AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 35/2008

Road to War in Georgia: The Chronicle of a Caucasian Tragedy

By SPIEGEL Staff

Many in the West were surprised by the outbreak of war between Georgia and Russia. But there were plenty of signs that the conflict was approaching. SPIEGEL reconstructs the road to violence.

The Sheraton Metechi Palace Hotel in the Georgian capital Tbilisi has a sand-colored façade, dozens of floors and a bright atrium-style lobby. It is an ideal base for guests working abroad who are eager not to attract attention.

A small group of American soldiers along with US advisors in civilian clothes stand huddled around laptop computers, whispering with officers and looking at images on the screen. As soon as a visitor walks over to see what they're up to, they snap the computers shut. A man in his mid-30s, wearing a blue polo shirt, explains: "We're the worst-informed people in Tbilisi. I can't even tell you what we're doing here."

As of the end of last week, the roughly 160 American military advisors still stood their ground in Georgia. They weren't the only foreign soldiers in the country, though. Russia withdrew far more slowly than Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had promised. And Moscow has likewise announced that some 500 soldiers will remain in the country to secure a buffer zone between Georgia and South Ossetia.

It is, in short, a messy situation. But who is actually responsible for this six-day war in the southern Caucasus?

Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili criticizes what he calls a "brutal Russian attack and invasion." In return, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calls Saakashvili a "war criminal" and talks of the "genocide" committed against Russian citizens. But what are the representatives of the Western community of values saying? The fact is, they are still puzzled.

If They Only Looked

This is surprising, because the war that erupted on the southern flank of the Caucasus Mountains was almost as inevitable as thunder after a lightening strike. The dozens of witness statements and pieces of intelligence information at SPIEGEL's disposal combine to form a chronicle of a tragedy that anyone could see coming -- if they only looked.

DER SPIEGEL

But a true reconstruction of events must begin well before Aug. 7 -- the day when Georgian troops marched into South Ossetia. A war of words had been raging between Moscow and Tbilisi since the beginning of the year and, before long, both sides were conducting military maneuvers, which, in retrospect, can be seen as preparation for actual conflict. A number of intelligence agencies had observed troop movements in Georgia and South Ossetia, with satellites providing precise images of what was happening on the ground. United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became involved in shuttle diplomacy, trying to appease Saakashvili on the one hand, while criticizing Putin, on the other.

In truth, the world should have been able to predict what was about to happen in the southern Caucasus. Nevertheless, when the armed conflict finally erupted, it was to great astonishment worldwide. No one had wanted a return to the Cold War.

Between Jan. 5, 2008, the day of Mikhail Saakashvili's re-election as president of Georgia, and May 7, 2008, the last day of Vladimir Putin's term in office as president of Russia, there was a great deal of movement along the fronts in the conflict over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, separatist Georgian provinces for the past 18 years.

Wreaths laid at the Russian barracks in Tskhinvali where nearly a dozen soldiers were killed in a Georgian attack.
Getty Images

Wreaths laid at the Russian barracks in Tskhinvali where nearly a dozen soldiers were killed in a Georgian attack.

It was as if the Caucasus populist Saakashvili and the coolly calculating Russian Putin, facing the nominal end of his regency, had realized that it was finally time for a showdown.

'Only Through the Force of Weapons'

Saakashvili wanted to bring his country into NATO as quickly as possible and was confident that he had the support of the West. Putin, who wanted to establish his country as a hegemonial power in the southern reaches of the former Soviet empire, relied on the skills he had acquired as an agent working for the KGB -- especially those involving a careful analysis of the enemy.

The signals that Saakashvili was sending after his re-election set off alarms in Moscow. The Georgian, who, since 2004, had been promising his people that he would regain control over all of Georgian territory, was getting impatient. He attempted to discuss a plan to invade Abkhazia with Washington, before Georgia, as a candidate for NATO membership, came under more intense scrutiny. Meanwhile, SakarTVelo, a Georgian military television station with the motto "We serve those who serve," was using a 1932 quotation attributed to Adolf Hitler to advertise for new recruits: "Only through the force of weapons" could lost territory be regained.

Putin, meanwhile, watched and waited -- he wanted to see how the Kosovo question would turn out. He made it clear that if the ethnic Albanian province was granted the right to secede from Serbia, the West could not deny Abkhazia and South Ossetia the right to secede from Georgia. On Feb. 17, 2008, the United States, Great Britain and France recognized Kosovo's independence.

After Saakashvili's state visit to Washington on March 19, when he clearly enjoyed his reception as the president of a key ally in the war on terror, there was the NATO summit in Bucharest. In response to a German and French initiative, the alliance denied Georgia and Ukraine its consent to their joining NATO, but promised membership at a later date.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko promptly predicted that this decision would have "the gravest consequences for overall European security." US President George W. Bush met with Putin at his Black Sea vacation home in an effort to restore calm. But Bush apparently failed to take the Russian president's warnings as seriously as they were intended. In retrospect, Western observers describe what happened in the ensuing few days in April as a "point of no return" for the Georgian-Russian war.

Ideologue of Expansionism

Twelve days after the NATO summit, Putin issued an order to upgrade Russia's relations with the separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia almost to the point of recognition. On April 20, a Russian fighter jet shot down a Georgian reconnaissance drone over Abkhazia. According to observations by the International Crisis Group, Saakashvili then assembled 12,000 Georgian soldiers at the extremely well-fortified Senaki military base. It was still a good three months before the outbreak of hostilities.

In May and June, Moscow sent additional troops to the separatist regions, allegedly for "humanitarian purposes." They included 500 paratroopers and a maintenance team of 400 men, which arrived in Abkhazia on May 31 to repair segments of a railroad south of the capital Sukhumi. The work was necessary to prepare for transporting tanks and heavy military equipment.

By that time, Alexander Dugin had set up camp. Dugin is the bearded chief ideologue of those in favor of an expansionist Russia -- and an advisor to Putin's United Russia Party. He had come to the region to tour a tent camp set up by members of his youth movement about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. Thirty army tents housed the 200 attendees. The program included geopolitical seminars and paramilitary training. The pro-Russian forces in South Ossetia provided the group with Kalashnikovs and live ammunition for its field exercises.

"Here is the border in the battle of civilizations," said Dugin. "I think Americans are great. But we want to put an end to America's hegemony." It was a sentiment shared by the young men in the tent camp -- and Dugin's dreams did not end at the Russian-Georgian border. "Our troops will occupy the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the entire country, and perhaps even Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, which is historically part of Russia, anyway," he continued.

As Dugin's supporters were preparing for the worst, the situation along the borders between both South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the areas controlled by Tbilisi became increasingly tense. There were even exchanges of grenade fire between the two sides, all under the eyes of OSCE and United Nations emissaries.

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