Vol. 2, No. 1 (January 01, 2009)

The Olympics war

Thomas Goltz
Montana State University 

Editorial Note: Thomas Goltz, when not teaching in the Political Science Department at Montana State University (Bozeman, Montana), rides the highways and byways of the Caucasus, and is the author of three critical books on the region: “Azerbaijan Diary;” “Chechnya Diary” and “Georgia Diary.”  Below is an excerpt from the updated Epilogue of his “Georgia Diary.”  The paperback version of Goltz’s book will be re-issued by M.E. Sharpe in January, 2009.  
For the New Russia leadership under the thumb of Vladimir Putin, Saakashvili’s “democratic” experiment in Georgia was more than a thorn in the Russia side, it was a geopolitical nightmare come true.  Right there, running for almost 400 miles along its restive southern border, was a country that not only was seeking to join the European Union, but the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
While these ideas had actually been initiated by Eduard Shevardnadze back in the late 1990s in a half-hearted way, it was Saakashvili who made them central to his internal and external policies - and it drove the Russians crazy.
I vaguely remember the first time I heard of the Georgia-in-NATO application; I believe it was at a conference on the Caucasus at Harvard, in 1997 or ’98, and everyone in the room chuckled because the idea was so ludicrous.  Georgia, in NATO?  What could the economic basket case and semi-occupied mini-state in the Caucasus offer in exchange for the NATO Article Five promise of Common Security, meaning an attack on one member is an attack on all?  Of course the experts also thought about Moscow’s potential response to this most recent affront, but Russia under Boris Yeltsin was itself an economic basket-case at the time, and still reeling from its humiliating defeat in Chechnya.  In retrospect, it is precisely because of Russia’s perceived weakness at the time that certain parties in Brussels (and Washington) actually allowed the seed of Georgia’s hope to join the alliance to germinate. 
And Georgia began to push at this possibility every chance it got.  Usually, these chances came in the form of participation in US-led international military peace-keeping operations, first in Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001) and then, most significantly, in Iraq (2003), where the Georgian contingent in the so-called Coalition of the Willing grew from a symbolic 200 soldiers to 2,000, eventually making it the third largest contingent of foreign troops in the field after the USA and Britain until pulled out and flown home at the height of the Olympics’ War crisis.  In addition to currying favor with George W. Bush and his neo-con pals, the Georgian mission was also clearly designed so that Georgian grunts could receive specialized training in a real-time combat zone – and then bring that newly acquired knowledge back to Georgia and apply it when and where needed, such as the break-away territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  
It is necessary to note that Georgia was not alone among the South Caucasus states to dabble in this realm.  Azerbaijan, too, sent troops to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq with the same aim of currying favor with/acquiring training from the USA.  So did Armenia, although its presence in the American-led coalitions always seemed to have been made more out of a sense of not wanting to be left out than based on any sort of strategic enthusiasm (or, possibly because Moscow wanted to keep a pair of Russia-friendly Armenian eyes and ears in the multinational operations).  What is instructive is a comparison between Baku’s policies toward Moscow and those of Tbilisi, particularly after the arrival of Saakashvili to power in 2004.  While Tbilisi embraced an openly anti-Russian policy in virtually all spheres – “baiting the bear” is one popular phrase to describe it – Baku was going out of its way to reassure Moscow of the long history that had bound the two fraternal peoples together as part of great tactical schmooze-job, and one that apparently has worked (at least so far).  Although participating in diverse NATO-related events and even exercises, Azerbaijan made no attempt to “standardize” its military equipment with that of NATO, and made sure that its large purchases of machines and ordinance in recent years had “Made in Russia” stamped on a healthy proportion of all in-coming lethal orders.  Baku even offered to lease the giant Russian radar station at Gabala to the United States as an alternative to the missile shield Washington wants to build in Poland and the Czech Republic to “protect” Western Europe from a sneak Iranian nuclear attack. 
That offer, no doubt made sincerely by the Azerbaijanis to enhance their status with Washington and get some legal American boots on the ground, could not possibly have been made without the direct acquiescence (or direction) from Moscow.  In the event, the United States declined the Azerbaijani missile shield and radar site, citing “technical reasons,” and went on pursuing the Polish/Czech site deal, which Russia for obvious reasons regarded being directed not against Iran, but Russia itself – and thus became another irritant in the growing pile of (sometimes paranoid) complaints against NATO, adding still more fuel to the fire of Moscow growing ire toward upstart Tbilisi.
The Kremlin’s response to all this was to make life in Georgia as miserable as possible, presumably to incite discontent and eventual revolt against Misha’s Rose Revolution government.  These included Moscow’s slapping a visa regime on Georgian nationals wanting to work in Russia (and thus repatriate money), first restricting and then banning the import of traditional Georgian products (such as wine), shutting off gas supplies, terminating all banking and postal connections and then cutting off all transportation links between the two adjacent states, thus forcing all travelers to get from Moscow to Tbilisi via Baku, or Yerevan or Trabzon. 
All this only made Saakashvili push ever harder to get under the NATO security umbrella, and as a full member.  This program included the purchase of NATO-standard boots and bullets, and even the attempt to prove its value for NATO training by building a “NATO-spec” Special Mountain Forces school at a place called Sashkhere on the southern flanks of the Caucasus Mountains – within spitting distance of the Russian frontier.  This was opened to great fan-fare in the summer of 2007. 
While very heartening to Washington and certainly infuriating to Moscow (James Baker III had allegedly “promised” Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastward beyond a unified Germany if Gorby would let the Berlin Wall come down), the idea of having a feisty new member on Russia’s southern flank that had two smoldering conflicts ready to spark into war with Moscow gave other NATO members pause.  This became only too apparent when Georgia formally notified NATO that it meant to follow other former Warsaw Pact states (Poland, the Czech Republic, etc.,) and wanted a MAP, or “Membership Action Plan.” 
The meeting that would decide the issue was held in Bucharest, Romania in April of 2008 and ironically turned out to be a disappointment for Georgia (and its fraternal applicant, Ukraine).  Although there may have been others feeling a similar reluctance, it was Germany and France, over the protests of the United States, who scuttled both applications, declaring them to be “premature.”  Not surprisingly, Saakashvili claimed that without Georgia getting locked into NATO’s collective security umbrella immediately, Russia would attack his country. 
And indeed, while Misha’s words might have sounded like impatient howling from a distant up-start, Moscow had in fact gone beyond the fulcrum point, having decided that the time to destroy Georgia’s irritating inability to understand its place in the “world system” had come.  Contingency plans dating back to at least 2004 became activated, and gears of Moscow’s war machine began to turn.   
Hindsight allows 20/20 vision on a number of things that now seem totally obvious.  Arguably, the most important of these was Moscow’s unilateral decision to grant Russian citizenship to the citizens of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, allegedly to ease the burden of isolation of the people living in these unrecognized entities.  Thus, when the conflict exploded, new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was able to look the camera in the eye and announce to the world that Russia was merely protecting its citizens; the fact that these new “citizens” happened to live outside the legal frontiers of the Russian Federation contained a truly ominous element – namely, that Russia was claiming the right to intervene anywhere in the world where its citizens, new or old, might reside, such as eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. 
The second obvious signal of nefarious intent was the decision to send in railway workers to Abkhazia in early 2008, allegedly to upgrade the line leading from the Russian border crossing point at Ptsou down to the port of Ochamchira near the Georgian frontier.  This, too, was announced as a humanitarian gesture designed to help end the plight of the isolated Abkhaz.  As it turned out, these upgraded railway tracks served the Russian military very nicely to transport masses of tanks and other equipment to “the front” in a speedy manner once war broke out. 
The third element, observers suggest, was to hold military exercises in July in and around North Ossetia, an autonomous republic inside the Russian federation that flanks South Ossetia in Georgia – and then keep those forces there in pre-position before the order to invade was given.
The fourth and last is the fuzziest but arguably the most important: the utterly cynical but extremely effective decision by Moscow to launch the campaign on the very day the entire world was distracted by the Grand Opening of the Beijing Olympics.  This included the theatrics of a “shocked” Vladimir Putin, wagging his finger at George W. Bush for allowing his hot-headed “client,” Misha Saakashvili, to destroy the peace in the tinder-box of the Caucasus on such an auspicious occasion.
So, why South Ossetia?
Quite frankly, because it was so easy. 
Ever since breaking away from the rest of the country in 1990/91 after the government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia declared a policy of “Georgia for the Georgians,” the erstwhile Autonomous District of South Ossetia was effectively divided into three minuscule parts: the area of the administrative capital city of Tskhinvali (“Skin Valley” to some wags) and north, populated by some 40,000 or so ethnic Ossets; another third, populated by ethnic Georgians, and which remained under de-facto Georgian control; and the remaining third, which was more or less uninhabited mountain.  But because the territory had been legally defined as “the Autonomous District of South Ossetia” during Soviet times, the totality of the territory was claimed by both sides, demographics be damned (and despite the odd fact that almost the same number of ethnic Ossetians were resident in “mainland” Georgia outside the autonomous district). 
In any case, the “Ossetian” third of the blighted territory sought and received protection from Russia back in 1990, and soon devolved into a “black hole” criminal state famous throughout the region for smuggling thanks to the porous nature of the “border” between “mainland” Georgia and the Ossetian entity, and the proximity of the Roki Tunnel leading north under the Caucasus Mountains and into the friendly Autonomous Republic of North Ossetia inside the Russian Federation.  Most of the north-bound traffic in contraband took the form of stolen cars, while women, fake high-end booze and drugs made their way south into Georgia, and from there to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and elsewhere. [1]
Tension only increased with the emergence of Eduard Kokoity as the new tough-guy honcho of the quasi-state.  Kokoity, born in 1964, was free-style champion wrestler, member of the national wrestling team of the late USSR and leader of the Tskhinvali chapter of Komsomol, or Young Communist Youth League, until the collapse of the USSR and the outbreak of hostilities in South Ossetia in 1990/91.  In the code-studded world of the former USSR, “wrestler” is usually equated with the concept of “enforcer,” and all indications (and indeed, photographs) are that the burly Kokoity spent time in the  thug trade after becoming involved in “biznes” in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  (I often wonder if I used him as my driver during the Sakhalin island earthquake in the Russian Far East in 1996, but cannot be sure).  Eventually, he moved back to Tskhinvali, got involved in what passed for local politics (basically, clan-rivalry concerning who would control lucrative smuggling operations in the area) and was elected president in 2001.  The ousting of Shevardnadze in Tbilisi in 2003 and the attendant clean-up campaign initiated by Saakashvili almost inevitably put the two men and all they represented on as collision course. 
As part of his promise of restoring post-Shevardnadze Georgia that was in control of all its territory, Saakashvili’s first move was to put-paid to Adjarian leader “Batono” Aslan Abashidze’s pretensions to independent action, forcing the Lord Protector to flee from Batumi to Moscow in the spring of 2004.  Leaving the more-problematic issue of how to bring secessionist Abkhazia back into the happy-family fold for later, Saakashvili next turned to South Ossetia, where he initiated a carrot & stick approach.  The carrot was the appointment of a special Minister for Re-integration in the person of Timuri Yakobashvili to deal with all aspects of the Georgian-Ossetian standoff, ranging from the construction of schools and even swimming pools to conflict management among hotheads on either side, as well as setting up a “loyalist” government in exile with offices in downtown Tbilisi, led by one Dmitri Sanakoyev.  The stick was the upgrading of Georgian military forces with the help of US and Israeli trainers (although the government-in-exile might be regarded as part of the stick, too).  Tension ebbed and flowed, peace initiatives launched and died as Saakashvili’s Georgia embarked on a remarkable economic boom and lifted itself ever further away from Russia, even while Kokoity’s South Ossetia slid ever deeper into the post-Soviet morass.  
Then came the year 2008.  Although there had been “incidents” prior to the (failed) Georgian effort at Bucharest to be granted NATO MAP status, there was a decided spike in inter-communal violence after the April summit.  Georgian policed patrols were ambushed, and villages in the “Georgian” sector came under attack under cover of darkness, resulting in retaliations against Ossetians.  Russian “Peace-keepers” stationed in the area as part of a OSCE-reconciliation agreement did little or nothing to stem the growing violence over the early and mid summer of 2008, and were tacitly accused by the Georgian side of aiding and abetting Ossetian militia forces.   
The aforementioned Yakobishvili later told me that he was perhaps the first to learn of the pending war, albeit without actually being aware of that fact at the moment.  The revelation came when he traveled to the outskirts of Tskhinvali on the early afternoon of August 7 in hopes of defusing the growing tension by meeting with one Yuri Popov, the Russian point-man in crisis talks, only to discover that he had been stood up.  Calling Popov on his cell-phone, Yakobishvili was informed that the Russian was delayed because of a flat tire.  “Well, put on the spare,” Timuri suggested.  “The spare is flat, too,” Popov’s response was.  “Let me send my car to get you,” Timuri tried.  “Nyet,” said the Russian.  “Let’s postpone it all until tomorrow.” 
Little known to Yakobishvili (or if he knew, he did not bother to share this information with me) his government was already in possession of the recordings of two cell-phone conversations, intercepted by Georgian intelligence during the pre-dawn hours of August 7.  The conversations were between an Ossetian guard named “Gassiev” at the South Ossetia end of the Roki Tunnel that links the territory to the Russian Federation, and someone in the Tskhinvali military HQ.
“Listen, has the armor arrived, or what?” the voice on the cell phone traced to the HQ asks at 03:41 in the morning.
“I’ll check,” says Gassiev. 
He calls back with an affirmative at 03:52.  The column had arrived and trundled on under the command of one Colonel Kazachenko, presumably to the Russia base outside a town called Java.  (Kazachenko was later identified as Colonel Andrei Kazachenko of the 135th Motorized Rifle regiment of the Russia Army’s 158th Division, which had no business of being in South Ossetia at all.)  When the story finally broke over a month after the event, the Russian leadership first declared all of the above to be complete nonsense; it later shifted its explanation of the deployment as being merely a routine “rotation” of CIS peace-keeper troops and transport – although according to the OSCE-brokered agreement that officially allowed Russia to station 500 armed peace-keepers in the region, all such “rotations” require pre-notification and must occur during the day, and not the dead of night. 
Why was none of this printed in bold on newspaper headlines throughout the world?  Sadly, the individuals responsible for archiving the intercepts had somehow misplaced them, and they were not retrieved until long after the short war was over – but not before the intercepts had convinced Saakashvili and other elements of his security council that his country was under eminent attack, and that the only thing to be done was make a desperate bid to interdict further Russian reinforcements from coming through the tunnel to join the units already in country. 
And that is what Georgia did on August 8th, thus allowing Russia to claim that CIS forces were under Georgian assault, and that its response was merely to mount a “counter-attack” to dominate the finger-pointing debate about who shot first.  But a central fact remains: if the “Olympics’ War” between Georgia and Russia began on August 8, the Russian invasion of Georgia began early in the morning of August 7.  Indeed, there is now sufficient evidence to suggest that the United States warned Saakashvili that Russia was planning to use on-going provocations to lure Georgia into a so-called R-2-P trap, and urged him to resist the temptation to engage the Russians on any level because the larger Russian plan was the destruction of the infant Georgian military, major infrastructural projects, economic development, social cohesion and ultimately political stability should Saakashvili rise to the R-2-P bait. [2] But Saakashvili decided that even if he ducked and dodged on August 8, there would be another provocation on August 9, and then another on August 10, and so forth and so on.  The only thing to do was make a stand, allow the conflict to escalate, and then hope for some sort of international intervention. 
Brinksmanship, in a word, in true Caucasian style.
“We had to,” he told me during a 3 AM meeting at the new presidential apparatus building some days after my arrival in Tbilisi, of which I will share details presently.  


[1] The most interesting item to come to the light of day, however, was some 100 grams sample of weapons’ grade uranium, as part of a sting operation mounted in January, 2006, when Saakashvili’s security people managed to infiltrate a smuggling network and lured a North Ossetian by the name of Oleg Khintsagov to sell his “sample” to a cop posing as a Turkish bad-guy for a million bucks.  Uncle Larry stumbled into a world exclusive on that story, which gave new meaning to the concept of “loose nucs,” with “Skin Valley” emerging as a potential transit point thanks to the casual attitude of the local government toward crime of all sorts.  

[2] R-2-P was a new acronym for me, and one I like so much that I have used it here twice: it means “Right to Protect,” as in “Send in the Marines”).