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A Two-Sided Descent Into Full-Scale War

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 17, 2008

TSKHINVALI, Georgia, Aug. 16 -- Nine days ago, late in the afternoon of Aug. 7, Georgian tanks, artillery and infantry began moving out of bases in Georgia and toward South Ossetia, a zone long held by separatists who are backed by Moscow.

About 800 troops from Georgia's 4th Battalion left a base in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, that Thursday afternoon, according to Georgian Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili. Later that day, units armed with the BM-21 Grad, a multiple rocket system whose World War II version was known as Stalin's Rain, moved out of their base in Gori, about 40 miles away.

As the Georgian units approached the contested zone from the south, Russian army forces were massed just to its north, separated from it only by the 4,000-yard-long Roki Tunnel through the Caucasus Mountains. The Russian units were receiving intelligence reports about the Georgian movement. About 8 p.m., Russian military aircraft took off and skirted Georgian airspace, staying just outside it, according to Kezerashvili.

For days, separatists and Georgian troops had skirmished along the border, but this movement of armor was a major new development.

Georgia and Russia were on a collision course. In three hours, full-scale war would begin.

With a huge air, land and sea campaign, Russian forces routed the Georgians in the following days and advanced far into Georgian territory, overrunning major cities and military bases. An ensuing uproar in the West, accusing Russia of using excessive force, has clouded details of how the war began.

Interviews with Georgian leaders, Russian officials, Western diplomats and Bush administration officials, together with briefings by the Russian military in Moscow, show that a series of escalating military moves by each side convinced the other that war was imminent.

The Georgian leadership took steps, sometimes against the advice of its allies, sometimes without telling them, that accelerated the advance to a war in which Georgia could never prevail, according to a U.S. account. But the key question -- who finally triggered full conflict? -- remains in dispute. The Georgians said they staged their offensive only after Russian troops began streaming into South Ossetia and the Russians saying they advanced only after the Georgians began attacking South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali.

The Kremlin, long angry over Georgia's close ties with the United States and Western Europe, may have been itching for a fight, as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has long insisted. If so, Saakashvili facilitated the lopsided matchup. Some Western officials say that although he faced clear provocations, he was reckless. "If it was a trap, and there's good reason to think it was, he walked right into it," one Western diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In Georgia, popular anger against Russia remains high, and Saakashvili has yet to be called to account for the decision to assault Tskhinvali, a small city in which thousands of civilians were forced into their cellars by shelling.

Russian officials say 2,000 people died in Tskhinvali. That figure has been described as inflated by human rights groups. But there unquestionably was a large toll of civilian deaths and injuries, which has outraged Russia and shocked Georgia's Western allies.

"It's deplorable, simply deplorable, to fire on civilians like that, and illegal," said Matthew Bryza, the U.S. special envoy to the region, in an interview. "It's horrible."

A Long Preamble

South Ossetia, an area the size of Rhode Island, is dominated by Ossetians, an ethnic group distinct from the country's majority Georgians. The province secured de facto independence from Georgia after a short, vicious war in the early 1990s. The two sides signed a cease-fire, but true peace never set in. The world denied formal recognition to the separatist mini-state, but Russia forged close links with it, providing aid, passports for South Ossetians and a peacekeeping force.

Earlier this year, two distant developments angered Russia. Western countries overrode Russian objections and endorsed independence for Kosovo, the separatist province of Serbia, and the NATO alliance, meeting in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, announced that Georgia might one day become a member, although it put off formal steps toward that goal. In April, Vladimir Putin, then the Russian president, upgraded ties with the separatist governments in South Ossetia and Abkhazia to a semiofficial level. Over the objections of Georgia and NATO, he sent troops into Abkhazia, saying the province feared a Georgian attack.

A Russian fighter plane, violating Georgian airspace, shot down an unmanned Georgian spy plane that had been sent -- despite the cease-fire agreement -- on a surveillance mission, according to U.N. investigators. In July, during a visit to Georgia by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, two Russian warplanes flew into Georgian airspace.

Dmitry Sanakoyev, a South Ossetian leader willing to work with the authorities in Tbilisi, survived an assassination attempt in July.

"In the summer, we witnessed an increasing number of incidents -- explosions, shooting," said a European diplomat, adding that South Ossetia's military "professionalism" was beginning to grow.

South Ossetian leaders declined to attend talks with Georgian leaders in Helsinki, Western diplomats said. The South Ossetians said the Georgian negotiator's title, minister of state for the reintegration of Georgia, was insulting; Temur Yakobashvili, the minister, expressed willingness to change his title to special envoy, but to no avail.

On Aug. 1, an explosion in a small patch of South Ossetia held by the Georgians since the 1990s war wounded five Georgian policemen. Over the next two days, a series of shootings killed six Ossetians and five Georgians, according to figures compiled by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Each side accused the other of initiating artillery attacks and using heavier weapons.

Thursday, Aug. 7

On the morning of Aug. 7, after a night of Ossetian artillery fire, Yakobashvili said, he traveled to Tskhinvali for a meeting with the separatists that the Russians had convened at a Russian peacekeeping base. "Nobody was in the streets -- no cars, no people," he said in a conference call with reporters Aug. 14. "We met the general of the Russian peacekeepers, and he said that the separatists were not answering the phone." Yakobashvili left.

Around 2 p.m. that day, Ossetian artillery fire resumed, targeting Georgian positions in the village of Avnevi in South Ossetia. The barrage continued for several hours. Two Georgian peacekeepers were killed, the first deaths among Georgians in South Ossetia since the 1990s, according to Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze, who spoke in a telephone briefing Aug. 14.

"Where were the Russian peacekeepers when the South Ossetians were shelling the Georgian positions?" said Bryza, the U.S. envoy. ". . . They didn't lift a finger to stop them."

Russian officials say the Georgians fired back during the day; Georgians say they restrained themselves.

But by evening, Kezerashvili said, the Georgian side had had enough.

"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."

According to Kezerashvili, on Thursday night, about three hours after Saakashvili's televised address, a new round of South Ossetian shells struck a Georgian peacekeeping position in the village of Sarabuki and an administration building in the village of Korta used by Sanakoyev, Tbilisi's South Ossetian ally.

Russia denies any such late-night bombardment. OSCE monitors in Tskhinvali also did not record any outgoing heavy artillery fire from the South Ossetian side at that time, according to a Western diplomat with access to the organization's on-the-ground reporting.

At 11 p.m., Saakashvili said, he received the first reports that Russian units were passing through the tunnel.

"We started to check, and around 11:50, I got confirmation that Russian armor was coming in," Saakashvili said. "So what we do now? I said, 'Now we respond with fire.' " To do otherwise, he said, would have been to cede Georgian sovereignty. He had no choice, he said.

In calls to the U.S. administration, Georgian officials did not convey the scope of what was to come, Bryza said. "During these intense exchanges between the leadership here and me, when they said they were going to lift the cease-fire, we said, 'Don't put your forces in harm's way, because you cannot prevail,' " he said. "And the response was: 'We understand that. We are going to shell the road on which the Russians are approaching and try to keep them back.' That's what they said."

The Russians, however, deny entering the Roki Tunnel until after Georgia began a full attack on Tskhinvali. The Russian Defense Ministry and the Russian prime minister's office did not respond to requests for the exact time of the entry into the tunnel or information on the subsequent movement of Russian troops.

A U.S. official familiar with intelligence from the region said the administration could not put a time on the Russian move into South Ossetia. "It's not clear," the official said. "You'd have to have had somebody there with a stopwatch, and something overhead at precisely that moment."

Friday, Aug. 8

"This is unfortunately when everything started," said Kezerashvili, the Georgian defense minister. "At 12 at night."

Georgian forces fired artillery rounds into Tskhinvali, which sits in a hollow. They attacked villages on surrounding higher ground. By 1 a.m., they were shelling the road along which a Russian column of more than 100 vehicles, including tanks and other armored vehicles, was moving south from the Roki Tunnel.

The column stopped for 90 minutes, Kezerashvili said.

By 2 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 8, Kezerashvili said, Georgian ground troops had advanced to the edge of Tskhinvali, and Georgian units had unleashed the BM-21 multiple rocket system, which can launch 40 rockets in 20 seconds.

Kezerashvili said the system was used to target separatist government buildings in the center of Tskhinvali, including the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry, where police forces have their headquarters. "It's not like a very open and big city, and I can tell you that we only targeted the places, the governmental organizations," Kezerashvili said.

But military experts said the BM-21 is a weapon for battlefield combat and not for use anywhere near civilians. "The BM-21 was designed to attack forces in large areas, and, as a consequence, if you use them in an urban environment, the likelihood of collateral damage is high," said retired Army Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The artillery fire on the city continued until daylight, according to the reports of three OSCE monitors who were there in a cellar; their building was shelled and damaged. The three got out of Tskhinvali on Friday afternoon during a lull in fighting.

By 10 a.m. on Aug. 8, about 1,500 Georgian ground troops had entered the center of Tskhinvali; altogether, there were 9,000 Georgian troops in the larger combat theater. But within two hours, the Georgians were pushed back by Russian artillery and air attacks.

Georgian leaders maintain that the Russian counteroffensive accounts for much of the damage to Tskhinvali. "When aircraft started bombing our positions in Tskhinvali, this is when most civilian buildings were burned," Kezerashvili said. "Our soldiers were near civilian houses." Russians say the damage was the result of Georgian fire.

About three hours after pulling back, Georgian ground troops staged another push into the city. Russian aircraft, flying in pairs, with as many as eight planes attacking at once, hammered the Georgian lines, which were simultaneously under artillery fire. There were only a few direct clashes in the streets between Georgian and Russian troops, Kezerashvili said.

By 11 p.m. on Friday night, the Georgians had retreated for a second time.

Later, "we tried to enter Tskhinvali again, a third time," Kezerashvili said. "But when we entered, we got a very heavy attack. What the officers are telling me is that it was something like hell." Three hundred Georgian troops remain missing, with 160 confirmed dead, according to the Georgian Ministry of Defense.

Unable to replenish their ranks, Georgian forces grew exhausted as Saturday wore on. Fresh Russian troops continued to arrive. "I think they had something around 15- to 20,000 in the theater," Kezerashvili said. "I had only 9,000. They were already bringing in new soldiers. They had a chance to rest, and our soldiers were becoming tired and more tired because I had no additional forces to change them. After two days of battle, they were too tired."

Early Sunday morning, Aug. 10, Kezerashvili ordered his troops to fall back to Gori. The shooting war was effectively over.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung in Washington and Fredrick Kunkle in Moscow contributed to this report.

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