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Up 'till now, every bit of the analysis of the South Ossetian conflict has assumed that Russia entered into the fighting as the result of careful thinking and careful timing.  It was timed to coincide with the Olympics.  It was a show of power, not just to the former Eastern Bloc, but to the US and NATO.  

The Russians were trying to reestablish the Soviet Union.   - John Bolton

The Russians are trying to reestablish the Russian Empire.   - John McCain

Surely it's the Russians whose minds we should be reading, because the Russians must have known what Georgia was going to do in South Ossetia, right?  

Much of the American press has ignored or glossed over how this conflict actually began, with Georgian forces attacking South Ossetia*.  Instead, the narrative has been that Russia is doing this, they're doing it for a reason, and we can tell what it is.  

And, once again, the establishment narrative in the American press is exactly worthless.  Apparently, there are problems on the other side, too.  Turns out not everything is planned to the last bullet in Moscow:

Moscow was disconcertingly taken by surprise with the sharp escalation of hostilities in South Ossetia last Friday. The most apparent part of the problem was the lack of leadership, as President Dmitry Medvedev departed to a Volga resort and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went to Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. The greater problem was the serious military and political miscalculations that had resulted in the apparently chaotic emergency decision-making (Kommersant, August 9; Ezhednevny zhurnal, August 8). It is hard to blame the military for missing the Georgian preparations for the large-scale offensive, since the command of the Armed Forces had been thoroughly reshuffled: The Chief of the General Staff was replaced in early June, his first deputy (the head of the Main Operational Department) was fired in early July and not replaced, and the commander of the Ground Forces was replaced in the first days of August (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 5).

The main blunder, however, was political, as the Kremlin seriously overestimated its ability to dominate the situation in the conflict zone. The large-scale military exercises conducted across the North Caucasus in July were supposed to demonstrate Russia’s superiority in projecting power (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 18). In parallel, the withdrawal of the railway troops from Abkhazia in early August symbolized Moscow’s flexibility and responsiveness to the peace proposals advanced by Germany (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 8). Putin was confident that his performance at the NATO Bucharest summit had effectively blocked Georgia’s Atlantic aspirations; several stern "warnings" should have ensured that Georgia would not dare make any pro-active move. Surprise was so complete that Putin, according to those who saw him in Beijing, was pale with barely controlled rage, which he tried to convey to U.S. President George Bush and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (Moscow echo, August 8).

This is a new blog to me, but what Pavel seems to be doing on it is analogous to what Juan Cole does on his blog:  synthesize the foreign press that most of us can't read for ourselves.  

And, you'll note that there's a very different narrative going on here.  Is it possible that Russia is not, like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, implacable and calculating and trying to send us a message with every tick and grimace?  

Just a thought ... which is more than we're going to get from the American right, where it's always Munich and everyone's wearing a funny mustache.  

Furthermore, the Georgian provocation seems to have had an Ossetian provocation.  Here's an article from the day before the Russians invaded Georgia:  

The latest outbreak of hostilities began on July 31 after two roadside bombs hit a Georgian police Toyota SUV near the Georgian village of Eredvi. Six Georgian policemen were wounded (Interfax, August 1). Russian peacekeepers, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, discovered that the bombs were made out of 122 mm artillery shells (, August 2). The road leading to Eredvi was built by the Georgians to bypass Ossetian roadblocks near the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Last November I traveled that road in a similar Toyota to visit the Georgian-controlled part of South Ossetia. This road has been a thorn in the side of the Ossetian separatists for some time. On July 4 a car with the pro-Georgian leader of South Ossetia Dmitry Sanakoyev, whom the separatists consider a renegade, was hit by a roadside bomb and shot at on the same road in almost the same spot. Three bodyguards were wounded, but Sanakoyev was unhurt. A surge of tension followed the attack (RIA-Novosti, July 4; Kommersant, August 4).

The roadside bomb attack on July 31 was followed the next day by bloody clashes. Both sides accused the other of initiating the fighting. The Ossetians admitted six dead and 15 wounded, many hit by sniper fire. The Georgians admitted nine wounded. Both sides accused the other of using mortar fire. The Ossetians announced that 29 Georgian solders had been killed but did not substantiate the claim (RIA-Novosti, August 4). The Ossetians began an evacuation of women and children to North Ossetia (a Russian autonomous republic), called for volunteers from the North Caucasus to join the fight against Georgia, and threatened to attack Georgian cities and to cleanse the Georgian forces out of South Ossetia. The South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity claimed that Georgians living in South Ossetia were begging to be "liberated" from the forces of the regime in Tbilisi (RIA-Novosti, August 2, 3, and 4).

Kokoity has announced that some 300 volunteers have arrived in South Ossetia to fight the Georgians and that more are coming (, August 5). Most of the "volunteers" seem to be South Ossetians that were serving in police and other militarized formations in North Ossetia and were sent south as reinforcements. Kokoity has ordered that these "volunteers" be integrated into the South Ossetian Interior Ministry forces (RIA-Novosti, August 6). Yesterday the Ossetians were reporting fierce battles with Georgian forces, while Georgian authorities and Russian peacekeepers reported only shooting incidents in which no one was injured (Interfax, August 6).

The Ossetian authorities have announced the cancellation of a planned meeting with the Georgian side in Tskhinvali on August 7, while the Russian Foreign Ministry said that it believed the meeting had to go ahead (RIA-Novosti, August 6). Russian peacekeepers say that after the initial flare up of fighting on August 1, the situation in South Ossetia has somewhat calmed. The Ossetians insist that it is getting worse (Interfax, August 6). High-ranking Russian officials, including President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have remained silent about the conflict in South Ossetia.

emphasis mine

And, unlike that bullshit CYA we finally got from the Bush administration (five days late) that the US had warned Georgia not to provoke Russia, the information above is actually attested at the time, not manufactured after the disaster.  

So, we can talk about Russia wanting to roll back NATO's expansion, or the problem of territorial integrity norms, or gas and oil pipelines, or Putin's desire to humble Bush on his way out, but those are outcomes, at best, and rorschach tests, at worst.  

And all of these interpretations require a western perspective, and a paranoid one at that.  Once again, dumbing the analysis down to personalities or Cold War narratives is a cheap way to get out of having to know what the hell is going on at ground level.  

And the American press, especially, has cut its teeth on tedious celebrity gossip.  They are not equipped to analyze a goddamn thing.

* And even that explanation is too simplistic.  

Originally posted to Grand Moff Texan on Tue Aug 12, 2008 at 01:34 PM PDT.

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