And intent is what matters – military planning deals with capabilities (what can they do) and intent (what will they do – why).

    The Georgians should have considered Russian intent as well as capabilities.

    It simply isn’t a surprise to me – and I’m not the Russian expert you are – that the Russians did what they did.

    As for the human costs of the Russian action – all losses are tragic. The U.S. led NATO in killing 2,300 Serbian CIVILIANS in 1999.

  22. Anonymous Avatar

    Gordon Clark: Russo-Georgian Conflict Shows Bankruptcy Of Post Cold-War Order
    Distributed by the Green Party of the United States http://www.gp.org

    Gordon Clark for Congress http://www.clarkforcongress.net


    Media Contact:
    David Gaines
    (703) 338-3459

    Silver Spring, Maryland (August 13th, 2008) — The Clark for Congress campaign issued the following statement today on the Russo-Georgian conflict by 8th District Green Party congressional candidate Gordon Clark:

    “The brutal Russian invasion of neighboring Georgia exemplifies the worst aspects of nation-state behavior. Yet it also demonstrates the complete failure of our current system of international relations, one still based largely on military alliances, confrontation and conflict.

    “The beginning of the current crisis can be marked to the end of the Cold War. The NATO military alliance that stood against the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact should have been dismantled when the Soviet Union broke up. Instead, NATO not only continued, it grew – by accepting former members of the Warsaw Pact, a strategy that inevitably antagonized Russia (as does our building of missile defense systems in former Warsaw Pact nation Poland). In response, Russia looked to protect its borders.

    “At the same time, Georgia’s U.S.-educated leader, President Mikheil Saakashvili, has been regularly encouraged with words of strong support from President Bush and other Western leaders – words that are easily interpreted, in the current context, to be backed by force. So, rather than attempt to resolve peacefully the confrontation with Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, which has strong ethnic ties to Russia, Saakashvili launched an ill-advised military operation there last week. A predictable (if extreme) Russian military response followed, leaving the Georgian president waiting for U.S. or western military support that never materialized.

    “The U.S. is utterly unable to influence Russia’s behavior because of our own government’s invasion and continued occupation of Iraq, as well as our military involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and our threats against Iran. It was painfully disturbing to watch U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (and former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan) Zalmay Khalilzad trying to lecture the Russians that ‘the days of overthrowing leaders by military means’ are over. He had to add the phrase ‘…in Europe’ — a transparent rhetorical attempt to excuse our own invasions and regime changes.

    “In a world filled with national, regional, and ethnic tensions – and now overflowing with armaments, thanks in no small part to U.S. weapons sales – the path to peace and stability will not come from military action. The Russian invasion of Georgia must be strongly condemned, but no differently than the U.S. invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq, and U.S. threats and military action elsewhere in the Middle East. Unless our nation turns away from our own militarized foreign policy and toward diplomacy and peaceful dispute resolution, other regions of the world will continue to explode in violence – and there will be nothing that the U.S. can do about it.”

    Gordon Clark, the Green Party candidate for U. S. Congress from Maryland’s 8th District, has for over twenty years been a community activist in the peace, environmental, nonviolence, and social justice arenas. He is a former National Executive Director of Peace Action, the founder of Iraq Pledge of Resistance (now the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance), and a former Field Director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

    For more information on the Clark for Congress campaign, call (301) 589-2355, email info@clarkforcongress.net, or visit http://www.clarkforcongress.net and http://www.myspace.com/clarkforcongress

  23. Anonymous Avatar

    Your comment about the number of civilian deaths in the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999 needs some perspective.
    NATO reported in the neighborhood of 1,500 deaths over a three month period in 1999. By way of comparison, the 2,000 dead estimated in 2008 in Georgia cover a little more than a week (not three months) although NPR reported last night that the 2,000 number may be high.
    However, there were at least 1000,000 deaths and/or murders in the former Yugoslavia resulting in charges of war crimes and genocide against a number of high level Serbian commanders. About 8,000 alone died in Srebrenica.
    The NATO campaign did for the most part stop the killing in Kosovo. We were talking about ethinc cleansing, mass murder, Nazi-style executions and mass burials, etc.
    It is a fallacy to compare NATO’s bombing Kosovo and the Russia incursion into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The former is an attempt to stop bloodshed; the latter is a land and power grab.

    Peter Galuszka

  24. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    PG: The 2000 dead from the land grab don’t care or count more than the 2300 civilians dead because of their government’s bad behavior. The point was that NATO – led by the U.S. – killed one group of civilians and Russia killed the other.

    An interesting point about the NATO bombing is how little military damage it did to Serbian forces in Kosovo. Mainly, it blew up civilian infrastructure and civilians.

  25. Anonymous Avatar

    Can’t we safely say that the 1999 NATO bombing put an end to major strife in the former Yugo? It seems to me we can.
    Meanwhile, Russia is not withdrawing from S. Ossetia despite ceasefire.
    Actually I have been writing about this Russia grabbing old lands crap since the early 1990s. Have clips to prove it.
    Some of my Russian friends also told me plenty of stories of how the Serbs and their paramilitaries scoured Russia in the 1990s looking for just mustered out young Russian soldiers with Afghan or Chechnya experience willing to be mercenaries and/or death squad leaders in the former Yugo.

  26. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Yes, the 1999 bombing campaign stopped the Serb attacks in Kosovo. It was a Shermanesque attack on civilians. Like the burning of The Valley in 1864.

    I know a retired Army guy who did humanitarian work in Bosnia in the early 90s. He spoke of the lack of infantry skills, small unit tactics, with the Serbs. So, I’m not surprised they were recruiting.

    He also was emphatic that there were no good guys there – anywhere. Innocent civilians, but not good guys.

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