Russia – Georgia War 2008: Rolling into war

This summer it has been 10 years ago the world was caught by surprise by the short yet intense war between Russian and Georgian military forces seemingly”just” about a small Georgian separatist region of less than 50.000 people that not many had heard of: South Ossetia *). The full military war started just hours before the opening of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, in the night of 7 to 8 August local time with a few crucial developments in the last 24 hours leading to the final outbreak. 

In the first part you can read about the developments until June 2008, in the second part about the spiral to war during July 2008, setting the stage for a rolling start of the war during the first week of August, highlighted in this page. Recalling the Kavkaz 2008 Russian military exercises in the North Caucasus military district mentioned at the previous page, that lasted nearly three weeks from mid July till the first days of August. During these exercises troops and heavy military equipment such as tanks, massed at the Roki tunnel on the South Ossetian section of the Russian-Georgian border, and other places along the Georgian border, such as the Mamisoma Pass.

In early summer, 400 Russian Railway Forces worked hard on renovating the 54 km Sokhumi-Ochamchire railway line, which was defunct since the civil war in 1993. The Russian authorities claimed this was in preparation of the Sochi Olympics in winter 2014, in order to ship materials. The construction of various platforms for on/off loading heavy equipment such as tanks indicated the renovation primarily had a military aim, with the rising tensions in mind. Completed at the end of July, the first cargo shipment was reportedly not in the northern direction, but to the south: dozens of tanks arrived in Ochamchire, to be deployed in the Georgian inhabited Gali region of Abkhazia, bordering Georgia proper.

Rolling into War

August began violently, with the explosion of a truck of the Georgian police by two IED devices on the Eredvi-Kheiti bypass road, injuring five policemen severely. Reportedly, Ossetians opened fire after the explosion. The Georgian authorities decided not to retaliate to prevent further escalation. That said, two other events in the following night and next day meant a new low in the spiral. During a shootout between Georgian and South Ossetian forces in the outskirts of Tskhinvali, six Ossetians lost their life and 15 are injured.

The exchange of fire included sniper attacks and shelling and focused on posts of South Ossetian police and security posts in Tskhinvali and the villages of Velit, Pris, Dmenis, and Sarabuk beginning at 6 pm local time and ending around 9 pm. Georgia accused Russia of involvement, but the latter denied. The South Ossetian government begins discussing a general mobilization in the republic and calling for volunteer fighters from across the North Caucasus in the case war begins..

In an apparent South Ossetian reaction, the Georgian (controlled) villages of Zemo Nikozi, Kvemo Nikozi, Nuli, Avnevi, Eredvi and Ergneti, south of Tskhinkvali outside of the administrative boundary line of South Ossetia, came under intense Ossetian fire with large-caliber mortars, under Russian peacekeepers watch. The previous day the South Ossetian side claimed Georgian equipment and troops gathered in these localities. Over a dozen houses of local residents in the villages were damaged as a result of the shelling, six Georgian civilians and one policeman are injured.

JCC military observers and OSCE Mission officers inspected the zone of fighting on 1 August and Russian JCPF spokeman said it “established that the fire towards residential areas of Tskhinvali was opened from small arms of various caliber, grenade launchers, mortars, weapons of the BMP from the direction of the Georgian villages of Ergneti, Zemo-Nikozi, Tamarasheni. Intensive firing and subsequent firefighting was preceded by the fire of snipers’ groups towards residential areas quarters and posts of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of South Ossetia”. The JPF spokesperson Ivanov declared that the Georgian fire on the South Ossetian side on 2 August was done by heavy caliber weapons that are banned from the conflict zone in accordance with Dargomys ceasefire agreements, having found shrapnel from 120 mm mortar shells in Georgian-controlled villages. However, the Georgian side claims the document proves exactly the opposite, that Georgian villages came under fire first. 

Following these incidents, the Commander of the Russian Airborne Troops, Valery Evtukhovich, confirmed Russia’s readiness to provide military assistance to the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia if needed. Something that within a week was precisely the argument used for the intervention. When the Russian “Kavkaz 2008” military exercises in the North Caucasus region near the Georgian border ended, troops that participated in the exercises stayed put in their locations, also near the entrance of the Roki tunnel, the access route into South Ossetia. Some troops crossed the state border and continued exercises on the territory of Georgia in South Ossetia, as various stories in Russian media prove.

Summer camps

Under the pretext of the violent shootout during the first two days of August, of which both sides blame each other having started or provoking it, the South Ossetian side with the help of Russian peacekeepers started on 2 August a mass evacuation of people, beginning with children, women and elderly from the villages surrounding capital Tskhinvali and Znaur district, the most volatile areas. South Ossetian authorities maintained up until 6 August the children were sent to “summer camp”. News reports from North Ossetia indicated within 24 hours already more than 500 people arrived, while according to some others thousands of Ossetians are on the way to the north, with some 1,500-2,000 reportedly already arrived in Russia’s republic of North Ossetia on the 3rd of August.  

“No people are seen on the streets of Tskhinvali” Georgian minister for reintegration Iakobashvili, 7 August

By midnight of 7 August, more than 20,000 civilians have been evacuated from South Ossetia to Russia, meaning more than 90 percent of the population of the zone of future military operations and more than half of the population of South Ossetia under the control of the South Ossetian de facto authorities, was evacuated by the time Georgia “started the war”. Tskhinvali was essentially an empty town, implicitly confirmed in this message.  The number of 20.000 is based on published Russian data and records after the war, and was not officially communicated at the time. 

Candid moves

Despite relative calmness in the next few days (though separatist forces in territories controlled by Russian peacekeepers fire on villages inhabited by ethnic Georgians), the Russian side makes candid moves towards war: On 4 August the headquarters of the troops of the North Caucasus Military District moved equipment to the Russian state border with Georgia, deploying them in the Nizhny Zaramag area in order “to transfer troops as quickly as possible to help the peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia”.

On the same day, medical and communication units of the 58th Army arrived in South Ossetia, while 11 self-propelled howitzers were moved from Java to Tskhinvali, while according to Georgian data, the number of regular Russian troops in South Ossetia reached 1,200. In violation of the Dargomy ceasefire agreement and the peacekeeping mandate, which does not allow regular military troops or equipment in the conflict zone. At the air base in Mozdok (North Ossetia-Alania, Russia), military aircraft with long-range radar detection arrived, and several heavy Tu-22M3 bombers were transferred from the permanent place of deployment near Novgorod to the Saratov region.

The number of regular Russian troops in South Ossetia reached 1.200

On 5 August Lenta reports 300 volunteers from North Ossetia arrived in South Ossetia, while mobilization of up to 2000 “volunteers” and Cossacks began in the North Caucasus, and dozens  of recruits from Afghanistan will be flown in. Most of the volunteers were attached to the 19th Motorized Rifle Division of the North Caucasus Military District and to the North Ossetian peacekeeping battalion, others signed contracts directly with the Defense Ministry of South Ossetia.

Several more armored vehicles, 40 artillery systems and a reconnaissance battalion of the 33rd separate mountain brigade crossed the Russian-Georgian border along the Roki Tunnel and entered South Ossetia. Another 30 artillery pieces were transferred to Georgia via the Kudar (Kudarskiy) Pass. By the evening of 5 August the 135th and 693th motorized infantry regiments of the 19th division of the 58th Army, the 104th and 234th airborne regiments of the 76th Guards Airborne Division, the 217th Infantry Regiment, the Airborne Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division and the 31st Independent Airborne Brigade were mobilized near the Russian-Georgian border. This amounted to 11,693 troops, 891 armored vehicles, 138 artillery pieces.

Despite or regardless frequent claims by South Ossetian authorities, NATO representative Cameron Romero states NATO is not aware of concentration of Georgian troops at the border of South Ossetia, while the Georgians tour around journalists and international representatives (including Russians) through their mandated area in the conflict zone. 

Peace moves before the storm

Meanwhile, Russian and Georgian Foreign Ministry counterparts, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigorii Karasin and Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze had a phone call in an effort to prevent war. Vashadze tells Karasin that “the separatist regime operating in Tskhinvali is ready for any armed provocation in order to prolong its existence and continue appropriating the budgetary resources of Russia” and that “the Georgian side does not intend to take any emergency measures in the conflict zone and is ready for direct talks with the South Ossetian side”. The two reach an agreement is Vashadze will visit Moscow in days. 

JCC Russian co-chairman and special envoy Yurii Popov announced that the Georgian and South Ossetian sides have agreed to a Russian proposal hold bilateral talks in Tskhinvali on 7 August. Reportedly Tbilisi will propose demilitarization of the conflict zone, with joint Georgian-Russian control over the Georgian-Russian border around the Roki tunnel, and considering an increase in the number of OSCE observers in the conflict zone. The South Ossetian authorities denied such agreement to talks, saying direct talks in Tskhinvali without Russia’s participation is a “trap”.

“The time for the negotiations of the presidents has not yet come”

Allegedly, Georgian President Saakashvili attempted to urgently telephone Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, on the evening of 6 August to discuss the most recent and dangerous developments in South Ossetia and the Russian-Georgian relations. The response of the Russian Foreign Ministry, which organized telephone conversations between the presidents, was cold: “The time for the negotiations of the presidents has not yet come”.

About territory, oil, war propaganda, and journalists

Many leading figures and Russian ideologists did not hide the goal of the Russian-Abkhaz-South Ossetian coalition could extend far beyond the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Interior Minister of South Ossetia Mikhail Mindzaev made moves towards more territorial claims outside of the Soviet era South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (AO), for example parts of the indisputable Georgian Javakheti region, with towns such as Borjomi and Bakuriani, an area historically known as “Trialeti”(Ossetia). In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Abkhazian Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba did not rule out the possibility of opening a second front against Georgia. A source in the intelligence services of Abkhazia predicted that “specially trained commandos could undermine the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan”. A day after this publication the oil pipeline was temporarily shut off as result of an explosion near the Turkish city of Erzincan.

Russia’s state-controlled media seemed extremely well-prepared to cover the outbreak of armed conflict in Georgia

In the beginning of August film crews of central Russian TV channels, with  dozen journalists and all their equipment, arrived from Moscow to Tskhinvali to cover the apparent upcoming war. There were people no one in Georgia had heard of. The same day another group of Russian journalists left Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala, to South Ossetia. The entry into the territory of South Ossetia was banned for foreign journalists, with the exception of the film crew of the Ukrainian television channel Inter, connected with the (“pro Russian”) Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovych. By 7 August, the number of Russian journalists sent to Tskhinvali reached nearly 50.

Since then dozens of Russian media outlets began to speak of the “coming war”, as if echoing a fact. On the morning of 6 August all institutions and shops in Tskhinvali were closed. After a lull in evacuations the previous day, the evacuation of civilians to Russia accelerated suddenly from 6 August. In the opposite direction Russian mercenaries and journalists arrived.

…and war is coming…

On 6 and 7 August the Georgians and Ossetians are distracted by the first wave of serious violence since 2 August through intense exchange of fire on each others villages, which begins with a fierce fight over the strategically located Nuli high ground in the afternoon of the 6th lasting into the night. Both sides argue who started the fight or “just responding to bandit fire“, with the South Ossetian side being very assertive in their claims. Meanwhile South Ossetian para-militaries open mortar fire on villages inhabited by ethnic Georgians: Eredvi, Prisi, Avnevi, Dvani, and Nuli. Unconfirmed Georgian messages claim 10 Georgians died in the shootout, both civilians and servicemen. 

The South Ossetian militia claim the Nuli operation was a successful effort to drive Georgian forces from the high ground they “recently captured”. South Ossetia reports 100 Georgian special forces participated in the battle, that two Georgian APCs were destroyed (denied by Georgia). The next day the Ossetian claim is changed to one destroyed APC and several injured.

While the Ossetians and Georgians were distracted by this fight overnight, the North Caucasus Military District moved its field headquartes to Java, South Ossetia. In Abkhazia the Leningrad Military District moved to the lower Kodori Gorge (the Georgians maintained an official presence in the upper part of the gorge).  A correspondent of the agency APN reported from Vladikavkaz: “Although everyone saw (beginning in the evening of the sixth) the movement of a huge number of troops towards the [Roki] tunnel”.

“I saw our army in full combat readiness”

Journalist Marina Perzovkina (Nezavisimaya Gazeta) wrote while moving from Vladikavkaz to Tskhinvali “What is now happening in South Ossetia can no longer be called a “conflict” or a “shootout.” This is war. Residents of Tskhinvali clearly realized this during the bombardment of the city on the night of 6 to 7 August.”.  She also notes that Russia is drawing serious military forces to the borders of Georgia. “On the Transkam road from Alagir to Zaramag (Roiki) military columns and individual cars with personnel, armored vehicles are moving. The military declares that the [Kavkaz 2008] exercises are continuing, but there is no doubt that Russia demonstrates its determination to protect its citizens in South Ossetia. Up until an operation to enforce peace ” Three weeks later, she writes, looking back “I saw our army in full combat readiness”.

…and beginning.

By the morning of 7 August Georgia had allegedly amassed 12,000 troops on its border to South Ossetia, and 75 tanks and armored personnel carriers were positioned near Gori, according to Western observers interviewed after the war. That said, no explanation of these numbers have been given since then. However, without putting a number, South Ossetia president Kokoity stated that “a large part of Georgia’s armed forces are located in the conflict zone”. In an interview with Russian news agencies, published on the South Ossetian state media the de facto president Eduard Kokoity sates that “if the Georgian side does not withdraw all its armed formations, we will begin to clean them up”, referring to the Georgian peacekeeping contingent, legally present in the South Ossetia conflict zone.

During the day, many incidents of shootings from both sides take place targeted at both strategic (high ground) positions and villages. Accusations fly on both sides, while extra troops are pulled in defense of villages that are shot at.

South Ossetian leaders ditch meeting in JCC format at crucial moment

In the afternoon the decisive and symbolic point of no-return passes, when South Ossetian leaders ditch a Georgian attempt at direct talks in the JCC format. Georgian state Minister for Integration Iakobashvili travels to Tskhinvali to particpate in a scheduled JCC meeting with Russian chief negotiator Yuri Popov, South Ossetian and North Ossetian officials. The latter is also party in the JCC framework and South Ossetia demands to be present in order to meet. None of them was available, while the Ossetian side released a statement earlier in the morning that it was “unsafe for Popov to travel to Tskhinvali” for the meeting (who arrived in Tbilisi though and offers “shuttle diplomacy”). It appeared that the South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity already left Tskhinvali, and that other representatives of the leadership had been moved to specially designed bunkers as a safety precaution while the North Ossetian officials never arrived.

Russian peacekeeper Marat Kulakhmetov received Iakobashvili in Tskhinvali where they alternatively confer. He informed Iakobashvili that with Georgian troops present at the border, the Russian peacekeeping contingent was no longer able to control the separatist army. He advised him to declare a unilateral cease-fire to allow Russia to defuse tensions. Upon returning to Tbilisi, Iakobashvili immediately took advise, and on national television he announced at 18:40 that the Georgian forces were holding their fire while the government attempted to establish contact with the South Ossetian side. President Saakashvili formalized this cease-fire in an address to the nation at 19:10.

Meanwhile, around 17:00 a meeting of regional governors in Tbilisi took place. Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili gave general information about the situation, and said that some Russian units began to enter South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel [in the afternoon of 7 August]. According to the testimony of Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze he had irrefutable information that this was the case. No matter which way, Russian heavy weaponry and military officials and soldiers were already present in South Ossetia, outside of their mandate, and thus constituting to an invasion. The various testimonies of Russian soldiers “on exercise” south of the border have proven that, among other things.

Just before Iakobashvili announced the unilateral Georgian ceasefire, heavy fighting was reported around 16:00 near Ossetian controlled Khetagurovo village, while Georgians claimed this was in response to an Ossetian assault on the village of Avnevi where a few Georgian peacekeepers were injured, blowing up an infantry vehicle belonging to the peacekeeping forces. Later, the Georgian peacekeeping checkpoint in Avnevi is bombed and several Georgian servicemen and civilians are killed. Ossetian officials accused Georgia of beginning the war,moving large columns of troops towards South Ossetia, positioning ‘Grad’ artillery systems in the Gori district, positioning forces all along South Ossetia’s border, and “beginning large-scale military aggression” against the breakaway republic. The JPF declared that at 17:00 calmness returned to the area.

But he was too early: Around 18:00 Georgian villages near Tskhinvali (Avnevi and others) were evacuated due to continued shelling. Just over on hour after Saakashvili’s address to the nation unilaterally declaring a ceasefire, the village of Avnevi in the South Ossetia conflict zone nearby Tskhinvali and inhabited by ethnic Georgians is completely destroyed by mortar fire, reportedly killing 10 civilians and servicemen. Ninety minutes later the Georgian controlled village of Prisi came under fire, injuring several people, with heavy shelling expanding to other Georgian controlled (and inhabited) villages around Tskhinvali in the late evening.

Massive shelling of Georgian villages by South Ossetians after Georgian declared ceasefire is reckless terror against peace

The pattern is clear: the South Ossetians are pushing the Georgians, testing their willingness to live up to their unilaterally declared ceasefire. This reckless and unacceptable shelling of villages by the Ossetian militias left the Georgian leadership no other choice but to abandon their own ceasefire and to reign in the terror towards their own citizens: Just after 23:00 Saakashvili decides to “restore constitutional order in the entire region” [of South Ossetia]. Especially after he receives information that a convoy of over 100 Russian military vehicles is passing through the Roki tunnel, according to multiple and consistent Georgian sources (including witnesses to the discussions).

Something the EU report on the war refutes or at least didn’t find (enough) evidence to corroborate that, more or less accusing Saakashvili of making this up to defend his own actions. However, all reports of Russian troop and equipment movements into South Ossetia during the week before this fatal night, prove the EU wrong in their final conclusions on the Georgian government’s assessment of Russia’s invasion, before 8 August. Also, cables released by WikiLeaks support Saakashvili’s claims.

As if nothing changed in the last few hours, heavy shelling between both sides resumed from 23:30. Georgians fired from the Ergneti and Nikozi villages taking aim at Tskhinvali town, using ‘Grad’ artillery systems. Georgian and Ossetian forces are engaged in battle at the edge of Tskhinvali. At the same time South Ossetian forces shell all Georgian checkpoints around the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, including those located near the villages of Tamarasheni and Kurta. The police stations in the Georgian Kurta is destroyed as a result of heavy shelling. 

For the world this was the moment the war started, but really…. 


*) Note: for popular reference “South Ossetia” is used instead of the Georgian official reference “Tskhinvali Region”, which does not imply a position on the status of the region.

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