September 10, 2008

From Baku to Russian-Occupied Georgia

“Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” – George F. Kennan, United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union

“You must draw a white-hot iron over this Georgian land!…You will have to break the wings of this Georgia! Let the blood of the petit bourgeois flow until they give up all their resistance! Impale them! Tear them apart!” – Vladimir Lenin

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, looks as though it might never have been a part of the Soviet Union. It is perhaps the least communist-looking capital in the nine post-communist countries I’ve visited.

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Baku, Azerbaijan

So much oil money has been pumped into the city that its revival and transformation is nearly complete. The countryside, though, is much rougher and poorer, and my trip across that landscape to Georgia from Baku felt in many ways like a trip backward in time, as if a year were being subtracted from the date for each of the 18 hours I sat on the train. By the time I reached the outskirts of Gori in central Georgia and ran into Russian soldiers carrying Soviet era equipment marked with the Soviet Union's insignia, the trip back in time to the days of the empire felt all but complete.

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Baku Azerbaijan from the Caspian Plaza Hotel

First, though, the journey:

At least I wasn't in any danger the first time I encountered a relic of the communist era in the Caucasus region. I was merely annoyed. But I was also intrigued: the train link between the two countries has been barely, if at all, reconstructed.

I bought a sandwich, orange juice, muffins, and large bottles of water for the long slog by ground to Tbilisi just a few kilometers from the edge of the Russian occupation zone. At the train station in central Baku I set down my bag of food in front of car number one, which was to be mine as soon as boarding began. Two feral cats crept up to my bag and I gently shooed them with my foot. They returned when I wasn’t looking and in an instant managed to rip open my package of muffins and tear pieces off. I shooed them again, but felt slightly bad. I have cats of my own at home, and these two were hungry. I had six muffins and could spare one. So I broke one into pieces and fed it to them.

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Baku, Azerbaijan

A young Azeri boy leaned over and watched the cats eat, but his father told him to stay away from the animals. He turned then to me.

“Where are you from?” he said.

“United States,” I said.

“You are going to Tbilisi?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “You?”

“Yes,” he said. “I am from Azerbaijan, but I live in Georgia. Now there are no flights.” The airport was shut down at the time because of the Russian invasion. Georgia was only accessible by ground. “It is stupid, but this is Georgia. Comfort is only zero.”

So far he was right. The train had sat all afternoon on the platform in the sun, it was broiling hot when I climbed aboard, and it was even hotter inside my assigned compartment. The climate control is turned off when the train isn’t moving. The air was so humid it practically tasted of water. My clothes almost instantly stuck to my skin. The window in my compartment was sealed up and wouldn't open, so I stepped into the hall next to one that did open. A Georgian man introduced himself as Levan and joined me next to the window and lit up a cigarette. He beamed when I told him I was a journalist.

“We love you,” he said. “You are doing such a good job showing the truth of what is really happening. They are animals, imperialists. They can't admit the Soviet era is over. We really appreciate the international media.”

“Thank you,” I said, although I hadn't yet written a word about Georgia and didn't deserve any credit for anything he had read.

“Are you going to the region?” he said. I knew what region he met. He meant the region taken over by Russia.

“I don't know,” I said, which was true at the time. I did, however, venture as far inside that region as the Russians allowed.

“The Russians are shooting at journalists,” he said. “They are shooting at everybody. They don't care who you are.”

Levan was the only person on the train who smiled at me even once. Everyone else, Georgian and Azeri alike, wore their “poker face” and seemed suspicious of everybody. I adapted and only let myself stare at other people without saying hello or even nodding or smiling.

“Five years ago we had a much better train,” he said. “I don't know what happened to it.”

“This looks like a Soviet train,” I said.

“It is,” he said. “It was built in East Germany in the 70s.”

I didn't know it at the time, but the train I took from Baku to Tbilisi is identical to the train you'll see in the nail-biting thriller Transsiberia currently playing in theaters and starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley. The film takes place almost entirely on a Russian train from Beijing to Moscow. Whoever wrote and directed the movie is familiar with the train system in the former Soviet Union and took pains to get even the small details right. The film was shot on one of the these trains. I recognized the cheap wood paneling, the formica tray tables, the broken light switches, and the dirty windows that wouldn’t open.

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The private compartment I bribed my way into on the train from Baku to Tbilisi

The severe and bullying women who run these trains and watch over the passengers like prison guards are portrayed with precision. They bark orders at every passenger and seem beaten down as if they’re treated the same way by their superiors. They stare holes through you if you smile and act as though your very existence is an offense that may get you thrown off the train at any moment.

Half the compartments in my car were empty, yet I had to share one with an elderly Georgian woman who could not understand what it meant that we had no language in common. She kept speaking to me in Georgian. I kept telling her that I don't speak Georgian, but she insisted on talking to me anyway as though I might learn her language on the fly if she just kept at it. I leaned back and cracked open a book, but that didn’t help. She just kept talking. “I'm sorry, but I don’t speak Georgian,” I said again and shrugged.

I stepped out of our shared compartment and into the hall as the train left the station. Levan, the English-speaking Georgian, joined me there. He stuck his head and arms outside an open window and lit up another cigarette.

“Levan,” I said. “Can I get you to ask one of the attendants if I can move to an empty compartment?”

“You can move in with me if you want,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate that. But I’d rather have my own space. I need peace and quiet so I can write.”

“Of course,” he said and did not seem offended that I did not want to share space with him.

He summoned the angry attendant and spoke to her in Russian.

“She wants to know if you have ten manats,” he said. Ten Azeri manats is about twelve American dollars. I sighed, pulled a ten manat note out of my pocket, and handed it over. Then she nodded as if to say I could move wherever I wanted without being harassed.

I walled myself off in my private compartment and edited a long essay that will soon appear in a quarterly magazine. The air conditioning had kicked on and the train was finally comfortable. Then I let myself be rocked to sleep by the wide swaying of the old communist train as we slowly made our way to the border with Georgia.

The attendant shook me awake and hollered at me in the morning.

“What?” I said, momentarily forgetting where I was and wondering who on earth was screaming at me in a language I did not understand. I squinted. Behind her loomed a uniformed man with a rifle. Oh, I thought. This was Azerbaijan’s border with Georgia.

The man with the rifle was an Azeri soldier, and he asked to see my passport. I handed it over. Then he asked me to open my luggage. I did so. He rummaged through it briefly, then left me alone. Another soldier stepped into my compartment with a bomb-detection kit. The attendant glared at me through all this as though I had done something wrong and was about to be punished.

After they finally left me alone I stepped bleary-eyed into the hall. Levan was there in his usual place smoking a cigarette out the window. He saw me cast an irritated glance at the rude attendent.

“Is this your first time on this train?” he said.

I nodded.

“I can read your thoughts,” he said.

“These women act like they had the same job in the Soviet days,” I said. Not much in Azerbaijan made me think of the communist era, but the train experience from beginning to end seemed as though little had changed.

“I'm sure,” he said and laughed. “I've taken this train all over the Soviet Union, from Tbilisi to Moscow to Siberia. It's always the same women.”

The women running the train weren’t the worst of it. The Azeri soldiers were calm and professional when I crossed into Georgia, but when I returned to Azerbaijan for my flight home from Baku I had a very different experience. My luggage was searched by hand just as before, but this time the customs agent – he wasn’t a soldier – completely lost his cool when he found my Lonely Planet book.

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Contraband?

“Armenia!” he bellowed and stabbed his index finger at the title. Then he turned to me and narrowed his lizard-like eyes.

“Armenia,” I said and made a thumbs-down gesture to signal my disapproval in sign language.

I have nothing against Armenia or Armenians. Their close alliance with Russia is a bit dubious, especially now, but it’s also understandable in its historical and regional context. Armenians, like everyone else in the geopolitically volcanic Caucasus region, feel threatened and turn to Russia for protection. My thumbs-down verdict was manufactured for my own good to appease the Azeri official who was understandably furious at Armenia but absurdly paranoid about me and my Lonely Planet.

The Armenian military occupies Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region and has de-facto annexed it and the surrounding area to itself. The conflict is morally ambiguous at best, and hypercomplex as ethnic-nationalist disputes usually are. It’s an obscure conflict that I’d rather not get sucked into as a partisan. But I wasn’t about to say or even suggest anything of the sort to this pissed off and armed Azerbaijani official and let him believe I felt any differently about the whole thing than he did.

Not that it helped.

He summoned a half dozen colleagues on his radio, waved the book in their faces when they showed up, and said God-only-knows what about me and his suspicions about what I might be up to.

“Do any of you speak English?” I said.

None apparently did.

“Can you help me?” I said to a nearby Azerbaijani civilian whom I hoped might be able to translate.

“I speak little English,” he said. That was enough.

“That book,” I said, “is for tourists.” I tried to keep it simple. “Hotels. Restaurants.”

“Ah,” he said and nodded. Then he translated for the officials.

The man who discovered the book screamed at him and he backed down.

“For tourists,” I said to the officials, hoping they might get a clue. “Hotels. Restaurants.” I threw my hands up in the air to show I was frustrated with them instead of afraid. I had nothing to hide, and they needed to know that.

They passed the book around, thumbed through it, and paused and stared intently when they flipped to some of the pages with maps. Then they deliberated amongst themselves for several minutes before finally handing the book back to me. “Welcome to Azerbaijan,” said the chief officer as he firmly shook my hand. They departed and left me alone.

“So much trouble,” said the Azeri civilian who witnessed all this, “over that little book.”

*

“In the Caucasus one could be optimistic in the capital cities, but in the provinces one confronted the hardest truths.” - Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary

"Compared to [South Ossetia], rural Georgia was like Tuscany.” - Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary

Getting into Georgia on the train was easier than getting out. As soon as the Georgian customs officials stamped my passport and finished hand-searching my luggage, I stepped off the train and into a taxi. Thomas Goltz, author of the Caucasus trilogy Azerbaijan Diary, Georgia Diary, and Chechnya Diary, warned me in advance that the train sits at the border for hours, yet an inexpensive taxi ride would get me to the capital in less than 45 minutes. So I took his advice and arrived in Tbilisi long before any of my fellow train passengers.

The taxi ride was my introduction to Georgia, and it wasn't pretty. Azerbaijan’s countryside beyond the booming capital Baku reminded me of Iraq in some ways with its bad roads, walled off houses, general poverty, and its vaguely Middle Eastern characteristics. But this part of the Georgian countryside was rougher and poorer. It looked brutally Stalinist. It had been thoroughly Sovietized and appeared to have progressed not an iota since the curtain came down on communism. I really did feel like my 18 hours on the train set me back 18 years as well as sending me sideways a few hundred kilometers. Actually, this portion of Georgia might look even worse than it did when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. Nothing had been fixed up or repaired, and the buildings and cars have had more time to deteriorate. The photos below don’t capture the dreariness.

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Communist era housing, Georgia

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Communist era housing, Georgia

Hideous smokestacks made up the skyline. Nothing new had been built in decades. Homes were falling apart. Public housing blocks looked monstrous as they always do and in desperate need of paint, new windows, and general repairs. Many of the factories were shuttered. Very little economic activity was evident as though the area were still operating under a command economy, even though it is not.

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Smokestacks, Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan

More than half the cars on the road were banged up Russian-built Ladas. Nearly all had cracked windshields, including the taxi I rode in. These Ladas are tiny. They have tiny doors, tiny steering wheels, tiny dashboards, tiny seats, and no seat belts. These are among the last cars you’d want to crash in.

A thick film of gray ash from the skyline of smokestacks covered everything, including the leaves on the trees. This blighted region of Georgia looked like an apocalyptic dystopia where everything modern was broken. My heart ached for Georgia.

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Skyline of smokestacks from inside a Russian-built Lada, Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan

The Stalinist apartment blocks were uglier and more dilapidated than any I’ve seen in post-communist Europe, including Albania which was nearly as oppressive as North Korea under its tyrant Enver Hoxha. This barely reconstructed corner of the Soviet Union gave me an idea how nasty and oppressive that system was. You can’t always learn much about a country’s past political system by looking at its current physical infrastructure, but in this part of Georgia you can.

Most Eastern European countries were in no better shape immediately after the communist era ended, but they've been able to pull themselves up in the meantime with help from Europe. Georgia is a distant outpost of Europe that is actually located in Asia, too far away to be rescued by the European Union or NATO.

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Smokestack, Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan

“I remember how some of the Eastern bloc countries looked just after the fall of the wall,” independent journalist Michael Yon said to me in an email shortly after I arrived in Georgia and told him what I had seen. “East Germany was like zombie land but quickly emerged because of West Germany; Poland was too, but quickly emerged; Czechoslovakia (or now Czech Republic and Slovakia) was nothing like what you see today and was nothing but gray and shortages; Romania was like HELL. Hungary was okay but it had started to emerge ahead of the rest. Any of these countries that you have seen in the last 15 years were nothing like that 18 years ago.”

Tbilisi itself, though, is better.

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Tbilisi, Georgia

Aside from its geographic location, Tbilisi could be any European Mediterranean capital – though with an Eastern twist.

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Tbilisi, Georgia

Aesthetically exquisite in some places, and at least average in most other places, Tbilisi is a pleasurable city to visit despite the fact that it's still a bit rough around the edges much as Beirut is.

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Tbilisi, Georgia

The post-communist recovery in Georgia's largest city is far more advanced than the border area I saw when I first arrived. Seeing it was a relief.

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Tbilisi, Georgia

But Tbilisi felt tense, as though the air were electrified. Russian soldiers were decamped just a few minutes drive outside the city. And my stay in the capital didn't last long.

I emailed Caucasus go-to author Thomas Goltz who arrived in town a few days before I did and hoped to set up an interview. “I'll be at the Marriott at 6pm,” I wrote, “and if you're there at the same time we can do this.” He hadn't answered by a quarter to six, but I took a taxi from my cheap hotel to the expensive Marriott anyway in case he got my message at the last minute.

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Marriott Hotel lobby, Tbilisi, Georgia

My taxi driver pulled up in front of the main entrance at exactly the same moment Goltz's taxi pulled up in front of the same entrance. Good, I thought. He showed up. I stepped out of my taxi and waved hello as he stepped out of his.

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Thomas Goltz on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

“Let's go to Gori,” he said, referring to the city in Central Georgia near South Ossetia that was still under Russian occupation. I thought he must be joking. Gori was closed. Russian soldiers rarely let anyone in. “Stay there,” he said before I could shut my taxi door. He came over, motioned for me to get in, and sat next to me in the back seat. Apparently he wasn't joking about going to Gori. It's a good thing I had my camera with me because we were off .

*

Georgia appeared much more prosperous, or at least much less blighted, on the western side of Tbilisi than it did on the eastern side near the border with Azerbaijan. It's natural that economic development and post-communist repair wouldn't be geographically even, but for a while there I was worried it might have barely even existed outside the center of Tbilisi.

“How does it feel to be in Free Georgia?” Goltz said.

“Good,” I said, although I was feeling less good by the minute. Traffic was thinning. Gori is only an hour's drive from the capital, and the Russian occupation began well short of that distance. Free Georgia wasn't going to last very much longer.

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On the road to Gori, Central Georgia

We approached a checkpoint manned by Georgian police. Our driver spoke to them for a few moments and told them we were journalists from America. They waved us through without checking our passports or any other pieces of identification.

“What was that about?” I said.

Our driver didn't speak English, so Goltz asked him the question in Georgian and translated.

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My driver on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

“It's the idiot's checkpoint,” he said. “They asked where we're going. If we said we're going to Gori as though we have no idea what's going on, forget it. If we say we’re going to get as far as the Russians will let us, okay. As long as we know what we're doing.”

We drove a few minutes in silence. This portion of the highway to Gori hadn't been cut by the Russians, but we were the only ones on it.

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Empty highway on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

I hadn't seen a country so depopulated since I drove with Noah Pollak in Northern Israel under Hezbollah rocket fire after more than a million refugees fled south toward Tel Aviv and emptied the cities as though it were the end of the world.

“That hill to the right is the edge of South Ossetia,” Goltz said. I snapped a photo. “That's how close to Tbilisi the Russians will be permanently based.”

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The edge of South Ossetia, Georgia

We had only left Tbilisi 15 minutes ago. It would take almost no time at all for the Russian military to reach the capital if the order were given. That’s how it’s going to be in Georgia for a long time. Maybe forever.

“There are probably Russian positions on top of that ridge,” he said.

My camera is equipped with a zoom lens which doubles as a small telescope when I need one. I studied the top of the ridge through the lens but didn't see any Russian positions – yet.

After another fifteen minutes of driving I knew we were near the end of Free Georgia, as Goltz had earlier put it. The first Russian checkpoint must be just up ahead.

Someone planted an American flag on the side of the road.

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American flag planted near the first Russian checkpoint between Tbilisi and Gori, Central Georgia

“Look at that,” Goltz said.

It isn't likely that an American planted that flag. Georgia was one of the most pro-American countries in the world even before Russia invaded. According to Gallup International's 2004 survey of global opinion, the world's most pro-American countries, in the following order, were Kosovo, Afghanistan, Israel, and Georgia.

That's it, I thought after we passed the American flag. The Russians should be right up ahead.

Instead a gaggle of journalists and locals congregated on each side of the road just around the next corner.

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Journalists and locals congregate around the corner from the first Russian checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

We weren't interested in joining the herd. We wanted to get as far as we could, so we kept driving. Nobody paid us much mind, but nobody wanted to follow us up the hill and around the corner where we were about to face Russians.

We rounded the corner and saw a roadblock up ahead. Tires were placed in a line across the road. A half dozen armed and uniformed men stood on each side of it.

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First Russian checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Gori. (Unknown civilian of unknown nationality on the left.)

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First Russian checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

“Are they Russians or Georgians?” I said.

“Russians,” Goltz said.

It was too late to back out. Whatever would happen would happen.

Our driver slowed and pulled over the car a hundred or so meters before the roadblock.

I stepped out of the taxi and slung my camera around my back instead of over my chest, opened my hands, and slowly turned around so the soldiers could see what I carried. The last thing I wanted to do was make them nervous.

Goltz and I slowly but confidently approached them as though we had already done it dozens of times and had nothing to worry about. He spoke to them in Russian. I flipped open a pack of cigarettes and offered them to whoever wanted one. A young brown-eyed soldier nodded and helped himself.

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Russian soldier, Georgia

I produced my lighter and lit the cigarette for him. Our hands touched as we shielded the flame from the wind. He softly nodded in thanks and seemed less threatening than he did from a distance. He was relaxed, didn’t seem to mind that we had shown up, and seemed unlikely to point his weapon at me.

I slowly paced back and forth while Goltz spoke jovially to the soldiers in their own language. The Russians joked and laughed with Goltz. They were very nearly the only people I saw in the entire country who laughed or smiled. The Georgians certainly had little to smile about. Honestly, though, the Russian soldiers didn't have much to smile about either, and I was slightly surprised to see it.

Whether it's true or not, I have no idea, but I heard from many Georgians that some Russian soldiers were furious when they came upon Georgian military bases and saw that their Georgian counterparts had superior food, clothing, and living conditions. I might be tempted to dismiss this as self-serving propaganda that makes the Georgians feel better, but Russian soldiers really are notoriously underpaid and underfed even inside their own country.

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Russian soldier, Georgia

My sometimes traveling companion Sean LaFreniere visited Russia a few years ago, and he saw uniformed Russian soldiers begging for money and food on the streets. And he met a Russian woman who told him about the ordeal her younger brother endured in the army.

“[She] told me that her little brother had recently returned from his first few months of ‘boot camp’ in the Russian army,” he wrote. “When he arrived home for a holiday dinner, his family found him a broken shell. He had been physically, psychologically, and even sexually abused as part of his ‘training.’ His parents and siblings refused to let him return. They have been hiding him for months while trying to acquire papers to get him out of the country. Many Western newspapers have documented similar suffering by Russian soldiers. The BBC and the Guardian recently ran stories on one Private Sychev. He lost his legs and genitals to gangrene after ritualized abuse by the comrades in his unit. Other recruits are forced into pornography and prostitution to enrich their superior officers.”

I never heard any expression of hatred toward the people of Russia by Georgians. I didn’t even hear any complaints about, let alone hatred for, the Abkhaz or Ossetians in the breakaway regions. Georgians are, of course, unhappy with the Russian invasion, but they didn't seem to be making it personal. I heard much more serious denunciations of Armenians from Azeris every day in Azerbaijan than I heard even once from anybody in Georgia toward anyone. Azerbaijan’s anger toward Armenia is understandable, though a bit unhinged and over the top in some quarters, so the muted reaction toward Russians among Georgians surprised me.

Some even told me that some Georgian civilians took pity on the underfed Russian soldiers and cooked meals for them in their kitchens. I don’t know if it’s true. What I do know is that many Georgians believe it is true and think it a plausible thing for Georgians to do. And I didn't detect anything in the Georgian character that made me believe the rumors had to be false.

“Go ahead and take pictures of whatever you want,” Goltz said.

“They don't mind?” I said.

“No,” he said, “it’s fine.”

So I took a few pictures and carefully studied the faces of the soldiers as I pointed my camera at them. None seemed to mind even when I zoomed in.

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Russian soldier, Georgia

“Want to go to Gori?” Goltz said.

“They'll let us?” I said.

“Let's go.”

He summoned our driver who gingerly drove up to meet us from his parking space at a safe distance.

“I guess they're going to escort us?” I said.

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Russian military truck at the first checkpoint on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

“I don’t think so,” Goltz said. “Let's just go.”

“We can just drive there by ourselves?” I said.

We got back in the car. Our taxi driver slowly drove past from the road block as though he expected us to be stopped at any moment. But nobody stopped us.

After we rounded a corner we had the road to ourselves again and we headed straight toward the occupied city of Gori.

“What's going on, Thomas?” I said. Whatever he said to those men in Russian apparently worked, but we were really supposed to be driving toward Gori?

I know of at least one journalist who was allowed to “embed” with Russian soldiers for 24 hours in Gori. They drove him around and let him sleep at their base. I would have pounced on the opportunity if it were offered, but almost no journalists from any country were allowed inside the occupied city without a visa from Moscow, as though Gori were now part of Russia.

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Russian-occupied Georgia

“This sure feels strange, doesn't it?” Goltz said.

Yes, it felt strange. And totally wrong.

“I once walked in the neutral zone between Iraq and Iran,” I said, which is true. Goltz laughed.

There's a strange little wooded area along a stream in Biara, Iraq, along the Iranian border where no one is really sure where the line is. Walking there felt powerfully wrong even though I had Iraqi guides with me, and I didn't dare linger in that zone for even a full sixty seconds. I didn’t even know I had crossed into the neutral zone until after it happened. I could have run into an Iranian border patrol at any moment and would have had nothing to say for myself. I quickly retreated back to Iraq.

Driving inside the Russian occupation zone without an escort felt exactly the same, like the atmosphere was crackling with danger. What would we say if we came upon a Russian patrol who demanded to know what on earth we were doing? At least Goltz speaks fluent Russian and isn't easily cowed by men with guns.

“We're going to keep driving through as many checkpoints as we can,” he said.

We passed a Russian truck whose driver paid us no mind.

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A Russian truck on the road to Gori, Central Georgia

I relaxed slightly.

The road was otherwise empty until we came upon another Russian checkpoint. Two soldiers stood next to an armored personnel carrier and a Russian flag they had erected on a pole. The American flag we had passed earlier was perhaps only five miles behind us. An American flag and a Russian flag were planted just a few minutes away from each other inside a third country. Georgia felt like the center of the world.

Our driver approached the checkpoint very slowly, but the Russians waved us through before he even stopped.

I felt better. Apparently it was sort of okay for us to be on that road as long as the soldiers at the first checkpoint had let us pass.

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Village, Russian-occupied Georgia

The countryside still seemed entirely depopulated except for birds overhead and in the trees who carried on as though nothing were out of the ordinary. I found that profoundly eerie for reasons I can't quite explain. Some think animals have a better sense of danger than humans, but I have my doubts about that. Everything was wrong in this part of Georgia, and it wasn’t just because the only people around were those of us in the taxi and the well-armed foreign invaders. I saw scorch marks in some of the farmland. Trees and ground on the side of the road had been burned.

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Scorched roadside, Russian-occupied Georgia

“There was fighting here recently,” Goltz said. “Those burns are from the war.”

We approached a third Russian checkpoint clocking in at 65 kilometers from Tbilisi, nearly at the gate to the city of Gori. The soldiers manning this one were not at all happy to see us. One stepped into the road and fiercely pointed his finger in the direction we came from. He yelled something in Russian. Our driver quickly turned around and got us out of there.

“I guess we aren’t going to Gori,” I said.

“We had to try,” Goltz said.

I carefully studied the landscape using my zoom lens.

A tank perched on a hill in the distance next to some houses kept watch over the road.

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A tank on a hill near a house from a distance, Russian-occupied Georgia

The Russians were no longer shooting at people, but they could have shot us at any time if they felt like it. No one would have been able to stop them or save us.

I turned my lens back onto the road and faintly made out a vehicle with a gunner in a turret barreling toward us at top speed.

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Speeding gunner, Russian-occupied Georgia

“That one has a gunner,” I said and quickly put down my camera before he got close enough to see with his naked eye that I was pointing something long and narrow at him. Unless he was watching us with binoculars, I could see farther than he could.

“No sense getting ourselves shot if we don't have to,” Goltz said.

Off to the left was a small ad hoc Russian base.

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Russian army base, Central Georgia

“Did you get that?” Goltz said.

“Got it,” I said.

The driver said something to Goltz. Goltz translated.

“He wants to get back,” he said. “He said it's especially dangerous out here at night, that the Russians want a provocation so they can take his car.”

It would be dark soon and we were almost an hour outside Tbilisi. The sun was just about to go down.

“I need to get back anyway for a radio interview,” Goltz said. “If you have any other plans in this area, say something now.”

I laughed. “By myself in the dark with no car?” I said. “I don’t think so.”

We passed the second Russian checkpoint without incident, then approached the first one again where we had stopped earlier and I had taken some pictures.

There were more people at the checkpoint this time, and two of them were clearly irregular militiamen. Goltz told our driver to stop.

The irregulars were not wearing full uniforms, but they were armed with rifles and had unsheathed hunting knives tucked into their belts. Unlike the uniformed Russians, these two had blonde hair and blue eyes. They didn't look remotely Asian like some of the others, nor did they quite look like Slavs. I couldn't place them ethnically. One had shaved his head over his ears and wore what looked like a wide mohawk. He was built like a heavyweight wrestler.

Both militiamen triggered every one of my danger signals short of actual fear. They were clearly bad news. “Bad vibe” doesn’t quite say it.

Goltz started blabbing at them in Russian. He sounded strangely foolish to me, as though he, unlike me, did not sense we might be in danger. In hindsight, though, I think he did. He just didn’t show it. The only words I understood were “Dagestan” and “Montana.” He kept repeating “Dagestan” and “Montana” and sounded like an awe-shucks oblivious American tourist. What was he doing? I wanted to get out of there. The uniformed Russian soldiers laughed at whatever Goltz said and seemed perfectly relaxed and non-threatening, but the out-of-uniform irregulars looked unimpressed and barely able to contain their aggression.

I did not even think of taking their picture. These men narrowed their eyes and stared holes through me. They looked distinctly like psychopaths, as though they wanted to kill us and only didn't because they did not have permission. They said nothing and kept back a bit from some of the uniformed Russians, as though they weren’t the ones in charge, but I knew it was time to leave when one of them wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his blade.

Goltz told our driver to go. And so we drove off.

“I was making stupid jokes,” Goltz said, “about how Dagestan means the same thing as Montana.” Dagestan is a Muslim Russian republic in the North Caucasus across from Azerbaijan and next to Chechnya. Goltz lives in Montana. “Both mean country of the mountains. What I was saying was stupid but I did it so we could stall and get a good long look at those Chechen militiamen. It’s one of my tricks.”

“They're from Chechnya?” I said. “How do you know?”

“I don't,” he said. “But they probably are. They're definitely not Russians. I have a bit of a sixth sense about ethnicity in an ethnic-conscious place like the former Soviet Union,” he said. “I know the Chechens. I hung with the Chechens.”

Chechnya Diary.JPG
Chechnya Diary, by my traveling companion Thomas Goltz

“If I could have stalled us just ten more seconds,” he continued, “I would have said I'm a Chechen who lives in the United States in Chechen to see if I could get one of those toughs to fucking smile.”

I had noticed something while stalled at that checkpoint that didn't even register until after we left. The letters CCCP – the Russian abbreviation for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – were written in black ink on the rifle slings the militiamen carried. Of course it didn't mean much aside from the fact that their weapons and gear were old. But that didn't even occur to me while I was looking at them and their communist era equipment. It seemed perfectly appropriate at the time. Communism, of course, is over. Yet during our day trip in Central Georgia – and even a bit on my train ride to Georgia – I felt distinctly like the Soviet Empire was back or had never left.

“I can't imagine a more serious geopolitical situation anywhere in the world than where we are right now,” Goltz said as we reemerged inside free Georgia. “Despite the fact that everything looks calm and we can joke with the Russians, this is as big as it gets.”

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at September 10, 2008 12:18 AM
Comments

Thanks Michael for yet another very interesting article. I'm planning a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad this spring. I guess I know now what kind of train to expect :-)

Posted by: Tijl Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 2:28 AM

Tijl, watch that movie before you go.

Ebert review here.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 2:39 AM

Something hit me immediately: the soldiers don't exactly look Russian. I know it's not a random sample but due to their nightmarish demographics many of their soldiers are Chechen and other Muslim minorities. In 20 years as non-Russians (i.e. Ingush) come close to becoming a majority, will they fight the wars for Russia? Something to keep in mind. China on the other hand is occupying Siberia http://www.slate.com/id/2086157/ the peaceful way, after the Tsar essentially scammed them out of it in 1800's.

May the Russians live in interesting times.

Posted by: nameless-fool Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 5:56 AM

Should the Georgians ditch Israeli and US military advice and try to be more like Hezbollah?

That's what some US commentators are saying...

http://www.dodbuzz.com/2008/09/04/rebuilding-georgias-military/

Thoughts on this?

Posted by: Microraptor Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 7:03 AM

Wow. I am damn proud to be a long time reader and neighbor of yours. You and your friends are going to change the dynamics of our foreign policies. Your budgeted tenacity for cheap hotels, along with getting the story before thinking of brushing your teeth, gives me the closest feel I can have other than being there. These people are decent. One can feel the explosion of talent awaiting the Freedom to simply exercize it. Take a night off at the Marriot, you've earned it.

Posted by: JohnJimson Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 7:37 AM

Wow, terrific article, and great writing that really conveys what you were experiencing at that time and place. Thanks for the great work you do.

It is so discouraging, I recently heard a caller on an NPR show relating to the Georgian situation and current Russian-US relations who claimed to be in Azerbaijan doing NGO or State Dept. work insisting again that Georgia had attacked the Russians first and sparked the entire affair. Of course, no one challenged that assertion in the least.

Posted by: Seppo Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 8:35 AM

Splendid report.

Posted by: Michael_B Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 8:37 AM

Such a great column I was compelled to donate. Terrific stuff....

Posted by: BillBC Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 9:09 AM

Fantastic work, and photos. Too bad no pictures of the Chechen thugs, but glad you're safe.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 9:36 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 09/10/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 9:52 AM

"I recently heard a caller on an NPR show relating to the Georgian situation and current Russian-US relations who claimed to be in Azerbaijan doing NGO or State Dept. work insisting again that Georgia had attacked the Russians first and sparked the entire affair."

Yes, that was the case. There were frequent exchanges of fire, such flare ups were not uncommon, but it was Georgia who decided to mount a major assault on South Ossetia. If it weren't for that, Russian troops would have not beaten them back and enter Georgia proper.

Posted by: KolyaV Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 10:18 AM

Hey, the FSB is still playing. How 'bout that?

Anyway - Michael, your photo of the tank was probably a lot more dangerous to take than you thought at the time.

It looks like it was far enough away to tax the digital zoom of your camera. That doesn't mean that you or your party were nearly as indistinct from the point of view of the observers manning that position.

I'm not up on the current crop of Sov I mean Russian AFV's. No matter; what you saw was obviously a recon or command vehicle. Always count the antennae. If you can SEE a vehicle equipped with a long barreled main gun or missiles, it can SEE you well enough to identify, evaluate, and if necessary or just because it can, KILL you.

Who and what you see at a checkpoint is never everything you need to know. These guys aren't monitoring press access, they are there to provide early warning against attack. You were under observation by crew served arms or snipers long before you actually communicated with the guys on the road.

Mixed weapons types and widely varied field uniforms can indicate (a) a task-organized force drawn from multiple parent commands or (b) a chaotic supply and possibly command environment or © something in between.

IMO opinion, the cutting edge of the Sov I mean Russian offensive was manned by the absolute best manpower and tech they could field, while the local security / punitive troops were pure Home Guard leavened with the presence of "foreign fighters" aimed straight at the collective psyche of all the "former" Sov I mean Russian vassal states.

Michael, fabulous reporting. I'm not working right now but will drop a few pennies in come the weekend. Next time you are home, I suggest you contact your nearest Army outfit and ask for some time with their recon unit to get a backgrounder on what a grunt leader looks for in a combat zone. I still maintain that you unconsciously still assume to be a "spectator" to the events you cover, in the face of great looming mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Be safe, sir.

Posted by: TmjUtah Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 11:06 AM

TMJUtah,

My camera doesn't have a digital zoom lens. I have a real zoom lens as long as a telescope. My zoom lens can photograph airplanes at cruising altitude. The planes look fuzzy, but you can see them.

That photo was cropped. The tank looks much smaller in the original. That's why the photo looks so low-res.

That tank was very far away, more than a mile away. It was invisible to the naked eye. And I took the picture from a moving car.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 11:17 AM

Beautiful! Thank you for documenting this. You might find the following articles interesting, as well: http://grandrants.wordpress.com/2008/09/10/rebuttal-to-new-cold-war/
and
http://grandrants.wordpress.com/2008/09/07/losing-a-chess-game-us-georgia-vs-russia-venezuela/

Posted by: Stoutcat Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 11:24 AM

Thanks for a great article, Michael. You brought
back memories...I rode that train from Baku
to Tibilisi in 1969. My experience regarding
car attendants is more positive than
yours. We had a car attendant that not only
was attentive and pleasant, she was one of
the best looking women I had ever seen. She
was an ethnic Russian.

I also drove that road from Tibilisi to Gori
and on to Sukhumi...with a hangover from
drinking Tsinindali wine with some Georgians
who were on holiday.

I will donate to your fund...you are the best.

Posted by: zopilote Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 11:45 AM

"That tank was very far away, more than a mile away. It was invisible to the naked eye. And I took the picture from a moving car."

Sweet. A big megapixel number is your friend. Just lucky you got the antennae in there.

Probably a BMD variant. The 30mm isn't much of a threat at a mile, but you can bet job one for them was watching and reporting road traffic.

Posted by: TmjUtah Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 12:12 PM

Jeez Michael, I'm glad I don't know the details of what you are doing until after the fact. My nervs couldn't take it.

"It isn't likely that an American planted that flag. Georgia was one of the most pro-American countries in the world even before Russia invaded."

I think I am going to spend some time thinking about that unexpected little flag on a roadside in a foreign war zone and what it means.

Posted by: Lindsey Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 1:01 PM

Should the Georgians ditch Israeli and US military advice and try to be more like Hezbollah?

US can train them in guerrilla fighting and give them plenty of stingers, javelins and sniper rifles to make the Russians pay a huge price...but are the Georgians ready to use them against Russia? US and Israel might hold back, but not the Russians (think of what the Serbs did in Bosnia, shelling civilians for 2-3 years.)

Georgia has 4 million people and Russia can flatten a city and still not be in a worst diplomatic position that it is now. Living next to the Russian hordes is their curse and unless US /NATO vow to back them (with troops!) Georgia might not be willing to go for it. It's not fair, but...

Posted by: nameless-fool Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 1:40 PM

Oliver Kamm takes note of an Economist sponsored on-line debate, the proposition that "The West must be bolder in its reponse to a newly assertive Russia."

Posted by: Michael_B Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 1:42 PM

io9.com recently posted a link to satellite imagry about damage in Georgia. (see url in my comment). I'm curious about whether this new info vindicates either side or not.

Posted by: h0mi Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 7:46 PM

I am curious about the taxi driver. In those times where I was trying to go where I wasn't supposed to be going (East Timor, Cambodia) it was always the drivers who refused first, even when offered significant compensation for their time. It seems he was nervous, especially near the end when you passed back through the first check point, but he was also willing to go. That willingness says a lot about how Georgians, at least Tbilisi Georgians, view the situation. I know the taxi driver straw poll is an old joke, but in tense situations in foreign countries, I always found it to be quite true. What explains his ease (greater than I would expect) with the situation? Expectation that this Russia will behave much like the old USSR, and thus is a known entity?

Thanks so much, yet again, for going out there and getting the real story. Stay safe. We will continue to donate.

Posted by: acmj Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 8:29 PM

Michael,

Three soldier faces on your pictures are definitely not ethnic Russians. First one may look like Tatar, second one looks like local and third one may be Kalmik, Bashkir or even Korean from Siberia.

Description below is rather strange if according to your friend those people are Chechens:

"Unlike the uniformed Russians, these two had blonde hair and blue eyes. They didn't look remotely Asian like some of the others, nor did they quite look like Slavs."

Bold part is particularly strange. Chechens would look very much like Georgians to untrained eye.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 8:47 PM

Should the Georgians ditch Israeli and US military advice and try to be more like Hezbollah?

These US comentators need to stop thinking American or Israeli and start thinking Russian.

Chechens are no lesser fighters than HA. Yet, Russians put their rebellion off very quickly second time around. I can only wish Israelis will be as resolute as Russians when need arises.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 9:06 PM

Generally speaking Chechens are usually swarthier than your typical Russian. I have seen Chechen with blue eyes and reddish hair, and some of them look like typical Russians. And then some Russians look very much like Chechens, even when they are not aware of any non-Russian ancestry. Through the centuries intermarriage was not too uncommon and plenty of Chechens have Russian or other blood. And not only around Chechnya or the Caucasus, of course. For example, it's not always easy to tell if someone is a Russian (Slav) or a German. A typical Russian, although primarily Slavic, will have the blood of several ethnicities in his veins.

h0mi, keep in mind that the satellite picture you have in your site primarily shows damage in South Ossetia and it was caused by both sides. To know who was probably the responsible party you have to find out whether a particular village was primarily Ossetian or Georgian. For example, most of the damage in Tskhinvali (the largest town, the South Ossetian capital) was caused by Georgians. One more thing: the estimates given are probably somewhat of an understatement--not all the damage can be detected from high above (e.g, a tank shell into the side of a multi-story building.)

Posted by: KolyaV Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 9:21 PM

Leo,

I don't know what Chechens look like. They probably do look like Georgians and Azeris -- and there is no common look for either. There are "white" Georgians and Azeris, though most are somewhat darker in complexion. Many gene pools have mixed in the region.

"Unlike the uniformed Russians, these two had blonde hair and blue eyes.

The militia guys were whiter than any of the Russians I photographed.

They didn't look remotely Asian like some of the others, nor did they quite look like Slavs."

The reason they didn't look like Slavs wasn't because of their skin color but because of the shape of their faces. They didn't have that Slavic "look." That doesn't mean they weren't Russians necessarily, but they stood out as obvious non-Russians to Goltz for whatever reasons.

Keep in mind that body language (etc.) plays a huge role in all this. People in other countries say it's obvious that I am an American, even when I'm in countries where I blend in genetically. And I know how to turn that "off" and blend in if I want to. The longer I stayed in Lebanon, the more often strangers initiated conversation with me in Arabic instead of in English. After a while I was only addressed by strangers in Arabic if they were the ones who spoke first.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 9:26 PM

Microraptor: Should the Georgians ditch Israeli and US military advice and try to be more like Hezbollah?

Leo: These US comentators need to stop thinking American or Israeli and start thinking Russian.

Microraptor is Iranian, and he lives in Britain. He works a lot in Lebanon and Iran. That's why he's thinking of Hezbollah.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 9:29 PM

An amusing article debunking Bernard-Henry Levy's (French intellectual) visit to "destroyed Gori":

http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/Article.aspx?id=2645

...excerpts...
///
"Lévy's published account of his voyage appeared in Le Monde on Aug. 19 and then one day later in English on the American Web site the Huffington Post. It bears the title "Georgia at War: What I Saw" ... Lévy describes traveling to Gori on what would have been Aug. 13 -- the author does not himself provide date or time. ... Upon arriving in Gori, Lévy reports seeing a city on fire. Gori is "a Georgian town," Lévy writes, "And [the Russians] have burned it down, pillaged it, reduced it to a ghost town." ... The problem with this account, however, is that Lévy appears not to have seen what he reported seeing. In fact, as has since been confirmed by other members of the group and even conceded by members of Lévy's own entourage, Lévy never made it to Gori. ... the French Web site Rue89 has sparked a raging controversy in France by directly challenging Lévy's claims by way of interviews with other members of the group ... European parliament member Marie-Anne Isler-Béguin. Referring to Lévy's account of the voyage, Isler-Béguin told Rue89:
"If he can distinguish between soldiers and paramilitary forces, he's more talented than I am. If he smelled an odor of putrefaction, I didn't. He also writes that Gori had been burned down, pillaged and reduced to a ghost town. But at the moment in question, one couldn't say: quite simply, because nobody was there yet. After all, we stopped 1.5 kilometers from Gori." ...
As so happens, the Italian journalist Andrea Nicastro did get to Gori ... "It's true the town was almost empty: a few old people, many drunk, lots of Georgian police. It's also true that it was bombed in places. But it was not at all 'burnt down.'" "Today Gori is still pretty much intact," Nicastro added.
///

Read the whole thing.

Posted by: KolyaV Author Profile Page at September 10, 2008 11:40 PM

“I can't imagine a more serious geopolitical situation anywhere in the world than where we are right now,” Goltz said

Michael,

I'm reflecting on Mr. Goltz' statement...thinking about the escalating events in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and the upcoming (I'm anticipating post-Nov. 4th) response to Iran, living in America...where there are no checkpoints, no tanks on hillsides---let alone suicide bombers, armed Iranian proxy on our northern flank, and incoming Kassam rockets and mortars.

Perspective. Yours matters.

Thank you,
Paul Sullivan
San Francisco, CA

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 12:50 AM

According to this wikipedia article:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rus%27_(people)

Slavic sources

According to the earliest East Slavic record, the Primary Chronicle, the Rus' was a group of Varangians among others like Swedes and Gotlanders who lived on the other side of the Baltic Sea, in Scandinavia and as far as the land of the English and the French.2 The Varangians were first expelled, then invited to rule the warring Slavic and Finnic tribes of Novgorod:

"The four tribes who had been forced to pay tribute to the Varangians — Chuds, Slavs, Merians, and Krivichs drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them further tribute, and set out to govern themselves. But there was no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against the other. They said to themselves, "Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to custom. Thus they went overseas to the Varangians, to the Rus. These particular Varangians were known as Rus, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans and Angles, and still others Gotlanders, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichs and the Veps then said to the Rus, "Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us". Three brothers, with their kinfolk, were selected. They brought with them all the Rus and migrated3."

Later, the Primary Chronicle tells us, they conquered Kiev and created the state of Kievan Rus' (which, as most historians agree, was preceded by the Rus' Khaganate). The territory they conquered was named after them as were, eventually, the local people (see Etymology of Rus and derivatives for further details).

The original "Rus" were not slavs, but were scandinavians. As invaders, they were undoubtedly small in number and their genetics widely dispersed amongts the larger local populations, but it's a hell of a lot more likely that those blond haired blue eyed guys you saw were actual ethnic Russians than anything else, Michael. The Russian intel officer we used to have when I was in the marines used to joke that he thought I looked so "Russian" he'd be able to pass me off as a Guards officer while he drove me around through checkpoints. And I'm 100% anglo-saxon, as far as I know. He kinda threw me for a loop with that, as I always though Russians were dark haired and dark eyed.

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 12:52 AM

The html tags in this software drive me nuts! Only the last paragraph in the preceding comment is mine. The rest is from wiki, and was supposed to be in italics! Sorry about that.

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 12:55 AM

Should the Georgians ditch Israeli and US military advice and try to be more like Hezbollah?

Since this link was to a question asked by a reporter who was talking to American defense officials, it's an extremely disturbing report.

Is our department of defense seriously thinking of turning the Georgians into another thug/militia/terrorist/'freedom fighter' group? Didn't we learn anything from the 'pious' freedom fighting mujahideen in Afghanistan, the American committee for Peace in Chechnya or from the constant terrorist destruction that is partly the result of Brzezinski/Carter's decision to appease and ally with fascists to fight the commies?

So, okay, let's turn the Georgian army into Hezbollah. We can set them up with some cigarette smuggling operations in North Carolina and Central America to pay some of their expenses, then we can find a friendly Islamofascist regime among our Gulf-state friends to fund the rest. We can set up a militia whose power will soon make it a state within a state, they can beat up the Russians, the Russians can destroy the Georgians, and when it's all over, neo-Hezbollah can take over the ruins that are now Georgia and bully the locals and the neighbors. Brilliant plan, DOD.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 6:14 AM

"Brilliant plan, DOD"

Is there a plan?

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 8:15 AM

Is there a plan?

I really hope not!

From the "DODbuzz" article:

A defense analyst I spoke with, who advises American ground forces, said to rebuild the Georgian military along conventional lines might be the wrong approach. Instead he suggested a different force model, that of Hezbollah. What Hezbollah did so effectively, as was shown in the 2006 Lebanon war, was combine modern weaponry with a distributed infantry force that fought in guerrilla fashion...One thing the U.S. military cannot provide the Georgian military, and what Hezbollah had in spades and greatly increased their effectiveness, was very high discipline and motivation. The Georgians will have to come up with that on their own.

Yeah, high discipline, motivation, religious lunacy, Iranian cash and cigarette smuggling. Let's hope the Georgians don't come up with that on their own.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 9:01 AM

Georgia is not going to imitate Hezbollah.

Here's what Saakashvili had to say about that. This is a real quote.

"Eventually we would have chased them away, but we would have had to go to the mountains and grow beards. That would have been a tremendous national philosophical and emotional burden."

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 10:30 AM

"Eventually we would have chased them away, but we would have had to go to the mountains and grow beards.

I'm really starting to like the Georgians..

I don't think they could turn into Hezbollah either, but it's horrifying that people involved with the DOD could even consider a plan like that.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 11:16 AM

"Eventually we [Georgian guerrillas] would have chased them [Russian occupying force] away, but we would have had to go to the mountains and grow beards."

Is there even remote reason to think so?

Chechens had more experience with beards than Georgians. Did not help them much. Saakashvili is still delusional, still thinks he has a chance.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 11:54 AM

FWISW, there are plenty of blue-eyed and blond Russians. Yeltsin was blue eyed. Putin has blue eyes. Heck, I have blue eyes. Not in such a high propoortion as with the Scandinavians, but blue is a common eye color among most Slavs.

I have no doubts that if Russia occupied Geogia, the Georgians would have headed up the hills and fight a guerrilla war against the Russians. Like with most such wars, in time this war would have proven bloody and unpopular in Russia and eventually the Russians would have retreated.

This does not mean, though, that the Russians had any such designs for Georgia. Russia had nothing to gain by doing that. Putin may not be a nice guy and he, like everyone else, makes mistakes, but he's also an intelligent and practical man who is fully aware of Russia's economic and demographic situation.

Posted by: KolyaV Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 12:32 PM

There is no reason for the Georgians to fight a guerrilla war.

Hizbollah exists because (in just about equal parts) it is a bought and paid for Iranian proxy and because the Israelis are civilized players.

We don't have any overarching ideologigical imperative to bleed the Soviet Union. Even if we did, the Soviets, once they recognized the nature of the guerilla threat confronting them, would simply kill every male above the age of twelve within fifty miles of any attacks on their personnel or interests.

So, no guerilla resistance.

Posted by: TmjUtah Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 12:33 PM

Guerilla warfare doesn't necessarily mean adopting the ideology of a terrorist group like Hizballah.

There were western "guerillas" fighting the Germans in Europe during the Second World War.

But we called them "partisans" or "the resistance."

There is a big difference, IMO, between partisan/guerilla warfare and the terrorist warfare that Hizballah and their ilk practice. Polish and Soviet partisans in WWII might have terrorized the local population into giving them food and shelter, but this was out of dire necessity. They didn't use civilians as human shields (not as if it would have done any good, anyway) and strap bombs onto schoolgirls.

I, too, think the Georgians would have conducted a guerilla campaign had the Russians occupied their entire country. And the U.S. would have been justified in supporting them. Just because nowadays "guerilla" means "terrorist" and "popular resistance" means a violent intifada, it shouldn't deprive ordinary people of their right to self-defense.

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 12:49 PM

TmjUtah: The Soviets...would simply kill every male above the age of twelve within fifty miles of any attacks on their personnel or interests. So, no guerilla resistance.

I disagree. See example of Yugoslavia in WW2. The Nazis were as brutal as you can possibly imagine. Still didn't stop resistance.

A lot of it has to do with how the occupying power treats civilians. When it became clear that the Germans wanted to brutally enslave the Slavic peoples of Europe, civilians started to help the partisans, even under threat of death.

The Russians would have to go back to Stalinist tactics--deporting the entire population of Georgia--to defeat a popular uprising by force, IMO.

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 12:58 PM

"I disagree. See example of Yugoslavia in WW2. The Nazis were as brutal as you can possibly imagine. Still didn't stop resistance."

You are forgetting, Allies where pushing Germans out too. Had Yugoslavs been alone no amount of bravery and military hardware would've saved them.

Belorussians lost 25% of their population during German occupation to repressions and particularly in response to guerrilla action. Had it not been for Soviet Army liberating them there would be no Belorussians left today, partisan war or not.

If I am not mistaking Russians killed 400,000+ Chechens during second Chechen war and finally put Chechen revolt down. And they have done it in just a year or so.

Georgians will be wise to build strong conventional army instead.

PS. I cannot speak for others but for me 'partisan' and 'guerrilla' always meant the same. Whether they are 'terrorists' or 'freedom fighters' is just relative matter.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 1:56 PM

The html tags in this software drive me nuts! Only the last paragraph in the preceding comment is mine. The rest is from wiki, and was supposed to be in italics! Sorry about that.

Old complaint. I find the best way to handle it is to use a <p/> tag within the blockquote or italic tags to specify paragraphs rather than actual carriage return.

A royal pain, but you do what you gotta.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 2:06 PM

"The original "Rus" were not slavs, but were scandinavians."

This could well be true. Many scholars have studied this issue, but nobody knows for sure where the word Rus came from and whether originally it only referred to the Varangians (Scandinavians) living around Novgorod, Kiev and other river ports of what is now Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Whatever the origin of the word, after a while Rus started to denote the people living in those areas who used a Slavic language as a lingua franca.

And the word "franca" reminds me that the word France derives from the Franks--a Germanic people that conquered some Gallic territories.

Posted by: KolyaV Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 3:46 PM

And the word "franca" reminds me that the word France derives from the Franks--a Germanic people that conquered some Gallic territories.

Yep! And the word "England" derives from the Angles, another Germanic/Scandinavian tribe. Interesting how much influence those old barbarian tribes had on the modern world when you start digging into things :)

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 6:31 PM

"I disagree. See example of Yugoslavia in WW2. The Nazis were as brutal as you can possibly imagine. Still didn't stop resistance."

Actually it did, sorta. Yugoslavia had 350,000 soldiers in an battle hardened army (Balkan Wars, WWI), yet the CAPITULATED in 11 days, and that included the time to arrange the meeting and to sign the documents. As soon as the Nazis started to bombard Belgrade they caved in. I can't make a judgment 65 years later...but they did. Maybe I would have done the same thing, surrender and hope that they just pass through and leave.

After that, most Chetniks collaborated openly, and as soon as Germans started to kill people in retaliation even Draza Mihailovich stopped fighting and started to collaborate. That's why Churchill supported Tito; Draza was more focused on Muslims and Croats and to support the Serb King, whereas the allies wanted Nazis destroyed. The Chetnik attitude was: let's wait and see, conserve our forces for when the dust clears.

The Communists (Tito's partisans) are totally different, they are like the Jihadists, they fight for an ideology so deaths don't matter that much. Btw, Jews and gypsies mostly made the ranks of the 100 deaths for every German soldier dead.

Posted by: nameless-fool Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 6:46 PM

nameless, the reasons for Yugoslavia's surprisingly rapid and demoralizing defeat are actually quite complicated. First, of course, the German Army was the one that was battle hardened and experienced (39-41: Poland, France, Norway, etc). Compared to the Yugoslavs, the Germans had many more fit and battle-hardened soldiers in their ranks. How many of the Yugoslavian soldiers were WWI veterans (which ended 23 years earlier)? Very few. WWI veterans, whether German or Yugoslavian, were too old to be part of the regular army. (It was only later in WWII than some European WWI veterans ended up serving as front line troops.) Another important factor is that as soon as the Germans and Italians invaded Yugoslavia, the Croats switched sides. That took most Yugoslavians by surprise, since Croatia was integral part of Yugoslavia.

This is not the place to get into it, but what you wrote about the Chetniks, the Croats, the Muslims and Tito's partisans is simplistic to the point of inaccuracy.

Posted by: KolyaV Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 10:17 PM

Hello Michael;

I have no idea how long you'll be in Baku, but if you ever go there for civilian purposes, I can recommend the jazz scene there as being one of the best in the whole of the ex-CIS (next to Siberia, surprisingly).

Rudy

Posted by: Rudolph Carrera Author Profile Page at September 11, 2008 10:56 PM

I think the argument is that however strong a conventional army the Georgians decide upon, it will never, ever be a match for the Russian military if they decide to fight it out in a conventional battle.

Therefore, creating a mobile, flexible fighting force, with hi-tech anti-tank/aircraft weapons, with concealed -- as opposed to easily bombable -- bases, could make the opportunity cost of invading Georgia again too high.

There's no suggestion in DOD Buzz that the Georgians become militant Shia Islamists or proxies for Iranian foreign policy... just that they play to their strengths -- and if Russia is the enemy, numerical superiority will never be one of them...

Posted by: Microraptor Author Profile Page at September 12, 2008 4:45 AM

There's no suggestion in DOD Buzz that the Georgians become militant Shia Islamists or proxies for Iranian foreign policy... just that they play to their strengths

The quote from the article does state that an adviser to the DOD was thinking of using Hezbollah as a role model, and they did say "One thing the U.S. military cannot provide the Georgian military, and what Hezbollah had in spades and greatly increased their effectiveness, was very high discipline and motivation"

He didn't suggest that the Georgians should use genuine resistance groups, like the French Maquis or the Anbar Awakening, as role models.

We have a history of using Hezbollah-style "pious" groups, supported by the Saudis, to fight the Russians and we have a history of not learning from our mistakes. I have no doubt that the adviser to the DOD was really being that stupid.

I, too, think the Georgians would have conducted a guerilla campaign had the Russians occupied their entire country. And the U.S. would have been justified in supporting them. Just because nowadays "guerilla" means "terrorist" and "popular resistance" means a violent intifada, it shouldn't deprive ordinary people of their right to self-defense.

A genuine, non-terrorist resistance could be very effective against a terrorist militia that was invading and occupying a country, but resistance groups do need a larger army and/or world opinion to back them up when fighting a real army with real soldiers, even if they aren't very well fed.

Guerilla tactics worked against the Russians in Afghanistan, but the population and the terrain were completely different than in Georgia.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at September 12, 2008 5:34 AM

"I think the argument is that however strong a conventional army the Georgians decide upon, it will never, ever be a match for the Russian military if they decide to fight it out in a conventional battle."

I happened to think that Georgia lost Abkhazia and SO for good. Especially after both will be integrated into Russia.
I also think that however way Georgians will (if they will) choose to battle war with Russia in the future, be it conventional or partisan means, they will lose regardless.
Best approach for Georgia would be to wait for better times while gaining economical and military strength.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at September 12, 2008 5:45 AM

Ok.... without wanting to upset any Georgian nationalists here....

Michael, you spoke to some of the Georgian soldiers and spent time on the ground. Why did the Georgian armed forces perform so badly?

Some reports have them leaving their dead on the battlefield, leaving tanks and artillery pieces in working order all along the route of their retreat (I have seen Russian video footage on LiveLeak or maybe even "War Nerd" of Russian convoys coming across abandoned T-72 upgrade ERA type tanks and having to chuck incendiary grenades down the commander's hatches to disable them), Georgian troops in Kodori Gorge were accused of leaving high quality man portable (and US made) infantry weapons on the battlefield, stripping out of their uniforms and basically disappearing.

And that after the Sarkozy ceasefire came into effect they didn't just cease fire, they seemingly ceased to exist... Where was the Georgian army when the Russians took Gori? Cos they were not heavily deployed around their capital city... or were they?

Is it true there was no proper defensive line to protect Tbilisi? Did a Georgian general cut and run from the battlefield? What happened to the Geogian helicopter gunships that were supposedly quite effective at the beginning, what happened to the highly trained forces that launched the August 8th night assault, this is the country that MADE the SU-25...what happened to their ground attack capability? Is it true they ended up trying to use mobile phones instead of battlefield comms systems?

No offence to the Russians but their tactics seemed rather dated -- and seemed to consist of an artillery barrage (and/or uncoordinated bombing by a scattering of aircraft), then trundle along into "hostile enemy territory" long armoured columns with all the infantry troops sitting hull up on their APCs... they must have been pretty confident that theree would be no resistance...

Posted by: Microraptor Author Profile Page at September 12, 2008 8:17 AM

OK.... Here's a really interesting and detailed analysis of the war...

http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?t=140546

It's a must read for equipment and battle-tactics buffs... According to the (US based) writer, the Georgian plan was doomed to fail unless everything, but everything went right -- and as every fule no.... the best laid plans of mice and men collape 30 seconds after the gunfire starts....

Posted by: Microraptor Author Profile Page at September 12, 2008 10:10 AM

Microraptor, I read the analysis you linked to shortly after it came out. Better than most, I guess, but subsequently I read that it contained several errors in its data which, of course, affected its analysis. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen an equally detailed but more up to date and credible analysis. I hope one will come up soon. The Russian analysts I have read so far don't describe the whole operation in as much detail (I'm sure there are out there, I just have not found them). They either take a more general view or get into particular aspects of the operation. All in all, though, the Russian analysts are fairly critical of Russia's performance. They acknowledge some improvements, but overall they are not happy. If anything, like you they are surprised at the bad performance of the Georgian Army. It's not so much that the Russians were great, but that the Georgian military perfomance was unexpectedly awful. I found very little discussion of this. In relation to the undamaged military equipment and weapons the Georgians abandoned the casualties their army suffered were very light.

By the way, I agree with you that vis-a-vis Russia it will be smarter for the Georgian military to change it's approach.

Posted by: KolyaV Author Profile Page at September 12, 2008 10:52 AM

There is one underlying reason why both the Russian and Georgian armies are pretty mediocre - demographics. There simply aren't that many young people, relative to the population, in either country. And in countries where people have few children, they are increasingly unwilling to risk their offspring and will to pretty good lengths to keep their children out of the military. In both Russia and Georgia the enlisted ranks are mostly second rate - less intelligent, uneducated, or (in Russia's case) ethnic minorities. In 20 years, at current trends, both nations will be hard pressed to field any troops at all.

To Michael's point that the muted reaction toward Russians among Georgians surprised me you need to remember that Georgians enjoyed a fairly privileged position in the Soviet Union compared to most non-Russians. They could and did advance to positions of real responsibility (such as running the whole USSR). And even now there are millions of ethnic Georgians living in Russia, many doing very well. Georgians play a huge role to this day in Russian popular culture, Russia's most popular writer, Boris Akunin, is an ethnic Georgian. And Russians used to mostly admire Georgians - loved their toasts, their joie de vivre, the beauty of their women, their great tradition of poetry, their food (by far the best cuisine in the ex-USSR). The Russian-Georgian relationship is a complicated love-hate relationship, it's nothing like the hate-hate of Albanians vs. Serbs or Kurds vs. Arabs. And the split between Georgia and Russia has arguably diminished both countries.

Posted by: Dyadya Vanya Author Profile Page at September 12, 2008 11:05 AM

As far as changing tactics, what is it that the Georgians would want to accomplish? If they wish to wage war against Russia with some hope of (marginal) success, then they probably can't do it with conventional forces.

If they wish to try, though, military forces are usually most vulnerable to their opposites. Kinda like a "rock/paper/scissors" game. If the Russians are using armor and mechanized infantry, then highly mobile light infantry raiders would be best. That game ends when the Russians send in their own light infantry, though. If their are enough fanatics in Georgia, then heavy mechanized forces are also extremely vulnerable to guerilla warfare. But how far would Georgians be willing to go? Unless their survival is at stake, I can't see a serious effort at actually defeating Russian forces being undertaken. I could be wrong. But it seems like it would be foolish to try to prepare Georgians for a conflict they don't want to fight.

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at September 12, 2008 12:23 PM

Earlier, someone commented on the demographics. I've wondered about the age of the residents of the SO/Georgian villages. From the interviews in various articles, most of the inhabitants seem to be old/retired. Are the young members of the area working outside in Moscow or Europe?

Also, I wonder if the action was a way to obtain property by theft by the Ossetians/Abkas hierarchy, rather than a strictly political conflict? Certainly actions after the Russian takeover, the Georgian owned property has been expropriated by other SO residents, not the Russian government or the SO authorities.

Posted by: nvreader Author Profile Page at September 12, 2008 12:30 PM
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