The Duck of Minerva

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Russia-Georgia: Saturday night news aggregation

August 10, 2008

The Russians refused Georgia’s request for a cease fire. The UN says that the war is escalating and widening to Abkhazia. Interfax reports that “The Russian Foreign Ministry has accused Ukraine of facilitating Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia and ethnic cleansing in the breakaway Georgian province by selling weapons to Tbilisi.”

I was talking about the conflict today with someone who commented (more or less) “I wonder if the Russians will get some bombing runs off against the BTC pipeline while they have the chance?” The answer seems to be yes [8/10: actually, it looks like the answer is “no” or “probably not”.] I can’t believe I missed this earlier…

Newsweek just ran a story based on an off-the-record discussion with a US government official about Russia’s “disproportionate response.”

The Bush administration official, who briefed reporters on condition his name not be used because of the sensitive nature of the situation, said Russia has attacked areas in Georgia that are far away from the separatist province of South Ossetia, where the fighting has centered. The official also said the Russian military is striking civilian targets.

“They have employed strategic bombers — the most potent air weaponry that is in the Russian arsenal …. They actually launched ballistic missile attacks on Georgian territory,” the official said. He also said Russia has sent more than 1,000 paratroopers and armor into the region.

Russian bombing has also taken place in Abkhazia, a separate breakaway region of Georgia, far from South Ossetia, the official said.

“This is a dangerous escalation in the crisis,” the official said. Russia’s military response “marks a severe escalation and is being conducted in areas far, far from the South Ossetia zone of conflict, which is where the Russian side has said it needed to protect its citizens and peacekeepers. So the response has been far disproportionate to whatever threat Russia had been citing.”

The U.S. official also scolded Moscow for stymieing attempts at mediation and refusing a cease-fire offer from Georgia.

It is impossible to tell if this report signals anything about Washington’s attitude, or what it means for evolving US policy.

But I do think the actions described, in conjunction with the material I discussed below, highlights some general rules for watching military conflicts unfold: (1) be aware of the tremendous variation between different media–whether national, partisan, or whatever–and how that impacts the opinions you form about the combatants and (2) recognize that there’s an enormous amount of “noise” in the information available minute-to-minute.

In terms of reading blogs, Joshua Foust at Registan has some terrific advice. Even though what he wrote struck a nerve with me, he’s basically right.

Finally, when Putin flew back from Beijing and personally “took command”, it became pretty clear (contra some earlier speculation posted at the Duck) that this was not going to be Medvedev’s moment. For an excellent discussion, see Daragh McDowell’s post on the subject (h/t Rob Farley).

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.