Another foreign challenge for Obama: Georgia-Russia

TBILISI, Georgia — When Russia's tanks and fighter jets invaded Georgia last August, the Kremlin said its aim was to stop genocide in the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia. In a few days, Georgia's military had slaughtered some 2,000 people there, Russian officials and their allies in the South Ossetian government claimed.

Last month, however, the head of the Russian federal prosecutor's task force examining the war said the toll was 162 civilians and 48 Russian soldiers killed.

The disinformation and brutality are among the lingering questions about last summer's five-day war that President Barack Obama's new foreign policy team faces, and the answers will help shape U.S. relations with Georgia and, more important, with a resurgent Russia.

Eleven days before leaving office, the Bush administration signed a "strategic partnership" charter with Georgia that pledged cooperation with the former Soviet republic on defense, energy security and democratic development but made no specific U.S. commitments. To what extent Obama follows through may hinge in part on how the new president interprets the events of the Russia-Georgia war.

Russia's false allegations of genocide paved the way for what now appear to be war crimes: Protected by Russian tanks, South Ossetian militias looted and torched Georgian villages in an attempt to "cleanse" ethnic Georgians from the small mountainous region of South Ossetia.

"Clearly, torture, execution, rape, these are war crimes," said Giorgi Gogia, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Georgia who said that his organization has documented that behavior by South Ossetians.

In addition, Gogia said, Russian forces in many cases participated in the looting and burning of ethnic Georgian homes or stood by as their South Ossetian counterparts did so. At least 17 ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia were "pretty much razed to the ground," according to Gogia, a conclusion bolstered by satellite imagery from the United Nations. More than 20,000 ethnic Georgians are said to have fled to other parts of the country.

The South Ossetian fighters, who were or should have been under Russian control, tortured at least four Georgian military prisoners of war and executed three others, Gogia said.

"As an occupying power in Georgia, Russia failed overwhelmingly . . . to ensure law and order," Gogia said.

The extent of the damage is still unknown because Russia and South Ossetia have blocked international observers from patrolling the area and have allowed only tightly controlled access by the news media.

A review of the battle, however, suggests that all sides engaged in reckless behavior during the first few days of fighting. South Ossetia in part provoked the Georgians with a series of attacks. Georgia responded with an ill-advised and disproportionate assault Aug. 7 on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Russia invaded a sovereign country on false, or at least exaggerated, premises.

After that initial stage of the conflict, though, it was almost exclusively the Russians and South Ossetians who violated the laws of war, according to witnesses' accounts and McClatchy's reporting in Georgia during and after the fighting.

Russian troops destroyed Georgian military and civilian infrastructure, joined in looting and set the countryside on fire in places. South Ossetian militias brutalized Georgian villages behind the protection of Russian tanks.

Russian officials said they were compelled to enter Georgia because of unchecked Georgian violence against South Ossetia. Many experts and eyewitnesses agree that Georgia's attack on Tskhinvali included heavy barrages of indiscriminate rocket fire, and South Ossetians describe hellish scenes from the Georgian push into the city.

"The Georgians shot from everything that could shoot. Residents buried their dead right in their courtyards and gardens," said Dmitry Medoev, the South Ossetian president's envoy in Russia. "Snipers shot at ambulances. Tanks ran over people."

While there was damage to Tskhinvali from the initial Georgian attack and subsequent fighting with Russian units, it paled in comparison with what South Ossetian irregulars later visited upon Georgian enclaves in South Ossetia.

Satellite imagery and analysis released by a research arm of the U.N. estimated that 5.5 percent of the buildings in Tskhinvali were visibly affected by attacks, a figure that squares roughly with what a McClatchy reporter saw there in August.

In the nearby ethnic Georgian village of Kvemo Achabeti, however, almost 52 percent of the buildings were affected, the majority of which were counted as destroyed, according to the U.N. satellite photos and analysis. In the village of Tamarasheni, the figure was almost 51 percent.

Tamarasheni, an ethnic Georgian village of some 361 buildings, had 183 that were destroyed or severely damaged. Tskhinvali, a town of about 4,211 buildings, had 230.

Because Russian authorities have given only limited access to Tskhinvali and almost none to the outlying villages, the satellite images taken in August are a main source of information about the scale of destruction.

South Ossetia's minister of internal affairs, Valery Valiev, told McClatchy that the damage to the villages was caused by fighting during the war. "Nobody burned them," he said. However, the U.N. satellite imagery indicates that damage to the ethnic Georgian enclaves occurred days or weeks after Georgia's military retreated from the area.

The imagery also makes it clear that much of the destruction came not from the heat of battle, as was the case in Tskhinvali, but from a systematic campaign that the Russians did nothing to stop.

There are still about 24,000 people in Georgia displaced by the war, mostly ethnic Georgians from South Ossetia, according to the government there. Thousands of them live in long rows of small concrete homes with metal roofs built alongside the highway northwest of Tbilisi.

Russian and South Ossetian officials have shrugged off that chapter of the battle, preferring to focus on how the war began.

The Georgians and South Ossetians had been firing at each other off and on for years in a blood feud typical of the Caucasus region.

Russia did a lot to enflame the situation. Its embassies handed out passports to many South Ossetians, and Russia's leadership pledged to defend them as citizens. A Russian MiG aircraft allegedly shot down an unmanned aerial drone last April over a second Georgian rebel region, Abkhazia. The Kremlin acknowledged that Russian fighter jets in July flew across South Ossetia — legally, Georgian airspace.

Then, amid a spike in the tit-for-tat violence between South Ossetian militias and Georgian units — sniper attacks, ambushes, mortar volleys, assassination attempts — Georgia's president sent troops into Tskhinvali.

The motivations of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili are still unknown. Had he fallen prey to his famously impulsive personality, or, as he maintains, was there a column of Russian troops crossing the Georgian border early on the morning of Aug. 7?

Russian and South Ossetian officials say that the only Russian troops in South Ossetia on Aug. 7 were peacekeepers stationed there or rotating in as part of a long-standing deal among the three sides.

"I am an Ossetian general, and I give a 150 percent guarantee that, at the start of the war, there were no Russian troops on the territory of South Ossetia," Anatoly Barankevich, who at the time was the head of South Ossetia's security council, said in a telephone interview. "Except peacekeepers, who were killed by Grads" — a multiple rocket-launcher system — "and tanks because the Georgians knew they couldn't fight back."

Either way, it's clear that the Russians were lying in wait for Saakashvili to overreach, and that he did.

"It was absolutely obvious that Russia wanted to provoke Georgia," said Nino Burjanadze, a former speaker of parliament and a Saakashvili ally who's now an opposition leader. Russia was enraged with Georgia for trying to join NATO, and at the West for recognizing the independence of former Serbian province Kosovo earlier in the year, and Saakashvili should have seen that Russia wanted payback in South Ossetia, Burjanadze said.

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last month that she didn't think that "Georgia really behaved in a way that was responsible" in early August.

At the Georgian villages near the now de facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia, which prominently features a Russian flag, residents don't try to parse the details of the days that led up to Aug. 7.

After the Russians drove the Georgian military out of South Ossetia, and then down past the strategic town of Gori, South Ossetian militias burned many homes in the long "buffer zone" between them. In Ergneti, where the border crossing sits in sandbagged positions in the middle of the road, house after house is a burned-out hulk.

Standing in front of his home, looking at the charred wreckage, Alik Gviniashvili motioned to a group of nearby trees.

"My father was hiding in the woods, watching them. He said they were in uniforms, Ossetians. They burned it down and then they left," said Gviniashvili, a farmer. "This is all we had in life, and they burned it all down in one day."

(McClatchy special correspondent Dina Djidjoeva contributed to this report from Moscow.)


Satellite imagery and analysis from the United Nations


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