September 24, 2008

The Scorching of Georgia

Scorching of Georgia.jpg

The events described in this article took place in late August, 2008.

Last month Russia invaded, occupied, and de-facto annexed portions of Georgia. During that time it was difficult, if not impossible, for reporters to see for themselves what was actually happening. I wanted to see for myself what Russia had wrought, but everything behind the front lines was closed.

The breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were off-limits to anyone without a Russian visa. It takes months to acquire a Russian visa, so traveling to those areas was out of the question.

I tried to get into the occupied city of Gori with Caucasus expert and author Thomas Goltz, but even that city was closed to us though it is inside Georgia proper and beyond Russia's acquired new territories. Occasionally Russian soldiers would let journalists pass, but Thomas and I weren't among the lucky few.

So I went to Borjomi, an area that by all accounts was bombed by Russian jets, but was never occupied or controlled by its ground troops. Borjomi is a tourist town next to the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park

Posted by Michael J. Totten at September 24, 2008 1:10 AM
Comments
Brilliant dispatch, as usual Michael. This and your other Georgian articles have given me far more insight into this conflict than anything I've read in the MSM. Thank you!
Posted by: E.D. Kain at September 24, 2008 8:15 am
One word: biased!
Posted by: karbon at September 24, 2008 8:42 am
One word: biased!
I have to agree. If you hired a taxi driver to drive you on a mountain smugglers road through a warzone, supplied only with chocolate, cookies, soft drinks, and chips(!)...
... and if you look at your past travel experiences, it was biased for you to declare that the backpacker Charles was the craziest person in the room.
Great report!
Posted by: maryatexitzero at September 24, 2008 9:07 am
Another possibility: an aircraft releasing a series of flares at low level ... low enough for the extremely hot flares to hit the ground and start a fire for each flare.
It would explain consistent spacing of fires better than dropping bombs (which would probably be less consistently spaced).
This would be contra-indicated by spacing between fire-origins that is significantly farther apart than the midair gaps between flare deployments. (Also depends on aircraft speed and trajectory while flare-dropping, and probably the prevailing winds.)
Since the Russians lost some number of aircraft (8 ?) to SAMs (SA-11 ?), it is not unthinkable that a pilot launched flares to dodge a (real or imaginary) SAM.
Posted by: sarnac at September 24, 2008 9:58 am
"Since the Russians lost some number of aircraft (8 ?) to SAMs (SA-11 ?), it is not unthinkable that a pilot launched flares to dodge a (real or imaginary) SAM."
Plus given mountainous terrain is it possible for aircraft to fly low enough for that?
And isn't best flair defense would be if combined along with aircraft turning at the same time?
Just wondering for I am not an expert.
Posted by: leo at September 24, 2008 10:52 am
Karbon "...biased"
Um.... have you never read this blog before? The beauty (or beast) of MJT's reporting is that he reports what he sees as HE sees it: ie. not just relating what happens in front of him, but also relating this through the lenses of his own world-view and, indeed, biases -- which he doesn't hide at all.
I believe almost anyone worth listening to, anyone interesting, has prejudices and bias in their arguments. It's unavoidably human.
This goes equally for MSM journalists -- like myself -- who are supposedly obliged to adopt "neutrality" or "objectivity" -- a tall order.
I think that as long as you know where the given "biased" writer or broadcaster is coming from -- having a bias one way or another is not necessarily a bad thing. It's certainly more honest than being in the middle of a war zone and pretending you don't give a shit what happens.
Which is why the Michael J Totten blog is a bit like Borjomi Water, people tend to either love it -- or they hate it.
Posted by: Microraptor at September 24, 2008 11:11 am
What I want a reporter to do is report; I don't give a crap about his/her world view. You're there. I'm not. What's happening? If I want your opinion I'll ask for it. After six decades of reading what passes for journalism I've never had a lower opinion of the mainstream press than I do today.
Paul S.
Posted by: Paul S. at September 24, 2008 12:17 pm
"Plus given mountainous terrain is it possible for aircraft to fly low enough for that?"
Depending on the quality of the pilot, absolutely yes. Attack aircraft pilots are trained to fly low through mountains as a method of staying alive. Granted that Soviet/Russian pilots are trained much less than US pilots, they still can easily fly through the relatively mild wooded slopes pictured here.
Those mountains may be a pain to drive through, but they aren't the worst thing in the world to fly though. They guys who got shot down by Surface to Air missiles would probably argue that hey mountains were a lot better to fly through than the clear air.
The best possible methods of defending against heat seeking missiles is not the point here. For one thing there is a dearth of expert pilots on this forum actively violating security by sharing the latest missile dodging tips. Go to the SIPRNET for that advice, if you are authorized and have the need to know. (My specialty is dodging torpedoes, my best advice for that is unclassified: stay on dry land.) The point is that Russian pilots are not the best in the world because they don't get the training (fuel and parts expense) to be the best. I find it entirely likely that a nervous (terrified) Russian pilot would dump regular flares along a line while he was locked up flying straight under fire.
Similarly, I find it entirely plausible that a particularly vile and arrogant Russian attack pilot would deliberately dump flares on a forest and claim he came under attack once he got back on base. There is never going to be a board of inquiry into this, and we will never know for sure.
Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at September 24, 2008 3:50 pm
This goes equally for MSM journalists -- like myself -- who are supposedly obliged to adopt "neutrality" or "objectivity" -- a tall order.
As a news reporter, you aren't "supposedly" obliged; you ARE obliged to be objective. If you can't do that, then get out of the business and become a community organizer instead; at the very least admit what your bias is. Michael does, but it doesn't stop him from being fair either.
Posted by: carlos at September 24, 2008 5:07 pm
Are there institutions that accept direct donations to help Georgia? I'd go buy Borjomi water but I can't find it for sale in Japan. I've seen some microcredit operations in Georgia, but donating money for food, infrastructure rebuilding, etc. I've not found anything, although admittedly I've not looked very hard, either.
I seem to recall an Israeli website that let people donate money to fund the recent Israel-Hezbollah war by buying the Israeli Army munitions. There was/is also a website where you could buy pizzas to send to Israeli soldiers on patrol.
Posted by: Comrade_Tovarich at September 24, 2008 8:25 pm
Though the sample of people questioned was small what struck me was that even though most of the interviewed Georgians in Borjomi were sure the fires were set by the Russians they also seemed willing to wait until they knew more before making a final judgement. Considering the facility we humans have for snap judgements in the face of either no evidence or contradictory evidence their, the Georgians, attitude seems remarkable.
But the idea of a Russian plane or to be fair any plane in a combat situation remaining on a straight flight path and sending only flares out instead of evasive action seems far-fetched. It's the equivalent of trailing a mile long banner that says "Shoot Me." Instead of the usual beer or car insurance banners pulled by prop planes over my house in the summer.
As far as donations go the Salvation Army has the European Disaster Fund which currently is engaged in bringing relief supplies into both occupied and unoccupied Georgia through its missions that were reestablished in 1991. Any money that is collected through this fund goes strictly to aid work, food, medicine, shelter, etc., and not to any of the Army's ongoing missionary activities.
http://www.salvationarmy.org
Posted by: Pat Patterson at September 25, 2008 4:31 am
Thanks for the constructive and intelligent career advice Carlos. I'll certainly bear it in mind.
Meanwhile, talking about objectivity in the context of the Russo-Georgian War, this report is quite interesting.
http://www.tol.cz/look/TOL/article.tpl?IdLanguage=1&IdPublication=4&NrIssue=288&NrSection=1&NrArticle=20012&tpid=10
Basically it says that the nominally "free and democratic" Georgian media is currently neither willing nor -- seemingly -- able to be objective, due to a need to salve national pride after the humiliations of the summer.
While this is perhaps understandable, is it healthy?
I for one (take note Carlos) am of the opinion that whatever the pre-emptive strategic machinations on the Russian side, the Georgian political leadership was, at the very best, reckless and naive. I think Mr M. Saakashvili and his young clique needs to shoulder a large part of the blame for what was a military catastrophe of the highest order fro the Georgian nation.
But this necessary introspection is unlikely to happen while that country's media are full flag waving mode.
Meanwhile Carlos, you may want to try this seeing as you are clearly a fan. It's just for laughs....
http://politsk.blogspot.com/2008/09/sarah_13.html
(Don't worry it was profiled on Fox News too)
Best Regards,
Chisel Dustup Palin
Posted by: Microraptor at September 25, 2008 5:20 am
"I believe almost anyone worth listening to, anyone interesting, has prejudices and bias in their arguments. It's unavoidably human.
"This goes equally for MSM journalists -- like myself -- who are supposedly obliged to adopt "neutrality" or "objectivity" -- a tall order."
It's a tall order, that's one reason journalism and political propaganda are deemed to be different different orientations, different vocations. No one seriously requires a journalist to be "objective" in some type of pure, abstract sense; after all, what would that mean? On the other hand, transparency, forthrightness, a lack of guile, etc. all serve to distinguish real journalism, serious journalism, honest journalism from other variants.
"Serious, careful, honest journalism is essential, not because it is a guiding light but because it is a form of honorable behavior, involving the reporter and the reader." Martha Gellhorn
Posted by: Michael_B at September 25, 2008 11:52 am
Microraptor,
"...what was a military catastrophe of the highest order fro the Georgian nation."
What would you describe the effect of Saddam's recalcitrant behavior in the Gulf War I and II? Wouldn't the utter demolition of every mechanized unit in your army be considered a "military catastrophe of the highest order"? Or perhaps the most severe drubbing of a national military in history and collapse of the nation within six weeks be a "military catastrophe of the highest order"?
Saddam had numerical superiority in Gulf war I and II. Georgia was outnumbered 10 to 1 on its best day. Georgia certainly didn't win this last war, but it wasn't "a military catastrophe of the highest order". It was a limited defeat against a larger opponent. Georgia could have put in a better showing, but they weren't as catastrophically affected as you allege.
Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at September 26, 2008 2:07 pm
Microraptor wrote:
"Um.... have you never read this blog before? The beauty (or beast) of MJT's reporting is that he reports what he sees as HE sees it: ie. not just relating what happens in front of him, but also relating this through the lenses of his own world-view and, indeed, biases -- which he doesn't hide at all."
I don't think there is any question that Michael reports what he sees. The problem is that he chooses to play things safe (in general) and report one side of a story in most cases. He once interviewed someone from Hezbollah and shit his pants the whole time and I haven't really seen him do that sort of reporting ever since. The same thing can be seen in his decision to embed with US military in Iraq.
So if you want someone one the ground but will report one side of a story then MJT is your man. If you want real reporting on both sides and someone who can get to the bottom of issues people want to know, then you need to read somewhere else. This is mostly the reason that I don't choose to donate to support Michael's hobby. That and the fact that he is a bloviating arsehole.
Posted by: Graham at September 26, 2008 7:37 pm
Graham,
"He once interviewed someone from Hezbollah and shit his pants the whole time and I haven't really seen him do that sort of reporting ever since."
Before your comment deservedly goes winging down the memory hole, allow me to call you a useless twit. I've been to a couple of war zones with Michael. I went to Kirkuk with him without US knowledge or support. I stood within sight of Mosul on an abandoned Anti-Aircraft Artillery emplacement with him watching the smoke from the car bombs rise. I've been so close to the Iranian border with him that the locals had a five minute debate to decide if we'd crossed over or not. Michael goes plenty far in sticking his neck out.
Michael's job is not to provide universal context at the cost of his life. Michael's job is not to provide violent fascists with an outlet for their hatred and oppressive rhetoric. Michael's job is not to entertain trolls or do their bidding. Michael's job is report a story few if any other people are covering and get home safely.
I trust Michael with my life to get as much of the story as can be gotten. Michael carries an American passport and his head is worth millions in free publicity to certain organizations. Michael isn't going to give the butchers a chance to make their bones with his decapitation.
Piss off, you worthless sack of meat.
Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at September 26, 2008 10:38 pm
"I don't think there is any question that Michael reports what he sees. The problem is that he chooses to play things safe (in general) and report one side of a story in most cases."
"So if you want someone one the ground but will report one side of a story then MJT is your man. If you want real reporting on both sides and someone who can get to the bottom of issues people want to know, then you need to read somewhere else."
Yes, some one like ... Graham.
Graham,
How often do you think what you say?
Posted by: leo at September 26, 2008 11:33 pm
Graham: He once interviewed someone from Hezbollah and shit his pants the whole time and I haven't really seen him do that sort of reporting ever since.
The fuck are you talking about? I'm not afraid of Hezbollah. I voluntarily went to a war zone where they exploded thousands of rockets long after I interviewed one of the political bureau members in their headquarters.
I never even published the interview. It was boring.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 27, 2008 12:01 am
Well Patrick, I still think it was pretty darn bad for the Georgians, even if it didn't lead to the collapse of the entire state a la Saddam Hussein.
It was humiliating.... many Georgian friends of mine were left scratching their heads and asking "Where was the Georgian army...?" after the retreat from South Ossetia (rout might be a more accurate term)... psychologically it was a disaster for Georgia's armed forces... and for the nation.
And let's also not forget that the Russians went on a looting and destruction of army bases spree. A number were taken out. I believe there was a particular facility -- the pride and joy of the Georgian armed forces -- somewhere near Senaki. It was NATO standard, cost zillions and was stripped bare.
They might not have been Saddam'd but the Georgian military was set back years, and I don't think they will ever get South Ossetia or Abkhazia back now.
So "A Military Disaster of the Middling to High Order...."?
As for Graham's (ahem) comment, I agree that MJT reporting is often one sided -- usually the pro American side.... and I agree that when he's on an embed he can seem like a bit of a cheerleader for the troops (especially his coverage of the "surge" in Iraq)....
But I can't understand why you would want to be so childishly rude about him or his work. Why bother reading -- let alone taking the time to comment on -- the work (sorry "hobby") of a "bloviating arsehole"? What does that say about you?
Where are you manners? At the risk of sounding like some sort of a dewy eyed Persian traditionalist, let me say this: if someone invites you into their house, you don't accept and then insult the host. That's appalling.
Posted by: Microraptor at September 27, 2008 12:01 am
Graham: He once interviewed someone from Hezbollah and shit his pants the whole time
I think Graham is referring to the LA Weekly piece and Hussein Nabulsi threatening you.
Graham: how would you have reacted, as a matter of interest?
Posted by: Edgar at September 27, 2008 4:58 am
The problem is that he chooses to play things safe (in general) and report one side of a story in most cases.
Since when is going into the midst of a warzone 'playing it safe'? Michael is sort of like a fireman of journalism - he runs towards situations that most people run away from.
I guess you would also call firemen wimps for wearing protective gear and using water, not wrestling the fire with their bare hands.
Posted by: maryatexitzero at September 27, 2008 7:01 am
Microraptor,
How about "...an avoidable kick to the crotch that will be hard to face again without flinching."?
I don't think we got to see the kind of stubborn resistance an open widespread invasion would bring. I also think that Russia would never try this on Poland in the current era. I bet Poland and many of the other former Warsaw Pact nations improve their defense posture after this.
Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at September 27, 2008 8:25 am
I also found it sort of bemusing that the Georgians here seemed pretty placid about things. I strongly suspect sampling error. Which is, basically, the kind of people that are likely to house wandering reporters tend to be pretty 'liberal' in temperament. That's the problem with anecdotes - nonrandom variance that stems from the way in which the anecdotes are obtained.
Sad stuff about the Georgians, but you also get a sense of the relative moderation of the hardship.. compared to other times and places. When you're worried about the tourism slump hurting your local economy.. things could be worse.
Victims are dangerous things to mental judgement. A well-written story about a family made homeless, be it in Georgia or Palestine, is an evocative thing. Such stories do a wonderful job of polarizing confused situations, because each side subscribes to media organizations that record their own group's suffering in immense detail and ignore the other guy's.
I suppose the equivalent story we won't get here would be about how the residents of Tshinkivali enjoyed their artillery barrage, and how they're loving them some Russian citizenship.
Posted by: glasnost at September 27, 2008 9:15 am
Glasnost: the kind of people that are likely to house wandering reporters tend to be pretty 'liberal' in temperament.
That would likely be true in an anti-American country like Iran or Saudi Arabia. I wouldn't expect that kind of hospitality from an Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer or a Wahhabi cleric.
In Georgia I don't think it's operative.
Mako seems to be "liberal" insofar as she prefers Obama to McCain, but she also likes Bush as do most Georgians. (They named a street after him in Tbilisi.) So make of that whatever you will.
I suppose the equivalent story we won't get here would be about how the residents of Tshinkivali enjoyed their artillery barrage, and how they're loving them some Russian citizenship.
No, you won't get that story. The Russians would not let me in to Tshkinvali. Interviewing people there wasn't an option. That was also true before the war started, by the way.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 27, 2008 11:29 am
For some reason the poor performance of the Georgian Army has been somewhat of an unexplored topic among most who are pro-Georgian. I believe this is a mistake. Although the Georgian's were much better equipped, compare their performance fighting the Russians with the performance of the Chechens. In Russia itself the general agreement among analysts is that the performance of the Russian Army in Georgia was mediocre, but that the Georgians performed surprisingly badly.
"I also think that Russia would never try this on Poland in the current era"
Of course, not. What should they think about trying such a thing? Events in Georgia did not develop in a vacuum. It seems that people too often forget about the key and crucial role of the Ossetians and the Abkhazians. If they would have preferred to be under Georgia, none of this would have happened. Over 15-years ago many Ossetians and Abkhazians died fighting against the Georgian in order to be independent and indeed they have been de facto independent from Georgia ever since then. In other words, the people who were the most directly affected by this war actually welcomed Georgia's defeat.
Once again, let me suggest to watch the Dodge Billingsley talks on this. He's a war reporter with ample experience in the Caucasus (besides Iraq and Afghanistan and other places).
Posted by: KolyaV at September 27, 2008 1:00 pm
I can think of a few speculative reasons why Russia doesn't want to let any Western journalists in that aren't necessarily incriminating, per se, but it's still.. odd. It appears that even Hizballah has a more sophisticated media arm.
Of course, the first reason that springs to mind is that they're afraid that Ossetians would not confirm their version of events, or that other bad things happened in Ossetia we don't know about. But perhaps the reason is simpler: that Russia just doesn't care what the US public thinks. They sure haven't been writing many editorials in US newspapers.
Posted by: glasnost at September 27, 2008 7:33 pm
Glasnost, in an earlier thread, you said:
If you could get a visa out of the Russians, you could do some very, very, very interesting reporting there. Of course, there's an outside chance - although I think they almost exclusively save this for Russians - that they would try to have you killed.
Vlad "Polonium 210" Putin has been getting away with murder for years. During the conflict in Georgia, CNN international was reporting stories of how the Russians and their friends were shooting at reporters who came to Georgia. They showed a film of Turkish reporters being fired upon. One female journalist was shot in the arm. Russians shot Israeli reporters, they threatened British reporters, then stole their cameras.
If Russians et. al are killing, wounding and robbing reporters it's no surprise that no one is interested in honestly covering the Russian side of the story.
Posted by: maryatexitzero at September 27, 2008 9:00 pm
One theory on why the Georgians fought so poorly is that they were being managed by the Interior Ministry rather than the War Department (since from the Georgian side this was an internal affair).
Also, my personal opinion is that they went in with too few troops to do the job and had an unrealistic timetable. If their goal was to cut off the Russians from the Roki tunnel then getting bogged down immediately in Tshinkivali was rather dumb. Incidentally this is the most compelling argument against direct US military support, as the Russians claim. If the US was in fact in charge of, or pushing this operation, the Roki tunnel would have been taken out in the first 5 minutes of the offensive.
Lastly, on this particular article I really enjoyed following along and meeting these interesting Georgians. I too was impressed by their "wait and see" attitude as to who was responsible. Just to cover all bases, does anyone know if any Georgian planes were airborne during this phase of the war, and if so is it possible one of them accidentally did this?
Thanks for the article.
Posted by: Armchair General at September 29, 2008 8:36 am
I cannot understand preoccupation with military part of the conflict. Especially with poor performance of Georgian military.
Does any of you honestly believe if Georgians were fighting to the last man they would've been able to push Russians back where Russians came from?
Another question everybody is arguing about is strange to me as well.
What do you mean who started the war? Georgia did not invade Russia. So, who started the war?
What, Russian peacekeepers you say?
WTF is Russian 'peacekeepers'?
Were peacekeepers sanctioned by UN? What? No?
So, maybe peacekeepers were there at request of Georgian government onto whose territory they were deployed? What do you mean, no?
Then who the hell picked the fox to guard the hen house?
And after all this BS Russians keep whining about being misunderstood and about how unfair Western media is to them?
Regardless of how stupid(?) and nearsighted(?) Saakashvili's actions were he forced Putin's hand. Even though, many believe (including myself) it is what Putin wanted anyway reaction of the rest of the world was anything but what Putin had in mind.
One more thing. It is said that Russia was able to amass $500B-$600B in surplus money with approx. $300B of it tied in worthless Freddy and Fanny papers. Whom are we going to be bailing out with our $700B?
Posted by: leo at September 29, 2008 10:59 am
"I cannot understand preoccupation with military part of the conflict."
Is very simple, Leo. Some people are interested in military stuff. For better of for worse, I am one of them. Hey, that's partly I became a soldier for a while: I voluntarily joined the US Army infantry. And, of course, I'm not the only one interested in such matters.
"Especially with poor performance of Georgian military. Does any of you honestly believe if Georgians were fighting to the last man they would've been able to push Russians back where Russians came from?"
No, I didn't expect the Georgian's fight to the last man--that's silly. Neither did I expect them to fight as fiercely as the Chechens. On the other hand, since more than once I read Georgian accounts bragging about their newly refurbished military--new equipment, new training--I was indeed very surprised by how quickly they broke and ran. It wasn't an either/or situation, Leo. Instead of running away abandoning military bases and new military equipment (even when the Russians were not in hot pursuit), the Georgians could have retreated in a more orderly fashion and then redeployed in a strong defensive position.
So there are plenty of people who are interested in such military matters (regarless of the theater of war--the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and so on).
Posted by: KolyaV at September 29, 2008 9:32 pm
OK, KolyaV,
If it is simple curiosity then of cause.
My apologies.
Still, more resistance, more destruction. And if you were responsible for the country what would've you done?
Besides, how do you know Georgians ever thought Russians will go into Georgia proper?
Maybe to Georgian's mistaken perception once Abkhazia and SO were lost there was end of the war and when mistake was realized it was too late to do anything. Could that be possible?
In reality I do not have a foggiest idea. Just asking myself.
Posted by: leo at September 30, 2008 5:34 am
"I cannot understand preoccupation with military part of the conflict."
For my part, the reason I think the military aspect is crucial is because it gives us clues as to what each side was thinking politically. Since neither Russia nor Georgia is giving us time stamped aerial photography showing us where their units were at any given time, it is up to us to decipher the clues based on how they acted.
For instance, a lot of people seem to think the Georgians had some magically enhanced super army that was trained by NATO to destroy any Russian invaders. The truth is that the Georgians were trained by US advisors, but only in counter-insurgency operations, presumably for use in Iraq. Kicking down doors is a far cry from moving an armored column through hostile territory at night. This sort of training would do absolutely nothing to help fight Russians.
The military situation is also valuable to help assign blame to civilian deaths, ethnically cleaned villages, political thresholds (such as where the Russians stopped short of Tbilisi) and so forth. Understanding these things, and who is responsible, can hopefully help stop them from happening again.
Posted by: Armchair General at September 30, 2008 7:52 am
I didn't want to get things too far off topic but I need to respond to all these sycophantic comments.
Sorry ladies for getting your knickers in such a twist re. my comments about Michael. I just calls 'em like I sees 'em. If you want real war zone reporting, I'll take Anne Garrels or John Simpson any day over Totten's "work". If you want one-sided opinions intertwined with your "reporting" then, by all means, stick with Totten. Mike you ought to get a job with the State department.
Posted by: Graham at September 30, 2008 1:25 pm
Michael,
The new mother-in-law here...sorry we took your bedroom in Borjomi. You missed meeting the two Peace Corps workers who's been staying there for a year, since the U.S. pulled out the Peace Corps before you arrived in Borjomi. They, along with other former Georgian U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, have started a small micro financing project which would benefit people who are trying to extend their businesses, and people who are trying to start small business projects such as selling Georgian crafts. This helps people to help themselves in the
Posted by: Juliette Z at October 29, 2008 4:39 am
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