Who began the 2008 Russian-Georgian war?

georgian-war-2008-ossetian-war-011 An over-confident Georgian soldier in the first moments of the offensive over Tskhinvali, August 2008

Recriminations and Unanswered Questions: Who began the 2008 Russian-Georgian war?

Rusa Gvazava, Georgian Digest, 25.04.2013

Who started the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008? Different people answer this question differently, but invariably those who blame Georgia for it add that Georgia took the bait and fell into a carefully crafted Russian trap; Georgia was very naïve to respond to such a clear cut Russian provocation. Of course many also believe that Russia actually began the war, citing several historical precedents of direct and indirect annexation of Georgia by Russia.

Nonetheless, the conflict has been evaluated by a number of different experts in both Georgian and international studies. One of its distinguishing features was that, for the first time in history, the EU directly intervened to broker a ceasefire agreement. Following this a fact-finding commission was established, the so-called Tagliavini Commission, which presented its own conclusions about the unfolding of events leading up to the start of the war and how it progress – and aspects of the negotiated cease fire.

Georgians remember that the conflict was preceded by growing tension in the conflict zone and shots being fired even before the war started. All this was acknowledged in the Tagliavini Commission’s report, which states that the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia deteriorated critically in spring 2008 and a proxy war was already taking place in the air with several Georgian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) being shot down by Abkhaz and Russian forces.

In April the Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zones, officially there under the CIS banner, were reinforced by troops, despite protests, and in May Russia sent a team of its military engineers to repair a railway line. On the Georgian side tracks were being extended even earlier for a tank unloading dock.

In the summer public places on the Abkhazian side of the ceasefire line were bombed, crowded cafes were bombed.  Nonetheless, the main focus of attention was soon focused on the other breakaway region, South Ossetia.  From 15 July to 2 August Russia conducted large-scale military training exercises near the Russia-Georgia border and the Black Sea. Ultimately, at the beginning of August South Ossetia began evacuating its civilian population.

Regardless of the proverbial Mexican standoff, “The scene looked set for war” – as the Tagliavini Commission’s conclusion says. It also confirms that Saakashvili, at the very beginning of actual hostilities on the night of 7-8 August, announced contentedly that  the Georgian artillery had conducted a continuous attack on Tskhinvali , the capitol of the region, and had taken control of South Ossetia.  Soon thereafter, Georgian Joint Peacekeeping Forces (JPKF) Commander, Brigadier-General Mamuka Kurashvili, said at the beginning of this operation that its aim was to restore constitutional order in South Ossetia, i.e., bring it back under Georgian government control.

Later, this comment was dismissed as a claim made ​​by an unauthorized person, and it was declared that military operations had only been launched following the Russian invasion of Georgia. President Saakashvili repeated this line​a few days ago, saying that Kurashvili was not authorized to make this statement as he was only a battalion commander, not the Defense Minister.

Saakashvili described it as having no more authority than any statement made by any ordinary citizen. He did not comment however on whether it was actually true or not,

The tone in which the President was speaking at the start of the conflict does indeed suggest that the overriding reason the conflict took place is that he wanted to take Tskhinvali so that he make another grand claim like he did on 16 May 2004.

Then, after removing the corrupt leader of autonomous Adjara, he stated “Aslan has gone, Adjara Is free.” Only when he realized that the separatist leaders weren’t going anywhere, did his tone change. The President only began searching for “reasons the conflict began” after it had ended.

He did not do so when it began – so we should assume that Kurashvili’s statement had more than a grain of truth, and official authorization, in it.

Much has been written and even more is alleged as what has happened: Georgian society and the current government are looking serous at opening up a full scale investigation in the hope that the truth be known at last. The real motivations for the war are still in question.

georgia_war_map_big The Russia-Georgia or South Ossetian War, August 2008. More details: Wikipedia