Question remains: who started Georgia conflict?

Roki Tunnel
The Roki Tunnel, which links Russia and South Ossetia in Georgia. When Russian forces moved through the tunnel into Georgia at the war’s start is in dispute.
Published: September 15, 2008 in the New York Times

The New York Times carries an article about new evidence, which Georgia is trying to present as solid proof, that the Georgia-Russian war was in fact started by Russians. Georgia has provided intercepts of phone calls along with English translations to the New York Times, claiming, that it is sufficiant evidence.

The Georgian intelligence service has recorded several phone calls on August 7 and 8, which according to them, prove, that Russia had started moving its armed forces into the territory of South Ossetia via the Roki Tunnel before Georgian shelling of South Ossetia.
By Russian accounts, the war began at 11:30 that night, when President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia ordered an attack on Russian positions in Tskhinvali. Russian combat units crossed the border into South Ossetia only later, Russia has said.
By Russian accounts, the war began at 11:30 that night, when President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia ordered an attack on Russian positions in Tskhinvali. Russian combat units crossed the border into South Ossetia only later, Russia has said.
Russia has not disputed the veracity of the phone calls, which were apparently made by Ossetian border guards on a private Georgian cellphone network. “Listen, has the armor arrived or what?” a supervisor at the South Ossetian border guard headquarters asked a guard at the tunnel with the surname Gassiev, according to a call that Georgia and the cellphone provider said was intercepted at 3:52 a.m. on Aug. 7.
“The armor and people,” the guard replied. Asked if they had gone through, he said, “Yes, 20 minutes ago; when I called you, they had already arrived.”
Shota Utiashvili, the director of the intelligence analysis team at Georgia’s Interior Ministry, said the calls pointed to a Russian incursion. “This whole conflict has been overshadowed by the debate over who started this war,” he said. “These intercepted recordings show that Russia moved first and that we were defending ourselves.”
The recordings, however, do not explicitly describe the quantity of armor or indicate that Russian forces were engaged in fighting at that time.
Competing Accounts
Gen. Lt. Nikolai Uvarov of Russia, a former United Nations military attaché, who served as a Defense Ministry spokesman during the war, insisted that Georgia’s attack surprised Russia and that its leaders scrambled to respond while Russian peacekeeping forces were under fire. He said President Dmitri A. Medvedev had been on a cruise on the Volga River. Mr. Putin was at the Olympics in Beijing.
“The minister of defense, by the way, was on vacation in the Black Sea somewhere,” he said. “We never expected them to launch an attack.”

Make sure to read the full article for more. My opinion? Georgia is just trying to save their face, and the calls might well be fabricated. Even if they aren’t – they don’t prove anything.

Artur Papyan

Journalist, blogger, digital security and media consultant


  1. While I don’t know either if they “prove” anything, even the Russians aren’t disputing that the calls are real (see above statement). Also see another excerpt below for discussions about legitimacy. Perhaps Saakashvili, already with an itchy finger, was reading tea leaves?
    Vano Merabishvili, Georgia’s minister of interior, said he was told of the intercepts by Georgian intelligence within hours of their being recorded. The information, he said, was relayed to Mr. Saakashvili, who saw them as a sign of a Russian invasion.
    Pressed as to why more than a month passed before the conversations came to light, Mr. Merabishvili said the file with the recordings was lost during the war when the surveillance team moved operations from Tbilisi, the capital, to the central city of Gori. Georgian intelligence officers later sifted through 6,000 files to retrieve copies, he said.
    The Times provided a range of American government and military officials with copies of the independent translations for comment. They cautioned that while the conversations appeared to be from genuine cellphone intercepts, no complete or official assessment could be made without access to the entire file of cellphone audio gathered by the Georgians. They said the question of provocation and response in the conflict remained under scrutiny in Washington.

  2. Bush/Cheney/McCain/Saakashvili Doctrine
    “Now, I’m going to give you THREE SIMPLE rules: First, trust NO one, whatever his uniform or rank, unless he is known to you personally; Second, anyone or anything that approaches within 200 yards of the perimeter is to be FIRED UPON; Third, if in doubt, shoot first then ask questions later. ” –General Jack D. Ripper, “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”

  3. Dr. Strangelove… one of the greatest films of all time 🙂

  4. The former Georgian defence minister Irakly Okruashvili (now a political exile) says Georgia had planned a strike to take South Ossetia but executed it poorly.
    “Saakashvili “planned S. Ossetia invasion”: ex-minister”

  5. As far as I can tell, even if the intercepts are genuine, they do not contain any proof that Russia actually fired the first shots. In the same way, they do not contain any proof that it wasn’t Georgia who starting shelling Tskhinvali first. In other words, they add nothing of value to the question of who started it.

  6. Cool – Georgia has their own Interior Minister Vano. Maybe they too can one day have crowds who cheer for his return!!

  7. V-maybe the phone calls don’t show who started the war, but Gergians aren’t trying to say we didn’t fire first. They are trying to justify the fact that they fired first. At least, this is how I understand it. They claim it was not an unexpected attack the way Russians claim. Russians were moving in and they were forced to defend themselves. What is funny here is that defending is exactly what they didn’t do but attacking is what they did do. The minute Russian units moved into Georgian proper Georgians run.
    I also don’t understand how they could lose those papers, it is unbelievable. I also don’t understand why there is no record of a phone conversation between Georgians and Bush administration. According to NYT there were some phone conversation with Bryza who kept urging Georgians to not attack. But why Bush or Rice didn’t speak with them if it was such an emergency. Or why Europeans weren’t involved into this before the war?

  8. If there were any records of phone conversations between the Georgians and Bush administration, we wouldn’t necessarily know about them, right? Remember, the Bush administration is allegedly the most secretive administration, at least in recent history.

  9. Germany was actually heavily involved in June-July trying to prevent the blow-up, but it didn’t work out, and they were looking at Abkhazia as the spark, not South Ossetia:,1518,564246,00.html
    07/07/2008 12:22 PM
    Germany Proposes Peace Plan for Abkhazia
    Berlin is hoping that its three-stage plan for finding a peaceful solution to the conflict over Abkhazia will prevent a confrontation between Georgia and Russia. But with blasts in the province killing four people over the weekend, tensions are already threatening to spiral out of control.
    Germany is hoping to mediate a diplomatic solution to the conflict over the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia in the hope of preventing tensions there from escalating into a military conflict between Russia and Georgia.
    The diplomatic maneuvers come as tensions in Abkhazia threaten to spiral out of control. On Monday security officials in the province announced that a series of explosions on Sunday night along the de-facto border between Georgia and Abkhazia had killed four people, including a United Nations translator, and left another five injured.

  10. I think it’s pretty obvious what happened. Saakashvili is known for his impulsive and reckless behaviour. The Russians prodded him in South Ossetia and finally they got what they wanted — an excuse to properly move in. Both sides had their plans for military action and both were building up their forces. Suddenly, a spark (reportedly shelling Georgian villages and the possible deployment of extra military forces after years of tension) reached the top. Saakashvili blew a fuse and incorrectly thought that a) the Russians wouldn’t move in and b) if they did the West would rush to Georgia’s defense.
    As for why no telephone calls between Bush/Rice and Saakashvili, leaving it up to Bryza, if that is the case I think it’s because nobody expected this. Bryza warned Saakashvili, but nobody thought he really would do what he did in the end. Even if they had managed to get close enough to destroy the Roki tunnel, Bryza warned Saakashvili that Russian air power would wipe out its armed forces. True to character, Saakashvili didn’t listen, blew his top and lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
    Anyway, I think key to this are the mentalities of both Saakashvili and Putin. As one commentator said, in retrospect it was as if both were gearing up to a showdown in one or both of the breakaway regions. Months ago, one analyst even predicted the war would break out albeit probably over Abkhazia (where the largest ethnic community there — Georgians — were ethnically cleansed from and still live as IDPs in Georgia proper.
    South Ossetia is another matter, however, and this took everybody by surprise. Regardless, there is no black and white in this war. Maybe there is no black and white in any war. Just propaganda and geopolitical or nationalist ambitions.

  11. Everything is much more simple. When superpowers like the U.S. install governments like the Saakashvili government in Georgia (which is a textbook puppet regime) they control them on a hourly basis. Each and every move.
    Saakashvili was put there by the U.S. to provoke Russia. Why? That’s the best way to remove the mud from the U.S. face after Iraq and many other unilateral moves that made transatlantic relations weaker. In other words this situation will be used by the U.S. and UK to win back the public opinion in countries like France, Germany, Italy, etc, the old Europe.
    Second, the stratagic aim of the U.S. is to rock the boat of international system, which is getting more multilateral, with China, India, Russia and Brazil accumulating large amounts of wealth.
    1. Kosovo – the U.S. destroyed the WWII intenational order
    2. Georgia – the U.S. made another country (Russia) to act in the same manner not to be the only violator … The is the way to set the game.
    3. Finacial crisis in the U.S. which affects the whole world, primarily aimed at Russia
    The U.S. is slowly making an international chaos to stop the rise of other countries.

  12. Armen-I have to say, wow. But you went to far with your last line. Whats happening in the US is horrible and it is hard to imagine that this is planned in order to weaken other powers.

  13. Ani- I didn’t mean that Europeans weren’t involved in that sense. Georgians claim that it was an imminent threat but they spoke only with Bryza before acting the way they did. This is strange, but I buy Onnik’s argument that West didn’t expect such a reaction from Georgia. Of course, the question then is why are they supporting Saakashvili? Why are they not trying to put someone milder and more controllable in Georgia?

  14. Grigor, some things are always hard to imagine but they happen.
    I don’t think that a country which has invented the modern economics doesn’t know what it means to have a 9 trillion deficit and own the printing machine. They know exactly what they’re doing… You may call this conspiracy theory or whatever you want but I don’t buy your primitivist realism either… The West didn’t expect? So what is the West here … a bunch of highschool teenagers? Hey, this is U.S. and UK your talking about. These guys run the things on our planet for a couple of centuries already. They didn’t expect? Do you think the CIA dosen’t have Saakashvili’s blood pressure digramm and daily shit test?

  15. Armen- as a matter of fact, I am sure they don’t have his blood pressure diagram. I don’t know about UK, but the way Bush runs America, I wouldn’t even be surprised that Bush learned about US’s economic problems only yesterday while fishing.
    Just look at the country, US I mean, you seem to be thinking very highly of Bush when you think he runs the world while he is as dumb as a dumb could be. He probably runs the world with his reckless decisions that no one can cope with but suggesting that he has some kind master plan is giving him way too much credit. I don’t know, I too would like to think that he has some master plan and in some sense it is comforting because you expect a U-turn sometime soon that will bring an end to the problems the US has today. But when his own party runs against him you can tell that things are bad, I mean, they are really really bad. At this point comfortable theories are nothing more than drugs that help you sleep well at night.

  16. Saakashvili was put there by the U.S. to provoke Russia

    This argument presupposes that Georgia only started toi provoke Russia when Saakashvili came to power. This is blatantly not true. They were always the thorn in the side since the collapse of the FSU.

    Why are they not trying to put someone milder and more controllable in Georgia?

    Grigor, one of Russia’s aims was the removal from power of Saakashvili and it will happen. However, in the short-term, the West will not allow Russia to effectively “win” in its actions. The same goes for Georgians.
    Lots of pissed off people in Tbilisi, but given the choice between Saakashvili or Moscow’s whim, they’ll support the former. Give it six months. Others say wait until the gas doesn’t get delivered this winter and the electricity cuts out again.
    Ultimately, the West must be pretty pissed off with Saakashvili, but they’re not going to abandon him if Russia wants him out. They’ll wait until later.

  17. >>> Lots of pissed off people in Tbilisi, but given the choice between Saakashvili or Moscow’s whim, they’ll support the former.

  18. Um, Grigor, because they’re Georgian and not Russian….
    The history of the Caucasus and problems with these regions precedes even the founding of the United States, so please don’t think that it’s all about U.S. (pun intended). If you really want to understand the causes and the problems, you should read a great new book (2008) called “The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus” by Charles King. Not quite enough about Armenia for my taste, but plenty about Georgia and the surrounding Northern regions.

  19. Onnig, excuse me, but that argument does not presuppose that… Do not pull the argument out of its pants…
    What Saakashvili does and what Sevardnadze or even his predecessor did are VERY different things. Saakashvili even agreed the timing: the day before the Olimpics, when Putin was in Beijing. Also, that was a very sour pill for China, which was getting ready to enjoy its greatest show.
    Georgia’s attack was a direct order from Washington DC.

  20. Ani- I lived in the region long enough to know how things are handled in the region, and as for Georgia, only few centuries ago they went to Russians and ask for their full protection against Turks and Persians while we were being butchered by the two countries. Georgia kept its independence and possibly even escaped various forms of ethnic cleansing because of the Russians.
    Now, I don’t know, it looks strange that Georgians want a US backed guy over a Russian backed guy. Have you ever been in Tbilisi? When I was there right after the collapse of the Soviet Union I was amazed by the presence of Russian language among the people. They spoke Russian in the bus, in stores, on the streets, everywhere, and by the way I even felt that you could hear more Armenian in Tbilisi then Georgian. I have never seen this in Armenia, where speaking Russian has always been something people associated with elitism and never considered appropriate (I am told that this has changed). So it does look odd that Georgians suddenly hate Russians to a point that they will back the US over Russia, this is a huge change in perspective which goes far beyond various regional conflicts. If you have a conflict with your neighbor you don’t make friends with someone who leaves on the other side of the city and doesn’t care much about your part of the city, instead you talk to your neighbor.

  21. Grigor, the question you asked was why _now_ would Georgians support their president over Russia. Since Russia rolled its tanks into Georgia, burned villages, occupied Poti and destroyed tens of millions of dollars of both military and civilian properties, and has established a de facto border with Georgia a kilometer or so from its main east-west road, and since the Georgian Republic has now, with Russia’s support, lost about a third of its territory, really it’s hard to see Russia as friendly right now if you’re a Georgian, wouldn’t you say?
    As for the support of Saakashivili before this war, that’s a different animal. The sad thing is that the liberalizing forces in Georgia wanted to be pro-U.S., and that meant having also to be Bush/Cheney supporters. How different being pro-U.S. might have been if the 2000 elections would have gone to Gore instead….

  22. No, I read Onnik’s statement as Georgians back Saakashivili over Russians, war is just an added incentive. This is how I read his statement and my question was why? maybe I am wrong and he meant something else.
    Again, I don’t think the conflict between Russia and Georgia is something that should make Georgians feel like they should like US more. It is like saying that Iraqis now have to hate Americans because Americans went in and destroyed stuff.
    It is a world in which Russia is depicted as an evil nation and the US is depicted as a saint. I am not pro Russian but I think if you inflate this bubble that has Russia=evil and the US+West=saint written all over it then when it explodes and it will explode then it will be worst then many of the 20th century’s disasters. It is dangerous to carry on like this, injecting anti-Russian sentiments at all corners of western societies. Just dangerous.
    I for one don’t think Gore has anything to do here. Gore would have been a great choice for the economy and for natural disaster that happened and would have handled 9/11 much better but when it comes to being pro US that wouldn’t change much. Being pro US has to do with the fact that you allow US companies move in and control the country. This is also exactly what it means to be pro Russia, you have Russian companies controlling your economy. Bush and Cheney have little to do here, any US president would have to protect US investments and there is hard to see that Gore would have protected US investments differently. Of course, he would have pissed of less people and probably would talk with Russians differently but the basic principles would have been the same. When less people drink coke in the world and McDonalds is in trouble in places like Georgia then US will act exactly the same way regardless who the president is. Having said this, I agree that Bush/Cheney are kind of an exception to this because of their we don’t need to know facts before we act approach, but being pro US doesn’t depend much on who the president here is.

  23. There are two questions:
    1. Why did Georgia attack?
    2. Why didn’t it close the Roki tunnel?
    1. The American government is divided between the neocons and the establishment: the neocons told Suck-ass Willy that they would help, and Suck-ass Willy believed them, because it is/was not aware that there are two–TWO–American governments.
    2. They didn’t close the Roki tunnel because if they had, then the war would have taken place right on the border of Russia–when the whole point was to show that Russians were the aggressors. It is much easier to show that the Russians are the aggressors when the war is being fought deep inside your country, far from the border of Russia, which is, again, where the Roki tunnel is.
    And one more point: all of this is about the gas pipeline that passes west from the Caspian to Turkey just south of Ossetia. I remember reports that the Russians gratuitously dropped bombs very close to the pipeline, reminding Europe not to get too ambitious.

  24. Question about Roki tunnel is not as simple as that. Look at the picture. How do you hit it unless you have precision missiles, sophisticated air power or can get close enough to plant explosives. The Georgians couldn’t hit it although it should have been a priority target. Regardless, it’s sitting under a Caucasus mountain range. It is not an easy target to hit let alone destroy, but the Georgians should have thought about that.
    Anyway, I’ll wait for a proper inquiry before I buy into any of the geopolitical biases which define whether people support the West (through its proxy in Georgia), Russia or local anti-Georgian feelings. Meanwhile, I consider that both sides were responsible for a war which really could have been avoided.

  25. All it takes is a truck loaded with explosives and a driver. Not exactly “rocket science” as they say.

  26. :)))))) very strange story indeed that one.

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