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The Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008 was a war between Russia and the small Caucasian nation of Georgia in 2008, over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Georgia had gained independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Subsequently, it chose to align itself with NATO and the West rather than Russia. Russia retaliated by supported ethnic separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions bordering Russia seeking to break away to form their own nations or merge with Russia, as well as deporting thousands of ethnic Georgians living in Russia by sending them home on crowded cargo planes, while the hundreds of thousands who remained faced racism and discrimination.
Georgia built up its military strength with help from the United States and NATO, but was unable to take back Abkhazia and South Ossetia due to Russian training and arming of rebel fighters, and the presence of Russian peacekeepers, who did not allow the return of Georgian villagers who were expelled from Abkhazia and South Ossetia during the wars. Georgia had to absorb the refugees on its own territory, and sign the Sochi Agreement, which let the Georgian Army deploy a small number of peacekeeping troops to defend the Georgian villages still present.
Georgia continued to defy Russian influence. The Georgian military bought military equipment and received training from the West, and applied for NATO membership. It continued to maintain a cultural and linguistic identity completely separate from Russia, democratically elected a pro-American President against a pro-Russian one, and refused to teach Russian in its schools. Although Russia could not do anything about Georgia's ethnic separation, it was absolutely unwilling to allow it to join NATO. Georgian membership in NATO would give Russia a feeling of being surrounded by a hostile threat, and would jeopardize its influence in its own backyard.
Russia wanted to intervene, but was unwilling to go all-out and invade Georgia. It could not absorb a completely separate country with a hostile population, but it wanted a small-scale war which would hopefully pressure the Georgian people to seek closer economic and military relations with Russia, abstain from joining NATO, and elect a pro-Russian government.
Leadup to War
The South Ossetian authorities, under influence of Russia, began instigating small-scale clashes between Georgian peacekeepers and Ossetian militia and Russian peacekeepers in early August 2008. Five Georgians and six Ossetian militiamen and Russian peacekeepers were killed. On 6 August, the evacuation of Ossetian women and children was completed. On 6 and 7 August, there were continuous exchanges of shelling. In the afternoon of 7 August, two Georgian peacekeepers were killed when their checkpoint was fired on. Shortly afterward, Georgia began massing tanks, infantry, and artillery along the South Ossetian and Abkhazian borders, and withdrew their peacekeepers. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili delievered a television address to the Ossetian people, asking them to negotiate and abstain from violence, after which Ossetian mortar shelling increased.
Saakashvili initially abandoned secret plans drawn up years earlier, instead preferring to take back only Tskhinvali, thinking that U.S. President John McCain would diplomatically block any Russian attack. However, at the last minute, he heeded U.S. warnings that it might not be able to help, and realized that the U.S. might not want war with a semi-superpower over a small Caucasian nation. He decided to stick to his original plans to make it tougher for Russia to intervene.
The Georgians put in action an attack plan drawn up two years earlier, by President Saakashvili and Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili. The plan called for a two-pronged operation in South Ossetia, with the main objectives being the Roki Tunnel and Java, and a secondary objective being Tskhinvali, and an invasion into Abkhazia. Once the Roki Tunnel was destroyed and Abkhazia was taken, Russia would find it difficult to pour in troops and tanks.
The Georgians began a massive attack on South Ossetia on the night on 7 August, utilizing mortars, heavy assault guns, rocket launchers, and Sukhoi Su-25 attack jets. Rather than simply bombarding Tskhinvali, as Saakashvili had originally intended, the Georgians shelled Java and the Roki tunnel area, where the bulk of South Ossetian forces were stationed, and government targets in Tskhinvali, carefully avoiding the Russian peacekeeping base. This was designed to minimize civilian casualties and give the Russians less of an excuse to intervene.
At the same time, Georgian ground and naval artillery fire and air attacks hit government and military targets throughout Abkhazia, especially along the borders. Abkhazian ground forces were damaged, and the small Abkhazian air and naval forces were wiped out. The Georgian Navy subsequently imposed a total blockade of Abkhazia, and stopped several Russian cargo ships carrying supplies.
The Georgians began two thrusts supported by armor and airstrikes. One entered Tskhinvali, and engaged in urban combat with the Ossetian militia and Russian peacekeeping battalion in the city, while another one headed towards Java, clearing out the remnants of Ossetian forces in those areas, and blasting the Roki Tunnel. Meanwhile, Tskhinvali fell after fierce urban combat, and the Georgians subsequently cleared out any remaining pockets of organized resistance. The Russian peacekeeping base was shelled after Georgian forces had come under fire, killing a number of personnel. Georgia controlled South Ossetia by the following day, but continued to meet resistance by Ossetian guerrillas.
At the same time, Georgian forces launched an armored thrust into Abkhazia. The Abkhazian defenses, already bruised from extensive strikes, quickly collapsed. Georgian troops captured Sukhumi after several hours, and were in almost complete control of Abkhazia the following morning. The Russian peacekeepers were taken by surprise, and surrendered after a brief fight.
During the Georgian offensive, the Russian political leadership convened in an emergency meeting and decided to intervene. On late 8 August, Russian Su-24, Su-25, Su-32, Tu-22M, and MiG-29 planes flew multiple sorties against Georgian forces in South Ossetia, and against military and logistical targets inside Georgia proper. The attacks caused Georgian casualties to sharply rise, and inflicted some damage, but the Russians themselves suffered heavy losses in planes and aircrews at the hands of Georgian air defense batteries and handheld anti-aircraft missiles.
In the early morning hours of 9 August, Russian paratroopers were airlifted to the site of the Roki Tunnel, to make it safe for engineers to repair the destroyed entrance. The operation was successful, but one of the helicopters was spotted as it flew back towards Russia, and was downed by a Georgian missile, killing its crew. Over the next few hours, Georgian forces repeatedly counterattacked with infantry and armor against the paratroopers, but they were repulsed with losses. The paratroopers had quickly dug themselves in, and were supported by strike aircraft and artillery batteries across the Russian border. Additional forces were flown in to further cement their position, followed by military engineers. After several hours, the tunnel opening was deemed able to receive military convoys, and units of the Russian 58th Army began moving through, coming in battalion by battalion. In addition, Cossacks and irregulars from the Russian regions of North Ossetia and Chechnya also moved through the tunnel and entered the conflict zone. Over the next several hours, the 58th Army gradually pushed Georgian forces from Tskhinvali, while Cossacks and irregulars fought in Georgian-held villages, supported by Ossetian guerrillas. An attempt was made to land Russian paratroopers behind Georgian lines, but most of the helicopters were shot down by Georgian air defenses, killing hundreds of paratroopers and pilots. Georgian artillery and airstrikes hit Russian columns as they poured into South Ossetia, but the artillery was either destroyed or forced to withdraw by Russian counter battery fire and air attacks, and a Georgian Su-25 was also shot down on a bombing run. Russian artillery carried out strikes more freely, and the Russian Air Force continued to fly sorties in South Ossetia and Georgia proper.
At the same time, Russia launched a massive counterattack in Abkhazia. The 7th Novorossiysk and 76th Pskov Air Assault Divisions, the 20th Motorized Rifle Division, and the 131st Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, crossed the border into Abkhazia. At the same time, the Russian Black Sea Fleet deployed sixteen vessels, which provided naval gunfire and landed two battalions of Marines. The Russians easily dislodged Georgian forces, meeting only minimal resistance, after which the Georgians withdrew. Russian paratroopers then carried out raids against bases in Georgia proper to cut Georgian reinforcements off from South Ossetia.
By 13 August, Georgian troops had been forced from South Ossetia, and after several failed counterattacks, regrouped at Gori.
In a meeting convened on 12 August, U.S. President John McCain promised support to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. On 13 August, a massive American airlift of military equipment and supplies landed in Tbilisi International Airport, along with flights of Georgian troops returning from Iraq. President McCain assured Saakashvili that he would intervene, but said he needed several days. The Georgian government quickly sent the supplies and newly arrived troops to the front line, and ordered a massive counterattack against Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russian forces were initially pushed back, but regrouped and began pushing the Georgians back. However, U.S. F-16 and F-15 planes began flying missions against Russian ground targets and air forces, and the Georgians again counterattacked.
The United States Navy, with support from the Georgian Navy, defeated the Russian Navy in the Battle of the Black Sea, after which the U.S. landed several infantry and armored divisions and two Marine regiments in Abkhazia. With the support of Georgian troops, they cleared Russian forces from the Kodori Gorge. Several additional Marine armored and infantry brigades passed through Abkhazia and Georgia proper before entering South Ossetia and catching the Russian 58th Army in the flank, trapping it between the Georgian forces to its front, and the Americans to its rear. They gradually pressed forward, squeezing the Russians further and further into the city. The Russians resisted fiercely, launching several armored counterattacks, and targeted the Americans and Georgians with artillery and airstrikes, and with SS-27 ballistic missiles. The Georgian and American air forces attacked moving Russian armor and active artillery, while house-to-house fighting was done by the infantry with support from armor. The Russians attempted to counterattack to the north and reach Russia, but were ripped apart by air and artillery strikes.
Additional units of the 58th Army were sent to relieve the siege, escorted by MiG-29s. In a massive air battle with F-16s, the MiGs were able to prevent the column from being destroyed, but both sides suffered losses. On 21 August, Russian units broke through the American and Georgian encirclement, but their supply lines were quickly cut off by American paratroopers landing behind their lines. It was at this stage that the war became a grinding stalemate, with both sides engaging each other in heavy urban combat. In a bid to end the war, the U.S. began firing ballistic missiles at Russian military bases. Many were shot down, but some struck and destroyed their targets.
End of the war
Russia, realizing that the cause was doomed, sued for peace. A cease-fire was imposed, and after several days, the Treaty of Tbilisi was signed. The Treaty said that:
- All Georgian troops would withdraw to positions held before the war.
- All Russian troops would withdraw from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
- Russian and Georgian peacekeepers would be replaced by a UN force. Georgian police could still be deployed to protect Georgian villages.
- All American forces would immediately withdraw.
The war cost massive numbers of lives. Georgia announced that 3,144 soldiers had died, while American losses stood at 1,460. Russia had lost 10,807 dead.