Riding to war in Georgia alongside a bloodthirsty and vengeful gunman, Mark Franchetti saw at first hand how one small conflict in a faraway country led to a superpower confrontation
Vadim, a South Ossetian militiaman, raced through the deserted Georgian
streets, a Soviet Makarov pistol in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other.
Dishevelled, unshaven and wild-eyed, he was searching for someone to kill.
For the first time in 10 years he had crossed the border from his
secessionist province and reached Gori, a town well inside Georgian
territory, hours after it had been taken by Russian soldiers.
Wounded in the fighting, he had a gaping bullet hole in his upper thigh; but
the pain only fuelled his thirst for revenge. As I sat by his side, he drove
his battered Lada at high speed through Gori’s bombed-out centre, often
screeching to a halt to scour the side streets and buildings in search of
defeated Georgian soldiers.
“This has been building up for years,” he said. “I knew it would happen and
I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. If I see a Georgian
soldier I’ll shoot his brains out. They’re dogs.”
As heavy artillery rounds exploded on the edge of town, we came across other
civilian cars and minivans with Russian numberplates crammed with Vadim’s
fellow South Ossetian militiamen. Like Vadim, who was in a tattered
camouflage uniform and white trainers, they looked wild and menacing. They
wore white armbands to identify them to the Russian army as friendly forces.
Some hid their faces behind black balaclavas. It was the day after Dmitry
Medvedev, Russia’s president, had called an end to military operations in
Georgia. American humanitarian aid was flowing in. Yet the Russians still
occupied about a third of Georgia with impunity and Vadim and his cohorts
were on the rampage in horrifying scenes that evoked the Balkan wars of the
Not only had America and its Nato partners been shamed by the invasion of a
country that had been welcomed into the western embrace, but they had also
shown themselves incapable of sending home the Russians and their henchmen.
This humiliation raises far-reaching questions about American power, Russian
revanchism and Europe’s sometimes craven relationship with the Kremlin.
However, the most important question is one that Washington seems unable to
answer: what is its long-term purpose in relations with Russia? Does America
want Moscow as a global partner, particularly in the war on terror and in
repressing Iran’s nuclear ambi-tions? Or is it pursuing a strategy of
containing the Russian bear by close alliances with neighbouring countries
that were once Kremlin satrapies?
“Realist” diplomats from Henry Kissinger downwards are pointing out that
America can’t do both because a contained Russia won’t be a cooperative
Russia. However, if Georgia were to join Nato, the consequence could be a
much more serious confrontation with Moscow, as the alliance works on the
understanding that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Is the
invasion of Georgia the first step towards an armed confrontation between
America and Russia?
On Friday, Russia even threatened Poland with nuclear retaliation for agreeing
to host US rockets as part of its antimissile shield. Not that Vadim cared
about the geo-political picture. He shouted obscenities at a frightened
young woman as we drove by in a side street.
“Wouldn’t mind f***ing one of these Georgian girls,” he said. When the
history of the conflict comes to be written, it may be that a small incident
on the road linking Georgia to Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia,
will be identified as the starting point of war. The US State Department’s
internal timeline of the crisis pinpoints the explosion on August 1 of two
roadside bombs, believed to have been planted by South Ossetian separatists
sympathetic to Russia, as a decisive moment. Five Georgian policemen were
injured, one severely.
That night Georgian forces struck back. There was a furious firefight that
left six South Ossetian rebels dead. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of
state, was on holiday. A few new provocations by the South Ossetians did not
appear to warrant her coming home. The US intelligence services had been
warning that the Russians were preparing for war, but it did not occur to
them that fighting would break out just as the world was settling down to
watch the Beijing Olympics.
It now appears that August 1 was a well-prepared “provocation” – one of the
Kremlin’s favourite tactics. Pavel Felgengauer, a Moscow authority on
military affairs, claimed in Novaya Gazeta that the plan was for the
“Ossetians to intentionally provoke the Georgians” so that “any response,
harsh or soft, would be used as an occasion for the attack”. At last Russia
was going to teach the Georgians a lesson. Moscow’s relations with the tiny
nation of 5m had begun to deteriorate when Mikhail Saakashvili swept to
power nearly five years ago.
A US-educated lawyer aged 40, Saakashvili is fervently pro-western. Washington
has encouraged his aspirations to join Nato and has helped to train the
Georgian army with the help of the Israelis. President George W Bush visited
Georgia, promising to stand by it, and relations between Saakashvili, the
State Department and the Pentagon have been close. Vladimir Putin has
watched the process with mounting anger.
Moscow argues that while it pulled back its troops from eastern Europe and
allowed American forces into central Asia to fight in Afghanistan, the
Americans have been invading its traditional sphere of influence.
“It’s a very emotional issue,” said a western diplomat. “Most Russians, not
just the Kremlin, see Georgia as part of their world and take the fact that
most Georgians aspire to join Nato as an act of betrayal. Add the paranoia
about the West wanting a weak Russia and conspiring to encircle it and you
have an explosive situation. On the other hand, Georgians clearly aspire to
closer relations with the West because they fear Russia.”
Saakashvili has long vowed to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another
pro-Russian separatist region flanking the Black Sea, back under Tbilisi’s
control. His populist pledge is supported by most Georgians. “Georgia is
nothing without Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” said Levan, a Georgian trapped
in Gori when the Russians moved in last week.
“Imagine someone came and ripped your arm off. That’s what it’s like for us.
These two regions are an integral part of Georgia and must be returned to
The stakes were raised this year when Kosovo gained independence, prompting
Putin to increase support for Georgia’s breakaway republics. That came as an
increasingly bullish Saakashvili prepared an assault to retake parts of
Abkhazia. Western diplomatic sources last week revealed that in early May,
Washington had put frantic pressure on the Georgian leader to stop him
launching military operations.
“They only just managed to stop him,” said a source.
By the summer, attention had switched to South Ossetia. Russians and Georgians
accused each other of straying into each other’s territory. Rice told
Saakashvili at a private dinner on July 9 not to respond with military
force. However, while she thought that her message was loud and clear,
Saakashvili went on to thank her warmly for her “unwavering support for
Georgia’s territorial integrity” and may have interpreted it as permission
to act as he pleased. Within three weeks the clashes of August 1 had raised
Rice remained on holiday while Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state,
took the role of keeping Georgia calm. Saakashvili also spoke on the phone
to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, which holds the European Union
presidency, and to Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief.
Western sources say neither they nor the Americans could restrain him; but the
Georgian leader last week angrily said he had repeatedly warned Washington
and EU countries that the Russians were preparing a military operation
against Georgia but that he had been brushed aside.
On August 7 Fried took a call from Eka Tkeshelashvili, the 31-year-old
Georgian foreign minister, who told him Russian tanks were advancing on
South Ossetia in what appeared to be preparations for an attack. Fried warned
her to avoid war but the message did not sink in, sources say. Ariel Cohen,
a Russian expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said
there should have been direct talks with Saakashvili.
“They needed to be at a very high level, not at the level of Mr Fried. The
American position should have not just been clear, but imperative.” A few
hours after the call to Fried, in the early hours of Friday August 8,
Georgia launched its offensive in South Ossetia, killing many civilians; and
Russia responded with a huge show of force, bombing Georgia and invading a
sovereign country for the first time since it seized Afghanistan in 1979.
TSKHINVALI lay in ruins last week, bearing evidence of both the Georgian
attack and the Russian counterattack. The remains of Georgian armoured
vehicles lay upside down close to the central square. Witnesses told of cars
filled with fleeing Ossetian refugees being shelled by Georgian tanks.
They claimed that in one incident Georgian soldiers finished off the wounded
by pouring fuel over them and burning them. Independent human rights
observers confirmed that civilian targets had been repeatedly hit, including
basements where terrified residents had sought refuge and were trapped for
days. Moscow has claimed that some 2,000 people died at the hands of
Georgian forces – including 15 Russian peacekeepers.
However, Human Rights Watch, the American group, said that Russian estimates
were “suspicious”. Doctors at the main hospital said that 44 dead had been
brought to the city morgue. Whatever the final death toll, few dispute that
the city suffered destruction and that civilians were hardest hit. Nor is
there any doubting Albina Shanazarov’s tragic fate. A 13-year-old girl, she
sought to flee the city with her mother and three sisters. They set off with
other civilians in a bus, which was ambushed by Georgian forces as they
tried to reach Russia.
“A bullet smacked right into the steering wheel. I had to stop and we
scattered along the highway,” said Guram Beloyev, the bus driver. “It was
dark and I was hoping they wouldn’t see as we hid but they must have been
using night-vision goggles because the Georgian sniper fired pretty
accurately. Albina was terrified and ran towards me. That’s when she was hit
by a bullet that smashed right through her chest. She died almost at once.”
The survivors managed to escape but had to abandon Albina’s body. It was
recovered a day later by her father, Charshanbe Shanazarov, a colonel in the
South Ossetian police, who said he came across two shattered taxis filled
with civilians who had been killed as they tried to flee. He also found more
bodies along the road, in all counting 15 dead civilians, including two
children. He buried his daughter in his garden because reaching the town
cemetery was still too dangerous.
“They murdered an innocent 13-year-old girl. For nothing. They took her away
from me for ever. Why?” Each side blames the other for starting the
fighting, but a western diplomat who has had extensive contact with the
Georgians, said: “Whatever the truth, the Russians have done everything they
could to provoke the Georgians into doing something. Saakashvili appears to
have fallen straight into their trap and frankly I imagine Putin could not
believe his luck when he received the first report of fighting.”
A western mediator, who knows Saakashvili well, said that the West should have
insisted on more checks and balances being introduced to control the
Georgian leader’s hot temper. “He is high maintenance – very emotional – and
can get carried away,” said the source. “He likes confrontation. The other
problem is that he makes decisions with a kitchen cabinet of only four or
five people sitting in his office at 5am, determining the fate of the
nation. Decision-making is bound to suffer.
“The Russians have been provoking him big time and he has been held back many
times. On this occasion he failed to keep his cool and did exactly what the
Russians wanted him to do – overreact.”
America had sleepwalked into a foreign policy disaster and its response was
slow and uncertain. With Bush tarrying in Beijing watching the Olympics
while Putin executed a war, Americans were reminded uncomfortably of
Hurricane Katrina – another occasion when Bush dithered before eventually
getting around to sending humanitarian aid.
Ralph Peters, a former military intelligence analyst, said last week at a
symposium on Georgia at the neoconser-vative American Enterprise Institute:
“The image for me will be the president going to a basketball game and
flirting with the beach volleyball team.”
He added: “Vladimir Putin is the most effective leader in the world today.
Nobody comes close. In contrast, President Bush is looking like Jimmy Carter
when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. It’s tragic.”
Bush had thought he had Georgia in his pocket. Saakashvili is surrounded by US
civilian and military advisers and is so close to US politicians that John
McCain, the Republican nominee, claimed last week to be in daily telephone
contact with him. However, he is regarded as “mercurial” – a polite way of
saying that the Americans lost control of their client. “We’d been warned
about Saakashvili for some time. Our advisers knew he wasn’t ready for prime
time,” said Peters. “But he’s the democratically elected leader of Georgia.
The Russians knew they could poke him and poke him until he responded.” It was
the Europeans who moved first in trying to stop the fighting. At the Olympic
opening ceremony on August 8, Sarkozy bumped into Putin soon after news of
Georgia’s offensive in South Ossetia started coming in. “Sarko” was with
11-year-old Louis, his youngest son, and the Russian prime minister wrapped
the boy in a bear hug.
Nearby, Bush was looking through binoculars at the Olympic parade. “Listen,”
Sarkozy told Putin, “it’s a mistake by Saakashvili. We have to find a way
out of this crisis.”
An implacable Putin replied: “I can’t let it happen.” After returning from
China to France, Sarkozy called Angela Merkel of Germany, Silvio Berlusconi,
the Italian prime minister, Spain’s Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and 10
Downing Street to try to work out a European reaction to the fighting. In
reality, the crisis had split Europe along the fault line that has divided
it since the Iraq war. Germany, with its close commercial ties to Russia,
wanted a “no blame” solution.
Poland empathised with Georgia, and Britain stood by Washington in firmly
condemning the invasion. France not only has a policy of engagement with
Russia but was also enjoying taking the diplomatic front seat. Sarkozy got
back on the phone to Medvedev in Moscow.
The Russian president wanted Saakashvili “fired” but Sarkozy told him that was
not a helpful condition. “It’s not up to you or me to designate the Georgian
leader,” he told the Russian. Washington apparently tried to persuade
Sarkozy not to go to Moscow to talk to Russia’s leaders face to face.
Bush warned him: “You’ll arrive at the Kremlin when the Russians are firing
missiles at Tbilisi.” Sarkozy went anyway and was apparently told by Putin
at a working lunch in the Kremlin on Tuesday: “It’s just like in the films –
there’s a good cop and a bad cop”, referring to himself and Medvedev.
Even so, the “nice” Medvedev did not mince his words. In a press conference
later that day he referred to Saakashvili as a madman. “The difference
between madmen and normal people,” he explained, “is that madmen, when they
smell blood, it is very difficult to stop them.”
Despite the rhetoric, Russia accepted an EU-sponsored accord. “For the first
time in a major international crisis, it is the Americans who are on the
touchline and it is the European Union that is being called upon to sort
things out,” crowed a French presidential aide. Well, perhaps: the Russians
might have agreed to a deal but they had not yet delivered on it.
GORI is a town of more than 50,000 people, 40 miles north of Tbilisi. When I
entered it on foot last Wednesday, five days after the Russians’ invasion,
their troops were advancing rather than withdrawing.
A few hours earlier a column of Russian armoured personnel carriers, mounted with
large calibre machineguns and carrying hundreds of troops, had crossed the
border despite assurances from Moscow that it would not stray into Georgia
proper. They took Gori without fighting, as Georgian troops fled in their
Plumes of black smoke rose on the edge of town as Russians took up position on
a ridge, setting fire to the surrounding fields. As I walked by the roadside
towards the city, armoured vehicles packed with soot-covered Russian
soldiers cradling AK47s and grenade launchers rumbled past, their tracks
crushing the asphalt. One came to a halt and its commander offered me a
lift. I jumped on the back and rode a couple of miles towards the town
“The Georgians asked for it,” Sergei, a soldier from Siberia, yelled over the
engine. “They came into Tskhinvali, destroyed it and killed a hell of a lot
of civilians. What did they expect – for Russia to sit back? As far as I’m
concerned we should go all the way to Tbilisi and take the city. We should
wipe them out and teach them not to mess with Russia.”
Famed as Stalin’s birthplace, Gori was a bustling community before hostilities
broke out. Last week it was a ghost town. I passed blackened apartment
blocks that had been hit by Russian bombs. Laundry was still hanging out to
dry, abandoned in the panic. I came across fewer than 100 people.
“We haven’t eaten in three days; do you have any bread? Please help,” said an
elderly woman dressed in black who was too scared to try to leave the town.
A small group of men huddled in a yard, looking shellshocked and incredulous
at the sight of Russian tanks taking up positions a few hundred yards down
the road. Koba, a 35-year-old worker, said they had spent much of the past
two days hiding in their cellar for fear of Russian bombing.
“My father is blind,” he said. “He wanted to stay and I couldn’t leave
without him. The past few days have been terrifying. I never thought I would
live to see such a day. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined
seeing Russian tanks rumbling through our town.”
As I reached Gori’s main square, famed for its imposing statue of Stalin, the
thud of artillery shells filled the air and sent a bearded priest in a black
robe and a small family carrying a few possessions running for cover. A few
days earlier a Russian shell had killed at least eight civilians as they
were being given bread and water.
A minivan carrying half a dozen heavily armed South Ossetian militiamen sped
across the main square, coming to a halt when they spotted me. The gun-men,
some in masks, asked me if I had seen any Georgian soldiers. One insisted on
giving me a handful of chocolates before the group raced off. Minutes later
Vadim, the militiaman, pulled up. “Jump in. Have you got any bandages?” he
asked. “I’m wounded.”
He took me to a nondescript single-storey house. He said he had intelligence
that it had been used as a Georgian arms depot. Limping because of his
wound, he walked up to the heavy metal gate, handed his Kalashnikov to me
before I could decline and tried in vain to break its lock with a hunting
knife he kept strapped to his side.
He then grabbed back his AK47, cocked it and fired 10 rounds at the lock from
only a few yards away but, despite shattering it, was unable to enter the
building. He later enlisted the help of two regular Russian soldiers in a
heavy truck, who were stopped by an angry officer as they prepared to ram
the vehicle into the building.
When I last saw Vadim, as I made my way out of the town on foot, he was making
advances to a middle-aged Georgian woman as she collected water from a hose
in her yard. I did not witness any serious abuse of civilians in Gori, but
there were numerous witness accounts pointing to a paramilitary campaign of
revenge attacks against Georgians in South Ossetia.
“A group of heavily armed and wild-looking South Ossetian irregulars came into
the village and started terrorising people and looting,” said Niko
Markuzash-vili, 52, who had fled the Georgian hamlet of Kheltubani and
walked to Gori.
“They were burning houses and stealing cars, just grabbing anything they
wanted. I saw them stop a man in his car. They demanded the keys but he
refused to hand them over so they shot him point blank with a machinegun and
killed him on the spot. They took some of the young men prisoner.”
As panicked civilians fled the area, most on foot and carrying only the
clothes they were wearing, people told of young girls being abducted and men
being detained. Houses were systematically looted and torched. Entire
villages were razed. Too frail to leave, some elderly locals have stayed
behind and now have neither food nor shelter. Exhausted villagers from
Dvani, a Georgian village in South Ossetia, gathered by the road side,
desperate to hear whether loved ones had managed to escape. They had walked
11 miles in searing heat.
“They are coming to our villages, burning our houses and killing people – so
we had to escape,” said Vano Bezhanishvili, 37, who said he had been lucky
to make it out alive when paramilitaries who entered Dvani on two trucks
began shooting, in one incident killing a man when he looked out of a window
and shouted at them. Most disturbing were reports that in some incidents the
paramilitaries had taken young women as sex slaves.
“A car with a family fleeing their village was stopped by the militias,” said
Georgy, a Georgian army commander. “They grabbed the man’s two young
daughters and dragged them away at gunpoint. Their father could do nothing
to stop them. We have no idea what’s happened to them. They have
In South Ossetia itself, vengeful militiamen were moving into deserted ethnic
Georgian villages on what they said was a mopping-up operation to “find
Georgian sabo-teurs and looters”.
As they advanced they carried out widespread looting and burnt houses in an
apparent ethnic cleansing campaign to ensure locals did not return. A group
of militiamen held a Georgian soldier prisoner in the back of a truck, his
mouth covered with a filthy T-shirt to block out the stench of two rotting
corpses lying beside him – fellow Georgian soldiers clad in Nato camouflage
“I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t kill your women and children. I swear,” he
said, pleading with his captors to spare him. Inal, a militia sergeant, was
in no mood for concessions. “You’re going to be dumping your comrades’
bodies soon, you faggot, where we only bury stray dogs. And that’s where you
are soon going to join them.”
The prisoner was made to drag the dead men off the truck and to bury them in a
ditch with the corpses of eight other Georgian soldiers. Some were stripped
naked and charred. One had his mouth still open in a grimace of terror and
pain. “Tell us the f***ing truth. Where is your weapon? Where are your
documents? If you don’t tell us the truth, we’ll shoot you dead,” Inal, 47,
yelled at the prisoner, who claimed to have been responsible only for food
and transport. Inal was unconvinced. “We’ll talk to you properly back at the
base. Then we’ll see if you are telling the truth.”
The road to the military base deep inside Russian-controlled South Ossetia was
scattered with rotting Georgian corpses. Inal paraded two more prisoners –
both middle-aged men. One, with a scar across his nose and broken lips, was
shaking in fear as Inal began the interrogation. He sat both men on the
ground and took off the safety catch on his Kalashnikov.
The two Georgians, who were not wearing military uniforms, said they were
builders from a nearby hamlet who had been caught in the fighting and had
lost their IDs. Yelling, Inal hit one hard in the face. The man groaned in
pain and cowered behind his friend’s shoulders.
“Where is your weapon, you faggot?” Inal barked, threatening to drown the man
in a pool. But another South Ossetian soldier stopped Inal and handed the
prisoner a Nato ration pack. “Made in the USA! Enjoy!” he laughed. At first
the Russian army appeared unable or unwilling to control the militias. On
Thursday, after the Russian interior minister said looters should be dealt
with severely, soldiers blocked the road from South Ossetia into Georgia to
paramilitary forces and arrested several looters.
AMERICA now has to decide how to contend with the newly resurgent Russia and
with a self-confident Vladimir Putin. Whether he is called president or
prime minister is immaterial. He is “Tsar Vladimir” or, as The Wall Street
Journal put it, “Vladimir Bonaparte”. Robert Gates, the US defence
secretary, ruled out the use of force last week to compel Russia to return
to the status quo ante.
For now the two breakaway provinces are back in Russia’s orbit, and a question
mark hangs over the future of Georgia and other former Soviet satellite
states. Some American commentators believe that their country’s performance
has been shameful. Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre
for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, said: “The Iron Lady would never
have stomached this sort of behaviour by the Russians. She would have issued
an immediate statement condemning Moscow, summoned an urgent meeting of the
Nato command and demanded that the Russians halt their advance and withdraw
their forces or face the consequences."
According to Gardiner, “The whole episode has demonstrated to eastern Europe
that America and Nato won’t protect it. It sends the message that it is open
season on any of the border states and that the West doesn’t have the
stomach to protect them.”
The rapid conclusion of long negotiations between America and Poland to site
American missile defences on Polish territory last week showed the gravity
of the crisis for countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain. “Poland
and the Poles do not want to be in alliances in which assistance comes at
some point later. It is no good when assistance comes to dead people,” said
Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister.
The historian Leon Aron, an expert on Russia, said: “The next target of
opportunity is Ukraine – not the entire country, but the Crimean peninsula
and Sebastopol, which is home to the Black Sea fleet.” There is talk about
suspending Russia’s membership of the G8 or boycotting the 2014 winter
Olympics, which will be in Sochi, in southern Russia; but the Bush
administration has preferred to utter general warnings about Russia’s
imperilled standing in the world rather than to deliver specific threats to
curb its behaviour.
“Will Nato and the EU draw the conclusion that we should stay away from the
former Soviet states in order not to be drawn into a conflict, or will they
decide that they ought to offer them the protection of membership? I’m not
optimistic,” said Aron. Bush has barely five months of his presidency left –
not enough time for a tired administration, still grappling with Iraq, Iran
and the intractable Palestinian problem, to come up with a coherent policy
on the resurrection of Greater Russia. It seems certain that Vadim and his
ragtag cohorts will be celebrating the events of August 2008 for years to
Dmitry Beliakov in Tskhinvali, Sarah Baxter in Washington, Matthew Campbell
in Paris and Nicola Smith in Brussels contributed to this report