The dueling chronologies of the R-G war come down in their essence to whether the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali on 7/8 August was a response to intelligence that Russia had started moving troops and armor to–and perhaps had already moved through–the Roki Tunnel. Saakashvili says:
“I got a call from the minister of defense that Russian tanks, some 200, were massing to enter Tskhinvali from North Ossetia,” Mr. Saakashvili told me. “I ignored it at first, but reports kept coming in that they had begun to move forward. In fact, they had mobilized reserves several days ahead of time.”
[The Financial Times and others have cast doubt on this assertion, based solely on the fact that the Georgian chief of peacekeeping failed to mention this detail (but remember absence of a statement is not a statement of an absence’-). However, US Undersecretary of State Matt Byrza has stated in an email to the FT that he had been told this by the Georgian leadership on the 7th and 8th, i.e., as events were unwinding.]
Other sources claim that the Russians did not begin their march into the Roki Tunnel until after the Georgians had begun their assault on Tskhinvali. But even this source–who is obviously pro-Russian, and evidently has connections with the Russian military if his assertions based on “captured Georgian plans and maps” are correct–admits the following:
Prior to August 8 . . . . the Russians, not being blind, moved five battalions from the 19th Motor Rifle Division closer to the Russian entrance of the Rok Tunnel, and placed the remainder of the 58th Army on yellow alert. Apparently, several other Russian units were activated at this time, namely the two ethnic Chechen battalions (“East” and “West”) and certain air assault formations. In addition, about half of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, having recently conducted maneuvers off the Abkhazian and Russian coastlines, remained in the area, within a few hours of the Georgian ports.
What were these unit activations and movements prior to 8 August a response to?
Moreover, the pre-August 8 movements are consistent with Saakashvili’s statement that Russian tanks were preparing to move from North Ossetia into Georgia. In addition, the FT article linked above quotes Russian soldiers stating that
“they were on the road to South Ossetia long before the afternoon of August 8, and some said they were crossing the border into Georgia in the early hours of the morning. One foot-soldier with the 58th army division [sic] . . . said they headed from their base towards the Roki tunnel at 2am on August 8.
A colonel from the 58th division [sic] . . . says “We were called to react to alarm on the night of the 7th. There was such an escalation of events that I cannot remember exactly when we entered the tunnel.
It would have taken hours to get a significant armored force marshaled even to enter the Tunnel. Thus, even if the van of the Russian force entered the Tunnel at 2 AM, it must have assembled hours–and perhaps days–before that. Moreover, movements through defiles are painfully slow. (For an excellent quantitative analysis of this, see Donald Engel’s Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, especially his descriptions of the march through the Syrian Gates before Issus, and the passage of the Hindu Kush.) This is especially true with tracked vehicles, some of which broke down (according to Felgenhaur) and on a road crammed with refugees. (If the road was NOT crammed with refugees–then the movement must have occurred BEFORE the Georgian bombardment.) In my view, there is no way that the 58th Army could have arrived anywhere near Tskhinvali at any time on the 8th of August unless they were already on the move on the 7th–or before. This is consistent with Saakashvili’s and Byrza’s statements. Note too that even the pro-Russian anonymous source states: “The conflict began some time after midnight on August 8. The Georgians claim that they crossed into South Ossetia in response to an Ossetian attack; even if this had been the case, then the massed Georgian forces had been waiting for just such an opportunity – given their carefully prepared plans (see below). ” There is no way the Russians could have been moving in response to a Georgian attack if the conflict began “after midnight on August 8” (and by the beginning of the conflict he means the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali).
There is one ambiguity in the pro-Georgian (Totten) and pro-Russian (anonymous) chronologies. Where did the Georgian heavy forces come from? The anonymous pro-Russian commentator writes: “Prior to August 8, the Georgians moved two combat brigades with perhaps half the republic’s total number of tanks and IFVs, and what looks to be most of their artillery (certainly all of their MRLS systems) up from Gori and towards the gorge that led to Tskhinvali.” In contrast, Totten’s source states:
On the 6th, while this is going on, the integration minister who was until a few months ago an NGO guy and who believes in soft power things, tried to go there and meet the separatist leadership. The meeting doesn’t happen for farcical reasons. The shelling intensifies during the night and there is, again, tit for tat, but this time with weapons coming from the South Ossetian side which are not allowed under the agreement. By that time, the Georgians were seriously worried. All their armor that was near Abkhazia starts moving, but they are tanks, they don’t have tank transporters, so they move slowly. They don’t make it back in time.
Thus in one version, the troops are moving “from Gori” at some (indefinite) time “prior to 8 August.” In the other, they are moving from Abkhazia on the 6th. Perhaps this can be reconciled as follows: the troops moved from Abkhazia on the 6th, proceeding through Gori and then north on the 7th. Importantly, in the Totten account, this movement occurred in response to a series of Ossetian escalations in the days beginning 1 August.
The anonymous chronologist’s account contains an important detail that relates to my earlier post. Specifically, he blames the Georgian’s failure on inept planning (“brilliance” is meant sarcastically):
Problem 2. The plan’s sheer brilliance.Let’s see. Time is of the essence. Speed is of the utmost importance. So let’s send the main thrust of our attack straight into the enemy’s main city.
Let me rephrase that. Let’s ignore the fact that said city can be relatively easily bypassed and blasted to bits by tanks and artillery deployed on the heights around it. No. Let’s go straight into the damn place. And actually capture every square inch of it. In about 5-6 hours.
You know, back during World War 2, the Russians learned very well the place of cities in strategic and operational warfare; speed traps. Actually storming one cost a lot of time and blood, while bypassing one and racing into the enemy’s operational rear usually meant that a given garrison would be compelled to flee of its own volition. The Germans trying to physically capture Stalingrad, just as the Russians storming Kiev, Koenigsberg or Berlin, resulted in a total exhaustion of the besiegers; while bypassing all those cities and towns in Belorussia during the June 1944 Soviet offensive meant that the Germans barely had the time to abandon their heavy equipment and race to the rear; similar to what the Germans did to the Russians in June of 1941, before they bogged down in reducing centers of Soviet resistance.
Not that this means that there are no times in war when sieges and clearing operations need to be conducted – preferably by the second-echelon troops with ample artillery support (while the first echelon continues to mangle the enemy’s operational depths). Yet in this case, speed was the key to the Georgian plan – Ossetia had to be defeated within scant hours, the road north cut and the Rok Tunnel sealed off, with nothing for anyone else to do other than bemoan the Georgian Blitzkrieg.
Ah. But instead, we’re going to send our main column into an urban battle, granted, inside a town of 20,000 rather than a large city like Stalingrad. Still, narrow streets are bottlenecks and deathtraps to armored vehicles no matter what the scale.
Problem 2.5 – the brilliance continues.
On top of everything said above, the Georgians also had to devise a way of dealing with the 500 Russian peacekeepers deployed in South Ossetia. So what did they decide? Bypass and isolate? No no – surround and assault! Presumably hoping that only a portion of a single combat brigade would suffice to overrun a full battalion of albeit lightly-armed (assault rifles, machine-guns, a few RPGs, a couple of BMP IFVs) peacekeepers while the rest of the force could proceed to subjugate South Ossetia while sticking to the Brilliant Master Plan’s schedule.
Absolutely no margin of error assuming a scintilla of intelligence on the side of the Russians. For, you see, any delay in the Grand Plan of Ossetian Subjugation meant that the Russians could (and did) race down the road from the Rok Tunnel and turn a would-be “fait accompli” into an actual slugfest. See Problems 1 and 2 above for potential sources of said delays.
If, in fact, the Georgians initiated the fight, their failure to seal the Roki Tunnel, and to bypass Tskhinvali, would have been a criminal blunder that not even a rank amateur would have committed. And in the end, that’s the key aspect of the analysis.
I doubt that the Russians could have arrived at any time on the 8th unless they had initiated their march through Roki some time on the 7th. Even overlooking that, however, if the Georgians were initiating the attack, rather than reacting to a Russian advance, it is hard to believe that the Roki Tunnel would not have been their first objective, and that they would have not initially bypassed Tskhinvali in an attempt to block Roki with heavy forces rather than merely attempting to interdict the route with fires and a forlorn hope paratrooper attack. On the other hand, a helter-skelter assault on Tskhinvali, a suicide attack on the Tunnel, and a desperate attempt to block the road with indirect fires is perfectly consistent with an improvised response to an unexpected Russian move to and through Roki. That is, the Georgian actions are consistent with Saakashvili’s assertion that they moved only when they had detected a Russian advance from North Ossetia. Only by positing criminal stupidity on the part of the Georgian command could one claim that their actions were the result of a PLAN to seize South Ossetia. The anonymous Russian defender must–MUST–posit such idiocy in order to hold his entire narrative together. His timeline makes no sense otherwise. This leads me to discount his account.
Add to this the fact that the Russian Black Sea fleet–which seldom ventures from Sevastopol–just happened to be on maneuvers off the coast of Abkhazia when the Georgians just happened to invade; the apparent fact that Russia had repositioned various air strike groups to the region in July; the recent completion of maneuvers by the 58th Army just days before; the escalating provocations by the South Ossetians; the clearly systematic effort by the Russians and their separatist allies to blind Georgian intelligence by taking out its UAVs; the sudden shift of tensions from Abkhazia to South Ossetia (consistent with the execution of a feint to distract attention from the intended point of attack–which had the advantage of threatening the Georgian capital much more quickly than an attack from Abkhazia); the reports that Russian journalists were primed and ready and on location to cover the story; and, let’s not forget, Russia’s relatively recent withdrawal from the CFE Treaty (freeing its hands to move forces to the Caucasus flank); it is very difficult to draw any other conclusion that the invasion was long planned.
In sum, (a) the logistical and operational challenges of moving a large armored force through a defile on a single road rapidly enough to arrive any time on 8 August (which is not in dispute), and (b) the necessity of positing complete incompetence–and I mean utter, abject, gobsmacking incompetence–to explain away the Georgian’s failure to strike hard and fast for the Roki Tunnel tells me that Saakashvili’s explanation is most likely to be true. Specifically, he launched an improvised attack in response to intelligence of a Russian movement through the Roki Tunnel that began hours before the first Georgian Grad fell on Tskhinvali. The attack failed. Indeed, it was almost doomed to failure. Add in the other evidence, including the FT quote from the Russian soldier, and the extensive evidence of a Russian operational plan coordinating the operations of naval, air, and ground assets as well as local irregular forces, and the only conclusions that makes sense are (a) that Russia’s attack was premeditated, and (b) that the assertions that Georgia started the conflict with its bombardment of Tskhinvali are wrong.