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The Russo-Georgian War of 2008: Setting the Record Straight

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David Batashvili

is an international relations analyst and a Research Fellow with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked at Civil Georgia.

For the last 11 years, the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 has been a subject of aggressive information warfare waged by Russia. Along with the military operation by the Russian armed forces and the cyber attacks, Georgia also was heavily hit by Moscow’s diplomatic and propaganda assets. The purpose was to shift blame for the war from Russia – the nation that conducted a military invasion of its neighbor – to Georgia, the nation that was invaded.

Russian disinformation campaign against Georgia has followed the same playbook that was later evident during Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014 and other international crises with active Russian participation. The point from the Russian perspective is to shape the narrative regarding the particular event in a manner that decreases an adverse western reaction to Moscow’s actions. Russia has achieved only partial success it its disinformation and propaganda efforts regarding the Russo-Georgia War of 2008, but it has managed to blur the narrative about the start of the war to some degree.

A useful illustration of the blurring in question is an article by Michael Kofman. While efforts to summarize and understand the events of the war of 2008 are welcome, it is necessary to anchor such efforts in solid historical evidence. The claims, summaries and conclusions need to be substantiated by facts. Unfortunately, in this regard Mr. Kofman’s article has some very serious deficiencies. A number of the author’s key assertions directly contradict what actually happened.

A general review of various writings distorting facts regarding the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 would require a great deal of time and effort. Instead, I use Mr. Kofman’s article as one good example of the problem we are dealing with. Below I employ Russian sources to demonstrate why Mr. Kofman’s principal claims regarding the war of 2008 are simply not true. These sources are collected and quoted in the English language in my study dedicated to the start of the war of 2008. In the following text I provide references directly to the Russian-language materials.

The Issue

Mr. Kofman claims that prior to the launch of the Georgian operation in Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, “the main body of Russia’s 58th Army was clearly on the Russian side of the Roki Tunnel [Russian-Georgian border – D.B.] awaiting orders”. He dismisses the information about the entrance of the Russian troops into Georgia prior to the start of the Georgian operation as “unconfirmed accounts,” adding that “rumors don’t add up to an established fact.” He then asserts the following: “Around 11 p.m. that night [August 7, 2008, and in fact it was around 11:35 p.m. – D.B.] Georgian artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems opened fire across the line, and Georgian forces began an assault on the South Ossetian capital. A few hours later Russia’s two battalion tactical groups, who had been waiting for the cue to intervene, came out of the Roki Tunnel to reinforce the peacekeeper units in Tskhinvali.” Mr. Kofman also believes that Moscow was “surprised by the timing of the Georgian attack, which somewhat pre-empted Russian plans,” and that the Russian units were “not expecting the Georgian attack to come so soon” after the Russian Kavkaz-2008 military exercise that ended on August 2, 2008.

Contrary to all these statements, in truth the Russian military units had invaded Georgia by August 7, prior to the start of the Georgian operation. This Russian invasion was a key reason why the Georgian leadership, which had been receiving intelligence about the Russian troops and military vehicles crossing into Georgia during August 7, decided to launch the operation around 11:35 p.m. that night. This is a crucial point because the moment the Russian troops crossed into Georgia uninvited they committed aggression under international law, giving Georgia the right to defend itself.

When we remove all propaganda and elements of hybrid warfare, and look at the facts only, a straightforward reality emerges: One nation’s armed forces invaded another nation, the second nation resisted but was defeated after a short war, losing territories and suffering ethnic cleansing as a consequence.

The Invasion

On March 12, 2014 the Mother’s Right Foundation – a Russian non-government human rights organization that protects the rights of military families in Russia  – published a press release about the case of a Russian soldier Vladimir Selipetov. This soldier of the 693rd Mechanized (or “Motor Rifle”, as they call it in Russia) Regiment died within Georgia, near the Russian border, in the early morning of August 7, 2008 – many hours before the start of the Georgian operation in Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia. Officially, he committed suicide. Selipetov’s parents, however, did not believe this story and launched a lengthy legal battle to clarify the circumstances of his death. During this process, in 2009, the parents asked for and received the support of the Mother’s Rights Foundation, which ultimately resulted in the Foundation’s press release from March 12, 2014.

In this document, the Mother’s Right Foundation quotes the official Russian criminal investigation of Selipetov’s death. This investigation was started by the Vladikavkaz garrison section at the Russian Federation prosecutor’s office the same day Selipetov died – on August 7, 2008. As the press release says, “according to the materials of the criminal investigation, the death of Vladimir Selipetov occurred at about 04:00 a.m. on August 7, 2008 on the territory of the Java District of the republic of South Ossetia, ‘155 meters to the south-east from the entrance of the southern portal’ of the Roki Tunnel.”

Java District of “the republic of South Ossetia” is Georgian territory and precisely the area which according to Moscow’s official position Russian troops had not entered until August 8. The Mother’s Right Foundation’s press release states that “Selipetov and the soldiers of his platoon found themselves in the territory of another state with combat weapons and wearing body armor and began digging trenches there,” and that “the story of the death of Vladimir Selipetov clearly illustrates the situation of the death of a draftee on the territory of another state one day before the official start of a military operation there.”

On August 7, 2008 the Russian-backed “president” of Abkhazia Sergei Bagapsh spoke in front of the Russian TV cameras regarding the heightened tensions in Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia. In his statement Bagapsh said that Russian troops had already entered Georgia. “I have spoken to the president of South Ossetia. It [the situation] has more or less stabilized now. A battalion from the North Caucasus District has entered the area,” said Bagapsh. In 2008, the Russian North Caucasus Military District, which presently has been merged into the Southern Military District, included the 58th Army whose troops were the first to invade Georgia on August 7, 2008.

On August 10, 2008, a Russian soldier from the Perm Krai (an administrative region in the Russian Federation) serving in the 58th Army called his mother, telling her: “Mom, I have just come from Tskhinvali. I have very little time. Listen, we are there since August 7. All our 58th Army. I guess you are watching what is going on there on TV? Today, we have come from Tskhinvali to Vladikavkaz for weapons. Now we are going back.” The soldier was a new recruit. His parents passed the information to the parents of other draftees from the Perm Krai who were alarmed and said that their sons’ mobile phones went silent on August 7.

Possibly as a result of this young soldier’s phone call, soon three mothers of fresh draftees, worried that their sons had been sent to the South Ossetian war-zone, wrote letters to the commissioner for human rights in the Perm Krai Tatyana Margolina. One of these letters reads: “In May [2008], my son was sent from the recruitment station to serve in the city of Vladikavkaz. In June, he took an oath and the ‘young fighter’ training course lasted one month. On August 9, he said on the telephone that they had been sent with a column to South Ossetia in the evening of August 7.”

On August 12, 2008, the mother of Lieutenant Alexander Popov, who had graduated from the tank academy in 2007 and then went to serve in Vladikavkaz before being wounded in the Russo-Georgian War, told journalists that her son was in Tskhinvali Region even prior to August 7: “I had a call with him in the afternoon on Monday [August 11]. He has already had an operation and is being transferred to Budyonnovsk. They were supposed to leave South Ossetia back on Tuesday-Wednesday [August 5-6] – they had had exercises there. But it seems they stayed. He was telling me about a week before the war started: ‘I see how they are shooting at Tskhinvali.’ They were having exercises somewhere in the mountains and my son said that Tskhinvali could be seen perfectly from there.” According to Lieutenant Popov, his unit was “the first to enter Tskhinvali” during the war.

In late August 2008, Vecherny Saransk – a newspaper in Saransk, the capital of the Russian Federation’s Republic of Mordovia – wrote an article about a native of Saransk Yunir Bikkinyaev, a private in the 58th Army. After interviewing his family, the newspaper reported that “on August 7 the parents got worried – Yunir stopped answering phone calls. As he later admitted, he just did not want to scare his family. But the worst thoughts of his parents were confirmed – the 135th Regiment, where our countryman was serving, had been urgently sent to South Ossetia.”

As New York Times reported, on September 3, 2008 “Krasnaya Zvezda, the official newspaper of the Russian Defense Ministry, published an article in which a captain in the 135th Regiment, Denis Sidristy, said his unit had been ordered to cease a training exercise and move to Tskhinvali on Aug. 7.” Later Krasnaya Zvezda changed the article and then totally deleted it from its website, but Captain Sidristy’s revealing quote can still be found in Russian here and here. Sidristy also said that at the time when his unit received the order to move towards Tskhinvali it was staying in a camp in Nizhny Zaramag – a location very close to the Georgian border and the Roki Tunnel.

On May 21, 2009, Rossiyskaya Gazeta – an official newspaper of the Government of the Russian Federation – published a news story about the unveiling of a bronze bust of a Russian military officer Major Denis Vetchinov who died fighting Georgian troops in August 2008. Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported: “The monument of the Hero of Russia, Major Denis Vetchinov, has been unveiled at the base of the 19th Mechanized Division [in Vladikavkaz]. From here, in the early morning of August 7 of the last year, the 32-year old major went on his tour of duty to Tskhinvali.”

I am making a point of using Russian sources confirming the invasion of the Russian troops into Georgia by August 7, 2008. Of course there are others, including statements by the Georgian officials to the parliamentary commission that investigated the war in the fall of 2008, as well as Georgian intelligence intercepts of conversations between South Ossetian rebel “border guards” at the Roki Tunnel at 03:41 and 03:52 a.m., August 7, that make it clear the Russian troops were invading Georgia at the time. I find it preferable, however, to rely on Russian sources while demonstrating what happened on August 7, 2008.

The Treatment of History

It is unsustainable to just dismiss all this evidence of the Russian invasion into Georgia by August 7, 2008 as “rumors” like Mr. Kofman does. When dealing with history in general, and a subject that has been heavily targeted by the Russian disinformation campaign in particular, it is necessary to put a more diligent effort in researching the sources than is shown by Mr. Kofman’s attitude marked by this passage from his article: “I’ve heard unconfirmed accounts that a Russian company may have moved through the tunnel early to secure the southern entrance, but rumors don’t add up to an established fact.”

There are other instances of Mr. Kofman making unjustified assertions in his piece. In this article I concentrate specifically on the fact of the Russian military invasion of Georgia by August 7 – prior to the start of the Georgian military operation. I will single out, however, Mr. Kofman’s treatment of Georgia’s military expenditures in 2004-2008. He calls Georgian armed forces at the time “the most rapidly expanding military in the former Soviet space.” He fails to clarify that in 2008 Georgia had, and still has today, the smallest military in its neighborhood, including in comparison to Armenia – a nation smaller than Georgia in terms of both population and the GDP. The rapid increase of the Georgian defense expenditure in 2004-2008 was a result of the completely dismal state of the Georgian military under the administration of President Eduard Shevardnadze during the period prior to 2004. Mr. Kofman himself shows the data that places Georgian defense expenditure in 2003 at $74 million. Anyone with an even cursory acquaintance with military matters will understand what this number meant for the Georgian defense capabilities at the time. The Georgian armed forces had been built anew since 2004 from an extremely low point.

In his article Mr. Kofman expresses the sentiment that accounts of the past events must not be “ideological and ahistorical.” He also says “it’s important to recapture… history from the trenches of the current political debate.” I couldn’t agree more. History deserves honest treatment, when any analysis and logical conclusion is solidly based on all available facts. For this to occur, the facts in question need to be taken into account. Unfortunately, this is precisely what Mr. Kofman failed to do in his article.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)

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