A new world order: The week Russia flexed its military muscle

A six-day conflict in the Caucasus mountains has transformed the international balance of power, with Russia now looking stronger than ever. But what sparked it? Diplomatic Editor Anne Penketh reveals how the Georgian government walked straight into a trap set by Moscow – and considers the consequences of the first war in Europe for a decade
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The Independent Online

The Georgian president was on vacation in Italy. The defence minister and foreign minister were away on holiday too. The world's attention was riveted on the Olympic Games in Beijing, where the preparations for the lavish opening ceremony were in full swing.

Days later, the forces of the small, mountainous republic of Georgia, trained by American and Israeli experts, were fighting for the survival of their country against Russia's army in a vicious six-day war that brought Russia and the US into direct confrontation for the first time since the Cold War and led to a threat of nuclear conflagration.

The outcome was the humiliating rout of the Georgian army, pushed back by a huge Russian land, air and sea assault, and the loss of Georgia's two breakaway territories over which the government had intended to assert central control. And Russia is back at the forefront of a new world order in the dying days of the Bush presidency.

Few would have predicted that the firefights in Georgia's breakaway territory of South Ossetia between ethnic Ossetians and Georgian forces in the first week of August would escalate into a David versus Goliath combat in the Caucasus on 8 August. On that day, Vladimir Putin and George Bush were sitting only a few feet apart at the Olympic ceremony. The US president watched events through binoculars. He remained a spectator during the conflict, too, watching closely but letting it be known that the US would not intervene militarily to save Georgia.

As the dust begins to settle, it is becoming clear – based on accounts from Georgian officials, Russian officials and Western diplomats – that the pro-Western government of Georgia fell into a trap set by Russia following Nato's loss of nerve at a summit in April, when Nato leaders declined to offer Georgia a firm timetable for membership. And when Russia hit back with overwhelming force, the West was caught napping.



The Rose Revolution, 2003: the root of the conflict

The peaks of the Caucasus mountains rise like a giant barrier between Russia and Georgia, which under Soviet rule had tense relations with its powerful neighbour to the north. But relations between the Kremlin and Georgia deteriorated sharply after the election of President Mikheil Saakashvili in the "Rose revolution" of 2003. The enmity between Georgia's pro-Western leader, whose ambition is to take his country into the European Union and Nato, and the then Russian president, Putin, became personal. The US-trained Saakashvili upset the Kremlin with his election pledge to bring the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Georgian rule.

The Russian peacekeepers deployed in both regions for 16 years had long been accused of firing up the separatists. But the roots of this month's conflict lay in the Western-backed declaration of independence by Kosovo last February, fiercely opposed by Russia on the grounds that it would unilaterally change the borders of Europe. Russia threatened to recognise the breakaway regions in response, and had tightened links with ethnic Ossetians and Abkhaz by handing out Russian passports.

For Russia, Nato's encroachment on its borders has long been of supreme strategic importance. On 20 April, following Nato's decision to offer Georgia and Ukraine eventual membership but not a timetable after yielding to Russian pressure, the Georgians accused Russia of shooting down an Israeli-made drone over Abkhazia. Other provocations followed. Saakashvili says that every time he sounded the alarm in the West, he was told: "Oh no, no, the Russians would never bomb anybody."



In July, the local South Ossetian leader, Dmitri Sanakoyev, was the target of an assassination attempt. The same month, while the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was in Tbilisi warning Saakashvili not to respond to Russian provocations, two Russian fighters violated Georgian airspace and Russia didn't even bother to deny it. Yet Rice's presence is Tbilisi might have sent another mixed message to Georgia about the strength of US support.



1 August 2008: The trap is set

According to the Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, "a decision was made for the war to start in August. The war would have happened regardless of what the Georgians did. Whether they responded to the provocations or not, there would have been an invasion of Georgia. The goal was to destroy Georgia's central government, defeat the Georgian army, and prevent Georgia from joining Nato."

On 1 August, tensions deepened when six Georgian police officers were attacked, and five badly wounded, by two remote-controlled explosions in South Ossetia. The Georgians, who according to diplomats were spoiling for a fight, say they did not retaliate. However, according to the Russians, the South Ossetian capital and other villages were hit by "massive fire" that night by Georgian forces, causing the first fatalities.

The next day, six civilians and a Georgian policemen were injured during the shelling of Georgian villages in South Ossetia. According to the Georgian prime minister, it was the first time since the deployment of the Russian peacekeeping mission in South Ossetia that the separatist rebels had used heavy artillery, in violation of accords. The Georgians accused Russia of using the two-and-a-half-mile Roki tunnel, connecting North and South Ossetia through the mountains, to supply the rebels with arms and munitions.

On 6 August, a foreign visitor who spent two hours with the Georgian president described him as ready for the fight, diplomatically and militarily. He was "not depressed, but under huge pressure". "He has been calling [Angela] Merkel, [Nicolas] Sarkozy and Rice for months and they have all been telling him to stop worrying, that the Russians won't do anything, and they've basically been ignoring him."

On 7 August, the day before the Olympics began, the Georgian negotiator, Temuri Yakobashvili, went to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali for direct talks with the de facto separatist leader and a Russian envoy. Yakobashvili recalls that Tskhinvali already looked like a ghost town. But the Russian diplomat, Yuri Popov, failed to show up for the meeting at a Russian military base, saying that his car had a flat tyre. "Can't you change the tyre?" the incredulous Georgian negotiator asked the Russian who was supposed to be chairing the talks. No, he replied, as he did not have a spare.

Then, the South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity failed to show up. Yakobashvili asked the Russian general who headed the joint peacekeeping commission what to do, and was told: "Declare a ceasefire." So, that night at 7 pm, Saakashvili went on television and declared a unilateral ceasefire. But by that time, Georgian tanks and troops were on the move.

At 10.30pm, two Georgian peacekeepers were killed and six injured when the rebels opened fire on Georgian positions. But the attack that prompted Georgia's full-scale attack, at about midnight on 7 August, was a bombardment of the villages of Tamarasheni and Kurta, close to Tskhinvali.

Then, the Georgians say, came the "tipping point". They say the US showed them satellite photographs of 150 Russian tanks entering the Roki tunnel, although the Georgians have refused to provide such evidence. The Russians insist their build-up through the tunnel came only after the Georgians attacked Tskhinvali, killing 15 Russian peacekeepers. "This was a heavy armoured Russian column, moving slowly, on very rugged terrain in the highest mountain range in Europe," says Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze of Georgia. "Think how many hours of preparation, assembly, then marching, it would take for that column, moving at that speed on rugged terrain, to be at the Kurta bridge at six in the morning. If that isn't a premeditated invasion, I don't know what is." They were regular Russian troops, not peacekeepers, heading to Tskhinvali.

As the skirmishes grew, the Georgian president decided against travelling to the Olympics, got off his plane 15 minutes before take-off, and began calling Western allies, although he did not ask for military support. Saakashvili says he was also "frantically" calling Moscow – but Prime Minister Putin's secretary "told me to call back".

Just before midnight, Saakashvili spoke with his military commanders and the Georgian forces let rip with the Grad rockets – known as Stalin's organ – which lit up the night sky in a massive offensive on Tskhinvali, which lasted four to five hours. The initial 3,000 Georgian soldiers were not prepared for the punitive response, in which Russia poured in thousands more troops to Tskhinvali, saying they were acting to protect their own citizens after Russian peacekeepers were killed in the Georgian blitz. The firepower of the Russian bombers and infantry in the city was so intense that the Georgians had to retreat twice on 8 August. But the day after the offensive, Saakashvili said it was ordered "to restore constitutional order" – in other words, according to Western diplomats, he had confirmed that the attack was a Georgian aggression. The Russian deputy military chief of staff, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, claimed the city had been flattened by the Georgian attack. "Tskhinvali doesn't exist, it's like Stalingrad was after the war," he said.

Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, expressed astonishment to a BBC interviewer at the international reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia proper in the wake of the Tskhinvali fighting. "Any civilised country would act the same way. I may remind you [that on] September 11, the reaction was similar. American citizens were killed. You know the reaction."



8 august: Olympic diplomacy

President Sarkozy of France learnt of the Georgian offensive at the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, where he and his 11-year-old son Louis bumped into Vladimir Putin. The French President, whose country holds the EU presidency, decided to get involved in the increasingly urgent search for a ceasefire after Bush told Putin at the Olympics that Russia's "disproportionate" response was "unacceptable".

On Saturday 9 August, Putin was in the southern Caucasus hearing refugees' tales of a "genocide" against the South Ossetians. For their part, the Georgians were condemning "ethnic cleansing" by the Russians. Claims and counter-claims of thousands of casualties were made by both sides. The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, was dispatched to Tbilisi on the Sunday as he initiated a shuttle diplomacy between Georgia and Russia without the usual diplomatic nicety of securing an EU mandate. He travelled with the Finnish Foreign Minister, Alexander Stubb, the acting president of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Anxious for credibility as honest brokers, the pair visited Ossetian refugees at a camp in North Ossetia, which is part of the Russian Federation. They travelled with Saakashvili to Gori, where Russian tanks had taken up position, but had to be hustled to safety in a security scare before leaving for Moscow.

Sarkozy was determined to talk to the Russians directly but, with his foreign minister in Moscow on 11 August, he made it clear to President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia that he would refuse to go if the Russians were insisting on the removal of Saakashvili. Sarkozy flew to Moscow the next day, where Putin – who clearly remains the Russian leader despite switching jobs in May – joined the negotiations with Medvedev.



12 August: The ceasefire deal

At a news conference with Sarkozy after several hours of talks, Medvedev announced that Russia had agreed to a six-point peace plan, starting with a ceasefire in Georgia. He read out the details, which consisted of an agreement on the non-use of force and a cessation of hostilities. The plan provided for humanitarian access, and the return of the Georgian armed forces to barracks. The Russian army was to pull back to lines held prior to the hostilities, while Russian peacekeeping forces would take additional security measures "pending an international mechanism". Finally, the agreement called for international discussions on the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Sarkozy arrived in Tbilisi that night with the document in his pocket. Rather than appear at a rally with the Georgian leader, he ducked into the parliament building where they huddled with advisers to discuss the agreement. It became apparent to Saakashvili that the Russians held all the cards. However, he refused to agree to the sixth point calling for international discussions on the status of the breakaway territories. It took another phone call from Sarkozy to Medvedev, who agreed new wording providing for international talks on "security and stability arrangements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia".

The French and Georgian presidents then went out and addressed the crowds in Tbilisi, where the presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine were on hand in a show of solidarity with Saakashvili. The deal was done. However, neither the Russian nor the Georgian leader had actually signed the ceasefire agreement. And the Lithuanian President, Valdas Adamkus, was already comparing the pact to the 1938 Munich agreement.

The next day, Bernard Kouchner flew to brief EU foreign ministers in Brussels, where it had already become apparent that the accord contained a significant loophole enabling the Russian "peacekeepers" to remain in Georgia proper, pending the arrival of international monitors. The French negotiator admitted to his colleagues that the agreement "isn't perfect" and still needed "clarification" despite going through three or four versions.

The EU ministers approved the main principles of the accord, which was only clarified after a further round of talks involving Condoleezza Rice, Sarkozy and the Russian leaders at the end of last week. Europe was split among the hardliners (such as Poland and the Baltic states) demanding a tough line, and those who believed this was counterproductive when military action was not being contemplated (such as the French and the Germans). But the ministers agreed to insert the principle of Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity into their final communiqué.



What happens next?

But it was too late; the damage was done. Saakashvili, who dared to stand up to the Russian bear, is defeated and isolated. He is bitter and has accused the West of betrayal. The Russians did not even have to physically remove him from power; their destruction of his country's infrastructure and military capability will see to that. They have made it clear that he can forget about ever recovering Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The Georgian opposition, whose leaders kept silent while Russian tanks were pounding their cities, have begun to speak out. The woman tipped as a leading contender to succeed Saakashvili as president, the former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze, predicts a thorough analysis of "what happened, and why it happened".

Beyond Georgia's borders, the conflict has revived fears of a new Cold War. It sent Poland rushing to sign a missile defence pact with America that had bogged down in negotiations amid fierce Russian opposition. But the agreement prompted an immediate warning from Russia's General Nogovitsyn that the missile sites would be added to Moscow's list of nuclear targets.

Ukraine, the other former Soviet republic that aspires to become a Nato member, has also raised the stakes by offering to co-operate with the US on the missile defence shield. Nato yesterday reaffirmed its offer of eventual membership to both Georgia and Ukraine.

But the Kremlin, and the rest of the world, now know that the democracies of the West do not have the appetite to force through such a decision. They have received loud and clear the message marked on the Russian bombs that fell on Georgia: "This is for Nato."



Additional reporting by Shaun Walker and Kim Sengupta in Tbilisi

The key players

Vladimir Putin
The Russian Prime Minister and former president has eclipsed his successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, by his handling of the war and involvement in negotiations.

Nicolas Sarkozy
The French President launched a diplomatic mission for a ceasefire on behalf of the European Union while the UN was paralysed.

Bernard Kouchner
The French Foreign Minister did much of the important legwork in the negotiations through his visits to Georgia and Russia, accompanied by Alexander Stubb.

Alexander Stubb
The Finnish Foreign Minister is chairman of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which led negotiations with Georgia and deployed observers.

Mikheil Saakashvili
The President of Georgia, whose pledge to bring Georgia's breakaway regions under central control brought him into conflict with Moscow.

Yuri Popov
The Russian special envoy heads his country's delegation to a joint commission for the settlement of the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict. The commission has not met formally since last year.

Temuri Yakobashvili
The Georgian special envoy is also Minister of State for the Reintegration of Georgia; his job is to recover the breakaway regions. His ministerial title has proved unpopular with the Russians, who support the separatists.

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