Theories Swirl About War's Beginning

APU.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas standing docked at Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi on Wednesday in order to deliver its cargo of humanitarian aid.
In war, the saying goes, truth is the first casualty. In South Ossetia, it seems, truth has been battered so ruthlessly that it is virtually impossible to determine who fired the first shot.

It's even hard to figure out when it was fired.

Tbilisi and Moscow are accusing each other of planning the war well in advance of Aug. 8, when the Georgian army attacked the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. Georgia says it was forced to attack after its soldiers in the area came under heavy fire from separatists.

With information and misinformation flying in all directions, it might take some time before the real facts are known.

In the meantime, theories are swirling about how Russia managed to set 2,000 tanks and 20,000 servicemen in motion in just 48 hours and why, on the eve of the war, the South Ossetian government sent hundreds of children across the border to Russia and 48 Russian journalists were camped out in a Tskhinvali hotel.

"There is no question that Russia had planned its measures long before," Georgian Reintegration Minister Temur Iakobashvili said in a recent interview in Tbilisi.

Russia echoes the accusation, countering that Georgia had long-planned the military operation.

The country's top mediator in the conflict, ambassador-at-large Yury Popov, said in an interview Wednesday that he had witnessed Georgian forces mobilizing on Aug. 7, one day before he was to hold direct talks with Iakobashvili in Tskhinvali.

Popov said he was returning from Tskhinvali to Tbilisi late that evening when, near the village of Tkviavi -- a few kilometers south of Tskhinvali -- he encountered Georgian units moving heavy weaponry into the conflict zone.

"I saw artillery howitzers and rocket launchers," Popov said.

Meanwhile, one photojournalist said Russia, having brought dozens of journalists into the breakaway region several days before heavy fighting erupted, appeared well-aware that major violence was imminent.

Said Tsarnayev, a Chechen freelance photographer, said he and a colleague came to Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 for a nature shoot and was surprised to find the town teeming with reporters from Moscow.

"When we checked in to our hotel, there were 48 other journalists," Tsarnayev said by telephone from Grozny. "I did not expect such a number."

When he suggested to Mikhail Zheglov, his editor at state news agency RIA-Novosti, that he go to South Ossetia to take pictures two weeks earlier, Tsarnayev said the editor told him: "'You know Said, maybe it is too early. Wait a little.'"

A man who answered the phone Wednesday at RIA-Novosti said Zheglov was on vacation and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Journalists from national media outlets confirmed that they were in place in Tskhinvali when the fighting began but said Tsarnayev's suggestions of a conspiracy were ludicrous.

"This is not true," said Marina Perevozkina, a reporter with Nezavisimaya Gazeta who was staying at Tskhinvali's Hotel Alan at the same time as Tsarnayev.

Perevozkina said those following the events in Tskhinvali closely were aware of escalating tensions for some time and that it was by pure chance that she arrived a week earlier.

"I had asked back in July to go there but was not able to because our editor was traveling in the United States," Perevozkina said. "When [editor-in-chief Konstantin Remchukov] returned on Aug. 3, he immediately allowed me to travel. That is why I arrived just days before the war started."

Ruslan Gusarov, a North Caucasus correspondent for NTV television who covered events in Tskhinvali, also dismissed the suggestion that journalists knew anything in advance.

"We knew nothing," Gusarov said by telephone from the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. "We decided to go to Tskhinvali as the situation heated up as any other professional news organization would. That is why I worked there a whole week before Aug 8."

Indeed, international media had noted a week earlier that the conflict was escalating. On Aug. 2, the South Ossetian government said sniper and mortar fire had killed six people in the region.

Some analysts said the simmering conflict received too little coverage in the West because the two sides trade gunfire almost every summer.

"The world only found out on Friday Aug. 8 [about the small arms attacks], while in Georgia it had been news for a week," said Mark Mullen, head of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia.

This was convenient for Russia because Moscow could concentrate on, and even control, the "who started it" debate," Mullen said in an interview in Tbilisi.

"That debate is a 'he said/she said' between Tbilisi and Moscow, each of which can be casual with the truth," Mullen said.

Iakobashvili, the Georgian Reintegration Minister, said the South Ossetian authorities' decision to send hundreds of children to Russia the weekend before the war clearly showed that Moscow was planning a military campaign well in advance.

The South Ossetian leadership, however, said the decision was linked to the fatal shootings.

Statements by captured Russian soldiers also point to a premeditated Russian campaign, Iakobashvili said.

"The pilots we captured reported that they were mobilized days before Aug. 8," he said. "And you do not set 2,000 tanks and 20,000 men in motion within 48 hours. To launch an assault from sea, land and air -- as Russia did against Georgia -- requires serious preparation."

Tbilisi says it decided to attack after separatists opened fire on all Georgian checkpoints near Tskhinvali and after it received intelligence that 100 Russian armored vehicles and trucks were heading into South Ossetia through the Roksky Tunnel.

Popov, the lead Russian mediator, said the claim is false and that "absolutely no tanks" had passed through the tunnel by the time Georgia attacked. "I double checked it," he said.

Moscow, however, does not deny that it had amassed forces in the North Caucasus for military exercises in July.

Perevozkina said she saw these troops with her own eyes. In her article published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Aug. 8 -- the day the war began -- she wrote that en route to Tskhinvali she saw columns of Russian military vehicles in North Ossetia moving along the road between the town of Alagir and the border post of Nizhny Zaramag.

"The military says it is continuing training exercises, but undoubtedly Russia is demonstrating its determination to protect its citizens in South Ossetia," Perevozkina wrote. "Even including an operation to enforce peace."

Stratfor, a private U.S.-based intelligence agency, has said Moscow was aware of a strong possibility that Georgian forces might attack. Russia responded by mobilizing equipment close to the border but refrained from crossing over so as not to jump the gun, Stratfor has said.

One might wonder why, if this were true, Russia would have abandoned its peacekeepers in Tskhinvali, where up to 20 of them were reportedly killed in the Georgian attack.

There is also confusion about last-ditch diplomatic efforts between Tbilisi and Moscow.

Iakobashvili has said he proposed talks with Popov in Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 but that the Russian mediator could not make it because of a flat tire.

Popov confirmed that a tire on his Chevrolet Suburban was punctured 10 kilometers outside of Gori as he was traveling to Tskhinvali that afternoon.

"It took 1 1/2 hours until a new car arrived, and I continued on only after 6 p.m.," Popov said.

Popov denied, however, that there had been an agreement to meet Iakobashvili that day. "We both went to Tskhinvali on separate schedules," he said.

Popov said three-way talks scheduled for Aug. 8 in Tskhinvali were canceled after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced -- and subsequently broke -- a unilateral cease-fire.

"When I arrived [in Tbilisi] around midnight, the war had already started," Popov said.

Both sides have argued that the other consciously chose to escalate the conflict during the vacation season, when leaders for both countries were away.

The accusation cuts nicely both ways.

On Aug. 8, President Dmitry Medvedev was vacationing on the Volga, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the summer Olympics.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has said he had planned to go to Italy and that Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili was on vacation that day.

Events in the months leading up to the war, however, indicated both sides had embarked on a dangerous road long before August got hot.

Moscow had been stepping up political and military support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In April, Putin, then the president, ordered the government to establish closer trade, economic, social and scientific links with the two rebel regions.

The Kremlin also sent reinforcements to its peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia and repaired a rail link to the Black Sea province, which Tbilisi says was used to transport military hardware in the breakaway region.

Georgia, meanwhile, sought to bolster its military with U.S. and Israeli aid and angered Moscow with its aspirations to join NATO.

It sent spy drones over the breakaway regions that were shot down by Russian jets.

Human rights activists have also accused Tbilisi of orchestrating an attack in May on two buses carrying Georgians from Abkhazia's Gali region. The busses were hit with grenades and gunfire in the village of Kurcha, and Georgia blamed Abkhaz separatists.

But members of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said in a subsequent report that they had uncovered evidence that Georgia had staged the attack.

The writing was on the wall already in early May, when independent defense analyst Alexander Golts wrote in The Moscow Times: "Nobody wants war, but both sides are doing everything to spark a military conflict."