Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Caucasus Belli

Today's post on Tigerhawk reminded me that I really need to read Michael Totten's postings more regularly. Totten has been in Tbilisi, Georgia, and his conversations with regional experts and with wounded Georgian soldiers call into serious question the dominant narrative that it was Georgian president Saakashvili who initiated hostilities in South Ossetia.

Instead, Totten's reporting suggests that Saakashvili's forces rolled into Tskhinvali en route to interdict a Russian incursion already in progress. This excerpt is from Totten's interview with two analysts (one hired by Georgia, but backed up by an independent --though admittedly anti-Kremlin-- colleague):

“On the evening of the 7th, the Ossetians launch an all-out barrage [ed. in some cases using illicit 120mm artillery] 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.

“What they had in the area was peacekeeping stuff, not stuff for fighting a war. They had to stop that column, and they had to stop it for two reasons. It's a pretty steep valley. If they could stop the Russians there, they would be stuck in the tunnel and they couldn't send the rest of their army through. So they did two things. The first thing they did, and it happened at roughly the same time, they tried to get through [South Ossetian capital] Tskhinvali, and that's when everybody says Saakashvili started the war. It wasn't about taking Ossetia back, it was about fighting their way through that town to get onto that road to slow the Russian advance. The second thing they did, they dropped a team of paratroopers to destroy a bridge. They got wiped out, but first they managed to destroy the bridge and about 15 Russian vehicles.

The Ossetian villages had been previously evacuated and the illicit shelling of Georgian positions appears to have begun on August 6th, one day before the purported initiation of hostilities by Georgian forces which we have generally been told was the proximate cause of the conflagration which swiftly engulfed the area.

If the substance of this report turns out to be all that it appears, then it should serve as an even more stark wake-up call about the intentions and tactics of Moscow in the region than we had thought. I will be watching this story rather more carefully, to be sure. Meanwhile, it may have captured the attention of those who would not want it widely known, which leads me to hope most fervently that the estimable and indispensable Micheal Totten will keep a geiger counter with his tea service.

As ever, do please consider making a contribution to the efforts of independent journalists like Totten, who risk life and limb to keep the facts flowing (PayPal link at the bottom of his posts).

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