Why is Russia occupying the port of Poti, Georgia's major port, and not the Tbilisi international airport, Georgia's major airport? Holding both would isolate Georgia, allowing Russia to operate there with little scrutiny; neither is needed for peacekeeping in South Ossetia or Abkhazeti. A strategy that involves holding one and not the other, though, makes no obvious sense in a conflict between Russia and Georgia.
The answer, of course, is that the conflict was only between Russia and Georgia on 7 August. On that first day, they both sent substantial military forces into North Ossetia, beyond their respective "peacekeeping" contingents there. On that first day, the Russian forces charged from the Roki tunnel, and the Georgian forces attempted to cut them off before they could clear the mountain pass. On that first day, Russia lost five aircraft and about 100 men - about twice Georgia's losses. On that first day, Russia secured the pass and broke into the area beyond it, at which point all of Georgia was at the mercy of Russia's vastly superior military forces.
Since then, the game in Georgia has been between Russia and the U.S. The subsequent Russian moves have been obvious; the U.S. moves have been more subtle.
The first such move was a precipitous retreat of the Georgian forces. Retreats are difficult military maneuvers, and this one was no exception; it swelled the Georgian casualties to about twice the Russians', from half. Why would the Georgians retreat so precipitously when they were still inflicting significant casualties? It was because the move was politically necessary for the U.S., as further U.S. support would need to be contingent on any further bloodshed being clearly initiated by the Russians.
Russia advanced through South Ossetia and into Gori, in the geographic center of Georgia. This permitted them to cut the road between Georgia's capitol T'bilisi to the east and the coast and ports to the west.
The U.S. then airlifted Georgia's 2000 troop contingent in Iraq back to T'bilisi. This drew the strongest diplomatic objection that Russia has yet made regarding the war. Why? 2000 troops, even with experience in Iraq, are insignificant compared to the 70,000 Georgian troops already in Georgia. Yet Russia objected sharply and strenuously - strongly enough that it was clear the move was unexpected, and interfered with their plans.
The key was not the troops, but the aircraft transporting them. The aircraft, of course, were U.S. aircraft. They were landing at the T'bilisi airport. That meant that Russia could no longer attack that airport without attacking U.S. forces - and attacking U.S. forces would give the U.S. a reason to intervene in force. 2000 Georgian troops from Iraq would be insignificant, but the same could not be said for 20,000 U.S. Marines, backed up by the Navy and the Air Force.
In the meantime, Russian forces had taken advantage of the previous Georgian retreat to advance through the Kodori gorge in Abkhazeti and on into Poti, where they scuttled what there was of Georgia's navy.
The next U.S. move was the delivery of humanitarian aid - using U.S. Navy ships. Again, the importance was not so much in what was being delivered as in what was doing the deliveries.
Here the U.S. may have made a misstep, announcing this move in advance. The intent of that announcement was no doubt to show political resolve; however, it allowed the Russians to respond by tightening their control of Poti. That pressured the U.S. into sending the aid through Batumi, in Ajara, rather than through Poti as initially announced.
And that brings us up to date. Aside from the first day, none of the moves have involved actual bloodshed; it has been a quiet, but subtly positional, opening. What remains to be seen is how the rest of the game proceeds; will a draw be agreed to, or will one side play for a win?
Here the U.S. made a misstep, announcing this move in advance. The intent of that announcement was no doubt to show political resolve; however, it allowed the Russians to respond by tightening their control of Poti. That pressured the U.S. into sending the aid through Batumi, in Ajara, rather than through Poti as initially announced.
I don't think it's such a clear misstep. I think you're saying that a repeat of the effect we got at the T'bilisi airport would have been great, and I agree. But as you mention, Russian ground forces were already in Poti. I think hoping to sail in there and forestall Russian operations by doing so would have been a much more risky and grasping proposition than landing aircraft at T'bilisi.
Do you have a source on exactly what's meant by "tightening their control of Poti"? Perhaps I'm simply misunderstanding what could have been accomplished with complete tactical surprise. (At least, complete to the extent possible given that the Russian Black Sea Fleet is also around...)
With Russian boots on the ground in Poti, any meaningful repeat of the effect we got at T'bilisi airport sounds impractical to me. But let's consider this the other way around. Assuming that we think the Russians really were thrown by the T'bilisi maneuver, why not bluff an attempt to repeat it at Poti, even though the situation is different? Ignoring (briefly) the value of getting the relief supplies to their destination faster, it sounds like a win-win to me. Heads, you sail into Poti, and have a U.S. Navy ship there, irritating the Russians with its presence, but the Russians can still effectively interdict the supplies, and whatever else you want to do through the port. Tails, the Russians twitch and close the port, and you get the PR ammunition, while delivering the supplies to a less useful port which Georgia still controls.
To cease ignoring the cost of delaying the relief supplies, I'll freely state that I don't know, but one warship-load doesn't sound like it's going to make that big a dent in the need.
I mean, sure, if you think we were going to leverage presence of the McFaul in Poti into the ability to deploy troops there, either to increase leverage or to fight WW3, I can see what you'd be hoping for, but it just doesn't sound very feasible to me. Shielding the airport sounds like a solid move to me. Hoping for a repeat performance in Poti, not so much.
You're right, I should have said "may have been" a misstep. I don't proofread as well when I'm sleepy. Maybe I'll go back and correct it. I agree don't know what would have happened had we not issued the announcement; Russia might have been more aggressive in occupying cities along the coast and west of Gori, which would have been worse rather than better.
As for tightening of control, one report on how the Russians are digging in at Poti is here:
That wouldn't necessarily stop us, of course. If we wanted, we could have had the McFaul pull up outside Poti and then accused the Russians of preventing humanitarian aid from getting in if they prevented her from docking or prevented helicopter offloading.
On the other hand, establishing a surface supply line to T'bilisi might be useful too, even through Batumi. Like you I would guess that one destroyer load of supplies is not that significant, but if it establishes trucking routes and allows us to pressure Russia to remove some checkpoints, that would be good. There might also be other reasons for the change; it might actually have taken some time to get permission to use Batumi, since that's in yet another autonomous republic like Abkhazeti.
I still think having ships offshore at Poti would be good, though I agree the situation would develop differently than at the airport. Ships are really good for confrontation without combat; just sitting there, they are a constant reminder of what we could do if we really got upset. They're also big enough to do some physical blocking.
Ultimately, though, I think an independent Georgia really needs Poti back so they have at least one port that's under their direct control. We'll see how things develop.
And now we have a ship offshore at Poti - and it's one that actually does have significant capacity for supplies:
BBC article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7599919.stm
Navy Times article http://www.navytimes.com/news/2008/09/navy_mountwhitney_090508w/
Russian news article:
A report on classified U.S. cables from Tbilisi during the war is here: