A few Georgian battalions - trained to fight terrorists, not to manoeuvre against a powerful Russian army! - undertook a militarily deficient offensive against Tskhinvali in South Ossetia on August 8. The Russians replied promptly and forcefully. Heavy units from the 58th army and parts of other elite units that had been lying ready for attack near the South Ossetian border were deployed, totalling over 20,000 troops supported by navy and air force. After another front was opened in Abkhazia the Georgian army and its infrastructure were quickly crushed. After completion of the ethnic cleansing both breakaway states are now free of Georgians and Russia wants Saakashvili to be brought to justice.
Worries spread, especially in the former Soviet Union border areas. Internationally, the date 08.08.08 quickly came to be regarded as a post cold war watershed. The world is now trying to get to grips with what has happened and what consequences may be expected.
Georgia's leadership acted irresponsibly. Experienced observers wonder whether the country would not have behaved itself had it been let into the NATO waiting room in April. Russia, meanwhile, has been playing the role of the innocent and waging a very successful information war campaign. For the sake of balance, however, other data and opinions need perhaps to be highlighted.
"We simply want respect, respect for our country, our people and our values," said president Medvedev to veterans in Kursk on August 18. He also claimed that neither peace-loving Russia nor its predecessor had ever been the first to attack any country. The pronouncement raises questions, not least in our country. Russia is using Georgia's August 8 attack as a pretext, despite the fact that it took place within Georgia's own borders, not Russia's.
In April this year Russia approved UN Security Council resolution 1808 ratifying Georgia's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Its military offensive stands in stark contrast with its declared line, most recently expressed in the security policy concept published in July and according to which military operations outside the country's own borders may be carried out only with UN Security Council authorisation, as the Kremlin had long stated.
Russia appeals to its constitutional "right" to defend the "life and dignity" of all Russian citizens, regardless of where they live. It has also declared its right to a sphere of interest that includes "especially, but not exclusively, neighbouring states". Russia sees it as a threat to its interests that others establish relationships with the countries in its sphere of interest.
The Russian doctrine goes back a long way. The Red Army's task as it marched into Poland in 1939 had been to protect the Ukrainian and White Russian minorities in the country. The ministry for foreign affairs even referred to Poland's "foolish leadership, plunging the country into this unfortunate war". Its echo can still be heard.
How have we come to where we are now? A factor is the big disappointment felt by the Putin regime with both the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the way in which the West and especially the USA have acted in the world and humiliated Russia by their nonchalant treatment. Putin himself is an intelligence officer, a chekist, and his mentor and colleague, the former KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, probably influenced his thinking significantly, as well as that of the strong men around him, the siloviki. Kryuchkov was among those who opposed Gorbachev's reforms. He was a central figure in the failed coup of August 1991, was pardoned in 1994 and occupied a place of honour at Putin's inauguration as president in 2000. They remained in contact until Kryuchkov's death in November last year.
The campaign against Georgia came after a thoroughgoing risk analysis. "At the very heart of Vladimir Putin's aggressive nationalism is his firm belief that the power of the West is on the wane" wrote the leading British Russia-expert James Sherr in The Daily Telegraph of August 10. Many colleagues share his view. Considering the USA has been thrown off balance with its resources tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many big EU countries being heavily dependent on Russian energy, Moscow considers the prospects good for reclaiming a lot of what was lost in 1991.
The planning for the operation in Georgia was carried out over several years. Every summer since 2004 large military exercises were held in the area, this year Caucasus 2008. Last year it was announced that Russia was suspending the CFE Treaty, relating to conventional armed forces in Europe. After that Russia did not share data concerning troop strengths or movements, nor did she accept any inspectors . The war in Georgia is in grave breach of the CFE agreement.
We may guess that the last straw for the Kremlin was when Kosovo gained independence in February 2008. The political decision to initiate acts of war was perhaps taken after the NATO summit in Bucharest on April 2-4. The first concrete threats of war against Georgia were made at the end of April.
The FSB and the local KGB, an extension of the military intelligence service, the GRU, organised a long series of Russian provocations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia during the spring. The aim was to draw Georgia into armed conflict. It seems certain that the Railway Troops began line reparations at the end of May. A classic indicator is that open goods wagons could not be requisitioned for export; they were reserved for the Caucasus. Heavy war munitions can be transported long distances in Russia almost entirely by rail. Already on June 12 Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer wrote that everything seemed to be set for war in August. He was proved right and believes there is more to come.
The military exercise Caucasus 2008 started in July, near the coming war zone. Officially 8,000 troops were involved, but the Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported already on July 18 that the force was large. The troops practised "peace enforcement operations" and, in the words of colonel general Sergei Makarov, commander of the North Caucasus military district, "also actions in view of a possible escalation of the conflict situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia". At the same time a concentrated cyber-attack was begun against the websites of the President and the Government of Georgia, swamping them with spam and hacking. Thereafter the cyber-attacks continued with varying intensity; August 8-12 were especially hard-hit days.
The Caucasus 2008 exercise was concluded on August 2. By then the provocations had increased dramatically, and Georgia's government made repeated appeals to the international community for help and support. On August 3 South Ossetia's leader Eduard Kokoity gave order to start evacuating the population in the risk zone to Russia, where refugee camps already stood ready and waiting.
Ossetians, Chechens, Ingushes and Cossacks started voluntarily streaming into South Ossetia, as well as tens of Russian journalists. On the evening of August 7 the situation degenerated. Georgia's minister for foreign affairs Eka Tkeshelashvili telephoned the USA envoy Daniel Fried and said the country was under attack. "Be smart about this," answered Fried. "Keep your unilateral cease-fire. Don't fall for the Russian provocation. Do not do this!"
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