Renowned conductor Valery Gergiev, who is Ossetian, led a requiem concert for the dead Thursday night in Tskhinvali — part of an effort to win international sympathy for Russia's argument that its invasion was justified by Georgia's attempt to regain control of South Ossetia by force.
"We want everyone to know the truth about the terrible events in Tskhinvali ... with the hope that such a thing will never again happen on our land," Gergiev said before the concert, held in front of the badly damaged South Ossetian legislature before a crowd flanked by two armored personnel carriers.
On today's modern battlefield it's one thing to fight and win against the opposing force you're squaring off against, but it's quite another thing to win the diplomatic war. While a fair degree of diplomacy is done behind closed door, public pressure (or lack thereof) is often influential in the shaping the direction discussions often lead. While the argument can be made that many decision makers in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe can be insulated from public criticism, it forces public debate in directions that are often counterproductive to a government's efforts.
A perfect example of this occurred during the 1991 Gulf War. As Iraqi forces attempted to withdraw with as much loot and equipment as they could from Kuwait before they were surrounded and cut off the Allied forces started running bombing runs up and down the highway in an effort to deny potential military equipment and reinforcements arriving that could be used to shore up Iraqi defenses and potentially fuel a counterattack back towards allied forces. The air attacks destroyed thousands of Iraqi vehicles, but the strikes themselves did not play well on international screens, earning the action the unfortunate moniker "The Highway of Death." The more disproportionate the victory the more critical a reaction a country risks. Take for instance the first Battle of Fallujah in April of 2004. One of the most famous videos coming out of this period of the Iraq War was this video, of a USAF F-16 Falcon dropping a bomb onto a crowd on the streets of Fallujah. While this video demonstrates the precision weapon systems the US is actually able to employ, it also demonstrates how media without context can color an entire operation. Take this video from BBC 4, which effectively paints the picture that US forces are bombing a crowd of unarmed civilians. Without the context to go along with it, or an overall analysis of how the release of this video would play in relation to the public conversation at the time (which, in 2004, was very negative) more than likely did more harm to the already vulnerable image of Multinational Forces Iraq and the United States Military than it did demonstrate to the world (and potential aggressors) the capabilities of our Air Force.
Anyone familiar with calling in Close Air Support, for instance, knows that there is a great deal more context behind it than the clip allows for. Before a pilot can even drop he needs to know where to be, and as such has to be guided onto the target by the observer on the ground. This isn't a conceit, but rather a critical piece of the Fire Support puzzle. After all, that F-16 isn't going to be any good to the observer on the ground unless it knows exactly where to go. This process can be at times very, very painful (believe me), and it certainly doesn't take 30 seconds to do. In fact, before this pilot got to engage this target there was most likely minutes of discussion about where the target was, what to hit and what not to hit, where the observer and supporting units were located, and the situation on the ground. Even though we don't know what the nature of that crowd was, the pilot would have, because he would have been briefed by the JTAC on the ground what that crowd was. It wasn't sight in on the target and drop, but rather a very methodical and controlled process.
Of course, the video doesn't show that.
That, in a nutshell, we have the problem of information control on the battlefield. Minus any background knowledge of how air power really works, and without any real explanation, a video that shows somebody "in-the-know" one thing has a dramatic and opposite impact when presented to the public by the uninformed. Of course, this shouldn't come as a shock to US commanders; the United States took a long, hard look at their media relations in the wake of Vietnam, knowing full well that pictures like this trump disinterested and dismissive public relations any day of the week.
That said, Russia obviously has some significant public relations issues to face in the West. The massive, fearful reaction to their invasion on the part of Poland, who went from being lukewarm on the subject of Missile Defense dramatically changed course, demonstrates that the Russian Government is hardly winning the hearts and minds of their former client states. That said, the Russian government has taken some significant steps that might be viewed as an evolutionary progression from past conflicts like Chechnya and Afghanistan. Let's not forget the War in Afghanistan, where Russian MLRS cluster munitions looked like toys. Even earlier, Russia had earned scorn and ridicule during the Winter War. Soviet troops bombed Finnish urban areas with RRAB-3 Bomb Dispensers, which Molotov claimed were mealy food deliveries, a transparent and absurd explanation that did little to win the Soviet Union public favo
Georgian government sites were came under coordinated attack from Russian sources. While the breadth and depth of these attacks has been disputed its clear that there was an understanding on the part of the Russians that the further you can limit an opposing sides means of communications, the better off you'll be. I don't want to go into this any further, though, since Danhco Danchev has done a fantastic job outlining the attacks in his blog.
I'm not making the argument that the Russian government has been successful with these efforts. Far from it, in fact. It would appear that Russia's credibility in the west has sunk to an all-time low. That said, its significant that the Russian government has increasingly come to recognize the value of media operations on the battlefield. Of course, by hosting a concert like this in what amounts to a ruined city is a powerful image, and one that the Russians will be sure to capitalize on. The more they can pain the South Ossetians as poor, oppressed victims the bigger the wedge they can drive in between public opinion and any potential response on the part of NATO countries to the occupation.
Incidentally, this reminds me of the famous photo of Verdan Smailović, the "Cellist of Sarajevo," who famously played Tomaso Albinoni's "Adagio in G minor" 22 days in a row at 4:00pm sharp to honor 22 people killed by artillery fire while lining up for bread. This imagine inspired many in the West, and I can't help but wonder if the Russian government is cynically attempting to cash in on this sentiment. After all, the Russians have a long way to go before they can win the hearts and minds war in Europe.