Totten: Georgia didn’t start the fighting in the Caucasus

posted at 11:45 am on August 26, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

The received wisdom on the Caucasus war casts Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili as either villain or dupe, foolishly provoking a staged response from Russia by firing on civilians in Tshkanvili.  Michael Totten, now reporting from the ground at Pajamas Media, says that this anaylsis is completely wrong.  In fact, South Ossetian separatists broke the cease-fire by firing on Georgian soldiers, and Russia mobilized its forces before Saakashvili’s targeted assault on separatists in the Tshkanvili area:

Virtually everyone believes Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili foolishly provoked a Russian invasion on August 7, 2008, when he sent troops into the breakaway district of South Ossetia. “The warfare began Aug. 7 when Georgia launched a barrage targeting South Ossetia,” the Associated Press reported over the weekend in typical fashion.

Virtually everyone is wrong. Georgia didn’t start it on August 7, nor on any other date. The South Ossetian militia started it on August 6 when its fighters fired on Georgian peacekeepers and Georgian villages with weapons banned by the agreement hammered out between the two sides in 1994. At the same time, the Russian military sent its invasion force bearing down on Georgia from the north side of the Caucasus Mountains on the Russian side of the border through the Roki tunnel and into Georgia. This happened before Saakashvili sent additional troops to South Ossetia and allegedly started the war.

The real story of this conflict begins decades ago, during the Soviet period of Russian empire.  The Kremlin used ethnic rivalries to keep its disparate populations at war with each other rather than Moscow.  The Soviets then set themselves in position to act as mediators, when in fact they fanned the ethnic rivalries for their own purposes of division.

This doesn’t mean that Georgia doesn’t have some responsibility for this conflict.  As two regional experts explained to Totten, Georgia had its own brand of ethnic nationalists who threw fuel onto this fire after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Eventually, conflicts would drive milder forms of ethnic cleansing than seen in the former Yugoslavia, but destabilizing nonetheless.  When Saakashvili came to power in the Rose Revolution, he inherited a nation already riven by ethnic conflict and two territories with reason to view Georgian sovereignty with suspicion.  Despite his efforts to woo Abkhazians and Ossetians back into the Georgian union, too many hard feelings remain — and Russia began to play the old games that the Soviets abandoned during their collapse.

How did the Russians provoke this latest conflict?  In April, they began issuing Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  This gave them a legal status as Russian citizens, and gave Moscow a pretense for protecting them with military force.  It resembles nothing more than Hitler’s efforts in the Sudetenland in 1938, which ended in the collapse in Munich of the West.  With this kind of backing, the separatists felt free to launch attacks on Georgian forces, and as early as May Saakashvili warned that Russia wanted a war in the Caucasus.

Be sure to read all of Michael’s excellent report.  While all sides have historical responsibility for fanning ethnic conflict, the methods and motives of Vladimir Putin and his henchmen are quite transparent.

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“…sit with your back to the wall when listening to a politician?”

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 3:57 PM

LOL… actualy, I always try to sit with my back to a wall… politician notwithstanding… habit from the old days when I did interesting things for a living… LOL

Romeo13 on August 26, 2008 at 3:59 PM

With politicians, I just keep a hand on my wallet…

Romeo13 on August 26, 2008 at 4:00 PM

Romeo13 on August 26, 2008 at 3:39 PM

Hey Romeo, “Romeoism” isn’t even in the urban dictionary

You’re gonna have to work on that…!

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 4:01 PM

We have planned years in advance for conflicts that probably won’t ever materialize. Are we to think the Russians don’t do the same? Now there are also different strategies for the same conflicts as well. Powell had a different plan for the invasion of Iraq compared to Rumsfeld’s blitzkreig. We also had plans to nuke Iraq if they used chemical weapons on Israel. That is just one example.

If there is a country that doesn’t use premeditation in any of its invasions or responses then their leaders should be hung.

LevStrauss on August 26, 2008 at 2:59 PM

It is one thing to make contingency plans. It is another thing altogether to put some of them in effect. This is not rocket science.

hillbillyjim on August 26, 2008 at 4:04 PM

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 4:01 PM

Give me time… right now I’m just a legend in me own mind… LOL

Romeo13 on August 26, 2008 at 4:04 PM

upinak on August 26, 2008 at 3:26 PM

Yes, I’ve been keeping up with it myself from the beginning.

I was just pointing to the statements in this article from the Economist from Aug 14th that there was evidently a ceasefire that was agreed to between SO and Georgia by Aug 6th which indicated there was fighting prior to Aug 6th, and that ceasefire was to be negotiated by a Russian minister who did not show up for the meeting and in the wee hours of the morning on Aug 7th a call to a US undersecretary was made to report that Russian tanks were entering Georgia from the Roki tunnel which connects thru SO into Russia. Saakashvili is blamed for starting this war on Aug 8th without provocation by shelling the SO capital and killing 2000 citizens. That does not appear to be the case. He was in fact attempting to stop a column of Russian tanks. The city had been pretty much evacuated with the help of the Russians. HRW has also reported this early on.

Seems like most everybody in the MSM tossed logic out the window and bought into the Russian propaganda that Georgia started the war.

Texas Gal on August 26, 2008 at 4:09 PM

upinak on August 26, 2008 at 3:52 PM

upinak, sorry I got carried away on another thread.
That happens to geezers now and again…!

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 4:10 PM

Texas Gal on August 26, 2008 at 4:09 PM

Georgia, got duped into starting the war and by more than one party…!

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 4:14 PM

Texas Gal…

The Economist is not who I get information from. There is a reason for that… It is about the Economy (usually) and why they are commenting on this story makes me blanch.

Oil, Gas, suppliers for clothing, autoparts and a few other items comes to mind.

upinak on August 26, 2008 at 4:21 PM

upinak on August 26, 2008 at 4:21 PM

Actually I get my information from a lot of sources ;)

But in the case of the Economist this story is about a timeline of the events that lead up the Aug 8th. It’s ok with me if you’re not interested in that article. I was just referencing it originally because it filled in some of the blanks of what was not known and has not been plainly reported.

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 4:14 PM

Since you directed your snark at me … let me just reply back to you that I don’t feed trolls. They’re kind of like possums around here where I live, they don’t go away and they become dependent on your feeding them and before you know it you’ve got a pack of possums.

Texas Gal on August 26, 2008 at 4:29 PM

“…Russian tanks were entering Georgia from the Roki tunnel which connects thru SO into Russia.”
Texas Gal on August 26, 2008 at 4:09 PM

T_G, so how long [and wide] is the Roki Tunnel? Could the tunnel have hidden a very large column of Russian armored vehicles?

This refers back to my earlier post.

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 2:48 PM

Since you directed your snark at me …Texas Gal on August 26, 2008 at 4:29 PM

It wasn’t my intent to “snark, you” I was genuinely interested in your observations; whilst still retaining my own suppositions.

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 4:39 PM

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 4:39 PM

One of the things missing from the timeline is that the Georgians, and US, were running excercises in Georgia… and the Russians then ran one in Russia just a couple of weeks prior to this all starting…

During that Op they moved up, and ran supply convoys into the area, prep’ing the battlespace.

Normally, excercises use planned moves to move troops to the frontier quickly… and supply them… testing your logistics… but the move back normally takes a couple of weeks.

So, many of those Russian armor units were forward deployed, with prepositioned logistic support. We were probably watching them via Satellite, but this appeared “normal” for the end of an excercise…

Then they put ammo on the tanks, gassed up, and rolled those units into Ossetia…

Romeo13 on August 26, 2008 at 4:46 PM

“…I wondered at the time if a ruse had been played on Saakashvili and Bush.” Texas Gal on August 26, 2008 at 3:01 PM

Well I’ll be damned T_G, great minds think alike…?

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 4:50 PM

“…We were probably watching them via Satellite, but this appeared “normal” for the end of an excercise…
Romeo13 on August 26, 2008 at 4:46 PM

Parked vehicles maybe… but then columned armor moving west instead of east; that for me, is a very large problem.

But that’s just me.

Where the hell were the “bird watchers”…?

That’s the reason I asked about the tunnel’s length and width, as a means of hiding a large column of armor.

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 5:02 PM

From Google Earth…

“08.10.08- 05:45—- 6,000 Russian troops enter Georgia through Roki tunnel overnight; 90 tanks; 150 Armored Personnel Carriers; 250 artillery gunships.”

That tunnel appears “rather large”…!

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 5:34 PM

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 5:02 PM

Gotta remember, we don’t have constant worldwide coverage, or the assets to watch everywhere.

Lots of the human eyes have been shifted to Iraq, Iran, Syria, N. Korea, Pakistan, and Afganistan… even if we “had” the pictures, we may not have had someone looking at them at that exact time…

And even if an analyst saw somthing, it would have to get up the chain of command, then through the political channels, before somthing could be done.

Remember, we are not talking about a large area here… Georgia only looks to be about 100 miles north to south… which is about 3 hours to modern armor.

Romeo13 on August 26, 2008 at 5:45 PM

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 5:34 PM

eisenhour tunnel through the Continental divide outside of Denver heading West? 36,000 vehicles per day average in July.

250 Armored vehicles? not that much traffic…

Romeo13 on August 26, 2008 at 5:49 PM

Georgia, got duped into starting the war and by more than one party…!

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 4:14 PM

So Georgia attacked Russia?

Johan Klaus on August 26, 2008 at 6:25 PM

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 5:34 PM

I indicated about 500 vehicles, simultaneously? Each requiring approximately 50 horizontal feet = 25,000 feet = 4.5 miles, unless they were double parked…?

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 6:29 PM

So Georgia attacked Russia? Johan Klaus on August 26, 2008 at 6:25 PM

Actually they attacked Russian trained and deployed surrogates, the separatists; ergo the Russians.

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 6:33 PM

Actually they attacked Russian trained and deployed surrogates, the separatists; ergo the Russians.

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 6:33 PM

On Georgian soil?

Johan Klaus on August 26, 2008 at 6:45 PM

Well I’ll be damned T_G, great minds think alike…?

J_Gocht on August 26, 2008 at 4:50 PM

Fortunately, no.

Texas Gal on August 26, 2008 at 6:59 PM

texas gal, i am not ignoring you. I am trying to figure out if I am getting sick again. Gotta love stress to lower the immune system… ugh.

Anyways, I think you and I look all around for information. I only used fox because I wasn’t feeling good and it was quick to find.

but concernign this, who cn you trust? many usually say the same thing, sometimes other areas say something totally different (like Russian news) and then you wonder WTF happened to the orignial story. We have yet to find that…

upinak on August 26, 2008 at 7:47 PM

Putin obviously has bigger plans than many people suspect- back in July British intelligence ranked Russia as the third biggest threat to the UK after Al Qaeda and a nuclear Iran.

The services are understood to fear that Russia’s three main intelligence agencies have flooded the country with agents, The Times understands.

There is reported to be deep irritation within the services that vital resources are having to be diverted to deal with industrial and military espionage by the Russians.

Jay Mac on August 26, 2008 at 8:22 PM

upinak on August 26, 2008 at 7:47 PM

Sorry to hear you’re feeling icky.

As to this, well I’ve been trying to put together pieces of information into some kind of timeline to help me understand the sequence of events that seem not only plausible but logical. That’s what I do as a genealogist, so it’s the best way for me to process information and it helps me determine where the missing pieces are. And in that respect I’m trained to use several different sources of information and filter out the useless information which in this case is propaganda and theorizing presented as facts.

When information is quoted and credited back to a source, it carries more weight for me and in this case Saakashvili is quoted as saying there was a report (3 sightings) of Russian tanks coming thru the Roki Tunnel before his assault on the capital city of SO. And the other quote was from a US State Dept undersecretary who said he had gotten a 2 am call on Aug 7th that Georgia was dropping a ceasefire and he the undersecretary tried to persuade them not to do that.

Those two quotes which provide sources for the quotes provide a lot of information about the sequence of events leading up to Aug 8th. That’s all I was adding to the discussion.

Hope you feel better soon and aren’t coming down with something!

Texas Gal on August 26, 2008 at 9:02 PM

Michael Totten fell for it. After asserting Georgia didn’t start nuthin’ because those mean South Ossetians were busy attacking those sweet innocent Georgians while those scary mean Russians were already advancing on the Georgian capital, Totten lets us know where he’s getting his information:

Regional expert, German native, and former European Commission official Patrick Worms was recently hired by the Georgian government as a media advisor, and he explained to me exactly what happened when I met him in downtown Tbilisi. You should always be careful with the version of events told by someone on government payroll even when the government is friendly as democratic as Georgia’s. I was lucky, though, that another regional expert, author and academic Thomas Goltz, was present during Worms’ briefing to me and signed off on it as completely accurate aside from one tiny quibble.

Oh God. He forgot “adventurer” and egomaniac. Well, let’s do this.

“A key tool that the Soviet Union used to keep its empire together,” Worms said to me, “was pitting ethnic groups against one another. They did this extremely skillfully in the sense that they never generated ethnic wars within their own territory. But when the Soviet Union collapsed it became an essential Russian policy to weaken the states on its periphery by activating the ethnic fuses they planted.

That’s funny. I thought the USSR maintained cohesion through a Soviet identity in early childhood education, combined with the threat of prison camp or execution if you didn’t adopt it. I also thought most of the ethnic wars in the Caucasus were born of Josef Stalin’s miserable border-drawing (which was to prevent a single unified ethno-nationalist region from declaring independence), and only took off once the Soviet Union naturally fell and newly-independent countries sought simultaneously to maintain their territorial integrity while also becoming ethnically homogenous.

“They tried that in a number of countries. They tried it in the Baltic states, but the fuses were defused. Nothing much happened. They tried it in Ukraine. It has not happened yet, but it’s getting hotter. They tried it in Moldova. There it worked, and now we have Transnitria. They tried it in Armenia and Azerbaijan and it went beyond their wildest dreams and we ended up with a massive, massive war. And they tried it in two territories in Georgia, which I’ll talk about in a minute. They didn’t try it in Central Asia because basically all the presidents of the newly independent countries were the former heads of the communist parties and they said we’re still following your line, Kremlin, we haven’t changed very much.”

Is he talking about the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which began in 1988, some years before the USSR or even the Berlin Wall fell? Last I checked, the conflict over Upper Karabakh had been going off and on for a good eighty years, and, much like the former Yugoslavia, had only ceased hostilities due to the Soviet Union’s suzerainty. I’m curious how “they tried it” in Ukraine, since the Act of Independence had something like a 90% margin when it passed. And I don’t even know what they’re talking about with Central Asia—there weren’t any long-standing ethnic disputes on the order of anything in the Caucasus to exploit there. Really, the only place any existed in any kind of seething form was the Caucasus, and those existed well before the Soviet Union was invented.

I’m kind of surprised Goltz would sign off on a history this slipshod.

He’s right about the massive war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, though few outside the region know much about it. Armenians and Azeris very thoroughly transferred Azeris and Armenians “back” to their respective mother countries after the Soviet Union collapsed through pogroms, massacres, and ethnic-cleansing. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled savage communal warfare in terror. The Armenian military still occupies the ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region in southwestern Azerbaijan. It’s another so-called “frozen conflict” in the Caucasus region waiting to thaw. Moscow takes the Armenian side and could blow up Nagorno-Karabakh, and subsequently all of Azerbaijan, at any time. After hearing the strident Azeri point of view on the conflict for a week before I arrived in Georgia, I’d say that particular ethnic-nationalist fuse is about one millimeter in length.

Yes, no one outside the region know much about it, save Christian missionaries who spoke at length of Azeri atrocities, and Kids in the Hall skits about how Armenians and Azeria hate each other.

Anyway, he goes on at length quoting this paid representative of Georgia, who manages to be a reactionary victim of Russian power politics. That is certainly true, to an extent, as this excellent look at the complicated start of the war shows (Matthew Bryza, the U.S. Special Envoy to the Region, surprisingly strongly decries Georgian attacks on civilian targets—the action that formed Russia’s casus belli to invade the rest of Georgia, though to Bryza’s credit, he also lambasts the Russians or not ratcheting down tensions beforehand).

But then Totten admits he had no idea there were skirmishes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces in the days leading up to the conflict—something that was obvious in the regular news coming from the region, but was curiously lacking from most people’s discussions of the conflict.

Critically missing from this paid flack’s explanation of the war’s origins is Saakashvili’s brinksmanship. Under Shevardnadze (who also seems disappointed with Saakashvili’s recklessness), Georgia had never pompously strutted itself along the border of its far larger and more powerful northern neighbor, blithely assuming the U.S. and Europe would help it out in any conflict that arose. Saakashvili was, in a word, reckless in assuming he could make a lightning strike into South Ossetia and cut off the Roki tunnel right when everyone knew Russia had already massed on the border. Yes, Russia played a role in provoking the conflict, but Saakashvili was just stupid in playing into it.

Remarkably, Totten operates under the assumption that hearing a long presentation by a paid representative of Georgia, along with an escorted tour of a Georgian hospital with Georgian soldiers will tell him anything about the conflict. He doesn’t understand that Georgia’s spy drone which was shot down by a Russian plane was violating the terms of the cease-fire agreement in Abkhazia, nor does he seem to get that more South Ossetians died during the pre-war skirmish than Georgians. But what was this about?

“On the evening of the 7th, the Ossetians launch an all-out barrage focused on Georgian villages, not on Georgian positions. Remember, these Georgian villages inside South Ossetia – the Georgians have mostly evacuated those villages, and three of them are completely pulverized. That evening, the 7th, the president gets information that a large Russian column is on the move. Later that evening, somebody sees those vehicles emerging from the Roki tunnel [into Georgia from Russia]. Then a little bit later, somebody else sees them. That’s three confirmations. It was time to act.

That does not match with what other Georgian officials are saying about the conflict.

Around 2 p.m. that day, Ossetian artillery fire resumed, targeting Georgian positions in the village of Avnevi in South Ossetia. The barrage continued for several hours. Two Georgian peacekeepers were killed, the first deaths among Georgians in South Ossetia since the 1990s, according to Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze, who spoke in a telephone briefing Aug. 14…

But by evening, Kezerashvili said, the Georgian side had had enough.

“At 6, I gave the order to prepare everything, to go out from the bases,” he said in an interview Aug. 14 at a Georgian position along the Tbilisi-Gori highway. Kezerashvili described the movement of armor, which included tanks, 122mm howitzers and 203mm self-propelled artillery, as a show of force designed to deter the Ossetians from continuing to barrage the Georgian troops’ positions inside South Ossetia.

Western officials in and around South Ossetia also recorded the troop and armor movement, according to a Western diplomat who described in detail on-the-ground reports by monitors from the OSCE. The monitors recorded the movement of BM-21s in the late afternoon…

At 7 p.m., with troops on the march, Saakashvili went on national television and declared a unilateral cease-fire. “We offer all of you partnership and friendship,” he said to the South Ossetians. “We are ready for any sort of agreement in the interest of peace.”

About 9 p.m., the Ossetians complained to Western monitors about the military traffic, according to a diplomat in Tbilisi.

Totten is being fed disinformation. And he doesn’t know enough to say so, since by his own admission he went into the country—just like his colleague Brietbart in Baku—knowing absolutely nothing about the place beforehand. He does not understand enough about the hatred in the area that exists on both sides to parse through the endless dissembling (Goltz is an amazing writer, but he is also unabashedly anti-Russian). Nor does he seem to understand the right before president Saakashvili invaded the territory, he called for a unilateral cease-fire in an attempt to roll through Tskhinvali unopposed (Russian-sponsored teenagers reportedly hurled molotov cocktails at Georgian tanks).

For example, the Georgians were still incredibly brutal to the South Ossetians, which makes the complaints about Russian brutality ring a tiny bit hollow. Totten doesn’t get at any of this, because he didn’t do a single jot of homework before heading out to these places.

Which is a real shame. But it’s yet another way in which the “power of blogs” continues to utterly fail us.


sashal on August 26, 2008 at 9:11 PM

“Michael Totten fell for it…”

“…But it’s yet another way in which the “power of blogs” continues to utterly fail us. J.Foust—sashal on August 26, 2008 at 9:11 PM

Thanks for the excellent historical juxtaposition of the recent events in the country of Georgia.

The “power of blogs” only fails us when the paid blogger bends the facts to salve his benefactors, sores.

Mr. Totten’s evaluation of the Sunni “Sons of Iraq” and his slanted reporting there; is yet another example of what you get when you pay his per diem.

BTW: Just two well placed anti-tank mines set approximately 100 meters inside the exit to the Roti Tunnel and detonated just before the first armor emerged, would have “corked the bottle”…!

J_Gocht on August 27, 2008 at 8:35 AM

The story as I hear from some Russian friends…. Russia started giving out russian passports to Abkhazia and South Osetia a long time starting from Georgia gaining independence. On August 6th or 5th whatever it was Russians did bring in artillery and tanks into south osetia… left them to south osetia defenders and LEFT walking on their own two legs…. technically that could be considered a simple delivery of weaponry not an assault on Georgia… Now Georgia and Saakshvili instead of getting solid information assumed Russians are driving those tanks and went out in all force to expose the Russians to the world and in the meantime bomb those Osetians who were getting on their nerves… only when everything started in August 8th did Saakshvili understood his mistake but it was too late so he just keeps bending his side of the story to the world and screaming that this was provocation…. it was, but it was brilliant and Saakshvili was just too stupid to get to the bottom of it before engaging in a fight with Russia.

Lioxani4 on August 27, 2008 at 9:15 AM