Saturday, September 6, 2008

Part 2: 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.

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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.

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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."

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