Thursday, 28 August 2008

How the Georgian conflict really started

Michael Totten has provided some excellent background on the real situation of Russia's invasion of Georgia and in this piece from the WSJ we get another perspective of what went on:
'Anybody who thinks that Moscow didn't plan this invasion, that we in Georgia caused it gratuitously, is severely mistaken," President Mikheil Saakashvili told me during a late night chat in Georgia's presidential palace this weekend.

"Our decision to engage was made in the last second as the Russian tanks were rolling -- we had no choice," Mr. Saakashvili explained. "We took the initiative just to buy some time. We knew we were not going to win against the Russian army, but we had to do something to defend ourselves."

I had just returned from Gori, which was still under the shadow of Russian occupation. I'd learned there on the ground how Russia has deployed a highly deliberate propaganda strategy in this war. Some Georgian friends sneaked me into town unnoticed past the Russian armored checkpoints via a little used tractor path. We noted that, during the day, the tanks on Gori's streets withdrew from the streets to the hills. Apparently, the Russians thought this gave the impression, to any foreign eyewitnesses they chose to let through, of a town not so much occupied as stabilized and made peaceful.

However, if you stayed overnight after observers left, as I did with various locals, you could hear and glimpse the tanks in the dark growling back into town and roaming around. A serious curfew kicked in at sundown, and the streets turned instantly lethal, not least because the tanks allowed in marauding irregulars -- Cossacks, South Ossetians, Chechens and the like -- to do the looting in a town that the Russians had effectively emptied. Now that the Russians have made a big show of moving out in force -- but only to a point some miles to the other side of Gori toward South Ossetia -- they've left behind a resonating threat in the population's memory, a feeling they could return at any moment.

The damage in Gori's civilian areas, like the Stalin-era neighborhood of Combinaty, give the lie to claims made by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in these pages that Russian forces "acted efficiently and professionally" to achieve "clear and legitimate objectives." Either that, or they fully intended -- as a "legitimate" objective -- to flatten civilian streets in order to sow fear, drive out innocents and create massive refugee outflows.

Gori's refugees are now flooding back. Many have returned also to Poti, a port city near Abkhazia, and far more strategic than Gori because it serves as a trading lifeline for Georgia and potentially offers future access to NATO ships. The Russians are digging in around the town and in the port area itself, and refusing to budge as the world looks on.

"I got a call from the minister of defense that Russian tanks, some 200, were massing to enter Tskhinvali from North Ossetia," Mr. Saakashvili told me. "I ignored it at first, but reports kept coming in that they had begun to move forward. In fact, they had mobilized reserves several days ahead of time."

This was precisely the kind of information that the Russians have suppressed and the world press continues to ignore, despite decades of familiarity with Kremlin disinformation methods. "We subsequently found out from pilots we shot down," said Mr. Saakashvili, "that they'd been called up three days before from places like Moscow. We had intelligence coming in ahead of time but we just couldn't believe it. Also, in recent weeks, the separatists had intensified artillery barrages and were shooting our soldiers. I'd kept telling our guys to stay calm. Actually we had most of our troops down near Abkhazia where we expected the real trouble to start. I can tell you that if we'd intended to attack, we'd have withdrawn our best-trained forces from Iraq up front."

According to the Georgian president, the Russians had been planning an invasion of his country for weeks -- even months -- ahead of time: "Some months ago, I was warned by Western leaders in Dubrovnik to expect an attack this summer," he explained. "Mr. Putin had already threatened me in February, saying we would become a protectorate of Russia. When I met Mr. Medvedev in June, he was very friendly. I saw him again in July and he was a changed man, spooked, evasive. He tried to avoid me. He knew something by then. I ask everyone to consider, what does it mean when hundreds of tanks can mobilize and occupy a country within two days? Just the fuelling takes that long. They were on their way. Would we provoke a war while all our Western friends are away on vacation? Be sensible."

I put it to Mr. Saakashvili that there was also the question of why now? Why did the Russians not act before or later? It was a matter, he said, of several factors coming together: the useful distractions of the Beijing Olympics and the U.S. elections, the fact that it took Mr. Putin this long to consolidate power, the danger that tanks would bog down in the winter.

But two factors above all sealed Georgia's fate this summer, it seems. In April, NATO postponed the decision to admit Georgia into the organization until its next summit in October. Mr. Saakashvili believes Moscow felt it had one last chance to pre-empt Georgia's joining NATO.

Finally, he says, the invasion had to be done before the situation in Iraq got any better and freed up U.S. forces to act elsewhere -- a matter not simply of U.S. weakness but of increasing U.S. strength. "If America thinks it is too weak to do anything about Georgia," said Mr. Saakashvili, "you should understand how the Russians see it, how much Moscow respects a strong United States -- or at least a U.S. that believes in its own strength."
This is all about Russia making sure that its neighbours don't join NATO. What Russia has to fear from NATO is not yet clear given that organisation's feckless history.

It's hard to make a claim that Russia was acting defensively when it has such a massive force ready to invade Georgia at a moment's notice.

Totten gets it right in his report:
Virtually everyone believes Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili foolishly provoked a Russian invasion on August 7, 2008, when he sent troops into the breakaway district of South Ossetia. “The warfare began Aug. 7 when Georgia launched a barrage targeting South Ossetia,” the Associated Press reported over the weekend in typical fashion.

Virtually everyone is wrong. Georgia didn't start it on August 7, nor on any other date. The South Ossetian militia started it on August 6 when its fighters fired on Georgian peacekeepers and Georgian villages with weapons banned by the agreement hammered out between the two sides in 1994. At the same time, the Russian military sent its invasion force bearing down on Georgia from the north side of the Caucasus Mountains on the Russian side of the border through the Roki tunnel and into Georgia. This happened before Saakashvili sent additional troops to South Ossetia and allegedly started the war.
Russian apologists are also comparing the situation in South Ossetia with what happened to Kosovo.

The analogy is wrong. The correct comparison is with the Sudetenland.

(Nothing Follows)


Myrddin Seren said...


Agree the Totten piece makes a fascinating re-write of the conventional wisdom on the recent developments, and look forward to the WSJ link in a quiter moment.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a KGB Old Boy, Putin turns out to be an old school Russian strong arm nationalist with the historic Russian ambitions to run the Grand Game in the Caucasus.

Hollywood leads us to believe that the spy satellites can read a car number plate in Red Square, so either the Pentagon was aware of the Russian Army massing and on the move south through the Roki Tunnel - or we have some really serious concerns about degraded American intelligence capability ?

Putin clearly has cojones and ambition; he has vast energy wealth to prop up his budget; an army and airforce with experience in Caucasus warfare and tromping unco-operative locals; and a full suite of nuclear weapons to keep everyone focussed on the bigger picture.

Quite where this all goes in the near term is anyone's guess right now ?

But your earlier piece about plunging birth rates in Europe and elsewhere perhaps tells us that an aging, collapsing population will ultimately constrain Russia's ambitions.

When every son and daughter becomes increasingly rare and needed for valuable economic and social functions back home - sending bold imperial expeditionary forces across the map looks every more untenable.

The emptying maternity wards of Russia may eventually apply a brake to Russian ambition that few external powers ever could. We live in hope.

Jack Lacton said...


I lived in Moscow for 18 months when I was growing up. It left an indelible impression on me and in Putin I see the resurrection of imperial Russia (as distinct from communist Russia).