August 8. Georgian rocket artillery fires on Zhinvali
Map 1. Caucasian region Georgia - South Ossetia conflict
For centuries Ossetian people (they call themselves “Alans”) lived on the north and south slopes of the main Caucasian mountain range, which divides its territory to the larger North Ossetia and smaller South Ossetia. Russia annexed Ossetia in 1774 and gradually made it the center of its military and political efforts in all Caucasian region. In XIX century Ossetian territory was chosen for the main strategic highway, Georgian Military Road, now Transcaucasian highway (Transkam), connecting Russia with Georgia, Armenia and Turkey. Ossetians are widely considered as the closest Russian allies in Caucasian region and North Ossetia was the base of 2 war campaigns against ChechnyaFrom the beginning of 1990s, Russian's 58th Army, the key player in the conflict, was stationed in and near Vladikavkaz ("I own Caucasus" in Russian), capital of the North Ossetia.
Georgia became part of the Russian Empire in 1801 and never gave up her attempts to conquer Ossetians as well as other minor nations on the territory it traditionally considered its own. If Adjarians and Abkhazians were treated as Turkish Empire’s allies, encroaching on the Georgian territory, South Ossetians were seen as Russian proxies. In order to invoke Russian help in “leveling the field”, Georgian princes presented their case before Russian tsar Alexander II, asking monarch’s permission and help to own Ossetians as their regular subjects, but were turned down, under official explanation that positive outcome of this enterprise would be in doubt. Refusing Georgian advances, Russia was also trying to preserve Ossetian enclave for the better control of the central Georgia and Georgian capital Tbilisi, just 100 miles to the south-east from Zhinvali.
After Russian Empire was dissolved in 1917, Georgia became independent and at once made an attempt to take full control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where massive anti-Georgian uprising was underway. As a result of this enterprise Georgian expeditionary forces inflicted 18000 casualties on Ossetian nation and 50000 Ossetians were forced to flee to the North. In 1921 Red Army entered Tbilisi and established Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia. In 1922 South Ossetia was separated from North Ossetia and transferred to Georgia under direct supervision of Joseph Stalin, Georgian by nationality, then Commissar of National Affairs in the Soviet government. Stalin was born in Gori, just a few miles to the south from Zhinvali and as all Georgians considered this region as natural and uncontestable part of Georgia. However South Ossetia was not dissolved entirely, but according the Soviet national policy received status of autonomous republic, along with two other small republics on Georgian territory, Abkhazia and Adjaria.
In Soviet Union era central communist government in Kremlin made great efforts to suppress nationalism as an "ugly child of the capitalism" and was able to avoid major outbreaks of violence. However, in the final years of the Gorbachev's perestroika, when central control became much more relaxed, Georgia attempted to dissolve South Ossetia yet again, renaming it "Zhinvali region", title, which didn't mention South Ossetians at all. In response to the increasing Georgian pressure, more and more accompanied by violence, South Ossetia declared itself republic, stating that it was not part of the Georgia before 1922, and after dissolution of the USSR all Soviet-enforced designs and boundaries in the Caucasian region were no longer relevant. In the beginning of 1991 Georgian paramilitary and National Guard attempted to enter Zhinvali, but South Ossetian militia pushed Georgian troops out of the city. However Zhinvali was besieged and shelled until the summer of 1992. From November 1989 to July 1992 Ossetians lost 3000 killed, 40 000 left their homes and had to move to the North Ossetia, about 100 Ossetian villages in the region were destroyed or taken over by Georgians.
On June 24 1992 Georgia, Russia, North and South Ossetia signed Dagomys Accord, which has to regulate Georgian-Ossetian conflict, and according its decisions, Russian, Ossetian and Georgian peacekeepers, each battalion strong, were stationed in and around Zhinvali. Since 1993 due to the intense political struggle inside Georgia, sometimes dangling on the brink of the Civil War, Zhinvali was left more or less alone. Economy of the region, cut off from Russia and Georgia, was ruined by overall depression, clashes between local Ossetian clans and extensive military spending. The main occupation of the South Ossetians became transporting of illegal goods between Russia and Georgia and work outside the impoverished region.
In 2004 long struggle for power in Tbilisi ended with the victory of pro-western president Michael Saakashvili, who made recovering of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia the centerpiece of his domestic political program. Saakashvili, former New York lawyer, who was educated in Unites States, married Dutch wife, and fluently speaks English, billed himself as a truly democratic and innovative president, destined to transform Georgia into pro-western democracy, staunchly American ally, bastion between Middle east and more and more totalitarian Russia. As a token of his pro-western stance, Saakashvili sent to Iraq Georgian 1st infantry brigade, trained by American instructors, and supplied with standard NATO weapons. On the national scene Saakashvili wowed to fight with corruption, suppress local clans, traditionally inclined to semi-independence from central Georgian government, and heal devastated economy. His efforts were mostly successful, due to the help from United States and other Western European countries: crime rate went down, economy grew up to 12% in 2007, prominent warlords and criminal bosses were tamed, incarcerated or forced the leave the country.
Map 2. South Ossetia and Georgian-controlled areas
Saakashvili has several reasons to start military actions against Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
First, on the Bucharest meeting with NATO members in early 2008 Georgia signaled that it would like to join to protect its territorial integrity, however NATO was reluctant to promise full membership to the country with large swatches of territory, for many years controlled by hostile separatists under strong Russian backing. Saakashvili was certain, that no matter what the outcome of his assault might be, his bid to join NATO will be eventually successful. If Georgia would be able to conquer enclaves, formal barriers on its path to NATO will be eliminated. In case of a defeat, which was considered as unlikely, or a new stalemate, Georgia can appeal to NATO as a victim of hostile anti-western military power and may easily put itself on the faster track to join this organization.
Second, Georgian political opposition demanded that Saakashvili should make good on his promises to return Abkhazia and South Ossetia, threatening with new elections.
Third, upcoming presidential elections in USA in November 2008 narrowed the window of opportunity for the large-scale invasion.
Georgian president also calculated that Russian Army, still reeling after bloody campaigns in Chechnya, won't support South Ossetia. According grossly oversimplified, but popular outlook, presented by “Georgia Today”, war was supposed to be victorious, since “there is no oil there, Russian tourists wouldn’t fight for South Ossetia cause, and after years of tensions Zhinvali now counts only 30 000 residents”.
Conspiracy theorists already suggested that Georgia was to become the host for the large American military build-up, aimed to hit Iranian nuclear ambitions, role, which other American allies in the region, like Turkey or Azerbadzhan would be reluctant to play. In this geopolitical context Saakashvili's "restoration of constitutional order" would surely can count on the strong American support.
Another popular conspiracy theory, supported, curiously, by Vladimir Putin, blamed Bush-Cheney team for instigating the violence, in order to boost McCain presidential candidacy. According Putin, Ossetian conflict with predictable Russian participation would prove that McCain's strong anti-Russian position and his proposal to eject Russian from G8 will make him a better candidate than Barak Obama.
Third theory was presented by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was quick to blame world Zionism.
In terms of the timeframe, Saakashvili coordinated Georgian invasion with the start of Olympics Games in China, where Russian prime-minister Putin attended opening ceremony in Beijing and "caretaker"-president Medvedev, less than 100 days in the office, was visiting urban centers along Volga River.
Armed forces of Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia in the conflict zone
After 2004, when President M. Saakashvili came to power, Georgian government was paying a lot of attention to the national armed forces. Since 2005 defense budget of Georgia steadily grew up to the level of 9-10% of the GDP (around $10 billions), one of the largest percentages in the world. Georgia used international credits for buying modern weapons in Israel, Ukraine, East Europe and, though intermediaries, from Russia. According recently approved amendments to the Georgian Law, Armed forces were increased from 20 000 (2001) up to 37 000 (2008). Georgian Army became professional: 90% of the Georgian military personnel served under the contract. Georgian officers actively participated in military training programs in USA, Turkey, Ukraine and friendly former Warsaw Pact countries. United States provided extensive military support for Georgia, establishing military bases for training Georgian troops bound for Iraq along the guidelines of the GSSOP II program (Georgia Sustainment and Stability Operations Program II). Before the beginning of the conflict, 180 military training specialists, technical specialists and military advisers were stationed in Georgia. According rumors, some of them were even participating in the battle for Zhinvali and piloted Georgian airplanes, but so far no hard proof of this interference has been produced by Russians or Ossetians.
Armed forces of Georgia
Reportedly, Georgian Army was considered as one of the most battle-ready comparing to the other national armies of post-Soviet states.
Organizationally Georgian armed forces consisted of a land forces, air forces and the Navy. According to official data, published by the Georgian department of defense, before the start of the war all Georgian forces had 29 000 of military personnel (2007). By the new law all military-able males of the certain age must participate in military training (18 days of each year). Trained reserve counts more than 100 000. After the beginning of the military confrontation in South Ossetia Georgian government declares partial mobilization of the reserve, but its quality was considered as mediocre. Core of the Georgian land forces consisted of battle-ready five infantry brigades (by the beginning of the conflict 1st Infantry brigade was stationed in Iraq as a part of US-led coalition forces), several separate infantry battalions, artillery brigade, separate tank battalion, separate battalion of the radio-electronic reconnaissance, separate engineering battalion and separate medical battalion.
Separate infantry battalions were trained by American instructors for special operations in Georgian mountains and forests, and included 112th/now 12th "Commandos", 116th/23rd Sachheri Mountain, 111th/11th Telavi Light Infantry, and 113th/13th Shavnabad Light Infantry battalions.
Each infantry brigade of the Georgian Army had around 3300 officers and soldiers plus 200-350 in support units, and consisted of 3 infantry battalions (each had 591 personnel on armored vehicles), one mechanized infantry battalion (380 men, 30 T-72, 17 BMP-2), artillery unit (371 men, 18 howitzers D-30, 12 120-mm mortars), logistics battalion (288 men), company of engineers (96), reconnaissance company (101), and communication company (88),
Regular Georgian infantry was equipped with AK assault rifles and American rifles M4. Sniper teams received Swiss sniper rifles Nemesis, Israeli sniper rifles Galil 7.62 mm with infrared scopes, special operations units also were equipped with 300 German HK sniper rifles, acquired even without mandatory permission of the German government.
Before the beginning of the conflict Georgian land forces were equipped with 169 tanks T-72, upgraded by Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems to T-72-SIM-1 version, 40 older T-72 and 35 Т-55AM, leftovers from the Soviet era and also with not less than 78 motorized infantry fighting vehicles (BMP-1 and BMP-2), 11 fighting reconnaissance vehicles (BRM-1) and 90 armored troop-carriers. Tanks were upgraded with new communication devices, GPS, "friend-or-foe" identification systems, 2 infrared TV cameras for driver and gunner, and new "reactive" armor.
Artillery of various calibers had 200 guns and 180 mortars. Separate artillery brigade (1200 men) was equipped with 152-mm 2А36 "Hyacinth-B" guns (3), 152-mm howitzers 2А65 "Мsta-B" (11), 203-mm self-propelled guns 2С7 "Pion" (6), 152-mm self-propelled guns 2С19 "Мsта-С" (1), 152-mm SPH-77 "Dana" (26), 152-mm 2С3 "Аcacia" 913), 262-mm rocket launchers М-87 "Оrcan" (4), 160-mm rocket launchers LAR-160 (4), 122-mm rocket launchers BМ-21 "Grad" (16), 122-mm rocket launchers RM-70 (6), 128-mm rocket launchers M63 "Plamen" (12), and anti-aircraft guns ZU-23-2 (15).
Georgian Air Forces counted 10 fighter-bombers Su-25КМ (single pilot variant), which have been upgraded by Israel company Elbit System, and also 2 training aircraft Su-25UB (2 pilots), as well as 6 L-39 and 9 L-29, which also could be used for close battle support. Helicopter units consist of 28 Mi-s of various models, including not less than 3 close support Mi-24, and also 6 transport helicopters Bell-212 and 6 UH-1H of the American manufacture.
Armed forces of the South Ossetia
South Ossetian Army was much smaller than Georgian Army. Officially it counts just 3000 in regular army and 15 000 militia (probably more) in reserve. Ossetian militia was considered as highly motivated and experienced, hardened after years of fighting. Ossetian infantry is equipped with AK-74 and AKS-74U submachine guns.
South Ossetia has 87 tanks T-72 and Т-55, 95 towed guns and mortars, including 72 howitzers, 23 rocket artillery systems BM-21 and also 180 armored vehicles, including 80 BMPs. Self-proclaimed republic has no aviation except of 3 transport helicopters Mi-8. Without support of the Russian military South-Ossetian army was widely considered as unable to withstand Georgian Army for more than a week, putting aside partisan actions after probable takeover of the South Ossetian territory by Georgian troops. South Ossetian Army and militia has extensive battlefield experience and also can count on support of North Ossetia and North Caucasian volunteers, as well as assistance of Abkhazia, another breakaway republic on Georgian territory, which signed with South Ossetia agreement of mutual assistance against any hostile Georgian actions.
Russian North-Caucasian military district (NCMD)
Russia deployed in the region 58th Army (based on Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia) with 2 motorized infantry divisions, separate motorized regiment, 5 separate mechanized brigades, tactical rocket launchers brigade, as well as artillery brigades and support units. NCMD forces include also 20th mechanized Infantry division, 7th airborne division, two mountain infantry brigades, separate helicopter units and fighter-bomber squadrons, antiaircraft rocket brigades. In total North-Caucasian military district can field more than 100 000 soldiers, 620 tanks, 200 BMP and 875 artillery systems, including rocket artillery.
4th Army of the Russian Air Force, covering North Caucasus has 60 front-line bombers Su-24, 100 fighters Mig-29, 60 fighters Su-27, 100 Su-25 fighter-bombers, 40 L-39 for close support, and 30 reconnaissance SU-24МРt, as well as 75 battle helicopters Mi-24 and other numerous auxiliary aircraft.
Map 3. Fragment of the Soviet General Staff topographic map of Zhinvali (1989)