Last week, Georgia launched a major military offensive against the rebel province South Ossetia, just hours after President Mikheil Saakashvili had announced a unilateral ceasefire. Close to 1,500 have been killed, Russian officials say. Thirty thousand refugees, mostly women and children, streamed across the border into the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz in Russia.
The timing — and subterfuge — suggest the unscrupulous Saakashvili was counting on surprise. “Most decision makers have gone for the holidays,” he said in an interview with CNN. “Brilliant moment to attack a small country.”
Apparently he was referring to Russia invading Georgia, despite the fact that it was Georgia which had just launched a full-scale invasion of the “small country” South Ossetia, while Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in Beijing for the Olympics. Twenty-seven Russian peacekeepers and troops have been killed and 150 wounded so far, many when their barracks were shelled by Georgian forces at the start of the invasion. Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili rushed to announce that their mini-blitzkreig had destroyed ten Russian combat planes (Russia says two) and that Georgian troops were in full control of the capital Tskhinvali.
Russia’s Defense Ministry denounced the Georgian attack as a “dirty adventure.” From Beijing, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said, “It is regrettable that on the day before the opening of the Olympic Games, the Georgian authorities have undertaken aggressive actions in South Ossetia.” He later added, “War has started.” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev vowed that Moscow will protect Russian citizens — most South Ossetians hold Russian passports. The offensive prompted Moscow to send in 150 tanks, to launch air strikes on nearby Gori and military sites, and to order warships to Georgia’s Black Sea coast.
Georgia’s national security council declared a state of war with Russia and a full military mobilisation. US military planes are already flying Georgia’s 2,000 troops in Iraq — the third-largest force after the United States and Britain — back to confront the Russians. By Sunday, despite early claims of victory, Georgian troops had retreated from South Ossetia, leaving diplomatic rubble behind which will be very hard to clear. Truth is stranger than fiction in Georgia.
To be continued…
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly.