The Palestinians of the Caucasus

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As of today, the main result of the Georgian-Russian war has been what might be called the "Palestinization" of the Caucasus. Georgia will henceforth be divided into two parts: the prosperous and free state that will soon be integrated into Europe, NATO and the global economy, and what I would call "Georgian Palestine" -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

I call it the Georgian-Russian war and not Georgian-South Ossetian because it was Russia that sent more than 20,000 troops and hundreds of tanks into battle in South Ossetia. The methodical bombing by Russian artillery and aircraft was the decisive factor in the victory over Georgia. Ground troops from both sides rarely fought against each other in face-to-face battles.

It is just as absurd to claim that this was a war to defend South Ossetia as it is to say Germany was defending the rights of oppressed ethnic Germans in Sudetenland in 1938.

Was Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili justified in starting this war? What other nonmilitary options did he have? To answer those questions, it is necessary to know some background behind three places: Tskhinvali, Tamarasheni and Dzhava.

Tskhinvali is a small town surrounded on all sides by Georgian villages. It has broken-down water lines and no strategic significance.

Tamarasheni, along with Kurta and Kekhvi, are Georgian enclaves that are located along the road from Tskhinvali to Dzhava and cut off from the rest of Georgia. The villages had a combined population of about 10,000 inhabitants before the war, greater than the population of Tskhinvali.

Dzhava is a military base and regional strategic stronghold. It was a critical point for the invasion, from which Howitzers, tanks and armored personnel carriers entered Tskhinvali. Dzhava is no more a mountain village than the armored personnel carriers and tanks stationed there are the arsenal of a small-time South Ossetian separatists.

So what happened exactly? Saakashvili started the war on the evening of Aug. 7, when he ordered the shelling of both Tskhinvali and Dzhava, leveling all of the Georgian villages located between them. Georgian authorities claim that 150 Russian armored vehicles immediately rolled through the Roksky Tunnel, although I think they might have already been in Dzhava at that point. In any case, Georgian forces bombed those troops at 5 a.m. on the Guptinsk Bridge, preventing their approach to Tskhinvali.

Clearly, it was impossible for Saakashvili to make any strategic decisions on the evening of the Aug. 7. He could make only tactical decisions to determine where the first full-scale battle would take place -- in Tskhinvali on the night of Aug. 8 or at Gori on the night of Aug. 9.

It is clear that the objective of the Georgian offensive was not Tskhinvali. It had to be Dzhava, the enemy's military base. As Georgia advanced its forces toward that city, this placed the Russian forces in a bind. One option was to allow Saakashvili's army to seize Dzhava, but this would have exposed to the entire world the major arsenal that had been stockpiled in that wasp's nest. The other option for Russia's 58th Army was to deliver a crushing blow to Georgian forces, but this would have showed everyone that Georgia was actually battling the powerful Russian army and not a small group of South Ossetian "freedom fighters."

But the decision that Saakashvili made -- to send Georgia's forces into direct battle with the Russian army -- was by far the worst decision of all.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.