Last October, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had played a central role in bringing the five-day war in South Ossetia and Georgia to a halt, summed up his interpretation of what had triggered the war: “There was a military intervention by Georgian forces,” he remarked, “which was an error. The reaction of the Russian army was disproportionate to the Georgian military intervention.”
Many in the West hold Sarkozy’s view, but it is seriously flawed. In fact, the Russian side initiated the conflict, though President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia committed a major error when he had his military confront the invading Russian forces.
The Russian leadership and state-controlled media have repeatedly insisted that Georgia initiated the conflict, specifically around midnight on August 7, 2008. Extensive research by Andrei Illarionov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chief economic adviser in 2000–05 who then became a leading opposition figure, contradicts such assertions. Illarionov carried out his own fact-finding mission to both South Ossetia and Georgia, using his extensive contacts in the region to ferret out key information.
An article in the online journal EUobserver describes Illarionov’s conclusion that the conflict was “carefully planned and built up since the spring of 2004, when the Russian authorities started supplying South Ossetia and Abkhazia with military equipment and training their military forces, building military bases and strategic highways and railroads.”
“The buildup culminated with the amassing of 80,000 regular troops and paramilitaries close to the Georgian border, at least 60,000 of whom participated in the August war,” Illarionov said. “It is estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 Ossetian and Russian troops and 200 tanks were in South Ossetia” on August 7. As for the Georgian side, it had only 4,000–5,000 soldiers and 42 tanks in the proximity of South Ossetia.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a leading Russian military analyst, had reached similar conclusions. As summarized in Paul Goble’s useful blog, Window on Eurasia, Felgenhauer contended that “despite Moscow’s claims that it was only responding to Georgian actions and therefore cannot be called the aggressor, Vladimir Putin in fact already in April  set in motion plans to invade Georgia sometime this year. . . . In early August, all the pieces of such an invasion came together: the Caucasus 2008 maneuvers had just been completed, Russian forces in the region were in place . . . and Moscow’s propaganda mill had gone into overdrive. . . . Once these pieces were in place, it was necessary for Moscow to act more or less quickly because, as Felgenhauer points out, one must not forever hold the forces and fleet at a high level of readiness twenty-four hours a day.”
Returning to Illarionov’s findings, we learn from an October 24 interview with Ekho Moskvy Radio that a mobilization of North Ossetian and Cossack volunteers was declared on August 2, five days before Saakashvili made a move. Beginning on August 3, “volunteers began to reach South Ossetia, from 300 to 1,000 persons every night. . . . All of the volunteers had been registered in [Russian] military commissariats of the republics of the North Caucasus.”
Beginning on August 4, Illarionov said, in the same interview, several units of the Russian military special forces were moved onto the territory of South Ossetia. By August 7, at least “four units of the Russian army had been moved onto the territory of South Ossetia, including the 135th Motorized Rifle Regiment and the 22nd Special Forces Brigade. In addition, several tank units from the regular Russian military that had participated in the Caucasus 2008 maneuvers were already present on the territory of South Ossetia.”
These military units, as well as paramilitary volunteers, moved at night through the Roki Tunnel, which leads from North Ossetia in the Russian Republic to South Ossetia, legally part of Georgia. The tunnel, completed by the Soviet authorities in 1985, is the only route linking the two Ossetias. As Illarionov noted: “Every night through the Roki Tunnel there were large numbers of people moving, and the Georgians repeatedly appealed to the Russians to halt what they termed a movement of unidentified people through the Roki Tunnel. They also appealed to the Russians to establish joint control over the tunnel. . . . The Russian side did not provide an answer.” The positioning of Russian military units in South Ossetia has also been documented by interviews with officers and soldiers of the 135th Motorized Rifle Regiment that appeared in the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda and the provincial newspaper Permskie Novosti.
The aim of the planned Russian incursion, Illarionov said in an interview with Le Monde, was to overthrow Saakashvili and to reimpose power in Tbilisi “under cover of a revolution or coup d’état accompanied by military incidents.” The overthrow of President Abulfaz Elchibey of Azerbaijan in 1993 was one model, according to Illarionov, for what Russia had in mind.
Summing up her findings concerning the outbreak of the conflict, Yuliya Latynina, a respected Russian investigative journalist, has written that on the eve of the war, on the night of August 6, “advance units of the 135th [Motorized Rifle] Regiment and the 693rd Regiment were already present on the territory of South Ossetia, at the enormous military base at Dzhava.”
As the military units streamed in through the Roki Tunnel, civilians streamed out. Illarionov and others point out that almost half the civilian population of South Ossetia was evacuated to North Ossetia before the outbreak of hostilities. “Over the course of six days,” Illarionov has reported, “17,000 persons had been evacuated from South Ossetia. These are the figures of the Russian Federal Migration Service.” The total South Ossetian population, he said, was no more than 40,000.
Pata Davitaya, a leading Georgian opposition politician and chair of the Georgian parliamentary commission to investigate the causes of the conflict, has asked: “Why was a rapid evacuation of the [Georgian] peaceful population of the zone of conflict not conducted? We saw that an evacuation was taking place on the other [Ossetian] side. So it emerges that on one side there was aggression and, on the other, a complete lack of preparation for it.”
On August 6–7, according to both Illarionov and a reporter for Radio Liberty who was in South Ossetia at the time, Russian journalists also were moved into the breakaway region. Goble has noted that “a virtual army of Russian journalists,” forty-eight in all, arrived in South Ossetia before the outbreak of hostilities.
According to the New York Times, Georgian intelligence intercepted and recorded two cell phone conversations in that same period between a South Ossetian border guard named Gassiev and his superior. The first concerned a report that a Russian colonel had asked the border guards to inspect military vehicles that had “crowded” the tunnel. In the second, Gassiev informed his superior that the vehicles, commanded by a Russian colonel named Kazachenko, had successfully moved through the tunnel into South Ossetia. Colonel Andrei Kazachenko has been identified as an officer in the 135th Motorized Rifle Regiment.
The Times also pointed out that under peacekeeping documents signed by Russia and Georgia in 2004, rotations of the Russian peacekeeping battalion officially stationed in South Ossetia could be conducted only by daylight and with no less than a month’s notice. Russia thus flagrantly abrogated this agreement.
According to a useful chronology of events provide by Peter Finn of the Washington Post, Ossetian separatist forces began an artillery barrage against Georgian positions in the village of Avnevi, South Ossetia, at 2 p.m. on August 7. The barrage, which continued for two hours, killed two Georgian peacekeepers, the first Georgian troop casualties in the region since the early 1990s. Matthew Bryza, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, who was in Georgia at the time, has asked: “Where were the Russian peacekeepers when the South Ossetians were shelling the Georgian positions? They didn’t lift a finger to stop them.”
Amid the shelling, Georgian intelligence also was receiving reports that a large Russian force was gearing up to move through the Roki Tunnel. Saakashvili began frantically calling Western and NATO leaders and deputies. According to Bryza, “Our response was, ‘Don’t get drawn into a trap. Don’t confront the Russian military.’” But the Georgians, he said, decided otherwise: “They felt they had to defend the honor of their nation and defend their villages. It was a very dangerous dynamic.”
The Georgian military informed Saakashvili at 11 p.m. on August 7 that a large Russian military column had begun to move through the Roki Tunnel, and asked, “What do we do now?” The president responded, as he later recalled, “Now we respond with fire.” To do otherwise, he told the Post, would have been to cede Georgian sovereignty. Around midnight, a fullscale Russian-Georgian conflict began.
In making this quixotic decision to oppose an armed Russian incursion, Illarionov observed to Le Monde, President Saakashvili “sacrificed three things: his army . . . his reputation . . . and the two separatist regions.” But, Illarionov added, “Saakashvili also gained three things: he remained alive, the structure of his power was maintained, and his reforms came to receive strong Western economic support.”