Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

How the Georgian War Began

IWPR-trained reporters investigate the tragic sequence of events that triggered a war in South Ossetia.
By Dmitry Avaliani, Sopho Bukia, Alan Tskhurbayev, Thomas de Waal

With the Caucasus still reeling from the disaster caused by the war that erupted over South Ossetia, questions are being asked as to how the conflict started on the night of August 7-8.

Everyone agrees that the Georgian army launched an attack at 11.30 pm that night. The key question is to what degree the Georgians were facing a direct threat. Government officials say that they had been confronted by unacceptable provocation in the form of attacks on Georgian villages in South Ossetia and a Russian military build-up on the other side of the mountains and had no choice but to act as they did. They say they then came up against massive Russian aggression.

“How could we have prevented the hostilities, after Russia clearly decided to start a war?” Georgian state minister for reintegration and Tbilisi’s chief negotiator over South Ossetia Temuri Yakobashvili told IWPR.

For their part, the Ossetians and Russians say the Georgian operation was a cynically planned attack to recapture South Ossetia only hours after President Mikheil Saakashvili had lulled Ossetians by announcing a ceasefire and promising them “unlimited autonomy”.

Aelita Jioyeva left Tskhinvali on August 7 a few hours before the fighting began.

“Of course, the situation was tense before that and a lot of people had decided to leave,” she said. “But no one thought that they would attack us so unexpectedly, at night, when everyone was asleep and when the Olympic Games were opening in another part of the world. It was such a horrible thing they did.”

FROM TRUCE TO WAR

On the night of August 7-8, Georgian television showed pictures of artillery rockets flying through the sky. This was the beginning of a big assault on the town of Tskhinvali that was then followed up by a ground operation using both tanks and soldiers. War had broken out.

What is unclear is what happened in the four-and-a-half hours between 7 pm and 11.30 pm.

In a speech at 7 pm on the evening of August 7, Saakashvili said that the region had suffered its worst fighting yet that day. “The Georgian side has been in constant contact with the Russian leadership of the peacekeepers and several hours ago they said that they had fully lost control over the actions of the separatists,” he said.

He called on Russia to pull out its officials from the South Ossetian government, but said Russia should be the guarantor of the broad autonomy of South Ossetia within a united Georgia.

He told the South Ossetians, “I beg you. We have no desire to fight with you. Do not try the patience of our state. Let us stop this escalation and start negotiations – direct, multilateral, whatever you like.

“I want to appeal to those of you who are shooting at Georgian policemen. I want with full responsibility to say and accept that several hours ago I took a very difficult decision – not to respond to fire.”

At 10 pm, the Novosti Gruzii agency reported Georgian interior ministry official Shota Utiashvili as saying that ten Georgians had died and 50 had been wounded because of attacks from the South Ossetian side. The casualties were both peacekeepers and civilians, he said. Utiashvili said that the Ossetian side was still firing but the Georgians had ceased fire on the president’s orders.

Later that night, after the Georgian attack had begun, Utiashvili said that the Ossetian side had attacked the Ossetian village of Prisi outside Tskhinvali and that at 11 pm there had been heavy shelling of the Georgian village of Tamarasheni.

The Georgian operation began at around 11.30 pm.

“The battle alarm was sounded at night,” a young Georgian corporal named Shalva who took part in the operation told IWPR. “That was when we left our barracks.”

Another soldier, a sergeant named Alexander, said that when they left their barracks they did not know they would be attacking Tskhinvali. “We were told we were to defend Georgian villages,” he said.

Alan, an Ossetian who took part in the defence of Tskhinvali, and who also did not want to give his surname, was in the town that evening and says it was taken completely by surprise.

“The evening of August 7 was relatively calm in Tskhinvali,” he said. “They announced the truce on the news. The first shooting started at 11.30. I took my family down into the cellar and hid there too myself. Almost at once, the electricity went off in the town. It was impossible to get out until four or five in the morning because the town was being shelled with Grads.”

Around 12.30 pm on August 8, Mamuka Kurashvili, commander of Georgian peacekeepers in the conflict zone, issued a statement to Georgian media. He said Georgia had “decided to restore constitutional order in the entire region” of South Ossetia. He said the Georgian side had suffered no losses and “everything is going to plan”.

South Ossetian and Russian media reported that Tskhinvali was now coming under attack from Grad multiple rockets.

A Georgian government statement issued shortly after 2 am gave more details. It accused the South Ossetians of escalating the conflict and of attacking Prisi and Tamarasheni, causing Georgian casualties.

It added a new detail, which was later to be repeated by Saakashvili and others, saying, “According to the information we have, hundreds of armed men and pieces of equipment have crossed through the Roki Tunnel under the Russian-Georgian border.”

The statement went on, “The Georgian authorities were forces to take appropriate measures, with the aim of guaranteeing the security of the peaceful population and preventing armed attacks.”

The timing of the Russian intervention is crucial. The Russian 58th army had been conducting exercises in North Ossetia near to the other side of the four-kilometre Roki tunnel linking North and South Ossetia. The Georgians now say they were acting pre-emptively to head off a Russian military intervention, while the Ossetian and Russian version is that the 58th army responded only after the Georgian attack began.

On August 14, Georgian prime minister Lado Gurgenidze gave more details from his side saying, “At around 6 am the Georgian forces blew up the Kurta bridge (about three km north of Tskhinvali). A column of the Russian troops that had entered the previous night from the Roki tunnel was there, so a couple of their vehicles were blown up as well… Think about how many hours of preparation, assembly, then marching, it would take for that column, moving at that speed on rugged terrain to be at the Kurta bridge at six in the morning. If that isn't a premeditated invasion, I don't know what is.”

Many of these assertions are disputed. For example, an IWPR reporter who visited the area last week did not see any destroyed bridges in the Kurta area.

Ossetian witnesses have told IWPR that they saw the Russian army only on the morning of August 8. For example, humanitarian worker Larisa Sotieva who was near the village of Java said she first saw Russian forces at around 8 am.

Christopher Langton, an expert on the Russian military at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the Russians were definitely on red alert. "Units of the 58th army were on a high state of readiness,” he said.

“That military commanders have contingency plans for any eventuality in their area is no surprise. And the 58th army had been on exercise in recent weeks practicing for those contingencies. However, it is apparent that all logistic components were in place and troops ready to move at near to no notice.

“Given the relatively short distances that needed to be covered and the unusually high state of readiness of this force the speed of deployment should not be too surprising. It seems clear that they were as close to the 4km Roki tunnel as they could be.”

However, Langton was more cautious about the assertion that the 58th army had swung into action before the Georgian attack began.

"They were ready but I'm not convinced they were moving," he said.

With the arrival of the Russians, the fighting escalated. Georgian officials made optimistic statements about the success of their operation, saying that much of Tskhinvali had been captured, but also blaming “Russian aggression” for their operation.

Just after 10 am, Rustavi-2 television reported that around 600 Georgian troops had occupied large parts of Tskhinvali, as well as the three Ossetian villages of Groni, Atsevi and Tsinagara. The station also said that the Georgians had captured eight other Ossetian villages – Znauri, Sarabuki, Khetagurovo, Atotsi, Kvemo Okuna, Dmenisi, Bubuki and Didmukha.

The Ossetian fighter Alan told IWPR, “Georgian tanks entered the town in the morning. We managed to beat off the first attack ourselves. By midday the tanks had retreated and regrouped and around 2 pm, the next attack began on the southern edges of the town.”

Alan said that Russian tanks first entered Tskhinvali at around 4 pm.

In a public television address later in the morning, Saakashvili said, “A large part of Tskhinvali is now liberated and fighting is ongoing in the centre of Tskhinvali.”

He also said that Georgia had come under aerial attack from Russian warplanes, which was an obvious sign of “large-scale military aggression” against Georgia.

“Immediately stop the bombing of Georgian towns,” Saakashvili told Russia. “Georgia did not start this confrontation and Georgia will not give up its territories; Georgia will not say no to its freedom… We have already mobilized tens of thousands of reserve troops. Mobilization is ongoing.”

After a day of fighting in Tskhinvali, Georgian forces were expelled from the city. At that point, the war began to spread to the rest of Georgia.

A SUMMER OF VIOLENCE

The outbreak of full-scale war on August 8 had been preceded by several weeks of skirmishing in South Ossetia. In the first few days of August, many Ossetian families evacuated their children from Tskhinvali as the fighting intensified.

On July 3, pro-Tbilisi leader of the “temporary administration of South Ossetia” Dmitry Sanakoyev survived an assassination attempt that Tbilisi blamed on “Ossetian separatists”.

The Georgian side took advantage of the incident to seize control, with almost no resistance, of an important piece of high ground near the village of Sarabuki, causing outrage on the Ossetian side. This made Tskhinvali much more vulnerable.

When the first television pictures were shown of Ossetian civilians leaving the area, Georgian officials responded angrily, saying that it was a sign South Ossetia was gearing up for a war.

The Ossetians put pressure on the Georgians to return to negotiations under the multi-lateral Joint Control Commission, which includes the Russians. The Georgians said they wanted to have direct talks with the Ossetian side.

Several people died in the first days of August. Manana Magradze, now a refugee from Georgian village Nikozi near Tskhinvali, told IWPR, “There wasn’t a single quiet day in August. We would wake up to the sound of explosions or shots. In Tbilisi, they say the war has started now, but we’ve been living with war for many years.”

Then came August 7, during which there were more heavy exchanges of fire. Anatoly Barankevich, the head of South Ossetia’s security council, accused Tbilisi of “aggression” against his territory and of placing 27 installations of Grad multiple-rockets just outside the town of Gori.

Georgian minister of reintegration Temuri Yakobashvili went to Tskhinvali to try and negotiate with the Ossetians. He met the head of Russian peacekeepers. “But the Ossetian leaders wouldn’t meet with me,” he told IWPR.

Russia’s special envoy in the region Yury Popov said that Yakobashvili had agreed to meet Ossetian negotiator Boris Chochiev in bilateral talks to be held on the afternoon of August 8 but said this was an “exceptional” one-off meeting which should not compromise the Joint Control Commission.

Georgian villager Manana Magradze said she recalled Yakobashvilis’s visit well. “We knew he’d come to hold negotiations with the Ossetians,” she said. “The entire village sat in front of TV sets, praying that they would achieve some agreement, because we knew that if they didn’t, there would be a war, as it couldn’t go on like that any longer.”

But South Ossetian official Barankevich accused the Georgians of shelling the Ossetian village of Khetagurovo with artillery. An IWPR reporter who visited it after the fighting found it heavily damaged, though when the destruction occurred was harder to verify.

International officials began to get worried.

United States deputy secretary of state Daniel Fried talked to his Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin and said that both Washington and Moscow were urging restraint. “We both agreed to work together to get the fighting stopped in South Ossetia, and encourage political dialogue," Fried told Reuters news agency.

"It appears that the South Ossetians have instigated this uptick in violence. We have urged the Russians to urge their South Ossetian friends to pull back and show greater restraint. And we believe that the Russians ... are trying to do just that."

Finnish foreign minister and chairman of the OSCE Alexander Stubb also said he was “worried” by the reports of fighting and had been in contact with both sides.

But international officials said that when they were told about the start of hostilities it was already too late to stop them.

A Georgian soldier, who took part in the fighting of August 7-8 but did not want to be named, told IWPR that the situation had been boiling over for weeks, but he thought that the Georgian leadership had “not thought for long” about taking the final step.

“Why did the [Georgian leadership] go in to Tskhinvali?” he said. “Maybe it was necessary on political grounds but not on military ones. We should not have gone into Tskhinvali. The Georgians had all the strategic heights around the town.”

The key moment, said the soldier, was when the Georgians captured the spot he called “the most strategic height in South Ossetia”, the hill of Sarabuki. “When that became known it was easy to predict that the Ossetians would jump off their chain.”

THE INQUEST BEGINS

There is likely to be some kind of international investigation into how the war started. There is also much international soul-searching into how it was allowed to start.

The President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, Lluís Maria de Puig said, "The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe wishes, in due course, to establish the grave responsibilities borne by each of the parties involved in the conflict. To this end, I have asked the Russian and Georgian governments, as well as both countries' parliamentary delegations, for detailed information about what actually happened.”

For Ossetians, the situation is simple: what happened was an unprovoked attack and the culprit deserves punishment.

“They simply destroyed a town and destroyed people,” said Tamerlan, a Tskhinvali resident. “If someone calls Georgia a democratic country after that, I don’t know what to think. It was the most real genocide.”

In Georgia, experts are divided as to whether the conflict was avoidable and whether the leadership was right to order the attack on August 7.

Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, said the war could not have been avoided, as “the Russians had already chosen this option”.

“Georgia had to make a very difficult decision,” he said. “The situation became desperate – the Ossetian side was firing at Georgian villages, after having evacuated its children and women from the conflict zone, and columns of military hardware had crossed over to Georgia from Russia.

“The Georgian authorities just had to take preventive measures.”

Even many former bitter opponents of Saakashvili are loyal to him at the moment.

Levan Gachechiladze, who was Saakashvili’s main opponent during the January presidential election, said, “No one should count on seeing a split in Georgia at a time like this. Today, Georgia is united against the Russian occupiers.”

Voices are, however, being raised against the leadership.

Conflict resolution specialist and member of the opposition Republican Party Paata Zakareishvili says that the Georgian leadership should have shown restraint.

“The Georgian side initiated the hostilities, but Russia had long been lying in wait, persistently trying to provoke Georgia,” he said.

After having endured so many provocations “including those staged by the peacekeepers, both in South Ossetia and Abkhazia”, “[Georgia] could have done so this time as well”, he said.

Zakareishvili blamed certain members of the government for urging the Georgian president to attack.

Former state minister for conflict resolution Giorgy Khaindrava, who is now an outspoken critic of the government, agrees. “The Georgian authorities could and ought to have prevented the military actions,” he said.

“The whole world had been warning the Georgian government against getting involved in and succumbing to dirty provocations. Especially after the recent manoeuvres by the Russian armed forces in the North Caucasus, Caucasus-2008, which simulated an invasion into Georgia.”

However, he said, the opposition was not going to challenge the president on this at the moment.

“At a time when barbarians are rampaging in Georgia, no one should give them more reasons to celebrate. But later we will certainly need to settle things with the military leadership, which threw the people and the army at the mercy of fate,” he said.

Internationally, hard questions are being asked as to why western leaders failed to prevent the war starting. The soul-searching is particularly intense in Washington.

There are questions as to why US satellites did not pick up Russian troop movements in North Ossetia.

More broadly, New York Times reporters Helene Cooper and Thom Shanker reported that the US administration had sent “mixed messages” to the Georgian government, which may have been misinterpreted as a green light for a Georgian operation to believe they had American support for their operation.

They quoted one US official as saying, “The Georgians figured it was better to ask forgiveness later, but not ask for permission first. It was a decision on their part. They knew we would say ‘no’. ”

The newspaper quoted a senior US official who accompanied US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to Tbilisi on July 9 as saying that Rice had warned Saakashvili not to be provoked by the Russians.

“She told him, in no uncertain terms, that he had to put a non-use of force pledge on the table,” said the source.

However, they noted that in public, Rice struck a “different tone, one of defiant support for Georgia in the face of Russian pressure”, which gave the Georgian president encouragement.

Another former senior US diplomat, who did not want to be quoted by name, told IWPR that this had been a failure for American diplomacy. “That many in DC did not see this coming is terrible. Some European friends have been warning of this for months.”

Dmitry Avaliani is a reporter with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi. Sopho Bukia is IWPR’s Georgia editor in Tbilisi. Alan Tskhurbayev is IWPR’s former North Caucasus editor based in Vladikavkaz. Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor in London.