Russia – Georgia War 2008: The Prelude #2

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. Although it took many by surprise, the war was in the making for quite some time which accelerated by a few developments in 2008. 

In the previous part you can read about the developments until June 2008. This page summarizes the fast escalation of events in July 2008 until the last days before the outbreak of the war. A war necessary for the Kremlin to set the stage for a permanent non-peacekeeping presence (occupation) and “legitimated” through the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states with the aim to keep Georgia out of NATO, as Alexander Dugin, leader of the International Eurasian Movement, outlined in a press conference after his visit to South Ossetia in June 2008. In July tensions escalated by a sharp rise of violent incidents. One could speak of low intensity warfare with frequent artillery attacks on villages of both sides.

Georgia and the conflict regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia
Georgia and the conflict regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia

First week of July

A series of terror attacks in South Ossetia aimed at assassinating high profile officials on both sides set the tone: Head of the Dmenisi police is killed by an explosion at his home. The South Ossetian de facto authorities blamed the Georgian side. While on the way to an international conference in Batumi the car of the head of Georgia’s alternative administration for South Ossetia, Dmitrii Sanokoev, hit a remotely controlled landmine and was then fired upon by unknown assailants with automatic weapons. Sanokoev did not sustain injuries, but three of his guards were wounded. His administration accused the unrecognized government of South Ossetia of Eduard Kokoity of attempting to assassinate him.

Georgian and South Ossetian media report that Georgian peacekeeping forces have taken position on the strategically important high ground above Sarabuk and Prisi overlooking Tskhinvali and surrounding villages from the eastern side. The high ground is recognized by the Joint Peacekeeping Forces as under Georgian control. However, OSCE observers and JPF Russian peacekeeping forces note that both sides continue to establish additional positions inside the conflict zone (Tliakan by South Ossetians, and in Ergneti, Sveri and Kekhvi by Georgians) in violation of the ceasefire agreement.

Escalation of military activity July 2008 around Tskhinvali
Escalation of military activity in early July 2008 around the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

In early hours of July 4, things in the conflict area sharply deteriorated. Georgian forces hit nine residential homes in Tskhinvali and the nearby villages of Ubiati and Dmenesi with artillery fire, resulting in 1 dead and 3 wounded (initial claims spoke of 3 dead, 11 wounded). In response, South Ossetia announced a general mobilization, which leader Kokoity canceled the same evening. Georgia claimed the villages of Tamarasheni and Nikozi first came under South Ossetian fire, reporting no casualties.

The Kavkaz Center website, the main propaganda outlet of the Caucasus Emirate (IK) of Russia’s North Caucasus, posted the article “Moscow to launch war operations in Georgia in late August” claiming it has information Russia will begin a “blitzkrieg” operation against Georgia lasting 7-10 days between August 20 and September 10, primarily aimed at the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer echoed similar strategical choices in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that such a decision to war was already made by Putin before Medvedev became the placeholder President. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called on the Georgian leadership to sign a legally binding document on the non-use of force in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, after the July 4 surge of violence. A week later Russia presented a draft resolution on the situation in the conflict zones at the UN Security Council, calling Georgia and Abkhazia to sign such agreement.

The South Ossetian MVD claims the Georgian side is continuing “provocative actions,” including moving “heavy equipment to South Ossetia’s border for firing on populated areas,” increasing the number of illegal Georgian police posts in the conflict zone to 24, moving troops and equipment to strategic high grounds, and setting up bunkers capable of withstanding aerial bombardment. However, this is disinformation from the Ossetian side, Shota Utiashvili of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia says in Kommersant: “in reality the situation was exactly the opposite. At night, Ossetian separatists crept up, opened fire at the post at the village of Nuli and fired Georgian Georgian village Kekhvi with grenade launchers. On our part, we did not return fire.” Adding to that “the commander of the ISU, Russian general Kulakhmetov, personally inspected the situation the day before, saying that there was no transfer of [Georgian] troops”.

Second week of July

Additional Russian anti-aircraft missile systems and heavy weapons were deployed in Abkhazia, and four Russian military aircraft penetrated Georgia’s airspace over South Ossetia. The Russian Foreign Ministry openly acknowledged this intrusion for this first time, denying previous violations of airspace, explaining that this was done “to cool hot heads in Tbilisi”. The commander-in-chief of the North Caucasus Military District, General Sergei Makarov, promised further military support to Russian peacekeepers in the territory of Georgia.

In the night of 8 July four Georgian servicemen from an artillery brigade are captured in South Ossetia’s Znaur district and are accused of conducting intelligence activities. The chief of staff of the Georgian Defense Ministry for the JPF’s Georgian contingent claimed that ten saboteurs were spotted on the Georgian side of the conflict zone and were fired upon by Georgian peacekeeping forces. Some were injured but they managed to escape.

During a session of Georgia’s national security council broadcast on nationwide television, Georgian president Saakashvili ordered Georgia’s Interior Ministry to “take all measures and begin preparations to free our military”, saying “Georgian officers were visiting one of the families in the conflict zone and on their return they were captured by bandit formations, which are manned by Ossetians and North Caucasian militants”. The same day the four are released by the South Ossetian side as a “goodwill gesture”. In the information war, South Ossetian representative to Russia, Dmitry Medoev, claims that the Georgian authorities have evacuated 300 children from the Georgian villages of Tamarasheni, Nul, Eredvi and Kurta, and setting up numerous firing points and 60 bunkers in or near the conflict zone, “proving that Georgia is preparing for an invasion of South Ossetia”. The alleged evacuation has not been confirmed independently since then, and the Georgian authorities denied the claims outright.

In the meantime, the reaction of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while visiting Tbilisi, on the escalation of tensions in the region underscores the disparate thinking in Washington and Moscow. She stated that extending a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia would help resolve Georgia’s frozen conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that she sees no connection between the deterioration of the situation in the conflict zone with plans to expand NATO to Georgia. Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov stated in response that NATO membership of Georgia will undermine conflict resolution. Essentially saying that Moscow will stand in the way of conflict resolution, laying a veto and indicating its own interests are more important than conflict resolution.

Adding more oil to the fire, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that Georgian actions in the conflict zone are a “previously planned act of aggression,” that Georgia had plans for a spring 2008 invasion of Abkhazia, that Georgia is behind recent terrorist explosions (1) (2) in Abkhazia, and that Tbilisi is “consciously aggravating tensions in relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia […] to destroy the current […] architecture of peacekeeping in the region by replacing it with new settlement mechanisms that suit the Georgian side”.

The Russian Ministry of Defense says in a statement on 11 July it has taken measures “to increase the combat readiness” of Russian peacekeeping forces stationed in Abkhazia.

All summer Georgia and the international community repeatedly made proposals on conducting negotiations to seek a peaceful solution to the conflicts in both directions. Among them were proposals made by the Georgian government (throughout July until August 7), the United States (July 8), Germany (July 14, July 18, July 25, July 30 and July 31), the European Union (July 19 and 22-24 July), the OSCE and Finland (July 25 and July 30). However, all these proposals were rejected by the leaders of Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia submitted a request at the UN to discuss the violation of its airspace by Russia earlier in the month. On 21 July the UN Security Council debated the situation without resolve on both matters, the Russian air space violation and Russia’s earlier proposed resolution on a non-use of force agreement to be signed by Georgia and Abkhazian authoities.

Third week of July

While Georgia and the international community were preparing proposals for a peaceful resolution, the troops of the North Caucasus Military District launched large-scale military maneuvers “Kavkaz-2008” from mid-July for 3 weeks, until the first days of August, gathering around the Russian-Georgian border. Despite having been planned before, they were not cancelled by Russia in light of the sensitive security developments south of the Russian border. In fact, the exercises were specifically designed to an operation against a Georgian “enemy”: Col. Igor Konashenkov, stated that “in connection with the worsening of the situation in the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflict zones there will also be worked out the participation of the district’s troops in special peacemaking operation in zones of armed conflict”.

Some 8,000 servicemen of the ground forces, internal troops and the FSB, including 700 units of military equipment The Air Force and the Black Sea Fleet participated in the exercises. General Yuri Netkachev, previously commanding the army in the North Caucasus, said that the numbers had been officially understated so as not to invite a large number of international observers. The troops gathered around the high mountain passes near South Ossetia, Mamison and Roki, the latter being the exclusive access route from Russian into South Ossetia.

Meanwhile, annual Joint Georgian-American (NATO) military exercises titled ‘Immediate Response’ were held at Vaziani Airbase in Tbilisi including 1,000 US troops, 600 Georgian troops, and officers from Armenia, Azerbaijian and Ukraine.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier begins a trip to the region on 17 July in order to put a halt to the deterioration of the situation. But in another example of a (European) lack of understanding and urgency of the situation his efforts concentrate almost exclusively on the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, ignoring the more dangerously worsening situation around South Ossetia. He proposes a plan in three stages for resolving the conflict in Abkhazia: 1) Confidence-building measures, the signing of an agreement to non-use of force (as proposed by Russia), the beginning of the return of Georgian IDP’s from the 1992-1993 civil war to their homes in Abkhazia; 2) restoration work will be carried funded by Germany and other donor-countries; 3) resolution of Abkhazia’s political status. In a reaction Georgia’s national Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaya states the plan needs “serious changes” but could be combined with Saakashvili’s proposal to grant Abkhazia broad autonomy. The EU and Germany do not support Georgia’s demand for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers, Georgian opposition leader David Gamkrelidze concludes from his meetings with Steinmeier and other Europeans.

Fourth week of July

JPF peacekeepers frequently report drones flying in South Ossetian air space, claiming they are Georgian. Fortifying positions continue, as reported by military observers of the JPF, in the form of two freshly dug trenches found between the Georgian village of  Mejvriskhevi and the Ossetian village of Gromi. The observers could not ascertain which side perpetrated this violation of the ceasefire agreement.

Terhi Hakala, head of the OSCE Mission in Georgia meets with the Ossetian co-chairmen of the JCC Boris Chochiev in Tskhinvali. They discussed Hakala’s talks with the Russian Foreign Ministry and Security Council, the Finnish OSCE chair proposal to convene a meeting of the JCC co-chairmen and Georgian Reintegration Minister Iakobashvili in Helsinki about increasing the number of OSCE Mission military observers. The South Ossetian authorities insist to keep talks in the frames of the JCC quadripartite format. Meanwhile, the Abkhaz reject European mediation efforts, by refusing to travel to Berlin.

The JCC military observers’ spokesman, Russia Cpt. Ivanov, declares that both the Georgian and Ossetian sides are again violating the ceasefire agreements. He notes that on July 25 the Ossetian side refused military observers access to the location where new fortifications were allegedly constructed at the Ossetian MVD post in the settlement of Chorbauli. Ivanov also noted another Georgian reconnaissance drone flight was observed in the area of the Georgian village of Tamarasheni, making a total of 30 illegal flights by such drones since April 15.

South Ossetian prosecutors claim that the death of Ossetian citizen from Tskhinvali from an explosion of a landmine was not an accident, blaming Georgia’s secret services for an attack. Military observers found two remote-operated explosive devices in the area of the mine explosion. The JCC counted 12 IED attacks in the Ossetian conflict zone since the beginning of the year, killing 5 and wounding 25.  On 29 July JPF spokesman Ivanov accuses South Ossetian forces of firing over the heads of, and preventing JPF troops from inspecting the area where new fortifications were allegedly constructed at the Ossetian MVD post in the settlement of Chorbauli. The next day, South Ossetian MVD twice hinder OSCE military observers from performing their duties, according to JPF spokesman Ivanov, by blocking efforts to observe what monitors believed to be Ossetian MVD fortifying positions near a police post in Zemo-Prisi and an immigration post between Tskhinvali and the Georgian village of Ergneti. It is third time in a week the Ossetian side has obstructed observers.

At the end of the month, Georgian and Ossetian sides accuse each other of firing on the other side. Georgian peacekeeping forces’ commander Mamuka Kurashvili claims that in the early morning hours the Ossetian side fired on the villages of Sveri and Sarabuk and a few hours later firing on Russian peacekeepers and OSCE monitors near the village of Kverneti. Observers noted there was a mutual exchange of fire and firing on monitors and pledge to sort out which side initiated the fighting. The Ossetian side also asserts there were artillery salvos coming from the Georgian side.

Meanwhile, in Abkhazia things have not been quiet either. Various violent incidents, and mine blasts, and the authorities proudly announce 110.000 Russian passports have been issued, saying that a number of ethnic Georgians have been refused and that they are subjected to extra clearance. Just days before the Russian Kavkaz 2008 military exercises are finished, the Russian Railway Forces finished their renovation work on the 54 km Abkhazia railway section from Sokhumi to Ochamchire, not far from the Abkhaz-Georgian boundary line.

While the Railway Forces are getting ready to go home, Russian Ogonek magazine reports (article retrieved at Kommersant) that 45 to 50 railway wagons with tanks were transported to the Gali district on the Abkhaz-Georgian border. An unnamed colonel of the “peacekeeping forces” reported that so many weapons and ammunition had been delivered to Abkhazia, “enough for several years of conflict”. “Something will happen, I feel that something will happen,” he added. In Abkhazia everything is ready for war.

Towards the end of the Kavkaz 2008 military exercises it has become clear the northern portal of the Roki Tunnel is stacked with armored vehicles, including tanks. Essentially ready to roll into South Ossetia. Head of North Ossetia Alania, Teimuraz Mamsurov, reportedly said in Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Russian troops “will enter Georgia to protect Russian citizens and help peacekeepers, they are placed for demonstrative purposes, but they are not there to just stand.”. Also on the northern front everything is in position for war.

Continued in the third and final part.

*) 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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