Page 3 of 4   <       >

A Two-Sided Descent Into Full-Scale War

Russian forces showed signs of withdrawal in some areas of Georgia, but announced plans to strengthen their presence in others, two weeks after conflict began on Aug. 8.

"At 6, I gave the order to prepare everything, to go out from the bases," he said in an interview Aug. 14 at a Georgian position along the Tbilisi-Gori highway. Kezerashvili described the movement of armor, which included tanks, 122mm howitzers and 203mm self-propelled artillery, as a show of force designed to deter the Ossetians from continuing to barrage the Georgian troops' positions inside South Ossetia.

Western officials in and around South Ossetia also recorded the troop and armor movement, according to a Western diplomat who described in detail on-the-ground reports by monitors from the OSCE. The monitors recorded the movement of BM-21s in the late afternoon.

"On Thursday -- Thursday afternoon -- they noticed equipment and troops on the road, rolling to Karaleti," a Georgian village near Gori, the diplomat said. Kezerashvili said the BM-21s moved Thursday night.

At 7 p.m., with troops on the march, Saakashvili went on national television and declared a unilateral cease-fire. "We offer all of you partnership and friendship," he said to the South Ossetians. "We are ready for any sort of agreement in the interest of peace."

About 9 p.m., the Ossetians complained to Western monitors about the military traffic, according to a diplomat in Tbilisi.

Russian troops and armored units had been in Russian territory just north of South Ossetia for an annual summer military exercise. This year, they stayed in the area after completing the maneuvers. Russian intelligence officers were receiving reports about the movement of Georgian armor, and they interpreted it as the beginning of an offensive, according to a Russian official.

Saakashvili's televised call for a cease-fire, coinciding with the movement of so many troops and weapons, was perceived in Moscow as an attempt to buy time while Georgian forces positioned themselves for a major attack.

"From 18:00, Georgian troops from inner districts are relocated to the area" near the South Ossetian border, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a colonel-general on the Russian General Staff, told reporters in Moscow at a retrospective briefing. "More than 20 armored units arrive."

Kezerashvili said that around the same time, Georgians were receiving intelligence reports suggesting that Russian troops were gearing up to move south through the Roki Tunnel. Russia denies any such muster.

In a series of phone calls, Saakashvili contacted Western and NATO leaders and diplomats. "I started to call frantically," he said in an interview with foreign journalists.

Bryza, the U.S. envoy, said: "Our response was, 'Don't get drawn into a trap. Don't confront the Russian military.' " Bryza said he was not told that Georgian armor was already moving toward the South Ossetian line and continued to do so even after Saakashvili declared a cease-fire.

The earlier movement of Russian troops into Abkhazia and around other terrain to the north was feeding sentiment among leaders in Tbilisi for a military response, Bryza said. "They felt they had to defend the honor of their nation and defend their villages. It was a very dangerous dynamic. That was part of an action-reaction, 'Guns of August' scenario that we tried to defuse."


<          3        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company