Why the Casualty Numbers Don't Jibe
- By Yulia Latynina
- Sep. 17 2008 00:00
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Russia and South Ossetia can't seem to agree on their casualty numbers. South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity claims that 1,600 people died in the five-day war, but Alexander Bastrykin, head of the prosecutor general's Investigative Committee, puts the figure at 134.
What is the reason for the discrepancy? One possibility is that Bastrykin named the figure of 134 precisely because this was the correct figure.
Don't forget that before the war, Kokoity was all geared up for a military conflict. "We retain the right to strike Georgian cities, and we have the means to do this," he said in an interview published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
What "means" Kokoity had in mind became clear soon after his interview. On Aug. 6 -- three days before the war -- journalists who had been sent to report on the struggle the South Ossetian people were waging against Georgia, reported seeing Russia's 58th Army positioned on the Russian side of the Roki Tunnel, the only entry point into South Ossetia.
If, on the night of Aug. 8, South Ossetian and Abkhaz separatists, armed with Russian tanks, fighter aircraft and Tochka-U missiles, had fought against the Georgians without the help of Russian forces, Moscow's position as an innocent bystander in the conflict would have been unassailable, and there would have been no talk of international sanctions against Moscow.
If this were the case, on Aug. 8 during the Olympic Games in Beijing, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin could have looked into the eyes of not only U.S. President George W. Bush, but also Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili who was supposed to attend the games, and tell both of them that Kokoity had lost his mind by unilaterally initiating this attack against Georgia. Furthermore, Putin could have played stupid by claiming not only that he knew nothing about Kokoity's plans, but also that he couldn't clarify the situation with the South Ossetian president because he was unable to reach the Kokoity by cell phone from Beijing.
Russia very much wanted to lay low in the conflict by quietly and covertly aiding South Ossetia's forces. But when Saakashvili launched a preemptive attack against South Ossetia's beleaguered and outnumbered army and when it became clear that South Ossetian forces were unable to resist, Moscow was forced to fight Georgia directly in open warfare. The result was a war fought mainly with artillery and aerial bombings.
From that point on, it became clear to the world that it was Russia's massive 58th Army -- and not South Ossetian fighters -- that was shelling South Ossetia and parts of Georgia. It was also clear that Moscow carried full responsibility for the aggression.
In the end, the Kremlin failed to achieve the main goals of the war that it had been planning for many years: toppling Saakashvili and gaining control of the oil pipeline running through its territory.
The only winners in this fiasco turned out to be the South Ossetian leadership. Behind the cover of Russia's forces in the region, they were able to finally resolve the "Georgian problem" in their republic. "We have leveled them all," said Kokoity, referring to the destruction of Georgian villages located in South Ossetia.
Russia is probably not too happy about having to bear the entire political burden of fighting the war against Georgia. Moreover, the victory cost Russia an incredible amount of money when considering all of the armaments, bomb shelters and other military aid Moscow poured into South Ossetia in the months and years leading up to the war.
Indeed, the Kremlin is upset that it has been stuck with a huge bill for the war in both financial and political terms. Maybe this explains why Russia's Investigative Committee figure for war casualties is 12 times lower than what Kokoity claims.
Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.