Thursday, 9/18/2008




The West Begins to Doubt Georgian Leader


Part 2: Georgia's Calculated Offensive

One thing was already clear to the officers at NATO headquarters in Brussels: They thought that the Georgians had started the conflict and that their actions were more calculated than pure self-defense or a response to Russian provocation. In fact, the NATO officers believed that the Georgian attack was a calculated offensive against South Ossetian positions to create the facts on the ground, and they coolly treated the exchanges of fire in the preceding days as minor events. Even more clearly, NATO officials believed, looking back, that by no means could these skirmishes be seen as justification for Georgian war preparations.

Russian soldiers in South Ossetia, Aug. 10.

Russian soldiers in South Ossetia, Aug. 10.

The NATO experts did not question the Georgian claim that the Russians had provoked them by sending their troops through the Roki Tunnel. But their evaluation of the facts was dominated by skepticism that these were the true reasons for Saakashvili's actions.

The details that Western intelligence agencies extracted from their signal intelligence agree with NATO's assessments. According to this intelligence information, the Georgians amassed roughly 12,000 troops on the border with South Ossetia on the morning of Aug. 7. Seventy-five tanks and armored personnel carriers -- a third of the Georgian military's arsenal -- were assembled near Gori. Saakashvili's plan, apparently, was to advance to the Roki Tunnel in a 15-hour blitzkrieg and close the eye of the needle between the northern and southern Caucasus regions, effectively cutting off South Ossetia from Russia.

At 10:35 p.m. on Aug. 7, less than an hour before Russian tanks entered the Roki Tunnel, according to Saakashvili, Georgian forces began their artillery assault on Tskhinvali. The Georgians used 27 rocket launchers, including 152-millimeter guns, as well as cluster bombs. Three brigades began the nighttime assault.

The intelligence agencies were monitoring the Russian calls for help on the airwaves. The 58th Army, part of which was stationed in North Ossetia, was apparently not ready for combat, at least not during that first night.

The Georgian army, on the other hand, consisted primarily of infantry groups, which were forced to travel along major roads. It soon became bogged down and was unable to move past Tskhinvali. Western intelligence learned that the Georgians were experiencing "handling problems" with their weapons. The implication was that the Georgians were not fighting well.

The intelligence agencies conclude that the Russian army did not begin firing until 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 8, when it launched an SS-21 short-range ballistic missile on the city of Borzhomi, southwest of Gori. The missile apparently hit military and government bunker positions. Russian warplanes began their first attacks on the Georgian army a short time later. Suddenly the airwaves came to life, as did the Russian army.

Russian troops from North Ossetia did not begin marching through the Roki Tunnel until roughly 11 a.m. This sequence of events is now seen as evidence that Moscow did not act offensively, but merely reacted. Additional SS-21s were later moved to the south. The Russians deployed 5,500 troops to Gori and 7,000 to the border between Georgia and its second separatist region, Abkhazia.

Calls in Europe for International Investigation

Wolfgang Richter, a colonel with Germany's General Staff and a senior military advisor to the German OSCE mission, is another expert on the situation. Richter, who was in Tbilisi at the time, confirms that the Georgians had already amassed troops on the border with South Ossetia in July. In a closed-door session in Berlin last Wednesday, he told German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung and the leading members of the foreign and defense committees in the German parliament that the Georgians had, to some extent, "lied" about troop movements. Richter said that he could find no evidence to support Saakashvili's claims that the Russians had marched into the Roki Tunnel before Tbilisi gave its orders to attack, but that he could not rule them out. For some members of parliament, his statements sounded like an endorsement of the Russian interpretation. "He left no room for interpretation," one of the committee members concluded. "It is clear that there was more responsibility on the Georgian than the Russian side," another committee member said.

On the strength of all these reports, it was clear to Western observers who had ignited the South Ossetian powder keg. In the heat of battle, the analysts understandably did not take into account the background to the conflict, which includes years of Russian provocation of Tbilisi.

South Ossetia

South Ossetia

But now it is high time for the European Union to address the reasons behind the war. Moscow has been baffled by the Europeans' refusal to condemn Saakashvili's assault on Tskhinvali and the insistence on pointing the finger at Russia instead. The Europeans, a diplomat with the Russian Foreign Ministry complained, apparently lack the "courage to stand up to Washington and its allies in Tbilisi."

At an informal meeting in the southern French city of Avignon two weekends ago, Europe's foreign ministers called for "an international investigation" into the conflict. The logic of that decision was that anyone who hopes to mediate should not be biased in evaluating what happened in the Caucasus. Apparently even the foreign ministers of Great Britain, Sweden, the Baltic States and other Eastern European countries agreed. Before the Avignon meeting, they had advocated a tough stance toward Moscow and more solidarity with Tbilisi -- irrespective of the facts.

The 27 foreign ministers plan to adopt a formal resolution at the beginning of this week calling for an investigation. But the question of who would be in charge of such a delicate mission remains completely unanswered: the United Nations, the OSCE, non-governmental organizations, academics -- or a combination of all of these groups? Only one thing is clear: The EU itself has no intention of taking on the issue. Europeans fear that this would only widen the gap between hardliners and those advocating cautious reconciliation with Moscow.

Saakashvili, the choleric ruler of Tbilisi, is following the shift in opinions in the West with growing unease. He reiterates his version of the attack on Georgia in daily television appearances, an international PR firm is constantly inundating the Western media with carefully selected material, and Tbilisi is already taking its case to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, where it accuses the Russians of "ethnic cleansing."

But Saakashvili is no longer as confident in his allies' support. Ahead of NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's visit to Tbilisi this week, Saakashvili called upon the Western alliance to show its resolve, noting that a display of weakness toward Moscow would lead to "a never-ending story of Russian aggression."

Is Saakashvili Already Dead Politically?

The Georgian president is also coming under pressure in his own country, as the united front that developed during the Russian invasion crumbles. Those who have long criticized Saakashvili and his senior staff as an "authoritarian regime" are speaking out once again. Back in December 2007, Georgy Khaindrava, a former minister for conflict resolution who was dismissed in 2006, told SPIEGEL that Saakashvili and his circle are people "for whom power is everything." A few weeks earlier, Saakashvili had deployed special police forces in Tbilisi, where the opposition had staged large demonstrations, and declared a state of emergency. At the time, Khaindrava expressed concerns that Saakashvili could soon attempt to bolster his weakened image with a "small, victorious war" -- against South Ossetia.

In May 2006, former Foreign Minister Salomé Surabishvili had already cautioned against her former boss's actions. The "enormous arms buildup" he had engaged in made "no sense," Surabishvili said, adding that it created the impression that he planned to resolve the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia militarily.

Last week, the heads of Georgia's two major political parties called for Saakashvili's resignation and the establishment of a "government that is neither pro-Russian nor pro-American, but pro-Georgian." In Moscow, former Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Temur Khachishzili, who spent years in prison for attempting to assassinate Saakashvili's predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, is drumming up support for a change of government back home among the more than one million Georgians living in Russia.

Is Saakashvili, who only five weeks ago had gained the West's sympathy as the victim of a Russian invasion, already dead politically? Last week he received support from an unexpected source, the Red Star, a newspaper published by the Russian Defense Ministry. The paper published remarks by an officer of the 58th Army, which Moscow has since denied. Nevertheless, the officer, ironically enough, fueled doubts as to the conclusion, by Western intelligence agencies and NATO, that Russian army units had not reached Tskhinvali until Aug. 9.

In the Red Star account, Captain Denis Sidristy, the commander of a company of the 135th Motorized Infantry Regiment, describes how he and his unit were already in the Roki Tunnel, on their way to Tskhinvali, in the night preceding Aug. 8. Did Moscow's invasion begin earlier than the Russians have admitted, after all?

Last week, Moscow investigators also conceded, for the first time, that the number of civilian casualties of the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali was not 2,000, as Russian officials have repeatedly claimed, but 134.

When asked about the account in the Red Star, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry told SPIEGEL that it was the result of a technical error. Moreover, the spokesman said, the official in question had been wounded and therefore "could no longer remember the situation clearly."

Last Friday Captain Sidristy, since decorated with the Russian defense ministry's order of bravery, was given a second opportunity to describe his version of the events to the Red Star. His unit, he said in his revised version, had advanced on Tskhinvali somewhat later than he had told the paper the first time.

As it appears, it is still difficult to separate truth and lies about the brief war in the Caucasus.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

© DER SPIEGEL 38/2008
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