Like the 1994 Russian invasion of Chechnya, the bloodshed of the past few days in South Ossetia and the disproportionate Russian military retaliation against Georgia could almost certainly have been avoided.
While the South Ossetian leaders may well, as Stratfor suggested on August 8, have been acting in defiance of their puppet masters in Moscow in violating the August 7 cease-fire, the Georgian leadership has contributed to the escalation of tensions over a period of months, if not years. Not only has Tbilisi repeatedly ruled out signing a formal nonaggression pact with either South Ossetia or Abkhazia, a refusal interpreted by both unrecognized republics as signaling its determination to use force when a favorable opportunity arose; Georgian leaders opted instead for grandstanding, moralizing, and seizing on every opportunity to goad and sideline Russia.
In the fall of 1994, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin repeatedly rejected the advice of his moderate civilian advisers to meet with Chechen President Djokhar Dudayev in the hope of reaching agreement on relations between Moscow and the Chechen Republic Ichkeria and thus averting a full-scale war. In early August, following a series of exchanges of fire in South Ossetia in which several Ossetian residents of Tskhinvali were killed, the Georgians again refused -- as they had consistently done for a period of two years -- to participate in talks, tentatively scheduled for August 7, within the framework of the Joint Control Commission on preventing an escalation of the conflict. That commission comprises representation from Georgia, South Ossetia, Russia, and North Ossetia.
But despite a formal statement on August 6 from France, which currently holds the EU Presidency, calling for immediate talks "within the existing negotiation format," the Georgians, intent on minimizing the Russian role, insisted instead on bilateral talks with the South Ossetian leadership, which the latter rejected.
Late on August 7, the day on which the conflict-management talks were to have taken place in a bid to prevent an escalation, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared a unilateral cease-fire. In the same televised address, he declared his love and respect for the Ossetian people "irrespective of what you may have done in the past in relation to the Georgian state," and he called on Moscow to act as formal guarantor of South Ossetia's "autonomy" within Georgia.
The Ossetians have for the past 15 years rejected successive Georgian offers of "broad autonomy," which they construe as a reimposition of the "second-class citizen" status they suffered and resented for decades as an autonomous region within the Georgian SSR.
South Ossetian units violated the cease-fire later that evening by subjecting the Georgian populated villages of Tamarasheni to the north and Prisi to the east of Tskhinvali to mortar fire. Georgian Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili told Georgia's Rustavi-2 television earlier on August 7 that the Ossetians "are shooting at us from civilian facilities, from schools and hospitals in order to try to describe the damage caused during the retaliatory fire as barbaric acts by the Georgian side."
It is not clear where the late-night South Ossetian fire on the two Georgian-populated villages originated, but Georgia did not respond with precision strikes to neutralize the Ossetian shooters. Armed forces that meet NATO standards, as Tbilisi claims its army does, should surely have been able to do so.
Instead, Georgian units began bombarding the town using mortars and, according to "Jane's Defense Weekly" on August 8, GRAD truck-mounted multiple-barreled rocket launchers, the most damaging heavy artillery in their entire arsenal. On August 7, Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Ekaterine Zguladze told journalists that Georgian police posts in South Ossetia had orders not to use heavy artillery "even when [they] are defending themselves," but she did not explain why they should have had such artillery available to them in the first place.
Initial reports early on August 8 said the Georgian artillery bombardment was concentrated on government buildings in the center of Tskhinvali, but by midday that day Reuters was reporting that much of the city was in ruins. The number of civilians killed over two days of fighting (August 8-9) has been estimated at between 1,000-2,000. Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, who is deputy commander of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, told regnum.ru on August 9 that the high death toll was the direct result of using heavy artillery.
On August 10, however, Georgian government officials blamed the devastation of Tskhinvali on Russian bombing raids, without explaining why the Russians would have bombed their own citizens. The need to protect the South Ossetian population, almost all of whom hold Russian passports, was the rationale cited to justify the Russian military intervention.
Georgian rhetoric over the past four days has been reminiscent of Russia's rationalization in late 1994 of the bombing of Grozny. In both cases, the stated objective was "to restore constitutional order." In a statement on August 8, the Georgian parliament reiterated that argument, referring to the South Ossetian leadership as "criminals" and to those South Ossetians who took up arms to defend their homes and families as "illegal armed bands" -- the exact phrase the Russian authorities routinely use with reference to the Islamist resistance in the North Caucasus.
Also on August 8, more than 24 hours before Georgian officials claimed the destruction of Tskhinvali was the result of Russian bombing, Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze acknowledged extensive damage to infrastructure in Tskhinvali and elsewhere in South Ossetia. He pledged to make available the financial resources to rebuild the city, just as the Russians offered to rebuild Grozny after leveling it to the ground in 2000.
Clashes In Georgia: Chronology
Video of the fighting in Georgia's breakaway regions, and the latest efforts to end the conflict (Reuters video). Play
For full coverage of the clashes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia proper, click here