STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next we're going to follow up on a war from last summer. Back then, columns of Russian tanks rolled into a small neighboring country, Georgia. The United States and Europe condemned that invasion, but Russia said it was responding to Georgia's assault on a breakaway region, which is aligned with Russia, by the way. In the three months since the conflict, new details have emerged about how and why Georgia ended up going head to head against a much larger Russian army. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.
IVAN WATSON: Twenty-three-year-old Mamuka Kevlishvili had only been a soldier in the Georgian army for six months when his unit got the urgent order to go to war.
Mr. MAMUKA KEVLISHVILI (Georgian Soldier): (Through Translator) It was the morning of August 7. We didn't even have time to eat breakfast. They put us on buses and told us we were going to South Ossetia.
WATSON: The next morning, Kevlishvili and his unit walked unopposed into the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali. By then, he says, it had already been captured by the Georgians.
Mr. KEVLISHVILI: (Through Translator) The city was quiet and empty. I didn't see any civilians. Where the Russians and Ossetians had had their checkpoints, the buildings were burning. I fired my gun a few times in the air, not aiming at anything.
WATSON: Georgia insists it was acting to stop an imminent Russian invasion, but the Russians say Georgia started the war.
Mr. PETER SEMNEBY (EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus): I'm not sure, ultimately, that that is very interesting - who shot the first shot on the 7th of August.
WATSON: Peter Semneby is the European Union's special envoy to the Caucasus.
Mr. SEMNEBY: It's more relevant to look at the whole buildup of tension and the escalation that took place over a fairly long period of time.
WATSON: A year before the war broke out, Russia fired a missile deep into Georgian territory. Last summer, Russian fighter jets were regularly buzzing Georgian airspace, and there had been a series of deadly skirmishes between South Ossetian separatists and Georgian forces. Georgia then launched its artillery assault on the night of August 7. Giorgi Gogia of Human Rights Watch says Georgian forces fired poorly aimed, Israeli-made rockets which spewed cluster bombs over civilian areas.
Mr. GIORGI GOGIA (Researcher, Human Rights Watch): Human Rights Watch has documented apparent indiscriminate firing, disproportionate force being used by the Georgian military during its advance on South Ossetia.
WATSON: Georgian officials deny these charges. Instead, Georgian Cabinet minister, Temuri Yakobashvili, says the Georgians successfully used rockets purchased from Israel to destroy a Russian armored column that was advancing from Russia into South Ossetia. But the tiny Georgian army was clearly unprepared to confront the thousands of Russian soldiers and tanks that were now fast approaching on two fronts.
When the war broke out, 2,000 of Georgia's best-trained soldiers were deployed in Iraq. The troops sent to South Ossetia were left to fight for days without water or food, and the Russians successfully jammed the Georgian military's communications systems, which sometimes amounted to little more than cell phones. On the night of August 9, less than 48 hours after Mamuka Kevlishvili arrived in Tskhinvali, his unit was fleeing on foot, trying to escape a ferocious Russian aerial bombardment.
Mr. KEVLISHVILI: (Through Translator): That night was hell. There's no way to escape the air strikes. They destroy entire buildings. People lost their hands and legs. Even now, I can remember the terrible smell of burning blood.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
WATSON: This is the sound of at least seven Russian Hind Mi-24 attack helicopters which swooped in low over the battlefield on the afternoon of August 11 to strafe suspected Georgian targets. Less than two hours after this air strike, the Georgian military was in full retreat, not only from South Ossetia, but now also from the strategic Georgian city of Gori.
(Soundbite of passing vehicles)
WATSON: As the Russian army began its advance deep into Georgian territory, government minister Temuri Yakobashvili says some officials proposed launching an insurgency against the invaders.
Mr. YAKOBASHVILI: There were talks to use the guerrilla tactics, but we deliberately avoided that strategy because it would bring more destruction to our country and more casualties among military and civilians. So we deliberately withdrew our troops to give a chance to the international community to interfere and to engage into a cease-fire.
WATSON: But the retreating Georgian army left tens of thousands of civilians behind who then faced retribution at the hands of South Ossetian militias. Russian forces also occupied and dismantled Georgian army bases, and the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia both declared independence from Georgia after what can only be described as Georgia's crushing military defeat. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Tbilisi.
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