Streetwise Professor

September 18, 2008

Chronologies V

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 3:44 am

The New York Times published an article that provides further detail–and concrete intelligence–relating to the sequence of events leading to the Russo-Georgian War. Cellphone intercepts of South Ossetian calls provided by Georgian intelligence indicate that Russian armor was moving through the Roki Tunnel well before the 2330 commencement of the Georgian bombardment of Tskhinvali. Indeed, according to the intercepts, Russian AFVs were moving through the tunnel almost 20 hours earlier, at 0341 on 7 August.

The reports appear credible. They are consistent with other reports–from Russian sources–and with Matt Bryza’s contemporaneous account of what the Georgians told him. Moreover, the reports contain key details, most notably the mention of a Colonel Kazachenko, known to be an officer in the 135th Motorized Rifle Regiment which was the van of the Russian advance into Ossetia.

But the strongest evidence for their credibility is that the Russians have not denied them. Moreover, their attempts to explain the movement are risible. Gen. Lt. Nikola Uvarov, a Defense Ministry spokesman lamely states that “military hardware regularly moved in and out of South Ossetia, supplying the Russian peacekeeping contingent there. ‘Since we had a battalion, they need fuel, they need products; naturally you have a movement of troops. . . But not combat troops sent there to fight.”

Riiigghht. It was a fuel shipment. At 330 in the morning. That’s the ticket. What’s more, there is no mention in the intercepts of “fuel trucks”–just armor. Moreover, the Ossetian guards were apparently taken by surprise by the movement–this is hardly consistent with routine resupply.

It should also be noted that in the extremely tense conditions prevailing in early August, a resupply operation under cover of night accompanied by armor was incredibly stupid, risking the possibility of misinterpretation. Moreover, this points out the absurdity of having an interested party–and Russia has clearly asserted its interest in South Ossetia before and after the crisis–serve as a “peacekeeping” force. The ambiguity inherent in such an arrangement is an invitation to confusion, confusion that can lead to conflict.

Certain aspects of the story support the hypotheses that I have advanced; namely, that the Georgian attack was a response to a Russian incursion. I also acknowledge that that incursion itself could have been made in anticipation of a Georgian move.

Another article in Transitions Online, however, suggests that at least the Georgian soldiers at the pointy end did not understand their role to be a desperate lunge to stop a Russian incursion:

Georgian soldiers who fought in South Ossetia told EurasiaNet that they thought their initial mission in the breakaway region was to stop separatist attacks on Georgian villages in the area. On the morning of 8 August, the Georgian government cited shelling on two Georgian villages as the reason for its decision to move on Tskhinvali.

“Our goal was to put an end to fighting in the area and take control,” said one senior lieutenant from Georgia’s 3,500-strong 4th Brigade, a unit that bore the brunt of the fighting on 8 August. “Nobody in the army expected a war with Russia.”

The realization that Georgian forces were not up against South Ossetian militia, but an opponent who could vastly outnumber the Georgian army in numbers and firepower came as a shock, sources say. “The main thing is that the scope of the threat was underestimated, while our own combat capabilities were overestimated,” commented one defense ministry source, who asked not to be named. . . .

After nearly encircling the city, Georgian troops then tried to establish control over a key road to the north that led to South Ossetia’s border crossing with Russia, one mid-ranking commander said. A 300-strong South Ossetian garrison near the village of Tbeti was defending the road.

As Georgian troops battled the garrison, the first convoy of Russian tanks appeared, the commander recounted. The showdown occurred in a relatively narrow field of battle. “We destroyed one tank after another, but they kept coming,” the commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The tanks were traveling from the southern mouth of the Roki tunnel, a border passage that provided the conduit for Russian forces and materiel. The Georgians’ failure to seal off the tunnel has been repeatedly cited as a critical strategic error. Georgian officers were aware of the tunnel’s significance, but they lacked the force to seal it. “Had we had a chance to destroy the Roki tunnel we would’ve done it,” said Deputy Defense Minister Kutelia. “The tunnel is tucked under a rock and it is very hard to destroy or block it unless you get really close.”

This account states that the South Ossetians, not an advancing Russian force, were the Georgian’s objective. It is possible to reconcile this with the Georgian government’s assertion that the Russian advance triggered the actual attack; the Georgian troops were deployed initially to attack the Ossetian artillery, but were hurled into action only when Saakashvili heard of the Russian advance. But this information could also support the Russian position that the Georgians attacked on their own initiative. That is, the causal connection between the by now well documented Russian advance into Roki before the commencement of the Georgian attack and Saakashvili’s decision to attack is ambiguous. Some evidence suggests that the final decision to attack was driven by the intelligence of a Russian advance; other evidence suggests that the attack was proceeding for reasons other than the Russian advance, but that the Russian advance (triggered by what?) upset Saakashivili’s plans.

The NYT article also puts to the fore questions about the intelligence capabilities of each side. It provides a glimpse on Georgian sigint and elint capabilities. We know that Georgian UAV reconnaissance capabilities were the subject of a concerted Russian campaign, so it is unclear as to whether Georgia had access to UAV information. It is also intriguing to ponder whether the US was sharing any intelligence with Georgia.

It is also interesting to ponder the sources of information available to the Russians that allowed them to anticipate the Georgian move (and I think the vast preponderance of the evidence shows that they did anticipate the move and actually entered Ossetia before the Georgian bombardment began). This Moscow Times piece damns Russian intelligence capabilities. Russia had virtually no UAV capability, and was forced to use TU-22 bombers to perform recon operations for which they were unsuited. It is also well understood that Russian satellite intelligence capabilities are substantially degraded from Soviet days. Presumably due to geographic proximity Russia had good elint and sigint capabilities, but arguably it was highly reliant on reports from Russian “peacekeeping” forces, and even more, from South Ossetian forces with eyes on the battlefield. This last is particularly troubling because the Ossetians would have had an incentive to color intelligence reports so as to get the Russians to act on their behalf.

This would not be the first time that two sides blundered into war based on faulty information, and perhaps distorted information supplied by interested parties.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that even when one can establish the chronology of a battle with some precision, that is not always sufficient to establish the motives for commanders’ decisions.

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