Tbilisi admits miscalculating Russian reaction
By Jan Cienski in Tbilisi
Published: August 21 2008 19:21
Georgia did not believe Russia would respond to its offensive in South Ossetia and was completely unprepared for the counter-attack, the deputy defence minister has admitted.
Batu Kutelia told the Financial Times that Georgia had made the decision to seize the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali despite the fact that its forces did not have enough anti-tank and air defences to protect themselves against the possibility of serious resistance.
“Unfortunately, we attached a low priority to this,” he said, sitting at a desk with the flags of Georgia and Nato (to which Georgia does not belong) crossed behind him. “We did not prepare for this kind of eventuality.”
The Georgian military felt there was only a low probability of a massive Russian counter-attack, despite the bloody way in which Russia destroyed Chechnya, on the other side of the Caucasus mountains, in two wars during the 1990s and the fact that separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia had Russian backing.
Georgian forces were unprepared when the Russian counter-strike came, Mr Kutelia said. “I didn’t think it likely that a member of the UN Security Council and the OSCE would react like this,” Mr Kutelia said.
His amazement that Russia would use force against a smaller neighbour was echoed by David Darchiashvili, head of the parliamentary European integration committee. “No one expected Russia would mobilise and invade,” he said
Georgia’s 20,000-man army, built up at a cost of $2bn with the help of US trainers and cast-off Warsaw Pact equipment, was organised to deal with “brushfire” wars with separatist enclaves on its borders and to contribute to missions such as Iraq as a way of shoring up Georgia’s ties with the west, not to do battle with Russia.
Mr Kutelia still puts blame for the war squarely on the Russians and their South Ossetian allies, saying that in early August Ossetian fighters began to shell Georgian positions and villages.
He said Russia had begun to move heavy armour through the Roki tunnel from North Ossetia before President Mikheil Saakashvili unleashed his military against the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on August 7, but offered no evidence to back this up.
Mr Kutelia said that the Georgians moved despite not having enough anti-tank and air defences, not expecting the Russians to react with overwhelming force.“At some point there was no choice,” he said.
Mr Kutelia said damage to Georgia’s military infrastructure was “significant”, and it would take an enormous amount of foreign help to rebuild Georgia’s defensive capabilities, something the Russians have promised to flatten again if they feel it poses a threat.
Russian troops have entered many of Georgia’s military bases, often under the eyes of a cowed Georgian army. They have confiscated US Humvee vehicles, blown up coastguard vessels and ransacked some of Georgia’s most modern military bases, destroying radar and other air defences, as well as reportedly capturing Georgian tanks, small arms and ammunition. So far Russia has made no move to return its booty.
The cost of Georgia’s lack of preparation could be seen earlier this week, when seven soldiers killed in earlier fighting were buried in a cemetery on a dusty hillside outside the capital.
About 20 troops in fatigues, and one in black track pants, watched from the shade of a pine tree as a bulldozer pushed sandy soil into the long trench holding the bodies.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008