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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Text message alerted Georgia over the 'model' of operation

Slow trickle of verified facts appears to confirm much of the Georgian claims that the Russians provoked a fight.
A woman stands outside bombed buildings in Gori.
A woman stands outside bombed buildings in Gori.

Tbilisi // The text message arrived early on the morning of Aug 6, sent to a senior adviser of Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, from a US government official who had just read an intelligence intercept collected by the US National Security Agency. "The model is Kosovo," the SMS began, according to the official, and then briefly described an alleged Russian plan for dealing with the increasing tensions between Georgian troops and armed separatists in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia backed by the Russian military.

The Russians, according to the text, planned to force a confrontation inside South Ossetia to justify a widespread invasion that would remove both South Ossetia and another pro-Russian enclave, Abkhazia, from Georgian rule under the pretext of protecting the pro-Russian populations from Georgian ethnic cleansing. The operation would also ideally destroy Georgia's military modernisation programme, halt any movement towards the tiny country joining Nato and possibly force Mr Saakashvili from office and return Georgia to the pro-Russian fold.

What happened in the first days of the conflict remains unknown, as independent observers have gained no access to the Russian-held battlefields and villages of South Ossetia and each side has repeatedly exaggerated its own civilian losses and the damage done by the other side. But a slow trickle of verified facts appears to confirm much of the Georgian claims that the Russians provoked a fight, used hyperbole over civilian casualties to paralyse the US and European reaction and then moved to neuter the Georgian military and Mr Saakashvili's government.

Eventually, the Russian army occupied not just the republics but large swathes of uncontested Georgian territory. Moreover, the army appears unlikely to leave anytime soon. Rezo Adamia, a member of the Georgian parliament from 1992 to 2002, who for seven years chaired its defence security committee, said he watched as the trap was laid and sprang. "The government just stuck their nose in it and [Vladmir] Putin was waiting," he said in Tbilisi, where he lives in retirement.

"Having had extensive experience with negotiating with the Russians on various issues in the 1990s, I had no doubt they were provoking a fight. I just can't believe the government allowed itself to fall for this obvious a trap. A fight in Ossetia only would help Putin damage Georgia." Mr Adamia said he became convinced that it was an intentional and planned attack on Georgia and Mr Saakashvili's government when the Russians entered uncontested Georgian lands.

Mr Adamia said he could not comprehend how Mr Saakashvili did not know that Mr Putin was eager for the chance to hurt Georgia. "I negotiated the end of the Adjara attempt to secede," he said. "Putin was glowering and told me to tell Misha myself 'this is the last thing we give you. Never enter South Ossetia or Abkhazia.' Who wouldn't believe Putin?" Although the text message and the origins of its warnings could not be verified by The National, multiple sources as well as electronic evidence have confirmed the timing of its arrival in Tbilisi as well as its original sender.

Georgian officials, international monitors and diplomatic sources have said the SMS was consistent with their understanding of events and most marvelled at how precisely it described the coming Russian operation. They confirmed that on Aug 6, just two days before the Georgian assault on South Ossetia, Tbilisi began warning its allies that Russia was provoking a showdown over the two breakaway republics, and begged for a diplomatic initiative to prevent any escalation.

"Germany told us that Putin would never invade Georgia and that he was just trying to provoke us into a mistake that would give them an excuse to support Ossetian independence," according to the senior adviser. "We'd been warning the Americans for months that this was coming and the only response was that they would send the info up the [US] chain of command." On Aug 8, Georgian forces hit the South Ossetian capital of Tsinkvali in response - Tbilisi claims - to attacks on ethnic Georgian villages by Ossetian irregular forces, despite widespread warnings from its allies not to engage in any behaviour that might give the Russians an excuse to act.

That attack, most agree, turned into a grave miscalculation on the part of the Georgians and quickly led to the current Russian occupation. "We knew they were setting us up, but we had people coming under fire, villages being shelled with mortars, lives were being lost," the Georgian official said. "If we didn't act in some way, we couldn't really call ourselves the Georgian government anymore and would have lost our credibility in the eyes of the Georgian people. Without diplomatic pressure, we had two terrible choices and [Saakashvili] had to pick one direction."

Immediately after the attack on Tsinkvali, a huge Russian armoured force crossed into South Ossetia and began a ferocious counterattack that quickly routed the Georgian military. The Russians claimed they were acting to protect the South Ossetians after 2,000 civilians were killed by the Georgian attack. Less than 48 hours ago, Russian officials downgraded the number of confirmed civilian dead from 2,000 to 133. The Georgian military estimates its dead, wounded, captured and missing at between 100 to 300, and Russian and South Ossetian military deaths in the dozens.

Even if all of these numbers rise, as they will as more areas are reached, no one - including the Russians - seems willing to continue to argue the Georgian military conducted widespread attacks on civilians or committed genocide. Human Rights Watch researchers have been putting pressure on the Russians to allow access to disputed areas but have found little evidence to confirm Russian claims of Georgian genocide. The researchers have, however, found specific evidence of the Russian use of cluster bombs on Georgian civilian areas.

@Email:mprothero@thenational.ae Central Asia's oil headache, page b1

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