Road to War in Georgia: The Chronicle of a Caucasian Tragedy
Part 3: A Disastrous Decision
During his invasion, the Georgian president relied primarily on infantry units that had to advance along major roads. At 11:10 p.m., the Georgian side informed the general in charge of the Russian peacekeepers that they planned to use military force to re-establish "constitutional order" in the Tskhinvali Region, the Georgian term for South Ossetia. Half an hour later, a Georgian grenade struck the roof of a three-story building occupied by Russian troops, killing two soldiers on observation duty.
Salvos from multiple rocket launchers rained down on the complex. The peacekeepers' cafeteria was reduced to rubble and all of the buildings went up in flames. Eighteen Russian soldiers died in the attack. Four minutes before midnight, the South Ossetian authorities reported: "The Georgian armed forces' storm on Tskhinvali has begun."
Russian soldiers did offer resistance. According to Georgian reports, they included members of both the peacekeeping force and Ossetian militias. The Georgians, however, became bogged down during their attack and failed to advance beyond Tskhinvali. They were inexperienced -- the civilian casualties in Tskhinvali were high. The Georgian interior ministry -- instead of the defense ministry -- managed the campaign. The choice was consistent with international law, given the fact that South Ossetia nominally belongs to Georgia. From a military standpoint, however, the decision was disastrous.
Saakashvili Was Unavailable
In Russia, shortly before the war began, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin was sitting in his office on the seventh floor of a Stalin-era skyscraper in downtown Moscow. It was the evening of August 7, following a rainy, late-summer day. Karasin is in charge of managing Russia's strained relations with the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), including conflict zones on the territory of the Black Sea republic of Georgia.
But starting in early August, Karasin began receiving unsettling reports from Yuri Popov, the relevant special ambassador and commander of the Russian portion of the peacekeeping force. At approximately 9 p.m. on the evening of Aug. 7, Karasin was informed that Georgia was amassing troops along the South Ossetian border. The special ambassador reported counting five tanks, six armored personnel carriers, five howitzers, multiple rocket launchers, trucks and buses full of soldiers and officers on the road back to Tbilisi from Tskhinvali.
Karasin stayed in his office until after 10 p.m., and when he arrived at home he called Russian President Medvedev. It was one of seven conversations with the president conducted that night. Medvedev instructed Karasin to contact Saakashvili immediately, but the Georgian president was unavailable. Instead, Karasin called Dan Fried, his American counterpart, who told him that Washington was doing its best to get the situation under control. That was the extent of the conversations on that night.
By the next morning, it was too late for a peaceful solution. Starting at 2:06 a.m. on Aug. 8, the tickers of international press agencies began running reports of Russian tanks in the Roki tunnel. Depending on the estimate, the Russians moved between 5,500 and 10,000 soldiers into South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel. Meanwhile, there were already between 7,000 and 10,000 Russian soldiers at the Georgian-Abkhazian border, many of them brought there on ships from Russia. The "Moskva," a guided missile cruiser and flagship of Russia's Black Sea fleet, with the fleet commander himself on board, was patrolling off the Georgian coast.
Sukhoi and Tupolev combat aircraft, including the models Su-25, Su-24, Su-27 and Tu-22, were patrolling the air. For the people living in the Georgian villages in South Ossetia, Russian air superiority quickly became a nightmare.
'Explosions Every Few Seconds'
A 68-year-old mechanic from Kurta, a village northeast of Tskhinvali, couldn't believe his eyes. "It was terrible, when the planes came and shot at us. Every bomb didn't explode only once, but several times in succession, a little farther along each time, creating long strips of explosions; the planes made a droning noise as they approached. I hid in the cellar and looked at my watch. There were explosions every few seconds."
The Russian planes must have been using cluster bombs -- as did the Georgians, according to reports by observers with the organization Human Rights Watch. It was a war that was unleashed on the basis of archaic 20th-century geopolitics, but fought with 21st century technology. It was a war that caught the world policemen in a globalized community off-guard. And by the time the world noticed, it was already in full swing.
Alexander Stubb, the Finnish foreign minister and current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), did not see the war coming: "The OSCE has always been involved here, since 1992. There were many reports about smaller conflicts. I received the first information about the major conflict in the night before Aug. 8. It took us by surprise. I spoke with my mission chief in Tbilisi on Aug. 7. She told me that it was very dangerous there, but that it was not a problem. The, in the night before Aug. 8, all hell broke loose."
The civilian dead have now been buried. No one knows the real death toll. Seventy-four Russian soldiers died (400, according to Georgian sources), and the Georgians lost 165 (4,000, say the Russians). But which of the countries truly won? Which can hope for a better outcome once the dust from this strange Caucasian war has settled? And how long will the new Cold War, which appears to have erupted between Russia and the West, last?
In recent days, President Saakashvili has tirelessly met with foreign dignitaries and relished the international spotlight. First Condoleezza Rice returned to Tbilisi, followed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Foreign Minister David Miliband. Meanwhile, Poland signed a treaty with the United States for the development of the missile defense shield. Moscow responded by commenting that in doing so, Warsaw had also placed itself into Moscow's nuclear sights. In the UN Security Council, Russia and the West introduced resolutions that had no chance of approval, because the current and former superpowers were vetoing each other.
During all this, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian soil dragged on into the night before last Saturday. The soldiers destroyed key bridges, railroad lines and roads. The military victor went to great lengths to humiliate the loser, which had allowed itself to be provoked into an attack.
It could take Georgia years to recover from this Six-Day War.
By Manfred Ertel, Uwe Klussmann, Susanne Koelbl, Walter Mayr, Matthias Schepp, Holger Stark and Alexander Szandar
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© DER SPIEGEL 35/2008
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH