When the history of the conflict comes to be written, it may be that a small incident on the road linking Georgia to Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, will be identified as the starting point of war. The US State Department’s internal timeline of the crisis pinpoints the explosion on August 1 of two roadside bombs, believed to have been planted by South Ossetian separatists sympathetic to Russia, as a decisive moment. Five Georgian policemen were injured, one severely. That night Georgian forces struck back. There was a furious firefight that left six South Ossetian rebels dead....
It now appears that August 1 was a well-prepared “provocation” – one of the Kremlin’s favourite tactics. Pavel Felgengauer, a Moscow authority on military affairs, claimed in Novaya Gazeta that the plan was for the “Ossetians to intentionally provoke the Georgians” so that “any response, harsh or soft, would be used as an occasion for the attack”. At last Russia was going to teach the Georgians a lesson...
Moscow argues that while it pulled back its troops from eastern Europe and allowed American forces into central Asia to fight in Afghanistan, the Americans have been invading its traditional sphere of influence.
“It’s a very emotional issue,” said a western diplomat. “Most Russians, not just the Kremlin, see Georgia as part of their world and take the fact that most Georgians aspire to join Nato as an act of betrayal. Add the paranoia about the West wanting a weak Russia and conspiring to encircle it and you have an explosive situation. On the other hand, Georgians clearly aspire to closer relations with the West because they fear Russia.”...
The stakes were raised this year when Kosovo gained independence, prompting Putin to increase support for Georgia’s breakaway republics. That came as an increasingly bullish Saakashvili prepared an assault to retake parts of Abkhazia. Western diplomatic sources last week revealed that in early May, Washington had put frantic pressure on the Georgian leader to stop him launching military operations.
“They only just managed to stop him,” said a source.
By the summer, attention had switched to South Ossetia. Russians and Georgians accused each other of straying into each other’s territory. Rice told Saakashvili at a private dinner on July 9 not to respond with military force. However, while she thought that her message was loud and clear, Saakashvili went on to thank her warmly for her “unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity” and may have interpreted it as permission to act as he pleased. Within three weeks the clashes of August 1 had raised tension again.
Rice remained on holiday while Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state, took the role of keeping Georgia calm. Saakashvili also spoke on the phone to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, which holds the European Union presidency, and to Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief.
Western sources say neither they nor the Americans could restrain him; but the Georgian leader last week angrily said he had repeatedly warned Washington and EU countries that the Russians were preparing a military operation against Georgia but that he had been brushed aside.
On August 7 Fried took a call from Eka Tkeshelashvili, the 31-year-old Georgian foreign minister, who told him Russian tanks were advancing on South Ossetia in what appeared to be preparations for an attack. Fried warned her to avoid war but the message did not sink in, sources say. Ariel Cohen, a Russian expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said there should have been direct talks with Saakashvili.
“They needed to be at a very high level, not at the level of Mr Fried. The American position should have not just been clear, but imperative.” A few hours after the call to Fried, in the early hours of Friday August 8, Georgia launched its offensive in South Ossetia, killing many civilians; and Russia responded with a huge show of force, bombing Georgia and invading a sovereign country for the first time since it seized Afghanistan in 1979...
A western mediator, who knows Saakashvili well, said that the West should have insisted on more checks and balances being introduced to control the Georgian leader’s hot temper. “He is high maintenance – very emotional – and can get carried away,” said the source. “He likes confrontation. The other problem is that he makes decisions with a kitchen cabinet of only four or five people sitting in his office at 5am, determining the fate of the nation. Decision-making is bound to suffer.
“The Russians have been provoking him big time and he has been held back many times. On this occasion he failed to keep his cool and did exactly what the Russians wanted him to do – overreact.”...Ralph Peters, a former military intelligence analyst, said last week at a symposium on Georgia at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute: “The image for me will be the president going to a basketball game and flirting with the beach volleyball team.”
He added: “Vladimir Putin is the most effective leader in the world today. Nobody comes close. In contrast, President Bush is looking like Jimmy Carter when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. It’s tragic.”
Bush had thought he had Georgia in his pocket...However, he is regarded as “mercurial” – a polite way of saying that the Americans lost control of their client. “We’d been warned about Saakashvili for some time. Our advisers knew he wasn’t ready for prime time,” said Peters. “But he’s the democratically elected leader of Georgia. The Russians knew they could poke him and poke him until he responded.”
The overwhelming feeling from reading this account - and I do urge you to read the whole piece - is that the West took its collective eye off the ball. Whether the Russians interpreted this as a nod and a wink, or whether they correctly judged that NATO would not lift a finger, is anyone's guess. But the American reaction was late and weak. The international community seemed to delegate its reaction to the French president, who revelled a little too much in the limelight that he had been afforded. President Bush then played catch-up, but by then it was all a little too late.
The test now will be how the French inspired ceasfire will hold and whether the Russians will now withdraw their forces from the areas of Georgia they are currently occupying. Up to now they show little sign of doing so.