Many precedents have been invoked over South Ossetia: I’ve noted the pernicious influence of Kosovo; others have raised Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.
I’d like to look instead at the precedent for what Georgian President Saakashvili wanted to happen, not what he’s ended up with: Croatia’s August 1995 Operation Storm.
Using military forces trained and supplied by the West, the Croats attacked the Serbian Krajina, a non-recognized, ethnic-separatist pseudo-state on Croatia’s sovereign territory. In two days, the Croats ended all resistance and reincorporated the Krajina into Croatia. Along the way, a big chunk of the Serbs of the Krajina fled.
This is pretty clearly what the Georgian government intended, as witnessed by the proclaimed goal of restoring “constitutional order” in South Ossetia. The difference, of course, is that Croatia succeeded where Georgia, barring a radical change in circumstances on the ground, failed. We’ll have to wait to get a sense of why that failure took place on tactical and operational grounds, but the overarching reason is Russia. In 1995, Russia was in no position, politically, militarily, or even geographically, to bring pressure to bear to protect the Serbs. In 2008, everything is different–the price of oil and America’s overcommitment elsewhere, to name two.
The result for Saakashvili is utter disaster. It’s tough for me to imagine circumstances under which the Russian troops now in South Ossetia will ever leave, and certainly not under any terms that Saakashvili would find acceptable.
As for that operational and tactical question–why Georgia wasn’t able to take South Ossetia despite the much vaunted American effort to build up the Georgian military–I don’t think we have anywhere near enough information to get a definitive answer. In my last post, I mentioned how the Chechen wars revealed the vulnerability of armored vehicles in urban environments to even irregular forces with rocket-propelled grenades. That seems to have happened here. In Croatia, however, the Serbian Krajina was mostly rural, avoiding much of the problem, and the Russian Army in Chechnya went through much of the Chechen countryside without a problem until running into a buzzsaw in the city of Groznyi. It looks here like the Georgians went straight for Tskhinvali, and that may have been the problem. They didn’t much choice–the geography of South Ossetia, with Tskhinvali on its very southern border, doesn’t present a lot of other options.