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How the Georgian Conflict Really Started

How the Georgian Conflict Really Started'Anybody who thinks that Moscow didn't plan this invasion, that we in Georgia caused it gratuitously, is severely mistaken," President Mikheil Saakashvili told me during a late night chat in Georgia's presidential palace this weekend. "Our decision to engage was made in the last second as the Russian tanks were rolling -- we had no choice," Mr. Saakashvili explained. "We took the initiative just to buy some time. We knew we were not going to win against the Russian army, but we had to do something to defend ourselves."

I had just returned from Gori, which was still under the shadow of Russian occupation. I'd learned there on the ground how Russia has deployed a highly deliberate propaganda strategy in this war. Some Georgian friends sneaked me into town unnoticed past the Russian armored checkpoints via a little used tractor path. We noted that, during the day, the tanks on Gori's streets withdrew from the streets to the hills. Apparently, the Russians thought this gave the impression, to any foreign eyewitnesses they chose to let through, of a town not so much occupied as stabilized and made peaceful.

However, if you stayed overnight after observers left, as I did with various locals, you could hear and glimpse the tanks in the dark growling back into town and roaming around. A serious curfew kicked in at sundown, and the streets turned instantly lethal, not least because the tanks allowed in marauding irregulars -- Cossacks, South Ossetians, Chechens and the like -- to do the looting in a town that the Russians had effectively emptied. Now that the Russians have made a big show of moving out in force -- but only to a point some miles to the other side of Gori toward South Ossetia -- they've left behind a resonating threat in the population's memory, a feeling they could return at any moment.

The damage in Gori's civilian areas, like the Stalin-era neighborhood of Combinaty, give the lie to claims made by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in these pages that Russian forces "acted efficiently and professionally" to achieve "clear and legitimate objectives." Either that, or they fully intended -- as a "legitimate" objective -- to flatten civilian streets in order to sow fear, drive out innocents and create massive refugee outflows.

Gori's refugees are now flooding back. Many have returned also to Poti, a port city near Abkhazia, and far more strategic than Gori because it serves as a trading lifeline for Georgia and potentially offers future access to NATO ships. The Russians are digging in around the town and in the port area itself, and refusing to budge as the world looks on.

"I got a call from the minister of defense that Russian tanks, some 200, were massing to enter Tskhinvali from North Ossetia," Mr. Saakashvili told me. "I ignored it at first, but reports kept coming in that they had begun to move forward. In fact, they had mobilized reserves several days ahead of time."

This was precisely the kind of information that the Russians have suppressed and the world press continues to ignore, despite decades of familiarity with Kremlin disinformation methods. "We subsequently found out from pilots we shot down," said Mr. Saakashvili, "that they'd been called up three days before from places like Moscow. We had intelligence coming in ahead of time but we just couldn't believe it. Also, in recent weeks, the separatists had intensified artillery barrages and were shooting our soldiers. I'd kept telling our guys to stay calm. Actually we had most of our troops down near Abkhazia where we expected the real trouble to start. I can tell you that if we'd intended to attack, we'd have withdrawn our best-trained forces from Iraq up front."

According to the Georgian president, the Russians had been planning an invasion of his country for weeks -- even months -- ahead of time: "Some months ago, I was warned by Western leaders in Dubrovnik to expect an attack this summer," he explained. "Mr. Putin had already threatened me in February, saying we would become a protectorate of Russia. When I met Mr. Medvedev in June, he was very friendly. I saw him again in July and he was a changed man, spooked, evasive. He tried to avoid me. He knew something by then. I ask everyone to consider, what does it mean when hundreds of tanks can mobilize and occupy a country within two days? Just the fuelling takes that long. They were on their way. Would we provoke a war while all our Western friends are away on vacation? Be sensible."

I put it to Mr. Saakashvili that there was also the question of why now? Why did the Russians not act before or later? It was a matter, he said, of several factors coming together: the useful distractions of the Beijing Olympics and the U.S. elections, the fact that it took Mr. Putin this long to consolidate power, the danger that tanks would bog down in the winter.

But two factors above all sealed Georgia's fate this summer, it seems. In April, NATO postponed the decision to admit Georgia into the organization until its next summit in October. Mr. Saakashvili believes Moscow felt it had one last chance to pre-empt Georgia's joining NATO.

Finally, he says, the invasion had to be done before the situation in Iraq got any better and freed up U.S. forces to act elsewhere -- a matter not simply of U.S. weakness but of increasing U.S. strength. "If America thinks it is too weak to do anything about Georgia," said Mr. Saakashvili, "you should understand how the Russians see it, how much Moscow respects a strong United States -- or at least a U.S. that believes in its own strength."

Mr. Kaylan is a New York-based writer who has reported often from Georgia.
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