What Really Happened In Ossetia?

Go read Michael Totten on the spark that ignited the Georgian war:

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.

This is going to continue to be interesting for some time…

13 thoughts on “What Really Happened In Ossetia?”

  1. On June 7, 2007, the International Crisis Group issued the report “Georgia’s South Ossetia Conflict: Make Haste Slowly.”:http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/TBRL-73XR8A?OpenDocument The link takes you to the summary and links to the 38-page PDF of ICG’s Europe Report No 183. I think it is likely that it will come to be cited frequently as the post-mortem focuses on the events of August 5 to August 7.

    Detailed maps of Ossetia are hard to find. The maps at pdf pages 31-33 give many place-names, and show areas of Georgian and Ossetian control (villages) as of 2007.

    Concerning the events of 7 August, the map on page 31 helps in understanding the geography. The locations of the Roki Tunnel, the bridge at Didi Gupta, and the city of Tskinvali can be seen (Didi Gupta is just north of the 15 km circle drawn around Tskinvali).

    The bridge at Didi Gupta is critical to the competing narratives offered by Saakashvili, and by the Ossetians and Russians. Saakashvili claims that on August 6/7, the Georgians spotted via satellite imagery and/or direct observation that a 150-vehicle armored column of the Russian 58th army was crossing from Russia into Georgia via the Roki Tunnel, on its way south to Tskhinvali. The road is claimed to be constricted from the tunnel to Didi Gupta (does it run along the bottom of a steep valley, perhaps?). The bridge in the village of Didi Gupta is apparently where traffic from the Roki Tunnel emerges onto the plain, that then stretches south to Tskhinvali and Gori.

    The Georgian claim is that their 7 August lunge northward from the Gori area to Tskhinvali was an effort to reach 15 km north of the city to that bridge, before the 58th Army force got to it. The bridge was damaged by Georgian airstrikes and paratroopers, but not enough to prevent the Russians from securing it and crossing it.

    This explanation leaves unanswered why the Georgian forces would assault Tskhinvali proper with Grad rockets, artillery, and tanks, and then occupy the city–rather than rushing north to that bridge.

    Of note in the cited report, OSCE and peacekeeping forces–including Russian, Ossetian, and Georgian members–were supposed to be stationed at both the south entrance to the Roki Tunnel and at the Didi Gupta bridge. Was this in fact the case in early August: were Georgians and OSCE-accredited neutrals observing the tunnel and bridge? If so, were they abruptly denied access to their posts, or detained, or prevented from reporting? I haven’t heard anything of the existence of these prospective witnesses, much less to their fates, or their accounts.

  2. _”This explanation leaves unanswered why the Georgian forces would assault Tskhinvali”_

    Because Tshinvali commands the Didi Liachwi Valley that leads straight to the bridge and hence the tunnel. This satellite “image”:http://unosat.web.cern.ch/unosat/freeproducts/Georgia/Russia_ConflictAug08/Damage_Atlas_TSK/UNOSAT_GEO_Damage_Atlas_Tskhinvali_Overview_Highres.pdf shows how the fighting and the aftermath followed the river like a pen. The surrounding terrain is inhospitable and also lined with towns and river crossings- Tshinvali was not only the most direct route but leaving the city uninvested in the rear of the Georgian forces would be dangerous.

    In retrospect, of course, a more extensive dash to the Didi Gupta bridge to reinforce the paratroopers might have stayed the Russians temporarilly (A Bridge Too Far?), but in reality anything done to temporarilly stimey Russian forces would just be used as a further justification for Russian advances.

    My take on the present state of affairs with the Russians blatantly refusing to quit the rest of Georgia is that they are just waiting for the Georgians to give them another small justification for further advance and permanent occupation- an artillery duel, a patrol squirmish, anything. If necessary it can be manufactured.

  3. Mark Buehner —

    Thanks. Those are by far the best maps/images I have seen. “Here”:http://unosat.web.cern.ch/unosat/ is a link to the directory page, rather than to the high-res pdf master image itself.

    According to the map on pdf page 32 of “Make Haste Slowly,” the areas with the highest number of destroyed and damaged buildings are (were) ethnic Georgian villages north of Tskhinvali. Thus, it’s not clear how much damage is the result of the Georgian advance of Aug. 7 and the subsequent Russian counteroffensive, versus Ossetian ethnic cleansing efforts from Aug. 9 on. That some buildings were actively burning when the photos were taken on Aug. 19, suggests mainly the latter.

  4. Michael Totten and Southeast Asia area expert Joshua Foust “(Registan.net)”:http://www.registan.net/ seem to have developed a mutual dislike. Be that as it may, I submitted versions of the following comment to their two blogs, where length and URLs caused it to languish in the respective spam filters. I think the point is sufficiently relevant and on-topic to merit entry at this post.

    – – – – –

    Josh Foust at August 26, 2008 8:18 PM “[at Totten’s “The Truth about Russia in Georgia]”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/08/the-truth-about-1.php anthis —

    I claim that you have made a severe misrepresentation in your comment. You wrote —

    bq. Neither side is innocent—both were actually pretty appalling in what they did to each other (for example, “satellite imagery”:http://www.alertnet.org/thefacts/satelliteimages/UNOSAT/324545345fcd9edf949c6655c8d0d2db.htm” suggests the buildings Georgia destroyed in South Ossetia were primarily residential), and to portray Georgia as Russia’s victim, which Michael does here, is reckless.

    Your [Foust’s] key assertion (bolding added) appears to be false.

    The link you provide goes to a U.N. satellite image composited from photos taken on 19 August; hi-res details are archived at “the UNOSAT site.”:http://unosat.web.cern.ch/unosat/ These images pinpoint the thousand-plus damaged and destroyed buildings in the city of Tskhinvali and north ~10 km along the P-2 highway.

    The gravest damage is in the villages (south to north) of Kverneti, Kvemo Achabeti, Zemo Achabeti, Kurta, Kekhvi, and Kemerti.

    The International Crisis Group’s Europe Report #183, “Georgia’s South Ossetia conflict: Make haste slowly,”:http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/TBRL-73XR8A?OpenDocument issued 7 June 2007, includes maps of South Ossetia in Appendicies C and D (pdf pages 32 and 33). The villages from the northern suburbs of Tskhinvali to Kekhvi and Kemerti are unambiguously identified as “Georgian-controlled areas,” i.e. as ethnic Georgian villages.

    Thus, the buildings that are recorded as being damaged or destroyed as of 19 August (ten days after the Russians and Ossetians repulsed the Georgian advance) appear to be the homes of ethnic Georgians, for the most part. Also note that the six high-res “Village Damage Atlases” include circles that identify buildings that were on fire when the images were taken, i.e. recently torched.

    Mr. Foust, your quote was “satellite imagery suggests the buildings Georgia destroyed in South Ossetia were primarily residential”. However, it appears to be overwhelmingly likely that this destruction is mostly or entirely the result of Ossetian ethnic cleansing efforts that took place after 9 August. Burning buildings are evidence that this activity was ongoing as of 19 August.

    On Aug. 17, “The Times (UK) reported”:href=”http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article4545980.ece —

    bq. there were numerous witness accounts pointing to a paramilitary campaign of revenge attacks against Georgians in South Ossetia.

    bq. “A group of heavily armed and wild-looking South Ossetian irregulars came into the village and started terrorising people and looting,” said Niko Markuzash-vili, 52, who had fled the Georgian hamlet of Kheltubani and walked to Gori.

    bq. “They were burning houses and stealing cars, just grabbing anything they wanted. I saw them stop a man in his car. They demanded the keys but he refused to hand them over so they shot him point blank with a machinegun and killed him on the spot. They took some of the young men prisoner.”

    bq. As panicked civilians fled the area, most on foot and carrying only the clothes they were wearing, people told of young girls being abducted and men being detained. Houses were systematically looted and torched. Entire villages were razed.

    Posts on Registan.net show that you are well aware of the many other credible reports of ethnic cleansing in (formerly) Georgian areas of South Ossetia. You have repeatedly noted the tortured history of the region and the unclean hands of all of the antagonists.

    Under other circumstances, I might not make such a point of this. However, at your blog and at the Columbia Review of Journalism, you have repeatedly slammed bloggers, including Michael Totten, for offering uninformed and erroneous commentary. You’ve emphasized that journalists and policymakers should discount Johnny-come-latelys, and instead rely on area experts such as yourself.

    In light of the evidence presented here, I hope Mr. Foust feels obliged to justify, modify or retract his claim that “satellite imagery suggests the buildings Georgia destroyed in South Ossetia were primarily residential”.

    I will add that I am not an area expert, just a person who uses newspapers, books, and blogs to follow world events. I have benefited from reading Totten, “Foust,”:http://www.registan.net/ and others. As an astute commenter remarked yesterday in the thread at Totten’s post “The Truth About Russia in Georgia,” Totten has presented a compact, reasoned, and vetted (by Thomas Goltz) version of the Georgian narrative of events. As such, it is very useful.

    An additional error may be the assumption that Totten’s readers lack the wit to read further, comparing and contrasting as they go. Perhaps they deserve more consideration than that.

  5. Personally, I’ve not been as interested in issues of who started it. No doubt there are minor provacations leading to major provocations, leading to altercations and violence.

    I think historians now believe that portions of the Serbian government were involved in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The Austro-Hungarian accusations were not as exagerated and outrageous as then believed. Still, I believe it was in American interest for the liberal powers to prevail in World War I no matter who carries more blame for starting it.

    Regardless of who started it, American interest lies in energy independence for Europe.

  6. #5 from PD Shaw at 4:36 pm on Aug 27, 2008

    Personally, I’ve not been as interested in issues of who started it. No doubt there are minor provacations leading to major provocations, leading to altercations and violence.

    I think historians now believe that portions of the Serbian government were involved in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The Austro-Hungarian accusations were not as exagerated and outrageous as then believed. Still, I believe it was in American interest for the liberal powers to prevail in World War I no matter who carries more blame for starting it.

    Regardless of who started it, American interest lies in energy independence for Europe.

    *Well put. That is the long and short of it.*

  7. I dont disagree with that sentiment- but it wont due to minimize exactly what Russia executed here.

    If Totten’s sources are correct- and they do seem to fit together coherantly (while Russia has blatantly lied right up to the present day)- this was, simply put, a setup.

    Consider the choreography: Ossetian seperatists evacuate civilians from Tskhinvali _before_ they open fire on Georgian forces with their heavy (Russian supplied) 122mm artillery (and hence breaking the peace agreement). This all happened _before_ August 7th, and some of the sources reported Russian jets already bombing before Georgia initiated their response.

    When the artillery fire doesnt precipitate a strong Georgian response they shift their fire to Georgian towns. So the Georgians invest Tskhinvali on the evening of the 7th. By that time Russian forces are _already_ pouring through the Roki Tunnel. By the morning of the 8th the Russians would appear to be in South Ossetia in division strength. The idea that the Russians spontaneoulsy mobilized on the afternoon of the 7th and cleared the Roki Tunnel with hundreds of vehicles overnight defies credulity.

    This entire affair was a well orchestrated trap, combined with a publicity campaign to further the fog of war. Consider it occurred _the day the Olympics opened._ Coincidence? Half the worlds leaders were in Beijing including Bush and Putin. This is rather classic Russian deception. Muddy the waters on who did what and be standing atop the pile before anyone can sort it out.

    Its a critically important point that we realize this was a Russian invasion, pure and simple.

  8. I hope this is a good place to offer comments/discussion/speculation on this matter. So far the commentary has been better than any other Web site, offering some civil point and counterpoint on what happened. Everyone else seems to have made their minds up and the comments sections have become troll-infested.

    I think why this matters is that to paraphrase Patton, Truman, or whoever said this first, the Georgians may be SOB’s, but they are our SOB’s.

    A kind of shoot first and worry about the consequences later, if at all, seems to be SOP in that part of the world. Certainly applies to Russia in Chechnya and Serbia in Kosovo. In each case, you have the big guy responding to provocation from the little guy (the KLA was an insurgency that was inflicting casualties on ethnic-Serb police), maybe even with the big guy manufacturing some of the provocation (Moscow apartment bombings) but with the big guy going in like Gangbusters, and the official line from the U.S. State Department is that the response is way out of scale with the provocation. The line is, sure, one can respond to insurgents, or Islamic-radical-insurgent-terrorists-or-whatever, but what you Serbs, Russians are doing is way, way out of line. Since the Serbs are non-nuclear, we could bomb them into knocking it off; the Russians remain nuclear, our lady from Alabama (the Secretary of State) firmly and politely asks them to leave Georgia.

    But with Kosovo, we didn’t have American advisors giving training to the KLA, offering advice “Yeah, I sympathize with your cause but don’t shoot too many ethnic-Serb police or burn too many Orthodox churches and start a war.” After the fact we put our people in under NATO auspices, and yes, the minority Serb population is beleagured and perhaps not protected by NATO, but with our guys in there, the word to the independent Kosovo side is keep the commotion down to a dull roar.

    With Georgia, we have been training their army and being their friend and having our own people there on the ground. If the Georgians went into South Ossetia like Gangbusters and flattened residential areas with area bombardment of MRLS as alleged under our watchful eye, we, the U.S., have a problem. If they went in like Gangbusters while we blinked our eyes, we still have a problem.

    If the Russians were pouring through that Rokli tunnel with 150 tanks ahead of major hostilities, what made the Georgians think it was a good idea to try and stop them. When that didn’t work, the story is not only did the Georgians skeddadle, they did so at express pace, leaving armored vehicles behind as seen on TV.

    Now the “defense in depth” of running like heck and even leaving your armor behind may be the result of the Georgians listening to our guys. The major networks cast this a a kind of humilating defeat for the Georgians, but this seems like something our guys would tell the Georgia guys to do. There is no way Georgia and stop the Russians in a military engagement apart from engaging in Chechen-style harassment with Chechen-style counter reprisal. As to the loss of heavy equipment, if the Georgians are our friends, there is a lot more of that stuff where that kind of stuff can come from anyway.

    But what happened in the early hours does matter, especially with regard to maintaining the alliance between the U.S. and Georgia.

  9. Paul, very interesting commentary.

    I continue to be skeptical. One thing that was not explained is why not a single Western government has attempted to publicly contradict Russia’s version of events.

    The tactical decisions from both sides also appear to work against Totten. Georgia seemed oblvious to Russian moves south until well after the fact, otherwise they would have taken the tactical measures necessary to stop the advance. Those measures came too little too late.

    If Georgia was trying to stop Russian advances, why did Georgia wait until the second day of the conflict to try to plug the bottlenecks?

    It also looks like Russia followed a tactical script. Ships were not loaded with equipment, rather they loaded manpower in the form of paratroopers and went to sea. The equipment came later by rail. The Russian Air Force took days to get going, a sign that tactical preperation was simply not there. The Russian AF didn’t reach 100 sorties until day three. Sounds like they got caught with their zipper down.

    The only Russian military advances was essentially prepositioned forces that reacted to a script. Go for Gori, go for Poti, stop. The battleplan never seemed to adjust, it was simply a script to be followed. That kind of rigid battle planning leans towards reaction not action.

  10. One thing that was not explained is why not a single Western government has attempted to publicly contradict Russia’s version of events.

    Perhaps because caution is in order when confronting a nation sitting on Europe’s light switches, possessing thousands of nukes, and being deliberately provocative. Everyone is still hoping for a, relatively, peaceful solution, castigating the Russians publicly for deliberately provoking the incident would make it difficult to get the Russians to back off without the Russians losing face.

    If Georgia was trying to stop Russian advances, why did Georgia wait until the second day of the conflict to try to plug the bottlenecks?

    They didn’t. They appear to have moved near simultaneous to the Russian advance. See the timeline above.

    It also looks like Russia followed a tactical script. Ships were not loaded with equipment, rather they loaded manpower in the form of paratroopers and went to sea. The equipment came later by rail.

    Welcome to the Russian military. This is classic tactics straight from the Red Army days. That’s basically how the invasion of Western Europe would have worked too, entirely pre-scripted (likely with some alternate branches senior commanders could pick from).

    Remember, conscript army with very limited training and seriously mushy command and control. The Red Army knew this was a problem since WW2 days, and fought it by instituting pre-canned doctrine for everything from tactical combat on up, detailed preplanned deployments, logistics, etc. and then counting on preponderance of force to make up for lack of flexibility.

    This is one of the best arguments against the Russian story, from the time the senior commanders made the decision to go, to actually moving the tanks in strength across the border in strength couldn’t possibly have been done in less than 24 hours unless they were already all set to go.

    The relatively small influence of the Russian AF is interesting, wonder if they were probing to see if the US had left the Georgians any AA toys, if they were having logistical issues, or maybe they just thought massive airstrikes would be incompatible with the cover story…

  11. The events of 2 August – 8 August aren’t clear enough for a definitive timeline, in my opinion. Here is a reconstruction published by the Financial Times on 8/26 that advances the story: “Countdown in the Caucasus: Seven days that brought Russia and Georgia to war.”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/af25400a-739d-11dd-8a66-0000779fd18c.html?nclick_check=1

    This statement by a key US diplomat is interesting:

    bq. Matthew Bryza, a State department official who is considered the US point man on Georgia, corroborates Mr Saakashvili’s version of events. He says he was told the same information, as events were unfolding, in a series of phone discussions with Georgian leadership on August 7 and 8. “I was in fact told that Russian armour was indeed already moving toward the Georgian village of Kurta from the Roki tunnel before the Georgians attacked Tskhinvali,” he says in an email.

    He was told the Georgian version in phone calls with Georgian officials. Did (does) the U.S. have access to information from satellites, or intercepts of 58th Army radio traffic, or humint? Do independent sources support or contradict the Georgian timeline?

  12. _”If Georgia was trying to stop Russian advances, why did Georgia wait until the second day of the conflict to try to plug the bottlenecks?”_

    They didnt. Or rather, it depends on when you consider the conflict to have started. Again, you have to understand that time and space are in play here.

    Apparently the Georgians had the bulk of their armor stationed near Abkhazeti, facing down the Russian ‘peacekeepers’ in _that_ breakaway province (which was in fact sensible, that region being more amendable to armored warfare… the consequence of we shall see). There were a lot of rumblings before the war that this was where the trouble was going to come from. It took until the 6th for the Georgians to realize the danger and get their armor moving to South Ossetian. Apparently too late. A simple look at a map shows that the Georgians had farther to cover, fighting all the way, through the Ossetian capital to hope to meet the Russians before they broke into the open. The Georgians lost the race, barely.

    The truth is the Georgians were in a no-win situation. Even _had_ they blocked the Russians in the narrows, they didnt have the force to fight on two fronts and stop the Russian advance from Abkjazetia… which would have trapped them had they been caught further north. It would have been simple for Russia air and possibly paratroopers alone to cut Georgian supply lines.

    The truth is that the Georgians were screwed before the first shot was fired. God favors the side with the larger brigades, and the Georgians were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. Worse- any successful defense was (and will be) used by the Russians as a further justification for advance.

  13. The pattern seems clear now. Russia used Abkhazia as bait. A clear buildup was recognized – and extensively reported. Then the main blow came in Ossetia and when Georgia moved its troops and tanks it enabled an all out attack in Abkhazia as well.

    Maskirovka indeed!

    The Russian side has been caught lying extensively:

    – “Peacekeepers” did not keep peace, but rather helped the militia in its attacks.

    – “2000 killed” turns out to be a number exaggerated by a factor of at least 10.

    – Troops sent in to “prevent genocide” and ethnic cleansing, in fact accomplished just that. Although the ones getting killed had not been given Russian passports, and therefore they do not count according to Putin’s twisted logic.

    And in order to believe that the Georgians “started” the war, one has to believe that they are so stupid that they did that knowing a substantial force had just completed training right at their border and had not stood down but was at full alert. That is an order of stupidity I find it really hard to believe Saakashvili has even if every derogatory accusation about him actually is true.

    In a war no party ever has had entirely clean hands, but by know everyone should be able to see that in this war Russia’s hands are an order of magnitude more dirty than Georgia’s.

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