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More Insight On Georgia

Danger Room pointed to an article by Michael J. Totten, The Truth About Russia in Georgia, that presents a rather different view of what just happened in Georgia.

While I might look on it as spin, the fact that Thomas Goltz, the man who wrote the most recent authoritative books on the area, and who has been in the trouble zones of the Caucasus since the break up of the Soviet Union, was in the audience for the briefing and signed off on the information, makes it much more reliable than most media events.

It would appear that Russia did not respond as rapidly to the situation as assumed, because it actually started on August 1, not August 7, and it was an Ossetian bombardment of Georgian villages and peacekeepers.

The Georgians didn’t shut down the Roki Tunnel, or deploy to the Abkhaz border, because they were responding to a border attack by the Ossetians south of Tskhinvali.

The civilians in Tskhinvali had already been evacuated before the Georgians did anything, which is why the number of verified dead in the city was less than 50 and those were probably soldiers or militia.

You have to wonder why the US hasn’t produced any recent satellite photos of the area, unless they stopped watching, which is quite possible given the general low level of competence displayed by the Hedgemony. The Russians had been shooting down Georgian UAVs, so you know there were signs of what was going on.


1 Badtux { 08.27.08 at 11:34 am }

A third-party human rights group commissioned some SPOT time and has released a couple of reports on damage visible via satellite with each damaged building circled according to the damage visible via satellite. Turns out that Tskhinvali has occasional spotty damage but the really banged-up place is the village immediately to the north of Tskhinvali, which has pretty much been leveled, and the Georgian villages immediately to the south of Tskhinvali, which have not been leveled but are heavily damaged. Granted, their maps are showing only damage visible via satellite, so Tskhinvali might be more heavily damaged on the ground, but Russian press parading these constant photos of rubbelized buildings in Tskhinvali apparently are parading photos of the same few buildings over and over again. So it appears that Totten is correct about who initiated the artillery bombardment and about how the Ossetians withdrew from Tskinvali.

As for the assertion that the Russians started coming through the tunnel before the Georgians invaded, this is not the first time I heard that assertion from the Georgians. The problem is that the timing doesn’t work. The Russians got to Tskhinvali way too late to have started through the tunnel before the Georgians invaded. Totten has embellished the tale I originally heard (perhaps from Goltz, who has been contributing occasional dispatches to a foreign correspondents blog from Tbilisi and simply reported what he was told by a Georgian officer with the proper attribution rather than stating it as fact) with a new twist to try to explain the timing problem — i.e., the commando attack on the bridge — but that doesn’t match with what any of the other reporting has been. I have a friend in Moscow who is monitoring the Russian press right now, and apparently the live coverage supports the previously announced timing (i.e. that the Russians entered the tunnel after Georgia’s attack), in that the live coverage of events in Tskhinvali started with the Georgian attack, and coverage of the Russian response did not start showing the Russians going through the tunnel until hours later. Granted, anything can be faked nowadays, and Russian television is run by Putin cronies and might as well be an arm of the state. But it matches the timing of when the Russian troops got to Tskhinvali and thus wins the Occam’s Razor award i.e. the simplest explanation is more probably the correct one.

In short, I think we still don’t know what happened here, but it sounds like Totten took a tale told to Goltz by a Georgian general, and found an embellishment elsewhere perhaps when he mentioned the timing problem to another Georgian politician, and ran with it. Totten’s reporting in the past has been not exactly pro-US jingoism but in many cases comes close, he has referenced the Powertools blog, for example, as a source to smear AP photographer Jalal Hussein as a potential insurgent. So he does have a history of relying on sketchy sources to arrive at positions that largely mirror the American position. On the other hand Totten at least makes an attempt to cover the big picture, which is something that most folks never try.

2 Bryan { 08.27.08 at 3:56 pm }

The Russians were already in South Ossetia. They had a verified 15,000 regular Russian forces in South Ossetia in July. No one is sure how many paramilitary and “reservists they had. The entire Georgian Army has 17,500 regulars, and 2000 were in Iraq with their best equipment.

They only delayed sending the bulk of the heavy equipment through the tunnel because it would be too easy to see by satellite and they didn’t want it noticed until after the Georgians responded.

They withdrew and sucked in the Georgians, then blasted them North of Tshkhinvali when the heavy weapons arrived, which is what the SPOT photos show. There is only one road between Russia and Ossetia because the Russians blocked all of the others earlier, and it isn’t exactly I-5.

They had the heavy equipment for their forces sent to Abkhazia loaded on railway cars waiting to come in and started moving them in immediately.

This wasn’t a reaction, it was pre-planned and it launched on August 1. That was probably when the transports were loaded and set sail from Sevastopol with the Black Sea Fleet. That’s a realistic timeline for what happened given the problems of moving heavy equipment and the speed of naval transports.

3 Badtux { 08.27.08 at 11:48 pm }

Uhm, there are no other roads other than the Transcaucasian Highway (the road through the Roki Tunnel) between North Ossetia and South Ossetia. The Georgian Military Highway is to the east of South Ossetia. The Ossetian Military Highway is to the west of South Ossetia. Those two historic roads were historically the only way to get across the Caucausus near present-day South Ossetia. Neither goes anywhere within the area of current South Ossetia.

Check it out on Google Earth and Wikimapia yourself. That’s rugged country. The Georgian Military Highway goes through a relatively low pass (around 10,000 feet), the Ossetian Military Highway is way up in nosebleed country, and neither touches the borders of South Ossetia. As for the Transcaucasian Highway I have seen the photos from the Russian media and it is just a regular old two-lane highway. Just heavily built for tanks. The Soviets did a lot of that.

Note that the photos we have of the Russians in South Ossetia and Georgia show ratty old tanks and APC’s with the unit logos of units that have been stationed in the area for literally a decade, not the elite equipment and the elite units that Totten claims were involved. The photos of the Russian warplanes that I’ve seen are really ratty and look like what you’d see of Russian warplanes normally stationed in the area — these are clearly not “elite” units of any sort, no self-respecting elite unit would ever allow their jets to fly with such decrepit paint jobs. Totten appears to have three sources — a few Georgian soldiers, an American expatriate with a grudge against Russia, and a Georgian spokesperson. I wouldn’t count that as being the definitive story, in other words. My guy in Moscow (I worked with him for three years so we’re not talking about some random guy on the Internets at least not from my perspective) says that he saw references in the Russian press to Georgian snipers killing people in Ossetian villages on August 1. So clearly at least in Russia they know it started on August 1 and that the Russians started their response on August 1. So it’s no surprise that the Russians started equipment and ships moving on August 1. It’s unclear how much control the Russians had over the Ossetian thugs shelling the Georgian villages supposedly due to snipers shooting Ossetians from those Georgian villages, or how much control they *wanted* to have over the Ossetian thugs, but clearly things escalated from there.

Anyhow, whether the Russians started sending armor down that road on August 6 or no is irrelevant. If they were sending armor down that road, it wasn’t being used to attack Georgian troops at the time and they could still claim it was just peacekeepers moving down to suppress the Ossetian militias. Georgia clearly launched a full-scale attack into South Ossetia before Russia responded by launching a full-scale attack against Georgian forces, regardless of when Russian armor emerged from the Roki Tunnel. Georgia may have intuited that the Russians were about to launch a full-scale attack on them and attacked first, but that doesn’t change the fact that they attacked first. And no, trading artillery rounds isn’t the same thing as a major military offensive…

4 Bryan { 08.28.08 at 1:55 pm }

Boy, it is a good thing the Soviets/Russians are aware of satellite photos and never learned about camouflage, otherwise you might have companies like RusBal created which specialized in inflatable dummies of large military weapons, and the Russian might put bogus old aircraft in view while concealing the new stuff.

It’s also nice how they have totally revolutionized their logistics operations so that in a couple of days they can have the fuel and muntions instantly available for a major land/air operation that required moving almost the entire inventory of functioning ground attack air aircraft into one region.

It is amazing how when they were forced out of the steppes by the Mongols the Alan/Ossetians found a working teleporter to send them across the Caucasus Mountains to Georgia, because the only road to the area hadn’t been built and no one knew about any other roads through that have been used by smugglers for centuries.

Of course, Putin explained it all this morning in an interview with CNN – the war was a McCain campaign event. It’s a good things Russians never learned about propaganda, and never lie, and never invade other countries. And you only have to ask the Chechens to learn about the deep concern the Russians feel for the rights of ethnic minorities, which is why they are helping the Alans in South Ossetia.

“Кто что ни говори, а подобные происшествия бывают на свете, — редко, но бывают.” Николай Васильевич Гоголь

Gogol was right, there are always people who are ready to drink the kvas and accept the conventional wisdom.

Some of us have questions and are still looking for answers. Some of us have other sources, in other languages, when there are no denial of service attacks blocking them.

I’m busy with a real world project at the moment, and won’t be doing much beyond hurricanes.

5 Badtux { 08.28.08 at 8:14 pm }

Whatever. I don’t have any delusions about Russian benevolence. When it comes to the Caucasus, they have never been anything but brutal. I’m not at all surprised at the behavior of the Russians once they got an excuse to attack Georgia proper. They’ve always loved setting loose the Cossacks, Chechens, and other such brigands upon whatever population in the area they want to punish at a given time.

Regarding roads into the area from North Ossetia, the Ossetian Military Road follows a historical trail over the mountains that veers off to the west before it enters South Ossetia, but a branch does go into South Ossetia and joins the road that goes to the Roki Tunnel after passing through a few dozen miles of Georgia, you published a map earlier which shows that branch and you can see it on Google Earth, so clearly there’s a route from North Ossetia to South Ossetia other than the Roki Tunnel, it just goes through modern-day Georgia outside of the borders of modern-day South Ossetia and it wouldn’t surprise me if that area was majority-Ossetian before the little spot of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. I’ve been in areas similarly rugged and you can get a smuggler’s donkey across some of those ridges but you certainly aren’t going to get a T-72 tank across them, that’s rugged terrain. You’ll need to use the passes or the tunnel for that. And the Ossetian Military Road and Georgian Military Road go through the only two passes near South Ossetia that you could send a T-72 tank across if the tunnel wasn’t available, there’s no direct route other than the tunnel.

Regarding the Russian tanks and aircraft, I have three different sources. First is photos in the Russian press from Russian photographers, not all of whom are attached to oligarch-controlled outlets. Second is the Georgian press, which published photos of Russian fighters and tanks. Third is the Western press, which similarly published photos of Russian fighters and tanks. None of those photos show any equipment other than the 1970’s/early 80’s equipment that the units there have always been equipped with (claims of “T-90 tanks” are contradicted by the photographs labeled as such, which clearly show T-72 tanks, which have a totally different turret), and none show any unit markings other than the units which have always been there in the area (with the exception of the airborne division that was the “peacekeepers”, but we already know about them). In short, Russia started moving on August 1, and moved quickly and showed some clear operational skills, but they did not move their elite units from the Moscow area or the Far East, they used the units they already had in the area ever since the last Chechen war. Either that, or the elite units have developed an invisibility field so that nobody of Russian, Western, or Georgian press could photograph them as they flew over Georgia or drove their tanks through Georgia :-).