Saakashvili’s story is sinking fast

Moscow’s version of events in the recent Ossetia war has not varied. It says that Georgia attacked on the night of 7 August and that Russian troops did not arrive until the next day. It is clear, furthermore, that they did not appear in South Ossetia in strength until at least 24 hours after the first Georgian shots were fired.

Saakashvili’s story, on the other hand, has changed several times. On the 7th, a few hours before his forces opened fire, he made a speech on TV in which he said he had ordered a ceasefire adding “And I am offering the Russian Federation to be a guarantor of the South Ossetian autonomy within Georgia… I offer a very important role to Russia in resolving this conflict… Georgia is a natural ally for Russia… We need a real mediator.” The next day, when he believed victory was at hand, he made another speech. A Georgian source reported him saying that Georgian forces now controlled “most of South Ossetia” and that “A large part of Tskhinvali is now liberated and fighting is ongoing in the centre of Tskhinvali”. In this he made two assertions to justify the attack: first that “South Ossetian militias responded to his peace initiative on August 7 by shelling Georgian villages” and second that “Georgia had come under aerial attack from Russian warplanes”. No mention of Russian troops entering South Ossetia then.

Of course, his victory announcement was premature and a few days later, he needed a bigger justification for the catastrophe. It was then that he started claiming that the Russians moved first. “‘I am sickened by the speculation that Georgia started anything,’ Mr Saakashvili told a conference call with journalists days later on August 13. ‘We clearly responded to the Russians . . . The point here is that around 11 o’clock, Russian tanks started to move into Georgian territory, 150 at first. And that was a clear-cut invasion. That was the moment when we started to open fire with artillery, because otherwise they would have crossed the bridge and moved into Tskhinvali.’”

Then the story changed again: on 23 September in a piece he wrote in the Washington Post, he claimed that “Russia then started its land invasion in the early hours of Aug. 7, after days of heavy shelling that killed civilians and Georgian peacekeepers.” He expected his readership to believe that the Russians had had an 18-hour head start on a 60-kilometre race and that Georgia had invaded anyway. Too preposterous and it seems to have been quietly forgotten.

Saakashvili’s stories are collapsing one after the other: the first story about a response to heavy Ossetian shelling is directly contradicted by two former British officers who were part of the OSCE team in the area: they report “Georgian rockets and artillery were hitting civilian areas in the breakaway region of South Ossetia every 15 or 20 seconds” and deny that there was the shelling of Georgia villages that Saakashvili claimed on the 8th.

The second story of the Russians entering South Ossetia just before – “supported” with the laughable claim of an intercepted telephone call which was mysteriously “lost” for several weeks – collapses in the BBC program of a couple of weeks ago (Part 1, Part 2). Americans were finally introduced to the accurate version in the New York Times nearly three months after the war began.

The War He Actually Got

Probably published first on the now-defunct Russia Blog

President Saakashvili of Georgia is now (since 25 August) claiming that the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia on 7 August was a response to the movement of Russian forces through the Roki Tunnel into South Ossetia. (

First, we know this claim to be false because, in his “victory speech” on 8 August (, he did not say so. His excuse then was that the Ossetians had not responded to his ceasefire proposal made a few hours earlier and he also claimed a rather ineffective air attack by Russian forces. Second, deputy defence minister Batu Kutelia was quoted on 21 August saying Tbilisi did not expect a Russian response ( Third, Georgia’s former defence minister, Irakly Okruashvili, (now, like many of Saakashvili’s former colleagues, in opposition) has admitted that Tbilisi always had plans to conquer South Ossetia and Abkhazia (

But, let us assume – pretend – that on 7 August, the Russian 58th Army had started through Roki and ignore the fact that, had it done so, the Georgian forces would have met Russian soldiers in the early hours of the next day in Tskhinvali – the road distance from Roki to Tskhinvali is only about 55 kilometres. But there are no reports that they did.

But nevertheless, even if we assume this to be true, two serious questions remain. First, Tbilisi still has to explain the indiscriminate bombardment of a town that Saakashvili considers to be full of Georgian citizens: “liberated” being the word he used on the 8th. (A list of 312 Ossetians, by name, so far identified as killed is here (Although Saakashvili has the brass to blame Russia for that: “They leveled city of Tskhinvali with carpet bombardments and came around and blamed Georgians for that.” (or so he told Ms Rice on 15 August Second, we have to explain what the Georgian army thought it was doing in attempting a race up the single road hoping to beat the Russians, with their supposed head start, to Didi-Gupta or Roki. The “Russians moved first” accusation is a red herring.

Surely there is a much simpler explanation: Saakashvili always intended to re-gain South Ossetia, by war if necessary (we have Okruashvili’s testimony). The whole thing was supposed to have been more-or-less complete by Friday night; indeed, Saakashvili thought it was nearly over then and on the 8th he claimed that Georgian forces already controlled “most of South Ossetia”. Georgia’s friends in the West would be then be calling for a ceasefire in place. (Okruashvili’s assessment: “Saakashvili’s offensive only aimed at taking Tskhinvali, because he thought the U.S. would block a Russian reaction through diplomatic channels.”) Therefore, by Friday or Saturday, it would have been a done deal. A large percentage of Ossetians would have fled to the north away from the bombardment (a third to a half already had), more would be leaving, the Russians would be blocked and everyone would be looking at a fait accompli.

In short, the war that Tbilisi thought it was starting was a one- or two-day war which would have left South Ossetia empty of Ossetians and the Russians unable to do anything about it. And, as Okruashvili made clear, it would then be the turn of Abkhazia (“Abkhazia was our strategic priority, but we drew up military plans in 2005 for taking both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well”). In short a coup de main producing a quick fait accompli. Had the Georgian forces got through Tskhinvali and blocked the bridge at Didi-Gupta by Friday night, we’d be looking at a very different situation today.

A weakness of much analysis about wars is that analysts often try to explain why the war that actually happened began: how could Tbilisi have expected “little Georgia” to prevail against “mighty Russia”? But the real effort is to explain the war that the attacker thought he was starting. On the night of 7 August, Tbilisi, as many others in history have done (vide NATO’s 78-day, 20,000 sortie campaign in Kosovo and Serbia), began an operation that was expected to be short and victorious. But, as Field Marshal von Moltke observed: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. Tbilisi’s hopes were stopped, first by the resolute action of Ossetian defenders (some Tskhinvali combat footage in; go to 7:50) and the arrival of Russian ground forces on Friday.

Saakashvili today has a different war to explain than he did on 8 August. Then it was the successful “liberation” of Georgia territory. Today he’s trying to justify something rather more apocalyptic: “Russia intends to destroy not just a country, but an idea…. This war threatens not only Georgia but security and liberty around the world.”, 15 August). He needs a new, bigger, explanation in which Georgia is the defender of “security and liberty around the world” against a Russia that wants to “demolish the post-cold war system of international relations in Europe”.

Now Comes the Hangover

Note: Not sure where or when this was published. Date is my best guess. Think I had already severed my connection with Russia Blog at this time because of editorial interference.

France, which currently holds the Presidency of the EU, in the persons of President Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Kouchner, has induced President Saakashvili to sign the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement.

According to both President Medvedev’s office and a French news agency the terms are as follows:

1. Tbilisi must make a commitment not to use force to settle its secessionist problems.

2. Georgian armed forces must cease fire.

3. Georgian armed forces must return to their barracks.

4. Russian armed forces introduced into South Ossetia must also be returned to their barracks.

5. There must be free access for humanitarian aid.

6. The beginning of a serious international discussion about the situation.

Sarkozy has offered EU personnel or soldiers – the details are not yet worked out – for peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is a very helpful offer: not only will it be a further brake on Tbilisi but it may – finally – get Western attention focussed on the people in these areas and not on Tbilisi’s spin.

The reason why Sarkozy and Medvedev were able to come to agreement so quickly is that the terms conform precisely to what Moscow said it was doing all along. In my earlier post to this blog I quoted a Russian military spokesman who on Friday said: “In the future any shooting in the responsibility zone of Russian peacekeepers will be stifled”. On Monday the Russian Foreign Minister said: “besides a ceasefire by Georgian units, it is also important to achieve a full and unconditional withdrawal of the Georgian troops from South Ossetia, a halt of the military action against it from all regions of Georgia, and a prompt signing of a legally binding agreement on the non-use of force between South Ossetia and Georgia.”

Moscow has been trying for years to get Tbilisi to commit to not using force and trying to get the outside world to seriously look at these problems and not just swallow Saakashvili’s view. And the 58th Army and the Pskov Airborne regiment were never going to stay there. All credit to Sarkozy for understanding the justice of these points.

In short, Moscow has done exactly what it said it would do, no more and no less. There is nothing in this agreement about regime change, conquest of Georgia or any of the rest of the hysterical reporting from so much of the world’s media, Russia troops have not invaded the rest of Georgia, they do not occupy Gori or Senaki or Poti (readers can amuse themselves by watching CNN quietly retreat from these claims on its interactive map).

Most of the world’s media has been appallingly irresponsible in its coverage. At least one news agency took film from Russia Today’s coverage of the destruction of Tskhinvali and gave the impression it was film from Gori. I have heard that a Spanish TV station went farther and actually passed off pictures of refugees from South Ossetia as Georgians and Tskhinvali as a Georgian city. In almost every case they repeated what Tbilisi told them and didn’t bother to check. Newspaper headlines all over the world gave the impression that Russia was marching on Tbilisi bent on overthrowing Saakashvili. Unfortunately these reports have influenced official statements by foreign governments. I encourage readers to go to news media websites and see these reports before they quietly disappear.

None of it was true: Moscow did exactly what it said it would do. On occasion, as it admitted at the time, that involved airstrikes on Georgian facilities or spoiling raids on Georgian military forces. There is a military logic: some of the fire that Russia was “stifling” came from artillery and aircraft outside South Ossetia; no army would just leave them alone. By the way, the Russians claim to have found a map in a Georgian command vehicle outlining an attack on Abkhazia. That probably explains the spoiling attack on the Georgian base in Senaki (which the Russian announced at the time).

There are some rational and informed voices (see here for example) but, thus far, they have been overwhelmed by a torrent of one-sided, sloppy and over-heated nonsense.

But I believe, perhaps naively, that the truth will out. French Foreign Minister Kouchner and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb had the moral courage to go to the refugee camps in North Ossetia and speak to the people there. What they saw and heard cannot be ignored. The inclusion of the sixth point in the settlement and his remarks in Moscow show that Sarkozy does understand that the secessionist problems in Georgia can no longer be dismissed as just something cooked up in Moscow.

That having been said, I do wish the Russians would just keep their mouths shut. Don’t say that they can never trust Saakashvili again; let the Georgians and all the Westerners who cosseted him figure that out by themselves. Don’t fulminate about Washington’s responsibility in encouraging him; leave Washington to its own self-examination. Don’t opine that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will never be part of Georgia; let the rest of the world realise that that is now impossible. These are all perfectly obvious: they speak for themselves.

In short a mind is a hard thing to change and a lot of mind-changing will have to go on. It will take time: it is after all, only since Thursday midnight that the re-thinking began.

Russia, The South Caucasus and the Caspian: A Handbook

Russia, The South Caucasus and the Caspian: A Handbook

Patrick Armstrong Ph.D.

Ottawa, Canada, August 1998

Executive Summary

The Caspian Sea area is shaping up to be one of the biggest sources of oil and gas in the world. A conservative estimate gives about one-sixth the amount of oil as there is in the Gulf area. Every major oil-connected company (including many Canadian companies) is involved today in the oil business in and around the Caspian. Other interests will pull the West, into the area.

The Caspian area – particularly the Caucasus – is extraordinarily complicated: there is no other like it anywhere. Dozens of distinct peoples claim it as their home. Many more peoples have arrived “recently” (ie in the past millennium). Since 1991, six wars have been fought in the Caucasus and none of them has produced a final settlement. There are at least nine outstanding border disputes – ten if one counts the Caspian Sea itself. The area is so uniquely complicated, with such an entanglement of ethnic and historical concerns, that ignorance of its complexities can be fatal for wise policy.

This paper is intended to be a reference guide and not to be read straight through; continuous reading would, therefore, reveal a good deal of duplication. The Table of Contents has been arranged so that the reader can directly turn to the sections of concern.

The sections are summarized below.

  • Oil and Gas” discusses current expectations of Caspian hydrocarbon reserves. It is thought that the Caspian area contains at least 100 billion barrels of oil and 500-600 trillion cubic feet of gas. But, as much is not yet explored, there may be more.
  • The Land” gives an overview of the geography of the territory under discussion.
  • The Peoples of the Caucasus” describes the extraordinary ethnography of the Caucasus in which are found, at least, twenty-six distinct peoples who call the area home. In addition to the “natives”, the years in the Russian and Soviet Empires means that many other peoples now make the area home.
  • History” sketches the major events of the Caucasus from early times to the present. Generally speaking, the Mountaineers (the peoples of the North Caucasus) were independent until conquest, after a tremendous resistance, by Russia in the Nineteenth Century. The South Caucasus had lost its independence centuries before to Ottoman and Persian power. It was conquered (if Muslim) or “liberated” (if Christian) by Russia during the Nineteenth Century until, by 1900, for the first time in history, one power ruled the whole Caucasus. All peoples tried for independence after the collapse of the Tsarist Empire but were brought under communist power. Demands for independence re-appeared after the fall of the Soviet Empire.
  • Memories are long in the Caucasus and the section “National Dreams and Nightmares” recounts the national myths of the area. Georgians dream of the Greater Georgia of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Armenians cannot forget the massacres of Armenians by Turkish power. Azerbaijanis seek to find their identity whether as Turks, as Caucasians or as Muslims. Mountaineers dream of a Mountain Republic, free from outside power. The collapse of Soviet power liberated all these dreams and nightmares.
  • Diasporas” speaks of the large and influential populations of Armenians and Mountaineers who have transported their national myths to their new countries.
  • Soviet legacies” briefly touches on the problems and – even – the benefits of seventy years of communist rule on the area.
  • Sufism-Wahhabism – An Islamic Fissure” discusses a tension that has already caused strife in Chechnya and Dagestan and may cause much more. The traditional form of Islam in the east North Caucasus – Naqshbandi Sufism – appears to be under threat from a rigorously purist form of Islam from Arabia – Wahhabism.
  • Post 1985 wars” gives a brief account of the wars fought in the area since the Gorbachev reforms began to release the pressures built up by the communist system – the Karabakh war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis; the Ingush-Ossetian troubles; the Russo-Chechen war; the Georgian civil war; the war between the Abkhazians and the Georgians and between the Ossetians and the Georgians. This section is the most argumentative portion because the fairly widely held belief that Moscow started and maintained these troubles must be combated. In most cases, these wars have their origins in Stalin’s border decisions, which the world recognized in 1991 and 1992.
  • Potential Border Disputes” deals with some potential war-causing territorial and ethnic disputes. These have not so far caused any great amount of violence but could explode.
  • Historical Hatreds” attempts to describe the attitudes that Armenians and Azerbaijanis; Georgians and Russians; Chechens and Russians have towards each other. These attitudes – hatred or contempt for the most part – greatly affect relations in this small area.
  • The sections “Kalmykia” and “Tengiz Oil and Gas Field” move the reader out of the Caucasus proper to the north end of the area. The Tengiz field is already producing and one of the possible pipeline routes from it passes through Kalmykia. Output may also be connected to the central Caspian fields and so this area may become connected to the Caucasus.
  • Caspian Sea Borders” discusses one of the initial problems: the littoral states cannot agree on how to divide up the Sea. However, now that Moscow has virtually agreed to the position that Baku has held all along, this issue is close to settlement and the entire area will likely be exclusively divided among the littoral states.
  • Pipeline Routes” briefly discusses the principal routes suggested for the exit of the oil and gas to their customers. A vexed question which has attracted some extreme statements, it seems that the Russian and Georgian routes will certainly be used while the others depend on the price of oil.
  • National Interests” sets out what the players can expect to gain from the Caspian hydrocarbons. President Aliyev of Azerbaijan has very cleverly involved almost all players in almost all possibilities. This represents a force for stabilization as nearly all can become “winners” of something. But, three players – Armenia, Karabakh and Abkhazia (and the last two are the local military powers) – have been altogether left out. Russia’s involvement is also discussed and it is argued that Moscow’s involvement is no more or less malign than anyone else’s and that any attempt to cut Moscow out of the profits is, simply, impossible.
  • Federalism” highlights what is probably the only stable long-term solution for the area in which a mono-ethnic “homeland” state can only be established by war.

A number of appendices complete the Handbook.

If there is as much oil and gas in the Caspian as there seems to be, the Caspian, and all the peculiar problems of the peoples who live nearby, will be the stuff of headlines, international meetings and briefings for years to come.

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