Inside a Misunderstood Conflict Zone: Scott Taylor in the Caucasus

by , November 08, 2008

In this eye-opening interview, Canadian war reporter Scott Taylor reflects on his recent visit to the Caucasus, where he got an inside look at the scene of this summer’s Georgian-Russian conflict from its very epicenter – the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia – while also visiting Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave and 1990’s hotspot claimed by Azerbaijan.

On his two-week trip, Taylor, editor of Canadian military magazine Esprit de Corps, discovered that the real situation on the ground is hardly as simple or straightforward as the US and other Western governments have claimed it to be.

Getting In

Christopher Deliso: Scott, you have reported over the years multiple times from rough spots in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. How did this trip compare to previous ones in terms of access?

Scott Taylor: The complexity of the current situation made even basic travel planning much more challenging than is usually the case. Even though the places I wanted to see are all relatively close, political frictions mean they have to be accessed indirectly. For example, I started my trip in Ankara, Turkey, but to reach Yerevan, the Armenian capital, I had to fly via Germany, because the Turkish-Armenian border has been closed for years.

From Armenia, I set out for the self-declared, but unrecognized state of Nagorno-Karabakh; since this Armenian enclave is claimed by the Azeris, simply having their visa in my passport caused problems for me when I later got to Baku, Azerbaijan. From there, I flew to Stavropol in Russia and then drove 12 hours to reach South Ossetia. Because of the closed Russian-Georgian border, I had to retrace my steps to Yerevan in order to get to Tbilisi, Georgia, via bus.

CD: What was the toughest place to reach? Tskhinvali?

ST: Correct. Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, was no doubt one of the toughest places I’ve ever tried to get to. The city is just over the internal border of Georgia proper, but access routes from the latter remain blocked by the security services. And on the northern (Russian Federation) side, South Ossetia is linked to North Ossetia by one winding mountain pass.

Before setting out from Stavropol, I had been assured by the Russian authorities that we would have no problems getting there though they apparently forgot to tell the border guards at the South Ossetia crossing, who stated that foreign journalists weren’t allowed into the recent conflict zone. Figuring I had come this far already, I waited it out for three days there at the Russian military mountain checkpoint. Fortunately, we were finally allowed to go – though it took a personal phone call from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s press secretary to convince the police commander that we were harmless.

CD: Really! How did you manage to get their interest?

ST: The Russian Embassy in Ottawa had been very supportive of my trip from the outset. They had basically called in a few favors, and convinced Moscow that I would at least be objective in my reporting. Once we were stuck at the border, there was a flurry of frantic phone calls well into the wee hours to try and broker my entry.

CD: That said, given the problems with physical access, did you encounter any problems making contact with sources? Were you prevented from speaking with any people you wanted to interview?

ST: Not at all. I had a guide/translator supplied from the news agency RIA Novosti, but it was his first visit into the area as well. We were allowed to go everywhere on our own, and we spent hours eating, and drinking, with the locals.

Background: Little-known Ossetia

CD: As we all know, the Caucasus is both a complex and strategic region, though one relatively ignored and misunderstood by the Western media. When the Georgian offensive in South Ossetia began on August 7, just as the Beijing Olympics were beginning, it seemed to me that there was this momentary confusion or inability to pinpoint this conflict, as reflected in the ambivalence of early reports – though the official State Department line about Russian aggression and Georgian victimhood soon settled down comfortably enough in the media. So do you think there was some lack of a precedent or prototype for packaging this conflict, and that this accounted for this media ambivalence to some extent?

ST: Indeed. The Western media doesn’t have much of an "institutional memory" when it comes to these obscure conflict regions in the Caucasus. Nevertheless, since 1989, ethnic Ossetians and Georgians have fought on four separate occasions for control of this tiny region, only about 75 kilometers in length. Ossetians are, like Russians and Georgians, Orthodox Christians, though they ultimately descend from the now-vanished nation of the Alans, prominent in the medieval period. They consider themselves closer to the Russian side than the Georgian. There are about 25,000 ethnic Ossetians in South Ossetia now, down from a total of 70,000 in 1989.

When the USSR was falling apart and Moscow’s control over its hinterlands dissipated, between 1989 and 1991, the three Caucasus republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia all sought independence. Yet as with Tito’s Yugoslavia, the Soviet administrative boundaries did not correspond precisely with the ethnic ones. Ossetia ended up divided between the newly independent Georgia and the Russian Federation. And this led to a violent dispute over territory, with widespread atrocities and ethnic cleansing resulting.

CD: This is the story that’s been told selectively about the former Yugoslavia, of course.

ST: Well, yes, but for the Western media, the recent wars in the Caucasus hardly register. From 1992-1994, the entire region became engulfed in near-simultaneous local conflicts that made the Balkan wars then going on seem almost simplistic in comparison. Nevertheless, the latter held the attention of the West – despite that the casualties and sheer destruction in the Caucasus were relatively greater.

Saakashvili’s Fateful Gambit

CD: The Georgian offensive was unleashed in August, but must have been planned in advance. Is there any evidence in your view for this offensive being somewhat of a flamboyant reaction to the April NATO Summit, on the part of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili?

ST: America has steadily been increasing its influence over the past few years in the Caucasus. There’s no question that American-educated Georgian President Saakashvili, installed following the 2004 "Rose Revolution," has been keen on maximizing the benefits of that relationship.

At last April’s NATO summit in Bucharest, the US and Canada forwarded a motion by which Georgia and Ukraine, both bordering on Russia, would be invited to join the alliance as full members. European nations killed the initiative, however, prudently realizing it would antagonize the Russians.

Since Saakashvili seemed assured of US support, he apparently felt he could count on American backing when he sought to reconquer South Ossetia; if it worked, the other Russian-leaning breakaway region, Abkhazia, would possibly be next. Both were administratively autonomous in Soviet times, and have violently resisted Georgian control since 1992. However, this gamble proved to be incorrect – even the hawkish Bush administration was not willing to risk a world war with Russia for the sake of a tiny patch of contested Georgian territory.

CD: Did you get any sense from any of your interviews as to whether Saakashvili’s misjudgment owed to either his own incapability, or rather being misinformed by outside parties? If the latter, are there any opinions as to who and why being floated?

ST: Everybody on both sides of the conflict line – in fact in the entire region – questioned the sanity of Saakashvili. However there is a general consensus that he was essentially a puppet of the US State Department, and that his military offensive was a test of Russian resolve. It is now clear to everybody that the Russian Federation has drawn a line in the sand, and they are prepared to forcefully respond to any challenge.

CD: I have been following the US-Georgian military training issue for the last 7 years. There’s no question that the Georgian army has benefited tremendously from that troops training and especially American military hardware. Did you find any hard evidence of how the American training and provisions affected the Georgian fighting strategies, capacities or execution?

ST: Given the fact that the Georgians collapsed into a panicked mob almost as soon as the Russians appeared, I would say that the US training was woefully inept. The equipment used by both the Russians and Georgians is essentially from the same arsenal, so the difference in this battle was the leadership and experience of the troops. In fact, even though they possessed a tremendous numerical superiority over the South Ossetians, the Georgian tanks were taking a pounding in the militia’s hit-and-run attacks in the narrow streets of Tskhinvali.

Combat damage and arson in the center of Tskhinvali

The Invasion Revisited

CD: During your trip, were you able to reconstruct anything about the early days of the Georgian offensive, and what really happened?

ST: Very little has been reported about the initial Georgian attack; investigating this was the primary focus of my research. When the Georgian tanks rolled in, there were no independent monitors in South Ossetia. Initial media reports were sketchy and confused. Ossetian officials told me that they knew an attack was feared around August 1, when the Georgian military began massing armored formations along the border. The small South Ossetian militia was mobilized, and Tskhinvali hospital added supplies.

However, President Saakashvili went on the radio on the evening of August 7, assuring citizens that no attack was coming. Nevertheless, only a few hours later, the Georgians unleashed a sneak attack – a barrage of Grom missiles that destroyed the Russian peacekeeping force’s building, killing 150 personnel.

CD: Certainly the Georgians would have known that Russia would understand this as a declaration of war? How did they follow on this act of genius?

ST: The Georgian military entered the city with T-72 tanks, in the process putting down token resistance by the Ossetians. More troops were deployed to sweep up the outlying villages, and then they took the ridgeline north of the city. From this vantage point the Georgians targeted fleeing Ossetian civilians, and were able to provide fire support for their troops in Tskhinvali. Soon after, ethnic Georgian villagers north of the city, along the road into Russia, attacked these Ossetians trying to escape.

However, the Georgian military did fail to blow up a key bridge on the main road, and did not even try to block the vital seven-kilometer tunnel linking South Ossetia to Russia. Ossetian commanders told me that if the Georgians had sealed the tunnel, it would have prevented Russian reinforcements from arriving and guaranteed a Georgian victory. And they were never able to completely secure Tskhinvali itself, as the local militia used its superior knowledge of urban surroundings to confuse the Georgians.

CD: That’s a strange detail, about the tunnel. Did anyone give you an explanation as to why the Georgians did not try to bomb or close it? Could this be one of the "mistakes" President Saakashvili was referring to when he announced the firing of the country’s top military commander recently?

ST: Everyone I spoke to, from top commanders to the waitress in the café was puzzled by the failure of the Georgians to target the tunnel. And every Ossetian knew that if they had sealed that entry port, Georgian victory would have been inevitable.

Russian Barracks hit by Grom missiles on the night of August 7

Victims of War

CD: During the fighting, what were the conditions like in the city? What kind of civilian casualties were incurred?

ST: Numbers are not exact, though it is clear that casualties mounted quickly – not helped by the fact that the Georgian army kept shelling the city hospital. I spoke with the head Ossetian surgeon there, Dr. Nikolai Zagoyev, who told me how he and his staff had to move the operating room into the basement, where they performed hundreds of operations, by candlelight, during the first 72 hours.

The basement shelter in the hospital where surgeons performed 700 operations by candlelight

In fact, some 25 of these medics fell victim to the attack. The very poor conditions and lack of blood supplies meant that doctors had to donate their own blood to patients before performing surgery. Since they lacked time even to test for blood types, Dr. Zagoyev told me it was "a miracle" that so many of his patients actually survived.

CD: Incredible. We also heard reports of civilians attacking other civilians, is this correct?

ST: Yes, first the ethnic Georgian villagers in South Ossetia targeted their Ossetian neighbors, after the Georgian army had entered – but later, after the Russians arrived, many local Georgians fled along with their army, as the furious Ossetians targeted their erstwhile persecutors. It was all too typical of such a situation.

CD: Tell us more about the Russian involvement – when it began, and whether they were in fact the "aggressors" in this instance, as the Bush administration would have us believe?

ST: On the morning of August 10, Russian armored units, supported by helicopter gunships, poured in through the tunnel connecting Tskhinvali with North Ossetia. Simultaneously, Russian troops also entered Abkhazia, on the Black Sea coast, to forestall any similar Georgian military adventures. The Georgian soldiers put up only a minimal fight against the Russians, and quickly withdrew. It was a moment of total humiliation for Saakashvili, though the result was not hard to predict.

All in all, the Russian forces drove the Georgian army more than 20 kilometers back into Georgia proper, an alarming turn of events for the West. And then the State Department and its allies began voicing support for President Saakashvili, and criticizing the so-called "Russian aggression."

CD: What does the near future hold for civilians in the affected parts of Georgia and South Ossetia, in your view?

ST: Well, a massive Russian-sponsored reconstruction program has begun, but it has a long way to go. Winter is coming, utilities have yet to be restored, infrastructure is devastated and outside of Tskhinvali there are very few habitable buildings remaining. Despite the Russian government’s hopes for the Ossetians to remain in their homes, it was clear that people were seeking to relocate north to Russia as soon as they could do so.

Georgian tanks destroyed during their retreat out of South Ossetia

CD: Following the August crisis, Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – clear retaliation for the Western-backed independence of Kosovo, which Russia had opposed. Did people you spoke with articulate this relationship?

ST: It certainly came up in conversation. However it is one of those conundrums wherein traditional allies find themselves on opposite sides of this equation. For instance, Russia is one of Serbia’s strongest supporters in denying Kosovo independent status. However much Serbia would want to recognize South Ossetia’s declaration of independence, they cannot do so without undermining their own claim over Kosovo. It is the same for the Azeris, who one would think would be supportive of their fellow Muslims in Kosovo, but they refuse to recognize it as independent for fear of weakening their own claim to the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

CD: Scott, speaking of the Azeris, you reported last year from Azerbaijan, and noted that booming oil wealth there has been reflected in major increases in military spending – with possible room for application in attempting to retake Nagorno-Karabakh. What is the story now? Did you get any information on whether a new conflict is looming?

ST: What was very interesting is that I was told Russian military intelligence actually expected the Azeris to attack Nagorno-Karabakh, before any move by Georgia against South Ossetia. However once Russia demonstrated their willingness to intervene militarily, the Azeris realized that retaking Nagorno Karabakh by force is no longer a viable option.

CD: On the other hand, Russia has now come forward with an initiative to help broker peace between the Armenians and Azeris. Obviously such a move, if it succeeded, would help the Russians refute the ‘aggressors’ image cast on them by the West. Did you hear anything about this?

ST: This was something I found out about while I was still in Turkey. Of course Ankara has a strong position in all of this as well, and the first movements were made when President Abdullah Gul visited Yerevan last September. This was ostensibly to watch a football match, but it clearly marked a dramatic shift in relations between Armenia and Turkey. I was advised by a senior diplomatic source that President Medvedev would be holding a summit meeting shortly after Ilham Aliyev got reelected in Azerbaijan.

Those South Ossetians who remain, live among the battle damage

CD: What is the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, from an on the ground point of view? Do people believe a conflict is coming, or do they generally go about their daily lives and have normal services?

ST: Many Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh are real hard-liners. You do not refer to the captured regions as ‘occupied,’ they insist on calling them ‘liberated,’ even though that liberation involved the expulsion of more than one million Azeris from their homes. In the seven occupied provinces, the abandoned villages are completely destroyed, and this entire territory is like a giant, empty, military buffer zone around Nagorno-Karabakh proper.

This is referred to as the Security Zone by the locals, and they have vowed to never return it to the Azeris. For the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, it is indeed business as usual. There has been a tremendous amount of money pumped in through donations from the Diaspora, which has created a sort of false economy. However, they offer cash incentives for couples to marry, and even larger cash bonuses for these newlyweds to create offspring. So basically there is a major effort underway to create babies.

CD: Armenia represents Nagorno-Karabakh’s interests at the diplomatic discussion tables. Are the interests of Yerevan always in lockstep with Stepanakert’s?

ST: That is a great question, and of course the answer is no. Yerevan has its own interests, and is anxious to begin normalizing relations with both Ankara and Baku. At present, landlocked Armenia has only two unclosed borders – with Georgia and Iran.

After the crisis between Russia and Georgia last August, Armenia’s close ties and dependency on Russia served to illustrate just how isolated they are in the region. It is estimated that financially Armenia suffered the biggest setback in the wake of that five-day war. All in all, this is a very complex and dangerous powder keg. The Caucasus is like ten gangsters in an elevator each holding a gun to someone else’s head. All it will take is for one to sneeze to set off a violent chain reaction. On August 7th President Saakashvili started to sneeze, but the Russians quickly put a finger under his nose.

CD: Scott, many thanks for your time, and hope to hear more from exclusive info from you again soon on the Caucasus.

ST: Thank you, Chris.

Read more by Christopher Deliso