August 20, 2008
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst
August 20, 2008
By Robert M. Cutler
With Georgian government websites shut down by cyber-attacks in the days immediately preceding hostilities, the Russian story of its army coming to the defense of South Ossetia in the face of Georgian assault gained currency. This script is still often invoked as a preface to any commentary or reportage on current developments. However, as facts begin to surface, it is increasingly revealed as a propaganda strategy planned in advance and contradicted by evidence on the ground, by the testimony of neutral observers, and by the increasingly transparent cynicism of its purveyors.
BACKGROUND: From the very beginning of military clashes on the night of 7-8 August, there has been a concerted Russian effort to vilify President Mikheil Saakashvili as a war criminal. In the first days of the conflict, Russian media repeatedly cited a figure of 2,000 civilian casualties in Tskhinvali city and up to 40,000 refugees (out of a maximum 70,000 total population in South Ossetia of all ethnicities). It was on this basis that not only Russian media but also the highest Russian leaders repeatedly condemned Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a war criminal guilty of ethnic cleansing, and promised prosecution in international courts. These claims have faded in recent days, because they have been shown to be false by systematic investigations by Human Rights Watch as well as by the aggregated testimony of foreign reporters who have entered the region since the Russian occupation. In a twist, Georgia has filed a brief before the International Court of Justice charging Russia with conducting and abetting ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetia and Abkhazia from 1990 to the present.
There is a general view that Georgia assaulted South Ossetia before Russian troops invaded. A detailed timeline provided by Georgia’s Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze during an international telephone press conference disputes that assertion, however. This view is corroborated in most part by several independent sources, and an independent Washington Post reconstruction of events concludes that the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali and the Russian tank column’s emergence from the Georgian end of the cross-border Roki Tunnel could only have been minutes apart at most. Roughly 150 Russian vehicles including armored personnel carriers got through before Georgian forces were able to mount an only partially successful attack on the crucial bridge at Kurta linking the Roki Tunnel with Tskhinvali.
It seems inescapable that Russian tanks must have been on the road from Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, for some time in order to cross the 100 miles of mountain roads to reach South Ossetia when they did. Novaya gazeta’s respected military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer is only one of several writers who have documented how the Russian invasion is only the culmination of a months-long series of provocations as well as strategic and tactical on-the-ground preparations, for example the construction and equipment of a base near the city of Java, northwest of Tskhinvali, as a refueling depot for Russian armor moving southwards. This should be added to the better-known “railroad repair” troops sent to Abkhazia in recent weeks, who are reliably reported to have constructed tank-launching facilities. The ceremony completing the railway repair was held as late as July 30.
IMPLICATIONS: Reports of fighting on 8 August, for which Russian media were the chief origin, asserted that Georgian forces entered Tskhinvali city early in the day, were then driven back by Russian troops who were said to retake the city, and finally returned to seize parts of the city’s southern outskirts before being repelled for good. However, according to subsequent reports by civilians in Tskhinvali, the Russians never occupied the city; rather, it was combined artillery and aerial bombing that drove the Georgians out of the city. According to Georgian sources, this bombardment was extremely intense and lasted for all the time Georgian forces were in Tskhinvali from dawn on 8 August until just before noon, and continued even afterwards, intensifying again when Georgian forces attempted to re-enter the city later in the day.
Among the weapons systems used by the Russian forces were Uragan and Grad artillery. The latter is the same system that Georgian military affirmed using against Russian military posts outlying Tskhinvali late on the night of 7 August, after Russian armor entered Georgia through the Roki Tunnel. Both sides as well as local observers agree that there was massive aerial bombardment during the day of the eighth. Moreover, American military training provided to the Georgian army over the last few years appears to have concentrated on counterinsurgency tactics, in view of Tbilisi’s contribution of troops to the Iraq conflict.
Given Russian air superiority in the region, it is difficult to suppose that the heavy aerial bombardment of Tskhinvali city came from the Georgian side. Russian sources blame the destruction exclusively on the Georgian artillery assault on the night of 7-8 August, but surviving city dwellers seem to indicate that the Georgian assault was concentrated on the administrative quarters of the Russian-backed South Ossetian separatists, as well as communications links and the like. By contrast, if observers’ reports are to be believed, the degree of devastation visited upon the city by nightfall on 8 August (after Russian bombardment had driven the Georgians from the city) is paralleled in recent history only by the leveling of Grozny in the Second Chechen War of the 1990s.
The Russian side’s signature of consecutive ceasefire agreements without any visible attempt to implement them may also be charitably described as disinformation. This pattern of behavior was first clearly revealed several days ago when, after the Russian and Georgian presidents had both signed French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s six-point ceasefire document, the Russian military began to withdraw from Gori and then, as soon as international media began to report this, literally reversed gear and moved back. As Western video journalists reported live, Russian troops then continued to attack nonmilitary establishments (the nearest military target is a base eight miles outside Gori) while appearing to coordinate with Ossetian and other North Caucasus irregulars who looted property and even abducted civilians.
CONCLUSIONS: What is remarkable about the Russian information policy on the war against Georgia is its failure to adapt to the twenty-first century information environment. Even Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitalii Churkin has lost the charisma that he radiated twenty years ago when, during the heyday of glasnost and perestroika, he became the first Soviet ambassador to Washington to testify to a Congressional committee. Russia’s political leaders hold no spontaneous interviews even with representatives of Russian media. By contrast, Saakashvili’s presence on CNN and other western stations, and his and the Georgian leadership’s command of foreign languages, have enabled them to get their message across effectively.
Late on the night of 18 August, Tbilisi time, the Georgian Ministry of Defense posted a statement (hosted on blogspot.com because of continuing infrastructure and cyberattacks against official Tbilisi websites), saying simply: “It is absolutely obvious to the international community that the Russian Federation chose destruction of economy with the use of military force and ethnic cleansing as an instrument for implementing its foreign policy.” The credibility of the Georgian message is enhanced not only by reports from foreign journalists on the ground but also by an entirely new element in the information environment: the aggregate of amateur eyewitness reports on youtube.com, ireport.com, and other vlog (video-logging) dedicated websites.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Robert M. Cutler is Senior Research Fellow, Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University, Canada.