McCain – Saakashvili – Obama on the back of the bloody August events06.02.2009 | 17:27
Despite the change in leader of the White House, America's attitude towards Georgia is unlikely to change: it will still remain the most important strategic partner for the USA in the South Caucasus, and a potential ally in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.
But will relations between Barack Obama and Mikheil Saakashvili remain just as warm, some might say hot, as they were between the latter and George Bush? Probably not. In any case, Obama gave an unfavourable assessment of Mikheil Saakashvili, calling him a politically weak figure. Adding: "That's why there'll be a new president in Georgia". Admittedly, that was in September, so before Obama's election as president of the USA. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see what has caused Obama's attitude towards the most faithful ally of the United States. Let's look back at the events of early August last year.
For the uninitiated, the invasion of peacefully sleeping Tskhinvali by Georgian troops on the night of 8 August was like a bolt from the blue. Yes, Saakashvili was constantly blowing hot air, but people had grown accustomed to his hawkish rhetoric and didn't pay much attention to it. Everyone, that is, except the Russian military.
At the start of August a powerful Russian army unit was concentrated by the northern entrance to the Rok tunnel, ready to advance on Tskhinvali at any moment. It had just, on 2 August, less than a week before the start of the fighting, finished the "Caucasus 2008" exercises, in which ground troops, the parachute regiments, the air force, the marine corps and the navy had been working through coordinated actions in case of an invasion of South Ossetia by Georgian troops. Once the exercises were completed, the strike formations remained in a state of heightened alert.
But why did Saakashvili choose 8 August exactly to storm Tskhinvali? Just because on that day the Olympic Games were opening in Beijing, and the attention of the whole world was fixed on this colourful event?
This was taken into account, but no more than that. The main emphasis was placed on carrying out a lightning strike. The American military advisers who devised operation "Clean Field" had considered everything, apart from just one aspect: only a fully battle-hardened army can carry out a successful lightning strike. The Georgian soldiers had been well trained by American instructors, and were armed with the very latest equipment. However, they had never experienced battle. And this is the main thing in a war.
According to the plan devised by the Tbilisi strategists, following the lightning strike on Tskhinvali Georgian tanks were meant to head for the southern entrance to the Rok tunnel with the same lightning speed and block it off.
But even though it looked as though it would all go smoothly on paper, at the first clash with Russian soldiers, the Georgian divisions began to stall. And the Russian tanks that were stationed at the ready on the other side of the Caucasus, immediately dashed through the Rok tunnel to help Tskhinvali. 12 hours later they stormed into the city and straight off, with a single blow, forced the Georgian troops out.
So, the campaign undertaken in the summer ended in failure. Yet in the winter the Rok tunnel, which links North and South Ossetia, stops functioning for several months: at both the entrance to and exit from it, deep snow makes the roads impassable from either side. In these conditions, South Ossetia would be easy pickings for the Georgian army.
I know these places well: when I was studying at Tbilisi University, I did a lot of travelling and mountaineering in the region. I can remember one March, we were returning to Tbilisi after having made a winter ascent of the Kazbek. So that we didn't have to make an enormous detour on the train via Baku, we decided to walk across the Cross Pass, which like the Rok tunnel is also located at a height of slightly more than 2000 metres. Cars can't go over the pass, or for that matter the Military-Georgian road, for the whole winter. We came out of the pass in the middle of the night. By daytime the strengthening sunshine was now softening the snow, and any hot air, even a loud cough by someone, could have caused an avalanche to descend on us. At that time there wasn't even a trace yet of the Rok tunnel, it was only built in 1985. The tunnel, which is 3660 metres long and was knocked through at a height of 2000 metres, was one of the longest in Europe. But the main thing was that it became extremely important for Georgia's economy, and for the Caucasus as a whole, since it represented the shortest path linking the region with Russia. The highway was therefore named the Trans-Caucasian.
Had Georgia launched its operation in late November-early December, the Russian army would have been physically unable to come to the aid of South Ossetia. All the intelligence suggested that Georgia was planning an invasion, therefore the Russian tanks were stationed at the ready by the northern entrance and were waiting for the start of the Georgian aggression.
Just before 8 August, the situation was tense in the extreme: exchanges of fire had been going on all summer, and both sides had been accusing the other of doing this.