Georgia’s David Attacks the Russian Goliath — And Lives to Tell the Tale

Posted August 4th, 2011 at 1:47 pm (UTC+0)

TBILISI — It sounds like a basic political rule of Machiavelli: launch a war, lose the war, lose power.

Three years after Georgia tried to reassert control over its breakway province, South Ossetia, a necklace of new Russian army and border guard bases protect the self-proclaimed republic.

Here’s how it works.

In 1974, Greece’s ruling general, Dimitrios Ioannidis, engineered a coup on Cyprus, calculating that Turkey would not respond. Before Ioannidis could unite Cyprus and Greece, the Turkish military invaded, occupying the northern third of the island. That loss led to an end to seven years of military rule in Athens.
In 1982, Argentina’s ruling general, Leopoldo Galtieri, invaded the Falkland Islands, calculating that Britain would not respond. The British recaptured their Islands. That defeat led to an end to seven years of military rule in Buenos Aires.
On August 8, 2008, Georgia’s democratically elected president, Mikheil Saakashvili attacked the separatist government of South Ossetia, calculating that the Russian bear would not respond.

Three years after Georgia lost its war with Russia, gloom prevails among Georgian Police at a closed crossing at Ergeneti, once a thriving market town that drew Georgians and South Ossetians. Photo: Yuli Weeks

Big mistake.
But guess who is still president of Georgia?
August 2008 was the third time in 90 years that a Georgian government had warred with its Ossetian minority. Each time, Moscow came to the aid of the Ossetians. (see my New York Times story of Oct. 2, 1991)
This time, about three quarters of Ossetians living in Georgia’s breakaway province held Russian passports. Russia had stationed about 500 peacekeeping troops near the border – a human tripwire against a Georgian attack. Five days before the Georgian leader’s attack, Russia completed its annual summer Caucasus training exercises, leaving 8,000 troops and 700 combat vehicles parked near the northern entrance of the Roki Tunnel, the lone connection through the Caucasus Mountains, between Russia and South Ossetia.
Despite these overwhelming odds, President Saakashvili launched the attack, vowing to restore “constitutional order” in South Ossetia. His defense minister was vacationing in Israel.
The surprise attack seemed to blindside Georgia.
I happened to be in Tbilisi that week, on a business sabbatical from journalism. On the afternoon of Aug. 7, I had a long meeting with the local representative of the International Monetary Fund. After about 45 minutes, I brought up, almost as an afterthought, Georgia’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The representative, an American with five years experience in Georgia, lowered his voice to imply inside knowledge, and said that an overall, negotiated solution was in the works, probably for November.

Today only dogs freelly cross the boundary between Georgia and South Ossettia. Photo: Yuli Weeks

Equally clueless was a British friend, the BBC stringer for Georgia. He called at 7 pm to cancel dinner at the last moment, saying “Misha is on TV announcing something.” After a week of border incidents, “Misha” Saakashvili was announcing a unilateral ceasefire. Several hours later, according to a 2009 report of the Council of the European Union, Georgian artillery started shelling South Ossetian positions.
For a day, it seemed as if Saakashvili’s gamble would pay off. During lunch on Friday at the Marriott Tbilisi, a Georgian businessman approached my table of expats and assured us: “It will be all over by Sunday. Keep investing in Georgia!”
But Friday afternoon at Tbilisi International Airport, it became increasingly clear that it was not smart to attack Russia’s surrogate. One by one, flights from Europe were cancelled. The managers of Lufthansa, Air France and KLM did not want to risk sending their million dollar metal – and their passengers – into a war zone. Georgian Airways wisely cancelled my flight to Moscow, not wanting to risk having their plane confiscated.
At the air terminal, Georgians seemed to think I was overreacting when I would step out from time to time to scan the skies for Russian bombers. (The Russians lightly bombed the airport area 36 hours later).
Stranded in Tbilisi, I went back to my hotel, Betsy’s, which had international television. Standing by the bar, I and other guests watched news footage of Russian tanks clanking out of the southern end of the Roki Tunnel. I had the sinking feeling that I was watching my generation’s version of Prague 1968.
The rest is history.

A blackened building shell stands testament to 140 Georgian houses burned in Ergeneti, Georgia during the August 2008 war. Photo: Yuli Weeks

In the aftermath of Georgia’s resounding defeat, American officials tumbled over themselves to assure the world they had clearly, very clearly warned Misha not to do it. The CIA never publicly explained why their photo analysts did not pick up that, during the week before the war, the northern entrance to the Roki Tunnel was the largest military parking lot for 1,000 kilometers around.
By failing to plug this tunnel, President Saakashvili lost the war before he started it. Apparently, Sandra Roelofs, his Dutch-born wife, never told him the tale of the Dutch boy who saved the town by putting his finger in the dike.
So now, the Russians have 10,000 troops and extensive military material permanently stationed on the ‘wrong’ – southern — side of the Caucasus Mountain chain, in Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Depending on driving speeds, a Russian motorized brigade could reach Gori in about 45 minutes, a move that would cut Georgia in half.

Three years after the war, Saakashvili has beaten the historical odds. He baited the Russian bear, lost the fight, and kept the presidency. That postwar feat of political acrobatics is another tale.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

22 responses to “Georgia’s David Attacks the Russian Goliath — And Lives to Tell the Tale”

  1. JH says:

    Please! Saakashvili is a U.S.-backed terrorist, even his own people are now revolting against him and want him gone.
    Georgia was the aggressor back in the 90s against Abkhazia and again in 08. Stalin forcefully integrated Abkhazia with Georgia. The Abkhazian people have lived on their land for thousands of years and have a right to self-rule. Those are the facts.

    • Guest says:

      Reason for this is because those lands are Georgian lands longer than Russian existence, Saakashvili is a brave man, all Baltic countries and those who have been oppressed by Russia SALUTE YOU!!!

    • Guest says:

      fact also is that 200 000 Georgians have been kicked out from Abkhazia, those people need to be back to their ancestral home, once this happens then we can vote to see if Abkhazia wants to be independent, you can’t kick out real residents of land and then vote amongst your selves, this is a fake vote, lets restore Abkhazia how it was before with Georgians coming back to their land and lets vote then, but we already know what will happen, Abkhazia has always been part of Georgia and always will be.

    • Zimbru says:

      …maybe 1% of Georgia’s population are revolting against him. I suggest you stop getting your news from RT.

  2. Daniel Monte says:


  3. Gennady says:

    Certainly, the Abkhazian people have the right to self-rule.
    But should real Russia that stretches beyond Moscow
    with its decrepit and shanty provincial towns and villages
    afford such war?
    And what purpose for apart from FSB’s ambitions?
    And who has declared that FSB is a political subject apart from being a tool in hands of a tyrant?
    Why ordinary Russian boys with their lives
    and 95% poverty-stricken population of Russian Federation
    with stagnant economy aiming at nowhere
    and unprecedented unemployment
    should finance somebody’s right?

  4. dbd says:

    James Brooke equates success in waging war with leaders staying in power. Would “success” be proclaimed if, say, half of the Georgian population died and Saakashvilli stayed in power? Well, to be fair, since millions did not die, how about we replace it with the reality of an economic downturn and a huge refugee problem. Economic activity is now actually higher in its land-locked southern neighbor, Armenia, than in Georgia with a Black Sea coast!

    I too was in Tbilisi during Saakashvilli’s war. I saw the folly of it all – especially after speaking with returning soldiers, many who were abandon by their superiors. A few days after the start of hostilities a local kid I knew was picked up and sent to the Vaziani military base for training. After a day, he called home starving. His mother had to bring him food. Within days he was in Gori. He did learn what end of a rifle to hold, but had to hitch a ride back home by himself.

    I spoke with a Georgian officer who said part of Saakashvilli’s strategy was to force Ossetian refugees north into the Roki Tunnel to interfere with Russians moving south. The delay was suppossed to allow Georgian forces to occupy Southern Ossetia. Saakashvilli was going using his own citizens to plug a tunnel. “Misha” may be America’s man, but that doesn’t means he should be applauded for surviving. Another Georgian, Stalin, also survived, should we applaud him as well?

    • Rezo says:

      actualy Georgian economy is growing much higer then Armenian…next time check your data before posting

  5. Anita says:

    It’s very clear that Saakashvili lied to all of us. “We are not Georgians” anymore. If we accepted Kosovo and also Southern Sudan as independent states, so why not Abkhazia and S. Ossetia? Kosovo as a country never existed before but Abkhazia has a millenarian history as a Kingdom and also as independent country until Stalin integrated into Georgian in 1931. Our policy push Abkhazia into Russia’s arms. I think it’s time to speak truths.

    • Gennady says:

      «Our policy push Abkhazia into Russia’s arms. I think it’s time to speak truths.»

      1. Yes, it matters for someone to sell yourself for more. Particularly when there are buyers.
      2. But did ordinary Russians with Russia’s vast uninhabited territories want to buy you with soldiers’ lives and national resources having been wasted?
      3. The war was an example of gamble of reckless “politicians” with human lives at the expense of poverty-stricken population of the Russian Federation while billions of petrodollars being get for national treasures the country badly needed for own economic and rudimentary scientific development. Homeless people, deserted children are everywhere,
      4. Millions of ordinary Russians didn’t need any additional country or territory, apart from FSB minded establishment.
      With Russia under current regime being dying out, ghost villages and abandoned towns, with population on the brink of famine in 2010/2011, empty factories and farms, with airplanes and boats crumbling apart, isn’t it for ordinary Russians proper time to seize but not just survive?
      5. PM Putin pours taxpayers money into tiny Chechnya every day more than in a few devastated subjects constituting the Russian Federation.
      6. With billions of petrodollars nowadays Russia firmly stands … on clay feet.

      So, what was the sense of the war?

      • Andor says:

        Gennady, your premise of Russia wanting more territories is wrong.
        Here is what DEBKAfiles declared on August 8th, 2008
        Israel backs Georgia in Caspian Oil Pipeline Battle with Russia

        Posted on Friday, August 08, 2008 6:43:05 PM

        Georgian tanks and infantry, aided by Israeli military advisers, captured the capital of breakaway South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, early Friday, Aug. 8, bringing the Georgian-Russian conflict over the province to a military climax.

        Ossetians, Russians, and Georgians who died in a conflict were just pawns in Israel and Georgia race to control the oil pipes…

        History will judge the Georgian president much harsher than his Western friends.

    • Zimbru says:

      Why not give independence to Chechnya, Karelia, Dagestan, Scotland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque country, Catalonia, Corsica, Northern Italy, Crimea, Kurdistan, Wallonia, Western Sahara, Northern Nigeria, Somaililand, Cyrenaica, Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, Tibet, West Papua, Mindanao, Manipur etc. etc. ?

      The reason is that there is an important principle involved – that people should learn to live together and get along. Separation must only be a last resort, to prevent massive human rights abuses.

  6. Sam Smithson says:

    Great article. You actually recognise a few simple realities: Georgia launched the 08 war, that it was rather reckless in doing so, that the South Ossetians and Abkhazians had a strong separatist history. Etc

    Why wasn’t VOA (not to mention their colleagues at RFE/RL) writing this sort of sensible, educated journalism about Georgia in 2008?

    Instead during the 2008 conflict, like most of the western media, you guys just defaulted to Cold War stereotypes and believed, and re-published, everything Saakashvili fed you, to your great professional discredit.

    • Zimbru says:

      To say simplistically that “Georgia launched the war” is to ignore 200 years of history between Russia and Georgia, and to ignore the escalating military activity on both sides in the months prior to August. It is a moot point whether the war started with Georgia’s firing of Grad rockets at Tskhinvali, or with South Ossetia’s shelling of Georgian villages a couple of days earlier, with Russia’s overflights of Georgian airspace, with the murder of Georgian policemen etc. etc.

      Changing the context clarifies things a lot. What if Mexico was to invade the southern US to protect the rights of hispanics which it felt were being abused? Would the US president be criticised for trying to reclaim US territory? Of course not – it would be his constitutional duty. Same goes for Saakashvili.

  7. eric d says:

    Whoever “started it,” it’s clear the Gergian/Russian War was primarily “caused” by Russia’s expansionist (“imperialist”?) ambitions in the North Caucasus & claims to Georgian territory. If “Misha” was foolish & made stupid mistakes in responding to Russian provocation, it’s clear the Putin regime & the FSB instigated the provocations in the first case. And, of course, Russian ambitions to claim the North Caucasus & ethnically cleanse the Georgians (Chechens, Ingush etc.) date way back in history & are currently being served by the continued military occupation of South Ossetia & Abkhazia. To compare “Misha” to Stalin (who deported the entire Chechen nation to Siberia & attempted to Russian-ize the entire North Caucasus, despite being a Georgia iiosip dujashvilii] himself…) is simply an egregiously false comparison. Sakaasvilii no doubt makes mistakes, but he’s no dictator (or even demagog…). If the Sakaasvillii government has “survived” & kept Georgia (mostly…) “democratic” & “free” against these Russian attacks & FSB subversion, that’s something to be praised for (apart from the whole question of “who won” & “who lost” the war…).

    PS: The US Senate just (a week ago…) unanimaously passed a resolution condemning the Russian military occupation of S. Ossetia & Akhazia (against the terms of the treaty settlement of the Georgian/Russian War). And US intelligence sources have confirmed the Sakaasvilli government’s account of Russian (FSB) involvement in faked “terror attacks” in Georgia. So if we need more evidence supporting Sakaasvillii’s “survival” (& more resaons to support him…) I guess we’ve got them…

  8. Alt Zimbru says:

    Sure, mr Zimbru,
    But where is the Kosovo argument falling in that logic ?
    Milosevic exercised far more restraint before the war in Kosovo than “Misha”. I just cannot remember a confirmed fact that Serb forces shelled any major city in Kosovo before the US bombing campaign began, and the full war started.
    On the other hand you just cannot make excuses to chop a country in two, while playing the line of “reclaiming the sovereign territory” the next day ( paging the US line here ).
    For the Kosovo reason only, the US arguments/wooden language will always be pathetic with regard to Osetia.
    And speaking of the US argument — what it would happen if -say- Serbia will start shelling tomorrow Kosovo where US troops were stationed ?
    And yes- during the opening days of the Olympics, so that the media will be slow in pointing out such brilliant plans ?
    So why is moot to point out that nothing than a full artillery assault was started against a sleeping city ? Really ? How about the older than 200 year history of the two regions ? Should I remind you once again that is was a georgian named Stalin that incorporated those regions into Georgia ? 80 years ago or so ?( while Kosovo was never a state). Is that history or what ? Is it moot ?

  9. george says:

    Russia is an occupant country. So says US Senate, unanimously.

    I add: russia is Faschist Nazi country as well with Putin like Hitler.

  10. GS says:

    It’s a nonsense to say that Georgia STARTED this war with Russia on its own (Georgian) territory!!!
    ZIMBRU writes:
    “It is a moot point whether the war started with Georgia’s firing of Grad rockets at Tskhinvali, or with South Ossetia’s shelling of Georgian villages a couple of days earlier, with Russia’s overflights of Georgian airspace, with the murder of Georgian policemen etc. etc.”
    That’s true! And why James Brooke doesn’t tell us that Saakashvili’s unilateral ceasefire was rejected by Ossetian Separatists and they continued shelling the Georgian villages and the Chief of Russian “peacekeepers” Marat Kulakhmetov declared officially that he couldn’t control the separatists any more?!
    And Abkhazia historically always was a Georgian Territory, since Georgia as a state exists! And this KGB/FSB tales that it was incorporated by Stalin is a shameless lie! Even in 1921, when Soviet Union invaded Georgia, Abkhazia was Georgia and the majority of its population was Georgian!


    The Georgian people are highly educated and more than 80% people are regular print media readers.Thats why they supported pink revolution against Russian backed ruler Edward Shevarnadze in support of Georgia.India’s major foreign affairs discussing “Front line” magazine’s left lenient columnist “JOHN CHERIAN” said Shaksvilli is pro western candidate of Georgia.whatever it may be ,poll rigging of election results by Edward Shevarnadze had thrown him out of power.Russia utilised the chance after Pink revolution didn’t deliver much aslike Ukrine’s orange revolution though they live in better condition than Shevarnadze.Russia allowed South Ossetia and Abhkazia to Georgia after Shevarnadze assumed power after ex-USSR collapse.Only France mediation helped to end the war in August2008 with European Union Monitors.Recently America denied NATO monitors as the European monitors are doing fine job.In coming days,Georgia’s opposition’s role is important in the matter as Shaksvilli faces antiincubency within country.Similarly,NATO’s role is also significant as NATO’s Canadian born Deputy secretary for Caucus&Central Asiaand former CBC Journalist-“JAMES APPATHURAI” said NATO had the right to sell arms to Georgia in an interview in 2011 as per Georgian English magazine report.

  12. Pyotr says:

    All people of the world have the right to independence. And we are to give independence to Chechnya, Karelia, Dagestan, Scotland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque country, Catalonia, Corsica, Northern Italy, Crimea, Kurdistan, Wallonia, Western Sahara, Northern Nigeria, Somaililand, Cyrenaica, Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, Tibet, West Papua, Mindanao, Manipur etc. etc if they want it.
    Common Russians do not need neither Abchasia nor Ossetia nor whatever foreign culture out there especially muslim ones. We should stick to what’s ours. Let them all fight their wars themselves. We have more imminent problems now. Russians are to fight for survival as a nation not as a territory. The main our problem is in our mentality which results in the rulers we have, sneaky idiots (wierd combination per se, I agree) and maniacs, Putin is the wierdest combination of the both. Corrupted FSB and beaurocracy want to have castles and villas near Black Sea on the lawless territories guarded by regular army? I wonder why Russians allow them to do it at the poor common Russians’ expence?

  13. Laurence S. Eraut says:

    My Fellow Americans, August 13, 2011
    After the Russians go down to meddle in Israel, they will lose 5 out of 6 soldiers. The remaining
    soldiers will either be incapacitated, or in some way injured. Finland lost much property that is
    now counted as Russian. But not forever. Finland will greatly expand and retake the area it
    lost to Russia, and then some. St. Petersburg (Leningrad) is actually Finnish property.
    What goes around, comes around. By warring, Russia tried to become great. What will Russia
    do when the Chinese, with an army of 100 thousand thousand (one hundred million) begin to
    march? Remember, China also has the H-Bomb, so Russia cannot use that threat for protection. We have seen the end of Russian empire-building.

  14. Dewey Gisler says:

    Great blog! But what in the heck is going on with these crazy comments?? Anyways bookmarked 😀



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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