Russia’s Border Problem with Georgia

We’ve been seeing videos of desperate fighting age Russian men mobbing Russia’s border with Georgia, and I must say, I don’t remember that border quite that way.

Some sixteen years ago I visited that border as an inadvertent part of a trip through the Caucasus, and stayed in the village of Kazbegi. We stayed at a guest house called the Stepansminda.

Just to be there in the first place, traveling up the spectacular Georgia Military Highway from Tbilisi toward the majestic Mt. Kazbeg (16,581 feet), wasn’t straightforward. So I went back to look up what I wrote at the time:

Besides us, the Stepansminda apparently had no overnight guests except Chris Adam, a man from Raleigh, North Carolina. Chris was dark and slight, well conditioned, and wore the look of a man who had been here too long. He had a personal driver and a personal translator at work. He was here to build the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-engineered border post with Russia, a few miles up the road along the river.

Borderpost

We drove up to see him. Inside his office, a metal shed, we saw fantastic blueprints, which foresaw a fanciful, modern outpost of civilization right here on this spot, unlike anything vaguely in actual evidence here. Chris’s driver sat inside, a hairy Georgian who was always on his cell phone. He sat over a laptop and I asked, astonished, if they had the internet out here and he smiled, no, it was movies.

One month later the border, the only proper border between Russia and Georgia, was closed. After a week of back and forth provocations in Russian-occupied South Ossetia, the Russians closed it with two hours notice on the pretext that their side needed “repair work.”

In confirming that, Chris gamely e-mailed that “now I do not need to worry about vehicle and pedestrian traffic.” 

Here is the original 2006 article with links to other things I wrote at the time about Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Autumn in Russia

Sen Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, noted the danger in Putin’s seeming desperation. “The paradox of this is that the better the Ukrainians do, the more dangerous Putin becomes,” he told me. “As Putin’s options narrow, he becomes more and more threatening.”

This from a Washington Post opinion column by David Ignatius today. If opinion leaders and politicians believe this, perhaps the darkening Russian autumn is a fitting occasion to implement whatever plans they hold to agitate for regime change in Moscow.

Where We Are Now

Helmuth von Moltke is right again. His quote that “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” holds true. Russia underestimated Ukrainian resistance. It also hasn’t displayed much logistic finesse. But the West also made some bad assumptions. First, it overestimated the Russian military. A month ago we all engaged in speculation whether Russia would form a land bridge to Crimea, or perhaps take Ukraine right up to the Dnieper, and any of that seemed more or less plausible.

Something else the West got wrong. It underestimated its own populations. The West prepared sanctions to punish Russia but the various countries’ individual populations, in a synergy with and admiration of Ukraine’s population, got out ahead of Western politicians and showed they wanted steps taken, not just to punish Russia, but to win the war.

Tentative early bets: Russian military leadership is replaced for lack of logistic finesse (traffic jams), failure to motivate troops. Still unclear is whether they’ll be cleaned out by the current or future political leadership. Russian military hardware itself may be non-trivially degraded too. Surely shoulder mounted weaponry must be pouring across Ukraine’s open western border to jam up that extraordinarily long column of Russia hdardware northeast of Kyiv. Leaving that west border so open may thus be seen as a further tactical error by Russian military leadership.

Finally, there is a Vladimir Lenin quote, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” The very idea that Germany ever even considered it would be all right to build a pipeline around Ukraine for itself, with all of seven days of hindsight, looks utterly self-centered and wildly haughty. The realization that that’s so apparent now is one measure of how much the world has changed.

It’s a very dynamic situation after week one with the West far more deeply engaged that they’d thought. Precedents have been set – the EU sending arms, dramatic German engagement, sanctioning of the Russian central bank. This one in particular wasn’t even on the agenda. Central banks are institutions that until now had been thought of as sovereign, like embassies are on foreign soil. 

Tonight it looks like we’re approaching a siege of Kyiv. I think it’s a good time to pull back from the blow by blow for a couple of days and listen to smart people (there are brilliant podcasts out there. One I recommend right now in particular is Ukr World). Meanwhile I’ll continue to curate the Assault on Ukraine Twitter list of Ukrainians, Officials, Ambassadors, OSINT, Think Tanks, Neighboring Countries, Reporters and others. It provides constant updates from actively engaged actors.

It’s here: https://twitter.com/i/lists/1467909429534380034

Live Ukraine War Coverage

I’ve assembled a Twitter list you can follow for constantly updated news from Russia’s war on Ukraine. Click see the latest news, and if you’re on Twitter, please retweet the list.

Here’s What I Think

Monday, February 21, 2022: My brief opinion, modestly offered, because I think today is a historic day:

This is not Reagan v Grenada, Bush v Panama, Clinton v Serbia or Reagan or Obama v Libya. None of those men became known as wartime presidents. Even with Iraq, George W. Bush isn’t primarily remembered as a wartime president, but rather as the president at the end of the Cold War. This is the United States and NATO versus Russia in a war over territory in Europe. Blue collar Joe Biden has become a wartime president.

When Covid began no one expected the extent of disruption it would still be causing, now beginning year three. As Russia’s gambit to upend the European chessboard begins, we may fairly expect death, hardship, refugee flows, displaced people, redrawn borders and a whole roster of Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.

Talking shops have spent entire careers talking over the last thirty years. For now they are talked out. Misery will ensue. I still have a hard time imagining the drafty old National Philharmonic Hall down near the Dnieper River in Kyiv, where my wife and I enjoyed an all Russian classical music concert three summers ago, ever being under assault by MIG fighters.

Unless there is an assertion by China, the European security question will predominate for years to come. The system of government – democratic or autocratic – that comes out on top in the battle for primacy beginning tonight will make gains worldwide and for years to come.

Autocrats will strive to make gains in the immediate meantime (looking at you, Beijing, Pyongyang, the Sahel). Either the post Cold War order will be patched together to hobble along for a little while longer or it will yield to the rise of an entirely new ordering of the world. Starting right now.

One man has made the calculation that he can reset the European security conversation. However successful his pursuit of war turns out to be, he is surely right about that.

The Real World Intrudes

Kyiv, Ukraine

Saturday, February 19th, 2022. Far more important real events actually happening in the world have hijacked my attention for now from my comfy online home here, this blog about travel.

During what I think is a really fateful period with import not only for Ukraine but for the broader world, and for the long term, I’ve assembled a list of about 100 Ukrainians, officials, ambassadors, OSINT sources, people from think tanks, people from neighboring countries, reporters and others that I find useful in following events in Ukraine, and you might, too.

If you’re trying to keep up, follow my list, and make suggestions about how to improve it. It’s real world stuff out there that’s really happening, and I promise, it’s riveting: https://twitter.com/i/lists/1467909429534380034

I’ll be back here soon.

New 3QD Column about Ukraine and Eastern Europe

Here’s my most recent monthly column at 3QD, as it ran on January 31, 2022. Please read it through and let me know what you think.

On the Road: Crunch Time

Kyiv, Ukraine

Ukraine is surrounded by 100,000-plus miserable, freezing, foot-stamping Russian soldiers who are Chekov’s gun on the table in Act One of our new post-Cold War epic. We’ve moved from “surely he wouldn’t?” to “he’s really going to, isn’t he?” It’s the moment when Wile E. Coyote has run off the cliff but not yet begun to fall. 

Two years ago Covid crowded out every thing but the most immediate, every body but family. Shocked by the viral invader’s audacity, we scrambled around in a new, unfamiliar world. Everything was frightening. We had precious little time to reflect. 

Now comes the malign intent of a real-life invader. Unlike Covid, Ukraine isn’t exactly appearing out of nowhere. Russia has been moving toward military aggression for months. The US president has had time to commit high profile gaffes about any U.S. response. Russian landing craft have moved clear around Europe from the Baltic Sea to threaten Ukraine in the Black Sea. We’ve had ample opportunity to reflect.

So far the west has performed a pretty nifty feat – defying physics. Specifically Newton’s third law, the one about for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Only now, at last, comes a grudging rumble from the big American reaction machine.

If a Quisling-in-waiting sleeps in Russkiy Mir tonight, if Russia installs a Minsk-style puppet in Kyiv, if Russian military hardware further enters and remains in Ukraine, it will be the design of a violent nationalist leader. Threatening sanctions is the response of a technocrat, but at least it’s a response.

Everybody is playing the Vladimir Putin ‘will he or won’t he’ parlor game and opinion is genuinely divided. Those who think this is all elaborate Russian respect-seeking may be right, but I’m skeptical, and here’s why. Watching battle gear arriving from as far away as Khabarovsk (on the Amur River border with China), Ulan Ude (east of Lake Baikal) and Primorski Krai (which is eight time zones from Kyiv and borders North Korea), and then a perfectly timed and well scripted further deployment across Belarus for ‘exercises’ involving 200 trains moving hardware day and night,persuades me that going to all this trouble is more than just saber rattlingIf all this is just standing shaking a fist and shouting stay off of my lawn, what’s at stake could turn out to be one mighty costly lawn.

Russia has been moving hardware for weeks. Those hoping this is all a great feint say what’s lacking, if they really mean t0 do it, is field hospitals. During a pandemic, even an autocrat may find it hard to pull medical personnel from civilian hospitals for a training exercise, they say. But over the weekend it was widely reported that the military buildup now includes “supplies of blood along with other medical materials that would allow it to treat casualties.” That sounds real.

After weighing Talleyrand’s advice to Napolean that “My Lord, you can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them,” the U.S. president, who has plenty of bayonets, having taken his precious time surveying his options, has begun to fulfill the basic Leader of the West job description, maintaining dialogue, mustering allies, bolstering defenses, polishing strategies.

(And oh lordy don’t you know Jens Stoltenberg is the most relieved man in the house. The NATO chief’s number one mission has to be, don’t be the hapless Nordic fellow who lost Europe. And the most relieved woman must be Ursula von der Layen, the face of the thoroughly sidelined E.U., who as German Defense Minister never met a crisis she couldn’t evade.)

Germany’s new coalition has yet to declare quite how much of a Putinversteher it wants to be, but the answer looks like pretty much. Sympathy is due to new Prime Minister Olaf Scholz, whose government is only fifty days old. His SDP party’s greatest hit is ‘Ostpolitik,’ working with Russia, after all.

Signs are not good. Last week von der Layen’s successor, the new German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, declared that Germany “will deliver 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, as a very clear signal, we stand by your side.” As full of élan and camaraderie as it may have looked on the minister’s keyboard, Ms. Lambrecht’s tweet hasn’t exactly been taken as a token of undying solidarity. Yet even that was too much for some German politicians: 

Translated, that’s roughly “Delivering 5,000 safety helmets to Ukraine is a bad sign. Germany must play the role of mediator and must not side with one another in a biased manner. The federal government is wandering around aimlessly in terms of foreign policy – stop this saber-rattling!”

With chalk poised above a blank slate, Scholz’s government has so far squandered the opportunity to set the table for its leadership role in a 2020s Europe. The UK disdainfully shook its metaphorical head and simply flew around Germany to deliver anti-tank weapons to Kyiv rather than be held up by paperwork.

•••••

Memories of the Soviet Union are aging but they’re not gone yet. Americans of a certain age will remember civil defense markings on the AM radios in their cars. In the event of, say, a Cuban missile crisis, children would duck and cover and drivers would tune to the triangle on their car radio for guidance. When my wife and I spend summers in Finland, we still hear the civil defense test sirens, sounded at noon on the first Monday of every month.

Civil preparedness is mostly a memory for many of us. But consider lived experience in the new NATO Baltic states. Because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuana were Soviet republics into the 1990s, much of the population speaks Russian and watches Russian TV.

Latvian journalist Kristaps Andrejsonssays while “clowns such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky—the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and a well-known figure in Russia’s ‘controlled opposition’ who has called for the immediate bombing of Kyiv—might be ignored in the Western media, in the Baltics, he and people like him are watched closely.” In the same way that even Donald Trump finds supporters, Russia finds support in the Baltics, because if you live in the Baltics, the threat of war is already in your house.

Kyiv, Ukraine

Consider lived experience in Ukraine right now. American former soldier and Kyiv resident Nolan Petersonwrites:

“If an attack is imminent, Kyiv’s air raid sirens will alert residents to tune in to emergency service announcements. Cars equipped with loudspeakers will also patrol the streets to announce important information.

“The Kyiv City Council has posted an interactive online map, which shows the locations of the roughly 5,000 official locations where residents can shelter from a military attack.

“(For example) From ground level, a nondescript metal door opens into a staircase that descends multiple stories underground. The shelter has a special air ventilation room (originally intended to protect against radioactive fallout) and is connected to the city’s water main…. Daily deliveries of food and medical supplies would sustain occupants in the event of a drawn-out Russian bombardment or siege.

“Known as dual-use facilities, the remaining 4,500 shelters include basements, underground parking lots and passageways, as well as Kyiv’s 47 metro stations.

“Should Russian forces target Kyiv … city officials will order a mass evacuation. To that end, a citywide evacuation commission has already been established, as well as regional evacuation commissions in each of Kyiv’s administrative districts.

“Each citizen should prepare an “emergency suitcase” ahead of time…. This should be a backpack with a capacity of at least 25 liters, a little more than 6.5 gallons, containing ‘clothing, hygiene items, medicines, tools, personal protective equipment, and food.’ The service also recommends carrying important documents and cash in the backpack.”

•••••

Kyiv, Ukraine

Russia is forcing a conversation the US doesn’t want to have, at least not right now and not on Russia’s terms. If Russia strikes further into Ukraine, one way or another, as with Covid, the world will change. The first day of renewed conflict will be a fateful, life-changing day for entire nations. Its effects will last the rest of many peoples’ lives. When we look back here from two years on, today may look less complicated, even quaint. I invite you to pause and enjoy the good old days.

Should conflict come, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania could, like Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, become frontline border states. Russian malign intent will have to be be assumed.

Russian troops already occupy Moldova’s border with Ukraine in a region called Transnistria. Depending on Russian intent, Moldova may face existential questions, but in any case it will acquire a newly threatening neighbor. Any military move in Transnistria will be meant to intimidate not only Moldova but neighboring NATO member Romania as well.

A fundamental geopolitical realignment is hurtling our way that won’t simmer down for years. By spring, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees – or more – could be storming the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and how can those countries, how could they hold them back? Across those borders Russia, or it’s newly installed Ukrainian puppet, will try to stare down four new NATO neighbors. 

Current NATO borders in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway will be reinforced, and depending on the depth of the next couple of months’ ill will, Finland’s Russian border may be too. With sudden new face-to-face NATO/Russia exposure, all sides will want substantial, fortified borders. Each country will surely want its own sovereign border backed by its own conventional forces. Here come concrete barriers, anti-vehicle trenches, mesh fencing, electronics, guard towers, barbed wire, electronic and other defenses. Suddenly, it’s a good bet that Schengen’s best days are behind it.

Once we’ve had time enough to consider the longer term, we may find ourselves in a new, raw standoff across conflict-embittered battlefields. Russia v NATO eye-to-eye across borders bristling with weapons and evil intent will be a sight to see. Once again.

Doomsday warnings are cheap for hand-wringing punditry, that’s true. But if some of this stuff does come to pass, world changing ramifications follow. As Sweden’s FM Ann Linde says, “it can still go completely to hell.”

As Covid darkness drew across the world in the early weeks of 2020, I thought, ‘remember this, hold on to this moment, the way things are right now, how good you have it, in case this thing gets out of hand.’ 

The last two years haven’t been years to love. But now I wonder if we might stop to appreciate even early 2022 the same way. Here we may be, in the twilight moments just before the great mid-twenty-twenties European realignment. Remember these fleeting good old days, while our grasping at the remnants of democracy is not quite yet a wry memory.

•••••

[Radio dial image from Auto Universum, used with permission]

Crunch Time

The U.S. embassy in Kyiv ordered American family members to leave the country on Sunday. 

Realization shifted last week from “surely he wouldn’t?” to “he’s really going to, isn’t he?” This is that moment when Wile E. has run off the cliff but not yet begun to fall. 

Two years ago Covid crowded out everything but the most immediate, everybody but family. The viral invader’s audacity shocked us. We scrambled to adjust to new facts, all unfamiliar. We couldn’t turn away from the ugly, daily blow-by-blow. Everything was frightening. Events gave us little time to reflect. 

This week we see the malign intent of a different, non-viral, real-life invader. Except unlike Covid, Ukraine is not exactly appearing out of nowhere. Russia has been moving toward military aggression for months, and today the majority of all Russian Battalion Tactical Groups surround or are nearing Ukraine. There’s been enough time for the US president to commit high profile gaffes about Ukraine. Russian landing craft are halfway around Europe en route from the Baltic to threaten Ukraine in the Black Sea. 

The moment we’re in this week, our current reactive moment, will pass. It won’t even last long. We’ll muster allies, defenses, polish our strategy, ready our readiness. Today the US is floating new troop deployments to Europe. We’ll react, and one way or another, as with Covid, the world will change. When we look back here from two years on, today may look less complicated, even quaint. I invite you to pause and enjoy the good old days.

If Russian military hardware enters and remains in Ukraine then Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania will join Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as frontline, newly hostile border states. Russian troops already occupy Moldova’s border with Ukraine, a region called Transnistria. Depending on Russian intent, Moldova may face existential questions, but in any case it will acquire a newly threatening border. 

A fundamental geopolitical realignment is hurtling our way that will not simmer down for years. By spring, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees – or more – could be storming the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and how can they, how could they hold them back? Across those borders Russia, or it’s newly installed Ukrainian puppet, will try to stare down four new NATO neighbors. 

Current NATO borders in Estonia, Latvia and Norway will be reinforced, and depending on the depth of the next couple of months’ ill will, Finland’s border may be too. With sudden new face-to-face NATO/Russia exposure, all sides will want substantial, fortified borders. Each country will surely want its own sovereign border backed by its own conventional forces. Here come concrete barriers, anti-vehicle trenches, mesh fencing, electronics, guard towers, barbed wire, electronic and other defenses. Suddenly, it’s a good bet that Schengen’s best days are behind it.

Once we’ve had time enough to consider the longer term, we may find ourselves in a new, raw standoff across war embittered battlefields. Russia v NATO eye-to-eye across borders bristling with weapons and evil intent will be a sight to see. Once again.

As the Covid darkness drew across the world in the early weeks of 2020, I thought, ‘remember this, remember how things are right now, hold on to this moment, to how good you have it, in case this thing gets out of hand.’ 

Now I wonder if we might not ought to stop and appreciate early 2022 in the same way. Here we are in the twilight moments just before the great mid-twenties European realignment. Remember these fleeting good old days, when our grasping at the remnants of democracy is not quite yet a wry memory.