August 2008 War: Russia Was First
by David J. Smith*
Who Was First?, a recent publication of Andrei Illarionov, once Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Chief Economic Adviser, affords a fresh look at Russia’s August 2008 war on Georgia. That war was the long-planned military phase of an ongoing conflict between Russia and Georgia. Nonetheless—in Georgia and abroad—the misconception persists that Georgia, particularly President Mikheil Saakashvili, somehow started the fracas. Lest anyone be tempted to exploit such misinformation among unwitting people, it is useful now-and-then to review reality.
In the months before the attack, Russia prepared its logistics and deployed heavily armed soldiers disguised as “peacekeepers” in the Georgian territory of Abkhazia. Provocations increased there and in South Ossetia, the other Moscow-backed Georgian separatist territory.
In Russia’s North Caucasus region, the 58th Army conducted an exercise that simulated invasion of Georgia. Meanwhile, so-called “volunteers” congregated near the northern mouth of the Roki Tunnel, which leads from Russia to Georgia.
At about 0300 on August 7, Russian tanks rolled through the tunnel into Georgia. Another force was marshaled and held in reserve just north of the border, along a road that leads to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
From Abkhazia, Russian forces seized the port of Poti and large bits of the western Georgian region of Mingrelia. 4,000 naval infantry debarked at Ochamchire, a former Soviet naval base in Abkhazia. The Russian Black Sea Fleet blockaded Poti and Batumi, Georgia’s other major port. The Russian Air Force prosecuted a well-considered air target set against both military and civilian targets.
Common sense notwithstanding, western news organizations repeat as mantra that all this was Russia’s reaction to Georgian decisions on August 7 and 8. For example, on March 15, Associated Press wrote that Georgian “opposition groups say Saakashvili made a serious mistake when he launched an assault on the breakaway region of South Ossetia last year. Russia responded with a counter-offensive of tanks and troops, which quickly drove Georgian forces back.”
Illarionov counters with the same kind of straightforward analysis that he once applied to Russian economic development. The result is a simple chart called Who Was First? on the LiveJournal website. The chart has three columns: 1) “Actions First Made by Each Side;” 2) “By the Coalition of Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia;” and 3) “By Georgia.” Five points leap forth.
First, Russia’s conflict with Georgia—even the shooting part—goes back some time. Illarionov’s first entry is “Aerial Bombardment.” The chart recalls the August 23, 2002 Russian Long-range Aviation bombing in and around Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.
Second, Russia long planned the August 2008 war. As early as 2003, according to Who Was First?, Russia foresightedly deployed tanks and built bases in the Georgian territory of South Ossetia.
Then Illarioniov ticks off a series of moves in direct preparation for the August 2008 attack: suspending participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, lifting Commonwealth of Independent States sanctions on Abkhazia, announcing the de-facto independence of the two Georgian territories and augmenting military forces under the guise of peacekeeping.
Third, after a steady stream of escalations that began in early July, Russia attacked Georgia: “Presence of Regular Armed Forces of the Sides on the Territory of South Ossetia;” Russia: “No later than August 4, 2008;” Georgia: From August 7, 2008, 21.00.”
And: “Violation of the Russia-Georgia State Boundary by Units of the Regular Armed Forces of the Side;” Russia: “August 7, 2008, 3:52;” Georgia: “Not applicable.” According to Illarionov, the Georgian “Order to Bring the Armed Forces…to Operational Readiness” came only after the country had clearly been invaded for more than ten hours.
Fourth, according to Illarionov’s chart, Georgia implemented a ceasefire at 1710 on August 7, which was publicly announced at 1840. At 2030, Russia and its South Ossetian proxies directed artillery fire against Georgian positions and began military operations.
Fifth, Illarionov records a number of other Russian and proxy firsts beginning on the dates indicated: evacuation of Tskhinvali on August 2; arrival of so-called “volunteers” on August 3; “Employment of Tactical Rockets (short-range)” on August 8; “Blockade of Sea Routes” on August 9; “Ethnic Cleansing” on August 9; and “Landing Naval Infantry” on August 10.
Sixth, Illarionov closes on a note similar to that with which he began, indicating that this is an ongoing political conflict: “Recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia: August 26, 2008.”
Like Georgia throughout and after the war, Illarionov makes no distinction between Russian forces and those of the separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—they are, for any useful purpose, the same. Moreover, though Illarionov’s account of the war mainly corroborates the Georgian account, details differ and it presents some unique data—Illarionov evidently did his own research.
Before again blithely repeating misinformation, journalists and politicians alike should take a look at Illarionov’s Who Was First? at http://aillarionov.livejournal.com/70169.html.
*David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.