Analysts have not paid enough attention to the Ossetian voice in the conflict between Russia and Georgia. The truth is, both the Ossetians and Abkhazians are happy to side with Moscow.
Why? Because ethnic conflicts are nasty, and long before the latest upheaval, enough civilian blood had been spilled to harden resolve for decades if not forever.
Georgia’s military has contributed to the problem.
Initially, two political mavericks — Tengiz Kitovani, a former sculptor turned head of the National Guard, and Dzaba Ioseliani, a mobster with strong ethnic-nationalist sentiment, who with his private army, the Mkhedrioni, terrorized the non-Georgian populations in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, in the early years of independence — dominated Georgia’s army.
The first ten years of Georgian politics focused on efforts to gain control of, professionalize, and modernize the armed forces. Georgia’s first elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a bit of a xenophobe, struggled but failed to co-exist with Kitovani and Ioseliani. This led to what Georgians call the Tbilisi War, an all-out battle in 1991 in the Georgian capital, culminating in Gamsakhurdia’s evacuation by a plane full of Chechens sent there by Chechen president Dzhokar Dudeyev. While Gamsakurdia lived out most of his remaining days in Grozny, Kitovani, Ioseliani, and engineer-turned-politician Tengiz Sigua formed the Military Council and took control of the country.
Edward Shevardnadze became the head of the Military Council by invitation in early 1992, and shortly thereafter was elected as the Georgian president. It took Shevardnadze most of his tenure to minimize Kitovani and Ioseliani’s power, incorporate elements of their private armies into the Georgian state army, and consolidate political control over the armed forces, finally legitimizing the government’s role as the purveyor of legal armed force for the Georgian republic.
He faced many obstacles in doing so; for example, when the Georgian armed forces embarked on a military campaign to regain control of separatist-minded Abkhazia, the conflict lasted from mid-1992 to September 2003, and was an unmitigated disaster. Both sides committed atrocities, and Georgian discipline was terrible — fighters coming and going as they pleased, in many cases after they had filled their cars with Abkhazian loot. Command and control was virtually non-existent. It was a rout at the hands of Abkhazian militiamen and Chechen volunteers, with minimal assistance from Russian federal forces.
Eventually Georgia dissolved the Military Council, and Kitovani immigrated to Moscow. Ioseliani served prison time before going into retirement. Shevardnadze’s standing in the West, as one of the architects of the end of the Cold War, brought substantial assistance to Georgia, and eventually military support from the U.S. The bottom line: The military that President Saakashvili inherited was a lot better, at least on paper.
Which makes last week’s assault on South Ossetia more curious. Georgia’s own military past should have served as a how-not-to guide for conducting military operations. It is astonishing that Georgia seemed intent to encircle and bombard the South Ossetian capital, full of civilians. It is as if the Georgian armed forces learned nothing from the military adventurism of a decade and a half ago.
Half a strategist would have told the Georgian planners that rather than strike at civilian centers, thus hardening Ossetian resolve, it would have been better to bypass Tskinvali and secure the only road from the border with Russia to South Ossetia — the logical ingress route for the Russian 58th Army out of North Ossetia — in case Russia responded with force. The road to the border is also ideally fit for guerilla warfare, the type the Chechens employed to stymie the Russian military in Chechnya for years. RPG and sniper teams well-placed along the route could have crippled the Russian assault before it even got started.
Apparently, U.S. military training and assistance to Georgia did not take into account the stigma the Georgian military had earned vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia, instead concentrating on hardware and unit tactics. We may have forgotten Georgia’s past, and we may associate Georgia with the Rose Revolution, but local memory is deeper.
– Dodge Billingsley has spent months every year (1993-2001) in Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia studying the military and conflicts of Independent Georgia.