Georgia: One Year Later

Melik Kaylan

08.11.09, 12:01 AM EDT

The consequences of Russia’s invasion, and bullying, remain just as
ominous today.

Some three or four days into Russia’s invasion of Georgia–exactly
a year ago–I made it to Tblisi, dumped my bags, and was soon in
a car heading toward the front with two Georgian friends. Russian
tanks had already burst out of South Ossetia into Georgian-held
territory and occupied Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, about an hour
north of Tbilisi. The Bush administration, bogged down in two wars
and strategically dependent on Vladimir Putin’s goodwill, choked and
froze. Russian tanks rolled on.

I had by this point advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to
prepare an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, an appeal to the world
at a pivotal moment when his country and the West’s credibility hung
in the balance. What happened next would arguably determine whether
Moscow would quickly succeed in taking back its empire in a swath
of the globe extending from Ukraine to the "Stans." I spent a good
many hours shouting into cellphones, drowned out by sounds of combat,
trying to set up the op-ed between New York and

In the days before we got to Gori, the Russians had bombed it
indiscriminately, causing a refugee outflow. They had swallowed the
territory between separatist South Ossetia and the town. From that area
and others, they were purging Georgian villages of their inhabitants
and settling checkpoints everywhere. Russian aerial bombs had hit and
killed members of a Dutch TV crew in Gori. On the road before us, a
Turkish TV crew had been shot up. They’d taken the left turn into the
hills toward the separatist South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and
got hammered. Amazingly, they got footage of the bullets penetrating
their windshield and hitting their driver in the eye.

As the Bush administration dithered, the op-ed was published and the
Journal’s editorial board had a meeting. Was there anything else
they could do? The Bushies, it seemed, had nothing more in their
arsenal than noises of disapproval. The Journal wrote an editorial
berating them for being supine and suggesting they send Condoleezza
Rice to Tbilisi. Washington complained loudly and publicly about the
editorial, claiming it was about to do just that. Russian warplanes
buzzed low over Georgia’s capital all day and night, but here, at last,
was the West’s firm red line that Moscow didn’t dare to cross. Once
Condi got there, the situation stabilized. If Moscow attacked, the
U.S. and Russia would be at war. Putin desisted, and Tbilisi was saved.

The Russians held to their line of control some miles outside
Gori. That was on their northern front near South Ossetia. They also
burst out of the other separatist zone of Abkhazia abutting the Black
Sea and overran various Georgian army bases and the Georgian port of
Poti. Meantime, my friends had located a little-known tractor track
that led into the back streets of Gori. We didn’t know if we might
hit a landmine or face a hail of ambush bullets. Russian military
officials were following a battle-plan they had successfully tested
during the 1990s in the Caucasus, in the Armenia-Azerbaijan war, in
Chechnya and around Georgia. They secured the perimeter of a town or
village with tanks and then allowed irregulars and militias to do the
dirty work. Against Azerbaijan they sided with Armenia. In Khojaly,
Azerbaijan, in 1992, for example, the Russian 366 Motorized Regiment
encircled the town while massacres of Azeri civilians ensued. In
later years, Moscow used contratniki, mercenaries working on contract,
many of them convicts released from prison, to pacify the towns and
villages of Chechnya. And now, they applied the tactic to the Georgian
region around South Ossetia.

We made it into Gori safely. Because we had entered illicitly, Russian
forces could not monitor our movements. So we stayed with locals and
watched the locked-down streets at night as South Ossetian irregulars
purged more areas, pillaged houses and abducted civilians. Equally,
the militias looted and wrecked Georgian cultural sites in the
hinterlands, which would have gone unnoticed, as reporters were not
allowed to see the sites. I was led to just such a location one day
at great risk to my guides as the sun went down, allowing me later
to report such incidents in the Journal.

Read All Comments As I said in that article, neither Georgians nor
the world was supposed to know about such things, because Moscow
annexed those parts into its expanded zone. As it turned out,
Moscow’s fully articulated plan of action included a highly effective
propaganda campaign. Tanks left Gori during the day while officially
accredited journalists came in to view the "peaceful" town. At night,
journalists left and the tanks returned, ushering in the militias. But
the propagandists’ main goal was to convince the world that President
Saakashvili had provoked the Russian action with a gratuitous Georgian
assault on Tskhinvali followed by a "genocide" against the locals
who the Russians were honor-bound to defend. Moscow cited bloody
statistics of massacred civilians in the four figures (later proved
to be manufactured).

The world’s media lapped it up, not least because a vast chunk of
European and American opinion did not wish to open a third front of
conflict, this time against the Russkies. Moscow well understood the
West’s perennial weakness from prewar Munich to postwar Berlin to
Prague and onward. Blame Saakashvili’s hotheadedness, and the West
would buy it with relief–as a forgotten British sage once observed,
"All men would be cowards had they but courage enough." In the
meantime, Moscow’s "near-abroad" would get the message to realign
with Russia or face the consequences unprotected. In vain did the
Georgian president protest that Russian tanks had already launched
their offensive through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia before
he ordered a response. How else would hundreds of Russian armored
vehicles surged into position all over Georgia within 48 hours?

The Russians deliberately humiliated Georgian pride in pointed ways
and took their time withdrawing to the limits of their newly expanded
zone. In everything they did, the aim was to destabilize Saakashvili’s
leadership–in short, to achieve a "regime change." Since then, Moscow
has unilaterally declared independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia,
a move endorsed by no one in the world except Nicaragua.

The dispute still endures as to who started the war. It heated up in
recent days ahead of the one-year anniversary, while a Swiss mission
completed its investigation on who did what first in those early
hours before the Russian invasion. The report is now postponed until
the anniversary is well behind us, because its findings will have
instant repercussions in the region. As a recent Journal report said,
"Georgian officials acknowledge they have the bigger hill to climb,
as only an unambiguous report blaming Moscow for the war could change
the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia."

Georgia’s position does not look healthy. The U.S. needs Russian help
in numerous crucial ways: to curb Iranian power and nukes, to set up
a supply route via Central Asia to Afghanistan because the Pakistan
route has grown too dangerous, to stay out of Syria and Venezuela,
and so forth. Vice President Biden has apparently already told
Tbilisi not to expect too much help against Moscow, which is a sure
way to encourage further Russian belligerence amounting, eventually,
to a problem across Europe and the world many times the size of Iran
or al-Qaida.

Nobody should be fooled by the seeming equivalency between Moscow’s
attempts at regime-change in Georgia and U.S. actions in Iraq. Georgia
is a full-fledged democracy with a flourishing economy. Iraq was a
bloody dictatorship until the U.S. intervened. The U.S. is trying to
keep Iraq together; Moscow is trying to fragment Georgia. The closer
analogy, in Russian minds, might be the break-up of Yugoslavia and
the West’s creation of entities such as Bosnia and Kosovo from the
pieces. But there again, the Serbians weren’t exactly models of
humanist tolerance. The first of the people-power color revolutions
occurred in Belgrade to unseat the bloody tyrant in place there, a
movement that washed hope across the post-Soviet sphere and carried
Saakashvili into office. Georgia has offered all manner of rights
to Abkhaz and South Ossetians, ranging from regional to linguistic
autonomy. Russia offers them the kind of polity to be found in any
regime upheld by Moscow, including its own. Which would you choose?

The West has furnished way too many levers and excuses to Moscow
propagandists in recent years, from the instability in Iraq to the
recent collapse in the global economy. Russia’s proffered alternative
grows closer and closer to the Soviet one daily: command economies,
Russian-backed political elites, subsidized industries, protected
jobs, state-owned media–the whole gamut. Plenty of folks, especially
those in power, in numerous countries from Venezuela to Uzbekistan
now consider this a viable alternative. If an iron curtain should
descend across the globe anew, we have to decide who to save and how
much to sacrifice. Solzhyenitsyn once said that the Russians were more
likely to triumph in the long run because they were more accustomed
to suffering and sacrifice. The Soviet collapse proved him wrong,
for a while. His words may yet come back to haunt us.

Melik Kaylan, a writer based in New York, writes a weekly column for His story "Georgia In The Time of Misha" is featured in
The Best American Travel Writing 2008.