Sources in Georgia say the massive Russian onslaught into South Ossetia was prompted by Georgian snipers who apparently were picking off separatists in response to the killing of seven Georgian peacekeepers, then ran into a team of Russian peacekeepers and killed all but three.
It happened in the days before Aug. 7, when Russian forces penetrated sovereign Georgian territory, the highly reliable sources confirmed. South Ossetians, under fire from Georgian snipers, were not aware of where the shots were coming from and began shelling Georgian positions outside South Ossetia.
But the fleeing Georgians killed a number of Russian peacekeepers, triggering the conflict, according to these Georgian sources.
The exchange of artillery fire between the Georgians and Russians virtually leveled Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.
The Georgian response to the South Ossetian artillery fire came despite common knowledge that the Russians had troops massed on the Russian side of the border in North Ossetia, just opposite of South Ossetia which is located in Georgia.
Indeed, there were published reports as early as July 18 that Russia and Georgia were holding large-scale military exercises simultaneously. The reports referred to the presence of more than 8,000 Russian troops, including the elite Pskov Airborne Division, taking part in exercises dubbed Kavkaz-2008. The exercises were being held in almost a dozen Russian regions, including Chechnya, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia.
Meantime, some 1,200 U.S. and 800 Georgian troops were involved in a joint exercise called Immediate Response 2008 held at the Vaziani military base near Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. After the Russians came into Georgia, however, Vaziani was destroyed.
Until the Russians responded to the Georgian attacks on Tskhinvali on Aug. 8, North Caucasian rebels opposed to the Russians had been monitoring the movement of Russian forces in the conflict zones and putting the information on their website. In one case, the rebel website reported two Russian armored motorcades had moved from Chechnya to North Ossetia and to the Roksky pass in South Ossetia next to the Russian-Georgian border.
The rebels, who are very active in the areas of the North Caucasus from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, further warned that Russia planned to attack Georgia in August.
Following the mid-July disclosures of Russian maneuvers to the north of South Ossetia, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev demanded that Georgia remove its troops from Abkhazia’s Kordori Gorge. Medvedev warned that “the only way out of the current situation is to adopt joint documents obliging the sides to refrain from force and guaranteeing security, and the withdrawal of Georgian troops from the upper part of the Kordori Gorge.”
The Russians frequently have made it known that they will protect Russian peacekeepers and any person who holds a Russian passport, which most of the habitants of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have.
For years, Russian peacekeepers have occupied the so-called conflict areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which are located in Georgia and are recognized by the international community as belonging to Georgia. Up until the latest flare-up, Georgian peacekeepers worked with Russian peacekeepers to police the conflict regions.
Knowing of the Russian troop buildup and the warnings issued the month before, the question arises as to why the Georgians responded to initial South Ossetian artillery fire with its own that hit the S. Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.
Some analysts suggest that the Georgian government did not think the Russians would go beyond South Ossetia since there had been prior skirmishes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces.
Other analysts, however, suggest that it may have been a calculated effort to force Russia’s hand and thereby draw attention from the West to Georgia’s relations with Russia and need to be part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
As it was, NATO in March 2008 had rejected the bids of both Georgia and the Ukraine to join NATO, although there was a promise to revisit their requests in December 2008.
The United States was a strong supporter of them belonging to NATO, while Russia was adamantly opposed. At the time, Russia’s then president-elect Medvedev said that Russia was unhappy about the possibility of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, with representatives of a military bloc so close to its own borders. He added that Russia considered the issue extremely troubling for European security.
Analysts surmise that the NATO turndown was the green light for Moscow to make its move against Georgia and possibly the Ukraine. If both had been admitted to NATO, then other NATO members would be obliged to come to their assistance militarily. Up until the NATO rejections, the feeling among Europeans was not to antagonize Russia, due in large part to Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and natural gas.
For Russia, timing was critical, especially after NATO’s rejection of Georgia and Ukraine’s membership and western support, including that of the United States, for the independence of the breakaway province of Kosovo from Russian-backed Serbia. Following that pronouncement in February 2008, Russia warned that its position toward the Georgian conflict zones of South Ossetia and Abkhazia may change.
This was not the first time that Georgia attempted to elicit western support for its NATO ambitions by instigating an incident against the Russians. In September 2006, Georgia arrested four Russian army officers, accusing them of developing a spy ring to undermine Georgia’s pro-western government.
Russia reacted angrily by withdrawing its ambassador, stopped issuing Russian visas to Georgians and kicking Georgians out of Russia who were there to work.
Russia’s relations with Georgia have deteriorated since Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in 2003 in the so-called Rose Revolution. He promised to remove Georgia from Russian influence by trying to get Georgian acceptance into NATO and by promising to take back under Georgian control the two pro-Russian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Whatever the motives were now to provoke the Russians, Georgia for the moment has western backing against what now constitutes a Russian occupation of the sovereign country of Georgia. The Russian invasion has virtually destroyed Georgia’s infrastructure and dismantled its armed forces. It also has created a condition of a United Nations-estimated 158,000 refugees seeking to flee Russian occupation after having their homes destroyed.
In the months to come, however, the level of western assistance to rebuild Georgia’s infrastructure and attention to preserving its democratic government will be the determining factor of the government’s survival.
The concern is that continued poor living conditions among the populace in a country already economically depressed could prompt the Georgian opposition to resume its clamor against the Saakashvili government, possibly leading to civil war.
A similar situation occurred in 1991 when the country’s first president was overthrown in a coup allegedly backed by the Russian military. A civil war ensued until 1995.
Because the Russians despise Saakashvili, the prospect is high that a similar Russian-backed coup again could occur. Given the demolishment of Georgia’s armed forces and law enforcement capabilities, Georgia’s democratic government this time may not have the means to prevent such an occurrence.
F. Michael Maloof, a frequent contributor to G2B, is a former senior security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.