Monday, August 18, 2008
Tom Lasseter visited the disputed South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on Sunday and found little evidence of a massive Georgian bombardment of the city, and not very many deaths.
Russian-backed leaders in South Ossetia have said that 2,100 people died in fighting in Tskhinvali and nearby villages. But a doctor at the city's main hospital, the only one open during the battles that began late on Aug. 7, said the facility recorded just 40 deaths.
...Col. Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff, said last Tuesday that "Tskhinvali doesn't exist, it's like Stalingrad was after the war."
But in fact, the city still does exist. While there was extensive damage to some structures, most buildings had front doors on their hinges and standing walls. For every building charred by explosions � the Georgians are accused of using multiple rocket launcher systems � there were others on tree-lined streets that looked untouched.
One government center was hollowed out by blasts, but the one next to it teemed with workers.
The Guardian reports that the South Ossetian government has rounded up 130 Georgian nationals and is holding them in its interior ministry -- for what is unclear, though the article speculates it would be for a prisoner exchange. Interesting, in that South Ossetia is an area with only 70,000 people. How many of them could be captive of the Georgian army? And if there had been a massive bombardment of Tskhinvali, how do they organize this? Seems an odd thing for an area that had been supposedly flattened like Stalingrad to do.
Another interesting piece of evidence on reaction times comes from looking at the timing of the arrival of the Black Sea Fleet off the coast of Georgia -- both to move 4000 troops, and to engage the Georgian coastal defense forces.
The war started on Friday August 8th; the Black Sea Fleet was reported to arrive off the coast of Georgia on Saturday August 9th. That's pretty impressive, considering it is about 400 nautical miles from Sevastopol to Ochamchire. While the Moskva, Smetlivy, Muromets, and Aleksandrovets can make good speed and make the trip quickly, those ships sailed from Sevastopol with an assortment of support vessels that could only make 12-16 knots, at best. Simple math reveals that would make it a 25 hour trip, meaning the ships would have had to put to sea almost immediately after the fighting began. For any fleet to deploy that quickly is extraordinary readiness.
[An eyewitness report from Sevastopol] "We took up station guarding the opposed landing on the Abkhaz shore when all of a sudden four high speed targets were detected. We sent out an IFF signal and the targets didn't react. Receiving a command from the flagship, we got into formation and right at that moment the unidentified targets opened fire on the ship formation and flagship. The cruiser was damaged and a small fire broke out aboard. Then, fearing for seaworthiness, the flagship withdrew from the firing area."
Moskva and Smetlivy steamed into Novorossysk the next day. All this seems quite well coordinated.
Reactions in other countries have been swift. Ukraine has stepped up, following the Polish lead, by offering to coordinate its radar systems with those of the West. Because of earlier disagreements with Russia, President Yushchenko has now an opening to greater cooperation. Certainly everyone recognizes that the earlier hesitation to admit Georgia and Ukraine to NATO was an error. The interesting thing coming out of Ukraine this weekend, though was this comment by Prime Minister Yulya Tymoshenko -- considered both at odds with Yushchenko and favored by the Russians, to the point of accusations of Russian warchests for her presidential ambitions -- in an excellent interview by Christia Freeland:
There is little doubt to whom she is referring as "they". I hope this isn't just Yulka playing to the Western press. As long as those attitudes persist, there is some chance that western missteps in this conflict might not be fatal to their ambitions for the success of the Rose and Orange.
For all their sparring, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko have been more united on foreign policy than many expected, with the prime minister moving towards the robust defense of Ukraine's national interest that the president has long espoused. Even before Russia's attack this week on Georgia, she has been measured but forthright in her attitude to the Kremlin.
Tymoshenko also understands that Ukraine's proudest accomplishment - its democratic revolution - makes it a particular target for its authoritarian neighbours. "They fear Ukraine as evidence that a post-Soviet country can quickly and effectively build a rule-of-law society and a democratic society," she says. "And this example is very, very uncomfortable for those who would like to keep everything undemocratic and untransparent."