TBILISI — It sounds like a basic political rule of Machiavelli: launch a war, lose the war, lose power.
Here’s how it works.
In 1974, Greece’s ruling general, Dimitrios Ioannidis, engineered a coup on Cyprus, calculating that Turkey would not respond. Before Ioannidis could unite Cyprus and Greece, the Turkish military invaded, occupying the northern third of the island. That loss led to an end to seven years of military rule in Athens.
In 1982, Argentina’s ruling general, Leopoldo Galtieri, invaded the Falkland Islands, calculating that Britain would not respond. The British recaptured their Islands. That defeat led to an end to seven years of military rule in Buenos Aires.
On August 8, 2008, Georgia’s democratically elected president, Mikheil Saakashvili attacked the separatist government of South Ossetia, calculating that the Russian bear would not respond.
But guess who is still president of Georgia?
August 2008 was the third time in 90 years that a Georgian government had warred with its Ossetian minority. Each time, Moscow came to the aid of the Ossetians. (see my New York Times story of Oct. 2, 1991)
This time, about three quarters of Ossetians living in Georgia’s breakaway province held Russian passports. Russia had stationed about 500 peacekeeping troops near the border – a human tripwire against a Georgian attack. Five days before the Georgian leader’s attack, Russia completed its annual summer Caucasus training exercises, leaving 8,000 troops and 700 combat vehicles parked near the northern entrance of the Roki Tunnel, the lone connection through the Caucasus Mountains, between Russia and South Ossetia.
Despite these overwhelming odds, President Saakashvili launched the attack, vowing to restore “constitutional order” in South Ossetia. His defense minister was vacationing in Israel.
The surprise attack seemed to blindside Georgia.
I happened to be in Tbilisi that week, on a business sabbatical from journalism. On the afternoon of Aug. 7, I had a long meeting with the local representative of the International Monetary Fund. After about 45 minutes, I brought up, almost as an afterthought, Georgia’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The representative, an American with five years experience in Georgia, lowered his voice to imply inside knowledge, and said that an overall, negotiated solution was in the works, probably for November.
Equally clueless was a British friend, the BBC stringer for Georgia. He called at 7 pm to cancel dinner at the last moment, saying “Misha is on TV announcing something.” After a week of border incidents, “Misha” Saakashvili was announcing a unilateral ceasefire. Several hours later, according to a 2009 report of the Council of the European Union, Georgian artillery started shelling South Ossetian positions.
For a day, it seemed as if Saakashvili’s gamble would pay off. During lunch on Friday at the Marriott Tbilisi, a Georgian businessman approached my table of expats and assured us: “It will be all over by Sunday. Keep investing in Georgia!”
But Friday afternoon at Tbilisi International Airport, it became increasingly clear that it was not smart to attack Russia’s surrogate. One by one, flights from Europe were cancelled. The managers of Lufthansa, Air France and KLM did not want to risk sending their million dollar metal – and their passengers – into a war zone. Georgian Airways wisely cancelled my flight to Moscow, not wanting to risk having their plane confiscated.
At the air terminal, Georgians seemed to think I was overreacting when I would step out from time to time to scan the skies for Russian bombers. (The Russians lightly bombed the airport area 36 hours later).
Stranded in Tbilisi, I went back to my hotel, Betsy’s, which had international television. Standing by the bar, I and other guests watched news footage of Russian tanks clanking out of the southern end of the Roki Tunnel. I had the sinking feeling that I was watching my generation’s version of Prague 1968.
The rest is history.
In the aftermath of Georgia’s resounding defeat, American officials tumbled over themselves to assure the world they had clearly, very clearly warned Misha not to do it. The CIA never publicly explained why their photo analysts did not pick up that, during the week before the war, the northern entrance to the Roki Tunnel was the largest military parking lot for 1,000 kilometers around.
By failing to plug this tunnel, President Saakashvili lost the war before he started it. Apparently, Sandra Roelofs, his Dutch-born wife, never told him the tale of the Dutch boy who saved the town by putting his finger in the dike.
So now, the Russians have 10,000 troops and extensive military material permanently stationed on the ‘wrong’ – southern — side of the Caucasus Mountain chain, in Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Depending on driving speeds, a Russian motorized brigade could reach Gori in about 45 minutes, a move that would cut Georgia in half.
Three years after the war, Saakashvili has beaten the historical odds. He baited the Russian bear, lost the fight, and kept the presidency. That postwar feat of political acrobatics is another tale.