This summer it has been 10 years ago the world was caught by surprise by the short intense Russian – Georgian war, seemingly “just” about a small Georgian separatist region of less than 50.000 people that not many had heard of: South Ossetia *). The full scale fighting started just hours before the opening of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, in the night of 7 to 8 August local time. Key developments in the last 24 hours led to the final escalation of violence with a Russian intervention as result. Although it took many by surprise, a direct Russian – Georgian war was in the making for quite some time, accelerated by key developments in 2008.
Western recognition of Kosovo in February of that year and the infamous NATO summit in Bucharest two months later, where Georgia and Ukraine got an open door invitation for a future membership, triggered the final acceleration to conflict and escalation of tensions. The Russian government felt strongly provoked by both steps led by the American President George W. Bush, and it used the Georgian South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions where it maintained a peacekeeping presence since the early 90s to provoke the Georgian government into a war, with the aim to neuter its NATO ambitions.
But the root of the Georgian tensions with Russia go back to the Rose Revolution in 2003 that brought the western embedded and schooled Mikheil Saakashvili to power. It has been known since then that Vladimir Putin developed a fear for these so called ‘color revolutions’ in his direct neighborhood, not only in Georgia, but also Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Saakashvili came to power with the promise to restore ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity’ of the country, that fell apart since its 1991 independence under former leaders Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze, through civil war, corruption and weak governance.
After the civil war in the early 90s the autonomous Abkhazia region and self declared South Ossetia region were outside of central government control, with peacekeeping missions from both the Russians and Georgians. The UN (UNOMIG, Abkhazia) and OSCE (in South Ossetia) were present as well. The autonomous region of Adjara, on the Black Sea coast bordering Turkey was led by Aslan Abashidze and his criminal clan. Early on in his first Presidential term Saakashvili confronted with the Adjarian leadership, threatening with military power, and forced Aslan Abashidze to resign. He fled to Moscow. Adjara maintained its autonomy, and is now a prosperous region. Saakashvili’s successful manoeuvre send shockwaves to Moscow as it proved he was serious about his mission to reunite the country.
The repeat trick trap
Just a few months later, in the summer of 2004, a crisis erupted when the Georgian government tried to repeat the same with South Ossetia, which resulted in Russian military coming to the assistance of Ossetian militia’s (allegedly tanks crossed the Caucasus mountains). With dozens dead and the strong Russian action the Georgians were forced to abandon the operation. This hardened the Georgian-Russian animosity as the latter understood Saakashvili was determined in his self declared mission. It may also have contributed to the Kremlin setting a trap, and building up pressure on the Georgians, with a range of provocative measures and increasing Russian direct control of both regions, but South Ossetia specifically.
In 2005 the Georgian and Russian government agreed to a timeline for the withdrawal of Russian military forces from Georgia by 2008. Most people did not realize at the time that the schedule for evacuation of Russian military bases from Batumi and Akhalkalaki indicated the time frame set by the Russian leadership to legalize the military bases illegally created on the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. During the year various measures were undertaken by the Russian authorities to increase Russian control of both regions, by putting Russian security officers in key positions in South Ossetia.
Anatoly Yarovoi (FSB officer in the Republic of Mordovia) was appointed head of the South Ossetian KGB. Lieutenant-General Anatoly Zaitsev (Trans-Baikal Military District and Deputy Defense Minister of Abkhazia) was appointed Chief of Armed Forces of Abkhazia. Mikhail Mindzayev (Ministry of Internal Affairs, Republic of North Ossetia-Alania) became Interior Minister of South Ossetia. From the summer the South Ossetian government was headed by Yuri Morozov (commercial director Kursk Fuel Company, business partner of South Ossetian President Kokoity). The stronger Russian presence in South Ossetia coincided with increasing subversive activities by Russian security services in Georgia, such as bomb blasts. In winter 2005 a bomb went off in the police station of Gori, killing 3 police officers and injuring 17. After a through investigation the incident has been attributed to the Russian GRU.
In 2006 Georgian authorities arrested Russian intelligence officers on the accusation of plotting terrorist bombings in the city of Gori. This set things were set in motion from the Russian side, immediately taking bait. It closed the only direct land border crossing at Kazbeg (which remained closed until 2011), suspended direct air travel, and imposed various trade embargoes, beginning with wine and the popular Borjomi spring water. Russia also expelled thousands of Georgians from the country under the pretext of violation of immigration rules.
Separately, a crisis erupted in the Abkhazian Kodori Gorge, which was the only area in Abkhazia under Georgian control. The crisis resulted in the establishment of the Tbilisi recognized autonomous government of Abkhazia, in parallel with the Abkhaz de facto authorities in Sukhumi. In both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, amidst the final breakdown of OSCE mediated Georgian-Ossetian negotiations in 2007, Russia started providing social benefits, which it states requires Russian citizenship. Passports are distributed in violation of international law: Russification of the regions has taken flight.
From spring 2008 the situation in the region is rapidly developing into conflict:
Russia announced its withdrawal from the 1996 Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) treaty on economic sanctions against Abkhazia. This would allow sending economic and military assistance to Sukhumi. In practice Russia already did not adhere to the treaty, yet this was another sign of a shift of official policy towards the regions. A week before a Russian general was appointed Minister of Defense of South Ossetia.
The State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, passed a resolution which asked the President and the Government to “investigate the usefulness of the recognition of independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia”, referring to Kosovo and its secession from Serbia, and reflecting a mirroring policy.
In the first days of April the dramatic NATO summit in Bucharest paved the way for Putin to test Georgia’s real friendship with the west, the USA foremost. During this summit both Georgia and Ukraine couldn’t secure a Membership Action Plan for membership of NATO, but just a watered down and non-committal “open door” invitation as compromise. This has been attributed to West-European nations such as France, Germany and Netherlands that “don’t want to provoke Vladimir Putin’s Russia”. The division within NATO on the matter was well spotted by the Russian delegation present. It became clear for the Kremlin that NATO (members) would not be willing to come to the defense of Georgia against Russian forces. With hindsight Russia acted swiftly on this window of opportunity.
During the month Russia increased its peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia from 2000 to at least 3000 troops without informing the Georgian side. In a move towards slowly recognizing the regions, the Kremlin signed a decree establishing official ties with the South Ossetian and Abkhazian de facto authorities, a step widely condemned internationally,
From the last week of April, the security situation descends into low intensity war, most notably after a Russian MiG-29 aircraft shoots down a Georgian Israeli-made air reconnaissance drone (UAV) over the conflict zone. Something Russia initially denied (as by default) but an on-board camera of the UAV recorded the attack, which the UN UNOMIG mission confirmed as perpetrated by a Russian fighter jet, in clear violation of international law and the local conflict resolution rules. Also the Russian troops presence in Abkhazia was upgraded, cleearly in preparation of war, and in violation with the (bilateral) peacekeeping mandate. In the middle of April 300 Russian contract soldiers with heavy arms arrived in Ochamchire military base.
At the end of the month Moscow began deploying part of the Novorossiysk airborne division in Abkhazia. They arrived by train crossing the Georgian-Russian border near the river Psou carrying units of armor vehicles, among them three BUK anti-aircraft systems, fourteen D-30 howitzers, ten BM-21 rocket launchers, 20 anti-tank gun, two helicopters and nearly 200 Russian specialists for servicing all these systems. The Russian Black Sea fleet conducted eight exercises in two months specifically training in landing during a sea assault.
After a car bomb explodes in South Ossetia’s capitol Tskhinvali on the republics so called independence day, wounding six, South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity accuses Georgia of “state terrorism.” At the end of the month hundreds of Russian Railway troops were deployed in Abkhazia,officially to restore the since 1993 defunct 54 km long railway line from Ochamchire to Sukhumi in preparation of the Sochi Olympics (2014) for shipping of construction materials. It appeared however yet another strategic preparation for war, as platforms were constructed for unloading heavy (military) equipment. The railway line was ready a week before the war started in August. Near Sukhumi at the airbase, new hangars were quickly built.
In May the website “Genocide of Ossetians“, launched by the authorities of South Ossetia a year earlier, became more active.
June sees an increase in low impact incidents, from shootings, to car bombs and exchanges of grenade fire, especially in and around South Ossetia. Both sides are responsible for ceasefire violations. On 14 June South Ossetia accuses Georgian forces in the villages of Ergneti and Nikozi of firing on South Ossetia, killing 1 and wounding 4. Monitors find a dugout with ammunition on the Georgian side of the conflict zone, in violation with the agreements.
In Abkhazia, several new Russian Su-25 and Su-27 combat aircraft landed at the Gudauta base while at the same time the Zelenchuksk Mining and Rifle Brigade of the North Caucasus Military District began exercises with the aim of “practicing operations on an unfamiliar territory and at a distance from the place of permanent deployment”. Soon after, the Georgian authorities detained a group of Russian peacekeepers in the Zugdidi region on the Georgian side of the Georgian-Abkhazian demarcation line, confiscating 20 anti-tank missiles, as well as other heavy weapons prohibited for deployment in the conflict zone. Deputy Chief of the General Staff of Russia, General Alexander Burutin, promised in response bloodshed in case Georgia confiscates Russian weapons again. According to him Russian “peacekeepers” have the right to open fire. In an interview with the newspaper “Resonance” Pavel Felgenhauer said the decision to go to war against Georgia has been taken, and he predicted that military action is likely to begin in August.
In a desperate attempt to prevent further escalation of violence in and around the conflict zones by both sides, the Joint Peacekeeping Forces call upon Georgia and South Ossetia to renew talks. A fruitless attempt. In July things start to spin out of control.
At the end of his 10-day trip to South Ossetia in June Alexander Dugin, known for his connections in the Russian army and special services and leader of the International Eurasian Movement, announced at a press conference: “Russia decided to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. For all this, you have all prepared perfectly. […] If Russia recognizes the independence of South Ossetia and introduces there its non-peacekeeping and border troops, the issue of Georgia’s admission to NATO will be removed from the agenda. Until December we must recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia”. Dugin mentioned December, as there were unofficial rumors that Georgia and Ukraine would get invited for NATO membership before the end of the year.
Dugin essentially stated that it is imperative to create a “legitimate” ground for the presence of Russian non-peacekeeping forces on South Ossetian and Abkhazian territory. Therefore Russia planned to recognize both territories as independent. It just needed to create the logical events for this, for an intervention and maintaining its presence. With the central aim to keep Georgia out of NATO, as NATO would not allow it to become member when it is partially occupied by Russian forces. Russia knew that no one else would follow such recognition. A perfect trap.
This set the scene for what followed in July (continued reading) when tensions rapidly escalated and a Russian – Georgian war was inevitably in the making.
*) Note: for popular reference “South Ossetia” is used instead of the Georgian official reference “Tskhinvali Region”, which does not imply a position on the status of the region.