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A course set for conflict

Times Staff Writers

The Russian diplomat said he couldn’t make it. He had a flat tire. The Georgian official in charge of bringing breakaway regions back into the fold was incredulous.

Temur Iakobashvili had driven up to South Ossetia from the Georgian capital to begin Russian-mediated peace talks to end months of escalating fighting in the pro-Moscow republic. But his Russian counterpart hadn’t shown up.

“Can’t you change the tire?” Iakobashvili says he asked Yuri Popov. No, the Russian diplomat replied. The spare was flat, too.

Less than 12 hours later, war between Russia and Georgia began, a conflict that has roiled the volatile, oil-rich Caucasus, raised tensions between Moscow and the West and nearly crushed this small U.S. ally.

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But long before that flat tire, both sides had set their course for conflict, analysts and officials in Washington, Tbilisi and Moscow say: A combination of Russia’s relentless drive toward confrontation and Georgian hubris made last week’s warfare inevitable.

To some observers, the course was set after the 2004 election of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. On Russia’s southern border, Georgia had been under Moscow’s sway for centuries. Now, the U.S.- educated Saakashvili was turning the country into a staunchly nationalist, pro-American laboratory for Velvet Revolution-style agitation.

A trove of evidence strongly suggests that Russia was preparing the logistics for war well before Aug. 7. As long as three years ago, diplomats, officials and analysts say, Moscow started waging a multi-pronged propaganda, military and economic campaign against Georgia as it moved hurriedly and provocatively into the Western sphere -- and toward joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Russia’s Cold War nemesis.

“The political decision was made in April,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst in Moscow who writes for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank, and for Russian publications. “It was final. Preparations were being put in place for a year beforehand.”

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Many say the Georgians, with the United States in their corner, became overly confident of their capabilities.

“These are the most romantic people in the world. They’re very gallant, in the stupid sense,” said Bruce P. Jackson, a close Bush administration ally who has worked extensively with Saakashvili and other leaders in the emerging democracies of the former Soviet bloc. “Do they really listen? They’re very much ‘the Charge of the Light Brigade’ people. It has a lot to do with personal honor.”

At any moment, analysts say, Georgia might have staved off a military attack by heeding Moscow’s warnings and renouncing or at least qualifying its desire to join NATO.

Instead, Saakashvili reportedly made jokes about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s height.

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Delicate balance

Eduard Shevardnadze, too, was disliked by Putin’s team. The Georgian president who preceded Saakashvili was the man who, as Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign minister, oversaw the end of the Soviet Union and the dismemberment of its empire -- an event that Putin described as the greatest disaster of the 20th century.

But the diplomat managed to balance Georgia’s pro-Western tilt with enough deference to Moscow to keep it mostly off the Kremlin’s radar.

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“Shevardnadze was very careful,” said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. “He balanced everything.”

Not so Saakashvili. Propelled to power in 2004 in the so-called Rose Revolution, he immediately began to push his country headlong toward the West, purging the Soviet-era bureaucracy, deregulating the economy and cozying up to Washington by sending 2,000 troops to Iraq. In the spring of 2005, he and thousands of Georgians proudly cheered on President Bush when he visited Tbilisi and said the United States would support their progress toward Western-style democracy.

“Everyone was expecting that something would happen because of Saakashvili’s Western ways,” said one European diplomat here in the Georgian capital, who like others contacted for this report spoke on condition of anonymity.

Analysts noted a stepping up of an anti-Georgian propaganda campaign in the Russian media about three years ago. In the weeks before the war, Russian media publicized opinion polls depicting tiny Georgia as Russia’s worst enemy.

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Tensions increased in 2005 after Georgia expelled two Russian diplomats it accused of espionage. Russia deported Georgians living in Moscow, sending them back to Tbilisi in cargo planes.

In the middle of the winter of 2006, South Ossetian separatists who have been agitating against Georgia for nearly two decades allegedly blew up the gas pipeline to Georgia, leaving the country without electricity or heat for two weeks.

Russia started issuing passports to residents of South Ossetia. In March this year, Moscow lifted sanctions on separatists in Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian republic. The sanctions had been imposed under a treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose confederation of former Soviet republics. The Russian parliament passed a resolution recognizing the demands of South Ossetian and Abkhaz separatists.

Russians were enraged when, over its strenuous objections, the West recognized Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February from Serbia, a Moscow ally. Russians interpreted the move as hypocritical.

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“If the West could begin redrawing the map of Europe in this day and age,” said a Western diplomat, “why couldn’t Russia?”

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Hostilities build

Russia’s actual preparations for a possible war began in April, according to analysts and Western diplomats, after Georgia and Ukraine, backed by the U.S., pushed to begin preparations to join NATO, what some called a decisive factor in the decision to escalate the conflict.

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“There were so many times that they could have publicly renounced their desire to join NATO,” Felgenhauer said. “That could have been the beginning of the solving of the problem.”

In late April, Georgia alleged that Russia had downed an unmanned Georgian drone over Abkhazia; Moscow denied it.

A week before the conflict began, Russians completed a major railway upgrade project in Abkhazia. To experts on the Russian military, this was a key development.

“I know what railroad means for the Russian military in terms of military preparations,” Felgenhauer said. “That’s the only way we can move heavy equipment from one theater to another theater.”

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At the same time, Russians ran a military exercise in the Caucasus. It was focused on sharpening counterinsurgency skills, the European diplomat said. Among the units involved was the 58th Army, which ended up leading the attack into Georgia.

In South Ossetia, which is largely ethnic Ossetian but about a third ethnic Georgian, clashes began to erupt between the groups.

“There was extensive exchange of fire, kidnapping on both sides,” Rondeli said. “Russians turned a blind eye to their allies. Georgians turned a blind eye to their allies.”

A blast killed an Ossetian official. An assassin tried kill the leader of South Ossetia’s Georgian community.

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“After this,” the European diplomat said, “everything started to snowball.”

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Mixed signals

Saakashvili’s behavior and inflammatory rhetoric didn’t help matters. Retaking controls of the breakaway regions had always been part of his agenda. He tripled the country’s military budget, to $3.2 billion, and added U.S. and Israeli advisors to his government and security forces.

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“A number of powerful advisors and structures around President Mikheil Saakashvili appear increasingly convinced a military operation in Abkhazia is feasible and necessary,” the International Crisis Group said in a report on South Ossetia in June. “The Georgians have been warned by their Western partners against attempting a military solution,” said the Brussels-based advocacy group.

At a conference in the picturesque Croatian port of Dubrovnik over the July 4 weekend, Bruce Jackson and Daniel Fried, the State Department’s top European hand, pleaded with the Georgian president to abandon hopes of defeating Russian troops.

“You are not in NATO. . . . If you get into this, you’re in it yourself,” Jackson recalled Fried telling Saakashvili. “Nobody’s coming. There is no cavalry.”

Jackson said he was less diplomatic. “I went further than Fried could go, and I pointed out that Georgia hasn’t won a war against anybody for 2,000 years,” Jackson said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. You’re not Chechens.”

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In mid-July, just three weeks before the war erupted, U.S. Marines and Georgian soldiers staged a military exercise at a former Soviet base near Tbilisi. In retrospect, some wonder whether this was a mistake, perhaps giving Georgians the impression that they were more powerful than they were.

“Did somebody misinterpret that?” said one U.S. military official in Washington. “There are, in the intelligence community, [efforts] to say: ‘OK, how did this unfold?’ ”

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Jumping the gun

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At 7 p.m. on Aug. 7, Saakashvili appeared on television to order Georgian forces to hold their fire. Then reports came in that Ossetians had overrun at least two Georgian enclaves. The fighting resumed with more ferocity.

According to a senior U.S. official, the State Department’s Fried called Saakashvili and tried to convince him that the attacks by South Ossetian irregulars were a Russian trap. But as night fell, reports came in that Russian troops were on the move through the Roki Tunnel between Russia and South Ossetia.

Georgia decided to respond aggressively, quickly taking control of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.

“The whole world community tried to convince Georgia not to do this,” the European diplomat said. “But someone crossed the border.”

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At the Pentagon, the first inkling of what was to come was a small sign: U.S. military trainers who were working to prepare Georgian troops for their upcoming deployment to Iraq at a training base in Vaziani, just southeast of Tbilisi, suddenly found themselves without students.

“When their units didn’t show up, or at least didn’t show up in force,” a senior military official said, “there was an indication something unusual was going on.”

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Victory, then reversal

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Within hours, war engulfed the southern Caucasus. The U.S.-trained and -equipped Georgian troops took Tskhinvali and began defeating the Russian troops.

“The first 12 to 20 hours, Georgia had the momentum,” the European diplomat said. “It controlled almost all of South Ossetian territory.”

But Russian troops and fighter jets began quickly swarming into South Ossetia, Abkhazia and ultimately Georgia. Russians dispatched two special forces units, though independent analyst say it is difficult to determine whether the Russian commandos were in place coincidentally because of a military exercise the previous week or were brought in specifically for a war.

“It was a huge miscalculation on the part of our government,” said Tornike Sharashenidze, an analyst at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs. “They underestimated the possible reaction.”

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The Pentagon’s efforts to halt the Russian advance started in earnest Aug. 8.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates tried to persuade the Georgians to stand down. He also spoke with Anatoliy Serdyukov, who became Russia’s defense minister last year with little experience.

“I will tell you that Minister Serdyukov told me that the Russians have no intention of going into Georgia,” Gates said.

But many observers say there was little the Georgians, Russians or Americans could do by then. The trap had been sprung, and Saakashvili seemed more than willing to take the bait.

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“It’s been clear that Russians have tried to create a situation where the Georgians would make a mistake,” a ranking European diplomat said.

“The Russian action and the war was of course not an improvisation. These plans had been made some time ago.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Daragahi reported from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Spiegel from Washington.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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The Conflict in the Caucasus

The combatants

Russia’s armed forces, together with its allies in the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are pitted against Georgia, a pro-Western country on the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia. Georgia was ruled by Moscow before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Russia, with a population of 141 million, has a military of 1.1 million personnel.

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Georgia, with 4.6 million people, has 37,000 in its armed forces.

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The history

Russia has long viewed itself as the protector of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in their drive to separate from Georgia. Both republics have close ties to Moscow, which has been angered by U.S.-backed Georgia’s bid to join NATO.

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In 1989, South Ossetia declared its autonomy from Georgia, then known as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, setting off three months of fighting.

Another conflict began in December 1990 and lasted until 1992, when Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian leaders signed an armistice and Russian troops began patrolling the border.

That same year, Abkhazia declared its independence from Georgia, sparking a war that ended in 1994 with a treaty between Russia and Georgia, and with Russian troops patrolling that border as well.

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Source: Times Staff and Wire Reports


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