Why Bother Researching, Pt. II

by Joshua Foust on 8/26/2008 · 67 comments

Michael Totten fell for it. After asserting Georgia didn’t start nuthin’ because those mean South Ossetians were busy attacking those sweet innocent Georgians while those scary mean Russians were already advancing on the Georgian capital, Totten lets us know where he’s getting his information:

Regional expert, German native, and former European Commission official Patrick Worms was recently hired by the Georgian government as a media advisor, and he explained to me exactly what happened when I met him in downtown Tbilisi. You should always be careful with the version of events told by someone on government payroll even when the government is friendly as democratic as Georgia’s. I was lucky, though, that another regional expert, author and academic Thomas Goltz, was present during Worms’ briefing to me and signed off on it as completely accurate aside from one tiny quibble.

Oh God. He forgot “adventurer” and egomaniac. Well, let’s do this.

“A key tool that the Soviet Union used to keep its empire together,” Worms said to me, “was pitting ethnic groups against one another. They did this extremely skillfully in the sense that they never generated ethnic wars within their own territory. But when the Soviet Union collapsed it became an essential Russian policy to weaken the states on its periphery by activating the ethnic fuses they planted.

That’s funny. I thought the USSR maintained cohesion through a Soviet identity in early childhood education, combined with the threat of prison camp or execution if you didn’t adopt it. I also thought most of the ethnic wars in the Caucasus were born of Josef Stalin’s miserable border-drawing (which was to prevent a single unified ethno-nationalist region from declaring independence), and only took off once the Soviet Union naturally fell and newly-independent countries sought simultaneously to maintain their territorial integrity while also becoming ethnically homogenous.

“They tried that in a number of countries. They tried it in the Baltic states, but the fuses were defused. Nothing much happened. They tried it in Ukraine. It has not happened yet, but it’s getting hotter. They tried it in Moldova. There it worked, and now we have Transnitria. They tried it in Armenia and Azerbaijan and it went beyond their wildest dreams and we ended up with a massive, massive war. And they tried it in two territories in Georgia, which I’ll talk about in a minute. They didn’t try it in Central Asia because basically all the presidents of the newly independent countries were the former heads of the communist parties and they said we’re still following your line, Kremlin, we haven’t changed very much.”

Is he talking about the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which began in 1988, some years before the USSR or even the Berlin Wall fell? Last I checked, the conflict over Upper Karabakh had been going off and on for a good eighty years, and, much like the former Yugoslavia, had only ceased hostilities due to the Soviet Union’s suzerainty. I’m curious how “they tried it” in Ukraine, since the Act of Independence had something like a 90% margin when it passed. And I don’t even know what they’re talking about with Central Asia—there weren’t any long-standing ethnic disputes on the order of anything in the Caucasus to exploit there. Really, the only place any existed in any kind of seething form was the Caucasus, and those existed well before the Soviet Union was invented.

I’m kind of surprised Goltz would sign off on a history this slipshod.

He’s right about the massive war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, though few outside the region know much about it. Armenians and Azeris very thoroughly transferred Azeris and Armenians “back” to their respective mother countries after the Soviet Union collapsed through pogroms, massacres, and ethnic-cleansing. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled savage communal warfare in terror. The Armenian military still occupies the ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region in southwestern Azerbaijan. It’s another so-called “frozen conflict” in the Caucasus region waiting to thaw. Moscow takes the Armenian side and could blow up Nagorno-Karabakh, and subsequently all of Azerbaijan, at any time. After hearing the strident Azeri point of view on the conflict for a week before I arrived in Georgia, I’d say that particular ethnic-nationalist fuse is about one millimeter in length.

Yes, no one outside the region know much about it, save Christian missionaries who spoke at length of Azeri atrocities, and Kids in the Hall skits about how Armenians and Azeria hate each other.

Anyway, he goes on at length quoting this paid representative of Georgia, who manages to portray Georgia as a reactionary victim of Russian power politics. That is certainly true, to an extent, as this excellent look at the complicated start of the war shows (Matthew Bryza, the U.S. Special Envoy to the Region, surprisingly strongly decries Georgian attacks on civilian targets—the action that formed Russia’s casus belli to invade the rest of Georgia, though to Bryza’s credit, he also lambasts the Russians or not ratcheting down tensions beforehand).

But then Totten admits he had no idea there were skirmishes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces in the days leading up to the conflict—something that was obvious in the regular news coming from the region, but was curiously lacking from most people’s discussions of the conflict.

Critically missing from this paid flack’s explanation of the war’s origins is Saakashvili’s brinksmanship. Under Shevardnadze (who also seems disappointed with Saakashvili’s recklessness), Georgia had never pompously strutted itself along the border of its far larger and more powerful northern neighbor, blithely assuming the U.S. and Europe would help it out in any conflict that arose. Saakashvili was, in a word, reckless in assuming he could make a lightning strike into South Ossetia and cut off the Roki tunnel right when everyone knew Russia had already massed on the border. Yes, Russia played a role in provoking the conflict, but Saakashvili was just stupid in playing into it.

Remarkably, Totten operates under the assumption that hearing a long presentation by a paid representative of Georgia, along with an escorted tour of a Georgian hospital with Georgian soldiers will tell him anything about the conflict. He doesn’t understand that Georgia’s spy drone which was shot down by a Russian plane was violating the terms of the cease-fire agreement in Abkhazia, nor does he seem to get that more South Ossetians died during the pre-war skirmish than Georgians. But what was this about?

“On the evening of the 7th, the Ossetians launch an all-out barrage focused on Georgian villages, not on Georgian positions. Remember, these Georgian villages inside South Ossetia – the Georgians have mostly evacuated those villages, and three of them are completely pulverized. That evening, the 7th, the president gets information that a large Russian column is on the move. Later that evening, somebody sees those vehicles emerging from the Roki tunnel [into Georgia from Russia]. Then a little bit later, somebody else sees them. That’s three confirmations. It was time to act.

That does not match with what other Georgian officials are saying about the conflict.

Around 2 p.m. that day, Ossetian artillery fire resumed, targeting Georgian positions in the village of Avnevi in South Ossetia. The barrage continued for several hours. Two Georgian peacekeepers were killed, the first deaths among Georgians in South Ossetia since the 1990s, according to Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze, who spoke in a telephone briefing Aug. 14…

But by evening, Kezerashvili said, the Georgian side had had enough.

“At 6, I gave the order to prepare everything, to go out from the bases,” he said in an interview Aug. 14 at a Georgian position along the Tbilisi-Gori highway. Kezerashvili described the movement of armor, which included tanks, 122mm howitzers and 203mm self-propelled artillery, as a show of force designed to deter the Ossetians from continuing to barrage the Georgian troops’ positions inside South Ossetia.

Western officials in and around South Ossetia also recorded the troop and armor movement, according to a Western diplomat who described in detail on-the-ground reports by monitors from the OSCE. The monitors recorded the movement of BM-21s in the late afternoon…

At 7 p.m., with troops on the march, Saakashvili went on national television and declared a unilateral cease-fire. “We offer all of you partnership and friendship,” he said to the South Ossetians. “We are ready for any sort of agreement in the interest of peace.”

About 9 p.m., the Ossetians complained to Western monitors about the military traffic, according to a diplomat in Tbilisi.

Totten is being fed disinformation. And he doesn’t know enough to say so, since by his own admission (of not even knowing the context of this war, to say nothing of the others) he went into the country—just like his colleague Brietbart in Baku—knowing absolutely nothing about the place beforehand. He does not understand enough about the hatred in the area that exists on both sides to parse through the endless dissembling (Goltz is an amazing writer, but he is also unabashedly anti-Russian). Nor does he seem to understand the right before president Saakashvili invaded the territory, he called for a unilateral cease-fire in an attempt to roll through Tskhinvali unopposed (Russian-sponsored teenagers reportedly hurled molotov cocktails at Georgian tanks).

For example, the Georgians were still incredibly brutal to the South Ossetians, which makes the complaints about Russian brutality ring a tiny bit hollow. Totten doesn’t get at any of this, because he didn’t do a single jot of homework before heading out to these places.

Which is a real shame. But it’s yet another way in which the “power of blogs” continues to utterly fail us.

Update:Well, Totten has demanded an apology for “lying about him in public.” And told me to get off his blog. I’m happy to oblige, but Totten doesn’t get off that easily. I haven’t misrepresented a thing he’s said, since it is painfully obvious that not only was he presenting an incredibly biased version of events, but that he did not know a thing about the conflict before he arrived. To quote his own entry:

“Can I stop you for a second?” I said. I was still under the impression that the war began on August 7 and that Georgian President Saakashvili started it when he sent troops into South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali. What was all this about the Ossetian violence on August 6 and before?

He raised his hand as if to say stop.

“That was the formal start of the war,” he said. “Because of the peace agreement they had, nobody was allowed to have guns bigger than 80mm. Okay, so that’s the formal start of the war. It wasn’t the attack on Tskhinvali. Now stop me.”

“Okay,” I said. “All the reports I’ve read say Saakashvili started the war.”

“I’m not yet on the 7th,” he said. “I’m on the 6th.”

“Okay,” I said. He had given this explanation to reporters before, and he knew exactly what I was thinking.

“Saakashvili is accused of starting this war on the 7th,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “But that sounds like complete bs to me if what you say is true.”

Thomas Goltz nodded.

In other words, he wasn’t reading any actual news—in the New York Times, no less!—about the roiling skirmishes that were reported at least as far back as August 3rd and had taken place for at least a few weeks.

Which, again, is why I feel comfortable in pointing out the man did not understand the conflict he was writing about—now, heaven help us, in the Wall Street Journal, which happily reprints his belief (relayed by Georgian peasant women) that the only thing standing between Tblisi and the Russian tanks were the brave speeches of President Bush and John McCain.

It’s a damned shame—I used to think he was a really nice guy (nice guys don’t sputter in a paroxysm of pure rage when their writing is criticized)—but as Nathan pointed out in the comments, this is sadly common now to the blogosphere. What a loss.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


archon August 31, 2008 at 9:50 pm

Some of the reasoning seems to be getting a bit convoluted here: Georgia could mass its forces for a general offensive against Tskhinvali, but reinforcements sent from North Ossetia towards Tskhinvali represents a casus belli.

archon September 1, 2008 at 5:16 am

Matt Bryza’s warning to Tbilisi (“US Says Warned Georgia…”, Reuters UK, Susan Cornwell, 8-20-08):

“And then even if you succeed miraculously in stopping the tanks, and the infantry, and the mechanized infantry,,,it’s the air power that’s finally going to get you.”

archon September 1, 2008 at 6:15 pm

Excerpts from Contested Borders in the Caucasus, Chapter I, Part 3/4, Alexei Zverev (online):

On 11 December [1990], the Supreme Soviet of Georgia…adopted a law abolishing the South Ossetian autonomy.

In a referendum held in South Ossetia on 19 January 1992, boycotted by local Georgians, more than 90% of those taking part voted to join Russia.

In mid-April…Georgian artillery started daily missile attacks on the residential quarters of Tskhinvali.

Towards the middle of June, 1992, Russia was on the brink of war with Georgia for South Ossetia….Khasbulatov warned that, if Geogia did not stop the bloodshed, the Russian parliament would consider granting South Ossetia’s request to join Russia, while Rutskoi telephoned Shevardnaze and threatened to bomb Tbilisi.

sean September 2, 2008 at 4:22 am

I know very little about the Caucus, except the awesomeness of Ali and Nino, but what I do know a little something about is Totten’s hackery.

He has a long history of writing partisan pap about the Arab world that’s neither honest nor well informed. If you think that his ignorance is limited to the Caucus, then please think again.

Joshua Foust September 2, 2008 at 4:47 am

Sean, that link is funny. Totten responded to this post by saying he “writes about geopolitics for a living” and he reports from these places, so how could I know anything about it?

Typical field bias. Being there in person is important, but if that’s all someone relies on in order to get the truth of a place then they’ll get really bad information. Totten hasn’t picked up on the basic human truth that people lie, and especially when nations and cities are on the line they lie pathologically—repeatedly, and sometimes without meaning to. As such, he regularly gets taken for rides by his sources. Only, he reacts with severe anger when someone calls him on it.

fnord September 2, 2008 at 5:38 am

Foust: I think you are too kind to call him a fool. Rather, I would say that he is a info-warrior participating in conflicts as an actor. The “Georgia responded to russian tanks in the tunell” story surfaced at his site, as far as I can tell, and that indicates that he willingly acted as a trial baloon for an open historical revision of facts. Thats called being a tool, not a fool.

AMac September 2, 2008 at 10:28 am

fnord 5:38am —

The “Georgia responded to Russian tanks in the tunnel” story surfaced at his site, as far as I can tell, and that indicates that he willingly acted as a trial balloon for an open historical revision of facts.

The FT offered a timeline including the events of August 7/8, Countdown in the Caucasus: Seven days that brought Russia and Georgia to war (pub. 8/26/08).

Matthew Bryza, a State department official who is considered the US point man on Georgia, corroborates Mr Saakashvili’s version of events. He says he was told the same information, as events were unfolding, in a series of phone discussions with Georgian leadership on August 7 and 8. “I was in fact told that Russian armour was indeed already moving toward the Georgian village of Kurta from the Roki tunnel before the Georgians attacked Tskhinvali,” he says in an email.

This is Bryza’s recounting of the Georgian version of events. What if any information outside parties had gleaned from reconnaissance satellites, OSCE peacekeepers, intercepts of 58th Army radio traffic, or humint remains unclear.

Here is an account from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, How the Georgian War Began (pub. 8/22/08).

A Georgian government statement issued shortly after 2 am [on Aug. 8] … added a new detail, which was later to be repeated by Saakashvili and others, saying, “According to the information we have, hundreds of armed men and pieces of equipment have crossed through the Roki Tunnel under the Russian-Georgian border.” …

The timing of the Russian intervention is crucial. The Russian 58th army had been conducting exercises in North Ossetia near to the other side of the four-kilometre Roki tunnel linking North and South Ossetia. The Georgians now say they were acting pre-emptively to head off a Russian military intervention, while the Ossetian and Russian version is that the 58th army responded only after the Georgian attack began.

On August 14, Georgian prime minister Lado Gurgenidze [said], “At around 6 am the Georgian forces blew up the Kurta bridge [Kurta is about 3 km north of Tskhinvali]. A column of the Russian troops that had entered the previous night from the Roki tunnel was there, so a couple of their vehicles were blown up as well… Think about how many hours of preparation, assembly, then marching, it would take for that column, moving at that speed on rugged terrain to be at the Kurta bridge at six in the morning…”

Many of these assertions are disputed. For example, an IWPR reporter who visited the area last week did not see any destroyed bridges in the Kurta area.

I believe that the bridge being referred to is actually in the village of Didi Gupta (15 km north of Tskhinvali), where a JPKF outpost with an OSCE representative was active as of July 2008.

On 8/29/08, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute affiliated with Johns Hopkins University published Russia’s War in Georgia by Svante E. Cornell, Johanna Popjanevski, and Niklas Nilsson (no links or cites are offered for individual timeline items):

August 7, 2008

In Tbilisi, the Georgian authorities receive foreign intelligence reports about movement of Russian troops towards the Roki tunnel, connecting North Ossetia with the South Ossetian conflict zone. Georgian President Saakashvili consults Western diplomats and is advised by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza not to fall into a trap and to avoid a confrontation with Russia.


According to multiple and consistent Georgian sources (including witnesses to the discussions), at approximately 11 PM Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili receives information that a convoy of over 100 Russian military vehicles is passing through the Roki tunnel.

Ryan Erickson September 2, 2008 at 10:43 am

Well, duh, of course Bryza corroborated Saakashvili’s version of events–he was talking to the Georgian leadership, as he says himself. The other reports can be similarly disregarded, as they cite only reports from Georgian authorities, who obviously had a strong reason to paint a different version of events.

Perhaps the strongest case against a “Russia was invading so we had to push them out” argument is why didn’t Georgia mention that when it decided to carry out operation “Clean Fields”? Yes, Russian invasion of South Ossetia would have been a strong reason for Georgia to invade, but why wasn’t it mentioned here, when Georgia announced it was invading?

AMac September 2, 2008 at 11:19 am

> Well, duh, of course Bryza corroborated Saakashvili’s version of events… The other reports can be similarly disregarded…

> The “Georgia responded to Russian tanks in the tunnel” story surfaced at [Totten’s] site, as far as I can tell

My own opinion is set forth in Totten’s comments: the preponderance of the evidence suggests that the lead elements of the 58th Army transited the Roki Tunnel early on August 8, as a response to the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali.

Ryan Erickson September 2, 2008 at 11:24 am

I was just worried for a second that you were trying to support Totten… good to see you haven’t been fooled, my apologies.

AMac September 2, 2008 at 11:52 am

As the IWPR states, I think “The timing of the Russian intervention is crucial.” Totten has accurately reported what the Georgian government is on record as saying about their motives for moving into South Ossetia.

* Saakashvili shoud be pressed to substantiate his claim as to timing, or at least to state his Aug. 7 sources.

* Other parties have information yet to be cited in open-source literature. The Russians (obviously), nations with satellites overhead (perhaps), and the OSCE (JPKF presence at Didi Gupta but not at the tunnel itself).

* The matter is probably quite complex. It was incredibly foolish for the Georgians to ignore Bryza’s sound advice. Their reasoning on Aug. 7 remains unexplained. Perhaps they believed they had a fleeting chance to replay the 1995 Croatian wresting of the Krijina from Serbia. I speculate that Putin supplied Saakashvili with corrupted intelligence to tempt him into taking that fateful first step northward from Gori to Tskhinvali. Certainly, Putin was ready to exploit whatever gift Saakashvili chose to offer him.

Hopefully, the timeline of those tragic days will be corrected and fleshed out as more and better information comes to light.

Ryan Erickson September 2, 2008 at 12:11 pm

“Totten has accurately reported what the Georgian government is on record as saying about their motives for moving into South Ossetia”.

Yes, I agree. Totten should get a gold star for toeing the official Saakashvili line.

archon September 3, 2008 at 12:11 pm

From the Spilt Beans file:

David Axe, Wired News, 9-3-08, Did Georgia Anticipate the South Ossetian War?:

But that’s not the whole story, according to Gordon Hahn of the Monterey Institute of International Studies and other institutions. In a weekly distributed email circular, Hahn claims Georgia also moved forces into place long before the fighting started:

Georgian military officials have inadvertently revealed that they had brought heavy artillery into the conflict zone very early on. For instance, artillery brigade commanders told a Georgian newspaper {Kviris Politra} that Georgian artillery used in the zone on August 7 included {see article for catalog of specific equipment}. . . . It takes many days if not weeks to bring in the kind of heavy artillery about which the commander is talking into or near the conflict zone. . . .

AMac September 3, 2008 at 1:39 pm

It takes many days if not weeks to bring in the kind of heavy artillery about which the commander is talking into or near the conflict zone.

Skepticism is called for. The Wired article relies an analyst who quotes a Georgian newspaper account in which Georgian artillery officers celebrate their “triumphs.” The weapons systems that are named are either self-propelled or towed. Most or all are designed for rapid setup and breakdown. They can fire at a distance of 20 to 40 km from the target. The degradation in accuracy caused by use at extreme ranges are not a problem for area bombardment, as the residents of Tskhinvali know to their sorrow. Consulting a map, Tskhinvali is about 30 km north of Gori, about 20 km north of the boundary formed by the Security Corridor, and about 5 km north of the South Ossetia/Kartli border.

Thus, it would appear that the named weapons have rapidity of setup and a long-enough reach so that the Georgians had no need to pre-position them in the conflict zone (though, firing from outside of it automatically would cause a conflict zone to expand, it seems to me). Certainly no need to pre-position in South Ossetia itself. Quick Google searches —

2S7 203 mm Pion self-propelled artillery gun. 46 tons (for comparison, an M1 tank weighs 61 tons). Max. road speed 51 km/h, maximum range 47 km, “shoot & scoot” capability.

GRADLAR is an Israeli upgrade to the Soviet-era BM-21 GRAD multiple rocket system. Mounted on a truck chassis. Maximum range 45 km.

152 mm Akatsiya self-propelled howitzer. 28 tons, max. road speed 63 km/h, maximum range 24 km.

122 mm D30 howitzer [Wikipedia]. Towed behind a truck, 3 tons, maximum range 22 km.

I would assume that many of these guns were moved into South Ossetia after the onset of the August 7 attack. Ranges would have to be much, much shorter to target something the size of a bridge, or to employ them in an anti-armor role.

Oldschool Boy September 3, 2008 at 2:46 pm

I do not know what kind of artilery it is that takes days and weeks to bring in. Are we talking about that huge German cannon used during WWII to shell Leningrad that moved on rails I have seen in a documentary movie?
Otherwise, all artilery I have seen are pretty mobile, either towed by a truck or self-propelled, like a tank.

archon September 3, 2008 at 3:11 pm

Perhaps I confuse myself, but isn’t it pretty well undisputed that a stream of “rough and regulars” from North Ossetia came through the Roki Tunnel well in advance of the 58th Army? (The South Ossetians, of course, claim they knew a Georgian offensive was in the making.) I seem to recall that the Georgian representative, in his address to the Security Council delivered about 1:30 a.m. on 8/8 (8:00 a.m. Georgia time?) complains of “mercenaries” coming through the tunnel, but makes no mention of the 58th Army. He made a great to-do about it in the next meeting, which convened on the afternoon of the 8th.

archon September 3, 2008 at 4:16 pm

Excuse me: “rough and readies.”

I see that Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, is now demanding that the OSCE put all the relevant reports of its operatives on he table (ITAR-TASS, 9-2-08.)

It appears that the South Ossetian contingent of the JCC has its own website. (I think sojcc.ru/eng will probably take you there.) They say, of course, just what they _would_ say.

Previous post:

Next post: