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Posted on Sep 17, 2008 in Stuff We Like

Smoking Gun in a Brushfire? Welcome to The War in South Ossetia

By Brian King

It has been more than a month since the brief but bitter war between Georgia and Russia over the disputed Caucasian territory of South Ossetia.  Now, after all the fighting, all the diplomacy, and all the name recognition (and name calling), both sides are in a continuing struggle to prove definitively who fired the first shot.  Even in the era of cell phones, real time satellite data, and round the clock news chatter, neither side has been able to deliver a knockout blow when it comes to finger pointing.  As a civilian reading everything possible on this issue – there are few solid leads…but there are indeed some clues.

Speigel Online has an article addressing culpability entitled DID SAAKASHVILI LIE? The West Begins to Doubt Georgian Leader. It provides some fascinating insights into the conflict from the perspective of military analysts at NATO.  Surely with all their high tech gadgetry and intelligence gathering machinery they would have some idea of the sequence of events? 


The NATO experts did not question the Georgian claim that the Russians had provoked them by sending their troops through the Roki Tunnel. But their evaluation of the facts was dominated by skepticism that these were the true reasons for Saakashvili’s actions. 

The details that Western intelligence agencies extracted from their signal intelligence agree with NATO’s assessments. According to this intelligence information, the Georgians amassed roughly 12,000 troops on the border with South Ossetia on the morning of Aug. 7. Seventy-five tanks and armored personnel carriers — a third of the Georgian military’s arsenal — were assembled near Gori. Saakashvili’s plan, apparently, was to advance to the Roki Tunnel in a 15-hour blitzkrieg and close the eye of the needle between the northern and southern Caucasus regions, effectively cutting off South Ossetia from Russia.

Initially when the Georgian army moved into South Ossetia there was no public mention of a need to stop the Russians at the Roki tunnel and the stated goal of the Georgians was to restore “constitutional order” to South Ossetia.  It wasn’t until weeks later the tunnel story started to get into the blogosphere and mainstream media as the Georgian raison d’etre of the whole affair. Why the long wait before divulging this point? Some believe that the Georgians intentionally misled everyone so as to obfuscate the real targets of their offensive which were the Roki Tunnel and the advancing Russians. As stated in the article, when you are at war you don’t tell the enemy the goal of your troop movements. But were the Georgians launching a first strike, or where they forced into action to head the Russians off “at the pass” so-to-speak? 

There are stories floating around which are used to bolster the Georgian claim the Russians moved first, including one radio interview of a wounded Russian Captain who apparently said the Russians were on the move into South Ossetia well before Russian officials claim. This captain later said he misspoke due to his injuries. Another report making the rounds recently is declassified Georgian intercepts of cell phone conversations from workers at the Roki Tunnel itself, which seemingly corroborate an early Russian advance through the tunnel (Russian officials strongly deny this). Still another story suggests the Russians pre-planted reporters in South Ossetia to bolster their own view of the war, giving them apparent credibility as the only reporters on the scene.  Finally, did the artillery exchanges between Georgian and South Ossetian separatists in the days before Russian involvement represent the first punches in this brawl?

The Russians maintained over and over that “the aggressor must be stopped” and this was their call to arms during the whole affair. Saakashvili was Hitler, there were Russian citizens in South Ossetia who were on the verge of genocide, and thus their crossing of the international border with Georgia into South Ossetia was justified to stop the Georgian surprise attack. But many sources in the West have noted that the Russians seemed to have their engines already running before the war formally started, taking many preparatory steps including staging a military exercise directly across the border. A July 31, 2008 article states;

Officially, the maneuvers ended last weekend, but it is not clear if all the troops have indeed withdrawn from the border with Georgia. The Kavkaz-2008 exercises are a preparation for a possible large-scale military confrontation in the region and may be a cover for a deployment of combat troops at border positions for an imminent outbreak of hostilities on Georgian territory.

Was this just good planning on the part of the Russians or did their presence mean war was inevitable?

If all sources are to be believed, it would appear that both Russia and Georgia were building up their respective forces, each recognizing that something major was about to happen. Was Georgia building up as a precaution against Russian aggression or was Georgia simply preparing to reestablish authority in South Ossetia by force? Was Russia building up in anticipation of malicious Georgian intentions or was it also planning some pre-emptive move into South Ossetia?  As yet there are no (public) satellite images showing exact positions of forces with timestamps to back the claims of either party.

For my part, I don’t believe either side without reservation. The implications are so serious that it is irresponsible to jump to conclusions without having all the facts. The West has been quick to condemn Russia, believing Georgia to be the innocent victim.  Was Georgia blameless? Is the West willing to bet trillions of dollars on a second Cold War based on hearsay from Georgia? Russia for its part has seemingly also rushed to judgment by recognizing the two breakaway regions without first taking a breather to assess all the facts of what happened or building even a token international consensus.  Was independence for these regions its goal all along? Was Russia willing to bet untold sums of investment money and international status for two very minor territories?

We will continue to monitor the background noise of data until irrefutable evidence of a smoking gun is presented by non-partisan sources. Understandably it could be a long wait…

1 Comment

  1. Brian,

    A very reasoned and balanced assessment, in my opinion. I believe that right now we need to conentrate on asking the right questions — it is naive to assume that we already have all the right answers.