Road to War in Georgia The Chronicle of a Caucasian Tragedy

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.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

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.

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.

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

Foto: Getty Images

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.

Practicing for War

On July 3, an assassination attempt was made on the pro-Georgian head of the South Ossetian administration, Dmitry Sanakoyev. Sanakoyev had once served as the separatists' head of state and was then recruited by Saakashvili -- and he is widely considered to be one of the wild cards in the Caucasus region. His name rarely surfaces in the threat analyses prepared by Western intelligence agencies. And yet men like Sanakoyev hold key roles in the geopolitical jockeying for position in the Caucasus, where even village chiefs and minor Mafiosi occasionally manage to enter the global spotlight.

In mid-March Sanakoyev, Georgia's man on the Russian border, said: "If Moscow recognizes South Ossetia, there will be war." On July 3, his Nissan SUV hit a landmine and then came under machine-gun fire. Three bodyguards were seriously injured, but Sanakoyev miraculously survived.

Five days later, Russian fighter jets penetrated Georgian air space in what Moscow called a signal to the "hotheads in Tbilisi." The timing of this show of strength was carefully chosen, being only one day before Georgian President Saakashvili planned to meet with US Secretary of State Rice over dinner in Tbilisi. In retrospect, Saakashvili and Rice would interpret their conversations in different ways. Rice claims that she warned Saakashvili against military conflict with Russia, while Saakashvili recalls Rice's assurances of firm solidarity. Rice left Tbilisi 28 days before the war broke out.

Combative Language

On July 10, Georgia recalled its ambassador to Russia, in protest over the violation of its airspace. At the same time, tensions were growing in the Black Sea republic of Abkhazia, where bomb attacks killed four people. There were even explosions in the nearby Russian resort of Sochi, the site of a future Olympic venue. Georgian nationals were suspected of committing the attacks.

Even as Russian tourists were enjoying their low-cost vacations on Abkhazian beaches, troops and military vehicles were being deployed to the breakaway region. Using combative language, Abkhazian leader Sergei Bagapsh told the Moscow magazine Ogonjok: "We are ready for war. But I am not about to stand here and tell you exactly how we have prepared ourselves."

On July 15, an unprecedented show of military strength began on both sides of the main ridge of the Great Caucasus Range. In the south, not far from Tbilisi, close to 1,000 Americans joined the Fourth Infantry Brigade of the Georgian army in a maneuver called "Immediate Response 2008."

On the same day, a maneuver called "Caucasus 2008," under the command of high-ranking General Sergei Makarov, the commander of the northern Caucasus military district, began on Russian territory north of the Caucasus ridge, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The exercise included 8,000 troops from all branches of the military. Troops with the 76th Air Landing Division, from Pskov, conducted their exercises openly on a military training ground in the Daryal Canyon, not far from the Roki Tunnel to South Ossetia -- the eye of the needle between Russia and Georgia.

According to claims coming from Moscow, Russia's troops in the field were prepared to "come to the aid of the Russian peacekeepers" stationed in South Ossetia. The government in Tbilisi was quick to respond, noting that it was unaware of a "right to conduct any actions on Georgian soil."

Western intelligence agencies observed that, after the July 30 end to the "Caucasus 2008" exercises ended, the dispatch channels set up by the Russians were kept in place, hardly the usual practice following military exercises. Furthermore, the 58th Army remained in a state of heightened readiness. For US intelligence, with its arsenal of spy satellites, reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned drones, this should have been a reason for concern.

48 Russians for each Georgian

More reasons for worry quickly followed. Following the military exercise on the Georgian side, President Saakashvili -- directly under the noses of the American military advisors -- sent parts of his army toward South Ossetia instead of ordering them to return to their barracks. The artillery brigade, for example, which would begin firing on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali eight days later, on Aug. 7, is normally divided between two towns, Senaki and Gori. But after July 30, the brigade was concentrated in Gori.

The outbreak of the war was still seven days away. Two armies, both well-equipped but of unequal strength, were facing off across the border. In case of conflict, there would be 48 Russian troops for each Georgian soldier. A tragedy was gradually taking shape, and yet the world public was still in the dark.

The skirmishes became more frequent in the final days leading up to all-out war. On Friday, Aug. 1, five Georgian police officers were injured in a bomb attack in South Ossetia. A short time later, snipers shot and killed six people, most of them police officers with the pro-Russian separatist government, while they were fishing and swimming. Ossetians began sending their women and children to safety in Russia.

On Aug. 3, the Russian foreign ministry issued a final warning that an "extensive military conflict" was about to erupt. Officials in Europe's seats of government and intelligence agency headquarters had a sense of what the Russians were talking about. Saakashvili's plans for an invasion had been completed some time earlier. A first draft prepared in 2006, believed to be a blueprint of sorts for the later operation, anticipated that Georgian forces would capture all key positions within 15 hours.

A plan B -- in the event of failure -- did not exist.

Three days before the outbreak of the war, officials in Israel emphatically stated that the country had not sold offensive weapons to Georgia in months, and that "frantic requests" from Tbilisi, including those requests for Israeli-made Merkava tanks and new weapons, were rejected. From the perspective of the Israelis, Georgia and Russia were clearly on a collision course.

The People Would Pay the Price

Georgia had increasingly made headlines as a goldmine for Israeli arms dealers and veterans from the military and the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency. According to reports in the Jerusalem media, cousins of Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili, who himself lived in Holon near Tel Aviv and speaks Hebrew, acted as reliable contacts for Israeli arms dealers. And Temuri Yakobashvili, who, as Georgia's state minister for reintegration, is responsible for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, said openly: "The training of our military units by Israelis makes me proud to be a Jew."

But did Georgia's young elite misinterpret the importance of their own country and misunderstand the motives of its allies, friends and trading partners? That conclusion seemed more and more likely as war approached. But it would be the people who would pay the price.

At about 10 p.m. on Aug. 5, teacher Sisino Javakhishvili, after bathing her granddaughter, went into the courtyard of her house in the Georgian village of Nikosi, three kilometers from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, to fetch water. She had heard gunfire before, but suddenly she sensed that it was serious. "No one here is surprised by individual gunshots or even machine-gun fire, but this time it was truly massive," she says. "We had not noticed anything out of the ordinary in the days before then. The only thing we did notice were the television stories about Ossetian residents being taken out of Tskhinvali. We saw busses full of people departing for Russia. But my husband said that it was to intimidate us."

The evacuation of the women and children was complete by Aug. 6. In the Georgian-controlled villages of South Ossetia, skirmishes between Georgian army infantry and South Ossetian militias became more intense, erupting into nonstop artillery exchanges during the ensuing night. Georgian sources reported that Russian soldiers had entered the conflict on the Ossetian side.

According to Western observers, by the morning of Aug. 7 the Georgians had amassed 12,000 troops on the border to South Ossetia. Seventy-five tanks and armored personnel carriers were in position near Gori. In a 15-hour blitzkrieg, the tanks were to advance to the Roki Tunnel to seal it off. At that point, there were only 500 Russian soldiers and another 500 fighters with the South Ossetia militia armed and ready to defend Tskhinvali and the surrounding area. At 4:06 p.m., the South Ossetian authorities reported that Tskhinvali had come under attack from grenade launchers and automatic weapons. Fifty minutes later, they reported "large-scale military aggression against the Republic of South Ossetia." According to Western intelligence sources, the Georgian artillery bombardment of Tskhinvali did not begin until 10:30 p.m. on that Thursday. It was orchestrated by 27 Georgian army rocket launchers capable of firing ordnance with a maximum caliber of 152 millimeters. At 11 p.m., Saakashvili announced that the goal of the operation was the "re-establishment of constitutional order in South Ossetia."

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.

In the past three years, says Karasin, hardly a day has gone by when he has not discussed South Ossetia and Abkhazia with European, American or Georgian officials.

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

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