Keys to interpreting news about the Georgia – Russia fighting

Let’s leave the analysis to the experts. As a consumer of analysis, are there any general lessons we can find in the wealth of reporting on the Internet about the fighting in Georgia?  Of course, these are just general rules — one man’s guidelines for sorting wheat from chaff on the Internet.

  1. Avoid analysts discussing the “group mind” of a nation.
  2. Avoid analysts relying on psychic powers.
  3. Look for analysts with actual background of some sort in the players (e.g., area experts) or relevant professional skills (e.g.,  military or diplomacy).


1.  Avoid analysts discussing the “group minds” of nations

Russia and Georgia are nations, not unitary entitites.  Nations lack group minds.  Hence they do not have intentions or personalities.  Small-scale, in geography and time, events like this require greater precision than discussions of larger geopolitical trends.  IMO we need discussion of institutional interests and objectives.  Better yet, discussion of the individual leaders.

2.  Avoid analysts relying on psychic powers

Many bloggers appear to have psychic powers, discussing the thoughts and plans of individuals — esp. Putin.  While nice for them, we should expect some evidence before accepting their reports as anything but chaff.

Understanding individuals is difficult even under the most favorable circumstances.  Look at the US election.  We have a wealth of evidence about Obama, someone of our own nation and culture.  Yet great uncertainties remain about him.  We can only guess about Putin, who has not yet followed Obama’s example — no candid autobiographies, no hundreds of open interviews about his feelings, no hundreds of detailed speeches about his objectives.

3.  Look for analysts with actual background of some sort in the players (e.g., area experts) or relevant professional skills (e.g.,  military or diplomacy)

The third guideline is an offset to the first two.  Experience and knowledge about these things grants the expert license to make general statements and speculate about individuals.

Unfortunately the Internet tends to do the opposite, a form of Gresham’s Law at work:  amateur guessing overshadows expert analysis.  Joshua Foust describes this pheomenon in his post of 9 August at Registan.  A host of armchair strategists drown out experts like Helena Cobban (“The South Ossetian War: Some thoughts“).

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Prevous posts in this series

  1. The Russia-Georgia war threatens one of the world’s oil arteries, 10 August 2008
  2. Perhaps *the* question about the Georgia – Russia conflict, 10 August 2008

Click here to see a list of all posts about strategy and military theory.

10 thoughts on “Keys to interpreting news about the Georgia – Russia fighting”

  1. Fabius —

    Good points that, of course, apply to all analysis of current events.

    One of the things that amazes me is the number of people who have concluded that what we’re seeing is a continuation of Russian expansionism. Even the dreaded MSM is into the act (this from the front page, not the oped section, of today’s NYT):

    Russian troops stepped up their advance into Georgian territory on Monday, attempting to turn back the clock to the days when Moscow held uncontested sway over what it considers its “near abroad” …

    Where’s the evidence for this (and note the unitary actor model)? One could as easily argue that Putin and his associates are doing to Georgia what generations of US presidents have dreamed of doing to Cuba: removing or at least disciplining a major irritant associated with a rival power. Any number of alternative hypotheses — unitary actor and otherwise — could also be made to fit. Plus it might be wise to remember that all this started with a Georgian push into South Ossetia.

    A more interesting subject for debate is what it means for us. Is the Cold War back just in the nick of time to rescue our defense industries? Hardly. We’re not sparring with the Russian Army in the Caucasus. It does seem, though, to confirm one lesson of history — when weak armies take on strong armies in the type of conflict that armies are good at, the results are easy to predict. When the weak fight the strong in ways that armies are not good at, which the Georgians don’t appear to be doing (who’s advising these guys, anyway?), the results will be messier, take longer to become clear, and may not be possible to predict at all. With apologies to Pat Lang, this is classical state-vs-state warfare that says nothing about 4GW (much less any 5th GW) at least so far.

  2. This sure is a convenient way to avoid a condemnation of Russia’s aggression.

    There are no UN SC resolutions condemning Georgia’s aggression, nor its treatment of S. Ossetians — this is a major difference with Iraq. Georgia has not been attacking Russia, unlike Taliban protected terrorists against the US, although there may have been some provacations.

    If the elected president of Georgia invites US troops as peacekeepers, Bush should send them immediately. From Afghanistan and/or Iraq, and certainly reducing our presence in Germany.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Few (perhaps no) states want to oppose Russia in its traditional zone of influence. The community of nations are assertive mostly vs. folks who cannot strike back. The US is grossly over-stretched, and I doubt we will confront Russia’s military (any more than they did in our zones).

    Russia is in some senses now more powerful than the USSR, due to the EU’s dependence on its natural gas.

  3. Hellana C. was interesting — reasonably against violence by both sides, and noting that Russia had explicitly mentioned S. Ossetia in its opposition to Kosovo’s independence.

    US Dept of State one-pager is good:

    I think, after the Russians are done punishing the Georgians, there should be a referendum. And if the Ossetians want to leave, they should be allowed to. Abkhasia as well.

    It’s past time to get more comfortable borders for a future of greater peace.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I want to say this politely… I doubt Putin cares what you think.

    Just a guess, but he might not fear condemnation by the “community of nations.” Wolves do not worry about opinions of sheep.

    Nietzsche might be a better geopolitical text than the usual milksop stuff used today.

  4. Many of us do not have time to analyze the analysts. Nor even know where to look to find their credentials. There was a time when editors and publishers did that for us, but those days are over. Thus the need for a blog like this one. Keep up the good work.

  5. FM: Your comments are also useful in helping us take a critical stance on MSM pronouncements, who tend to personify nations, treat them either as enemies or innocent victims, etc. Chet’s comments on this subject are right on. European writers frame this flare-up in quite a different way, as a result of an arguably reckless and presumptuous western policy of ringing the former USSR with NATO countries (Georgia, eg).

    This still doesn’t solve the question of why this war and why now? Wars are not often started by hot-headed leaders (Saakashvili — sp?). Someone gave the green light, or seduced him into doing it. This leads us to deeper levels of conpiratorial thinking (as in 9-11), where there really are no rules, yet skepticism of official statements is always warranted, and wild guesses may become fruitful hypotheses.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Why must someone have “seduced” Georgia’s leaders? Are they children, unable to conveive and act out bold actions without adult help?

    That they required a “green light” from a stronger nation seems more reasonable, but still just a guess.

  6. Hmm,
    it looks as if you’d put me into category 2, guys with psychic aspirations: “Georgia“, 9 August 2008.

    I’m still quite satisfied that my guesses/opinion/expectations have somewhat hit the nail during these turbulent days. ;-)

    I believe that the “sphere of influence” theory holds a lot of water. The other explanations for the conflict – ethnic troubles and oil pipeline – would be no issues if Georgia was a close friend fo Russia.
    Fabius Maximus replies: My guess is the same as yours. Russia is recovering its sphere of influence. No big deal, nor is it possible for anyone outside Russia (or inside Russia) to stop.

    It’s just a matter of disclosure. I am no expert in these things, and these are just my guesses.

  7. Hello from one of the “psychics”
    Sorry I do think its valuable as well as interesting to test theories on everything including geo politics. If you are afraid to make stategic judgements then you are relegated to arguing in circles as events unfold.
    So lots of heat and no light. I know you disagree with my methods, Fabius, and are a bit insulting at times but lets see how my ideas about what’s going on play out. I still believe Putin orchestrated this and now the evidence is piling up, including a ceasefire negotiated by none other than Sarkozy.
    Am I hubristic? No. Arrogant? A bit. Wrong? Usually not
    Fabius Maximus replies: As I said above, nothing wrong with guesses. I do it frequently on this site. In fairness to readers we should be careful about labeling (I try to do this consistently) when we are guesses. More importantly, we do readers a better service IMO when pointing toward expert analysis.

    More importantly, this was directed at readers. Why read guesses of non-experts when experts are abailable?

    As for insulting, I call things as I see them. I try to be conservative and restrainted in my opinions. Often I fail (it does not come naturally to me). Sometimes I am, but the result is still percieved as insulting. My remedy to that is to allow reply by the author and critique by others And, of course, allow similarly harsh critique of what I write. Despite some strong critics posting comments, I have not had to ban anyone yet. Not all discussion sites can say that.

    I can guarantee that nobody overpays for what they read on the FM site!

  8. “Why read guesses of non-experts when experts are abailable?”

    Note that there are multiple viewpoints on which persons are qualified as experts. FM’s list of qualified experts is definitely different from my list.

    JKrier is in effect saying that he is usually not wrong, ergo he is a de facto expert. IMHO JKrier is entirely wrong, but this kind of issue tends to recur in various forms.
    Fabius Maximus replies: My “list” differs from yours? I said “actual background of some sort in the players (e.g., area experts) or relevant professional skills.” What do your consider expertise that does not fall into these almost absurdly vague criteria? {Update: by professional skills, I do not restrict that to credentialed experts. “Professional” should probably be omitted from that formula.}

    My point was not amateur speculation is bad. Rather that too many blog postings — and a large fraction of those on the popular geopolitical blogs — are just guesses without much effort to consult folks with relevant experience, knowledge, and training. Hence my reference to Gresham’s law, guesses driving out actual expert speculation and analysis.

  9. Another Hard Landing for Russia?“, Eugene Rumer, Washington Post, 12 August 2008 — Excerpt:

    “We have seen something like this before, though. Thirty years ago, flush with oil and gas revenue, the Soviet Union was threatening Europe and challenging the United States. In 1979, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan and seemed poised to keep going to fulfill centuries-old Russian ambitions of reaching the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. The West could do nothing to stop Moscow’s juggernaut unless it was willing to risk nuclear annihilation.”
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps. But the “all futures can only repeat the past” school of forecasting is, in my experience, usually wrong. Among the many reasons why this is so, Putin et al probably are aware of USSR history — and have learned from it.

  10. “Rather that too many blog postings — and a large fraction of those on the popular geopolitical blogs — are just guesses without much effort to consult folks with relevant experience, knowledge, and training. Hence my reference to Gresham’s law, guesses driving out actual expert speculation and analysis.”

    Your point on Gresham’s Law is well taken — the Internet press is largely a vanity press.

    What I’m driving at is that any expert’s reasoning must ultimately rely on some fundamental assumptions. People who go through years of professional training often pick up counter-productive groupthink as part of their fundamental assumptions.

    Let’s say, for example, that expert A went through the Spetnatz and later worked for Putin’s office, but expert B went through the Peace Corps and later worked for the U.N. Each of these two experts might have fundamental axioms that contradict each other’s axioms, and thus if they sat down to reason together, they might find it impossible to even have a debate due to lack of common ground.

    The most common problem with attempted Internet debates in my experience is that the opponents do not in fact have enough common ground to permit debate, but they persist in talking past each other.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Agreed. Blog discussions are like those in a bar (in many ways). They work best with folks that know one another, or have some common bond that generates mutual respect. When they move far away from those conditions, strangers with different core assumptions, the debate tends to rapidly degenerate.

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