Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 156

Russian troops repair and improve a railroad in Abkhazia in June 2008 (AP)

Last week military tension in Georgia’s separatist region of South Ossetia escalated into all-out war. The Ossetian separatists were provoking a conflict to give the Russian military a pretext for direct intervention. Late in the evening of August 7, a heavy mortar bombardment of Georgian villages near the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali provoked Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to order a major assault. The night attack by Georgian troops outfitted with Western-made night-vision equipment flushed the Ossetian fighters out and Tskhinvali was overrun in the morning. To stop the Georgian offensive thousands of Russian troops with hundreds of pieces of armor invaded through the Roki tunnel and rushed forward. Russian jets began bombing Georgian military installations and cities (see EDM, August 7).

From August 8 to 10, the Georgian army was engaged in ferocious battles with the Russian invaders in and around Tskhinvali. On August 10, the Georgian authorities announced that they were withdrawing all their forces from South Ossetia and asked for a ceasefire and peace talks (Interfax, August 10). On August 12, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev accepted a French-brokered peace plan, and a shaky truce was established. The Georgian army concentrated its forces on defending the capital of Tbilisi. Tens of thousands of Russian troops and over a thousand pieces of armor were relocated to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops moved out of the breakaway regions to occupy other Georgian provinces in the West (Zugdidi, Senaki, and Poti), disarming local police forces and destroying Georgian military bases (Interfax, August 13). Marauding Ossetian paramilitaries and Russian servicemen went pillaging and terrorizing the local population in and around Gori south of Tskhinvali (AP, August 13).

Moscow declared that it was forced to go to battle by the initial Georgian attack in South Ossetia (RIA-Novosti, August 8). But there is sufficient evidence that this massive invasion was preplanned beforehand for August (see EDM, June 12). The swiftness with which large Russian contingents were moved into Georgia, the rapid deployment of a Black Sea naval task force, the fact that large contingents of troops were sent to Abkhazia where there was no Georgian attack all seem to indicate a rigidly prepared battle plan. This war was not an improvised reaction to a sudden Georgian military offensive in South Ossetia, since masses of troops cannot be held for long in 24-hour battle readiness. The invasion was inevitable, no matter what the Georgians did.

It seems the main drive of the Russian invasion was Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO, while the separatist problem was only a pretext. Georgia occupies a key geopolitical position, and Moscow is afraid that if George joins NATO, Russia will be flushed out of Transcaucasia. The NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, last April, where Ukraine and Georgia did not get the so-called Membership Action Plan or MAP to join the Alliance but were promised eventual membership, seems to have prompted a decision to go to war (Interfax, April 3).

Before using arms, Moscow issued ominous threats. Russia unilaterally rebuked CIS sanctions against Abkhazia (RIA-Novosti, March 6). The Kremlin-controlled State Duma passed a resolution calling for recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian sovereignty (RIA-Novosti, March 21). Vladimir Putin promised Abkhazia and South Ossetia "not declarative, but material support" and announced that Georgian aspirations for "speedy Atlantic integration" endangered security (, April 3). Russia’s top military commander Yuri Baluyevsky threatened "military action to defend our interests near our borders," if Georgia and Ukraine joined NATO (RIA-Novosti, April 11). In apparently the last warning, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Georgia of failing to pass a law forbidding foreign military bases after Russia moved its bases out last November. Lavrov linked Georgian intransigence with "Western plans to pull it into NATO" (ITAR-TASS, May 5).

Material military preparations were made. On May 31, Railroad troops were moved to repair the tracks south of Sokhumi to prepare the infrastructure for the invasion. On July 30, they completed their work and all was set for major combat in August, since later bad weather would impede an invasion (see EDM, June 12, July 31). The West seems to have dismissed the Russian warnings and preparations as bluff until it was too late. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza stated in Tbilisi, "Now we know" the true mission of the Railroad troops in Abkhazia (Interfax, August 11). He would have done better to subscribe to EDM.

The main task of the Russian invasion–to cause a total state failure and fully destroy the reformed Georgian army, making NATO membership impossible–has not yet been achieved, despite all the havoc. More attacks and devastation may be planned. Ballistic Tochka-U missiles with a range of 110 km have been deployed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia from which they could reach Tbilisi. Two seem to have already been fired at Western Georgia, according to statements from Abkhaz separatists (Novaya Gazeta, August 14). A missile attack, officially attributed to separatists, could kill hundreds, creating a devastating panic and possible regime collapse.