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 – the first of its kind in the Caucasus region – and Russian jets had reportedly dropped bombs in the forests and set the region on fire.

I hired a Georgian bear of a man named Alex to drive me in his four-wheel-drive over the mountains. Normally you can get to Borjomi from the capital Tbilisi on the main highway in just a few hours, but the highway passes through Gori, and Gori was occupied and blockaded. The only other route open was over the mountains and across a central Georgian plateau so high that trees cannot grow. That road was hardly in better condition than a smuggler's path, and it's only passable during the summer after the snow and ice have temporarily melted.

Georgia Borjomi Map.JPG
Georgia

Alex and I stocked up on road food – chocolate, cookies, soft drinks, and chips – before we set out. It was going to be a long drive, and there were no good places to eat on the way. He knew the roads well and did not need a map. He drives tourists around Georgia for his regular job, and he likes to travel abroad, too, when he can.

“Were you able to travel during the communist era?” I said.

“I went to East Germany in the 1980s,” he said.

“Was East Germany in better shape than Georgia then?” I said.

Alex Road to Borjomi.jpg
Alex

“Inside the East German wall was still the Soviet Union,” he said. “It was the same rubbish.”

Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili's popularity has declined since the Rose Revolution in 2003, and I wondered how the war was affecting public opinion.

“Saakashvili screwed up,” Alex said. “In June and July these idiots massed everybody on the border and made a big exercise.” He reflexively referred to the Russian soldiers and leadership as “these idiots” and was referring here to the biggest military exercise inside Russia since the Chechnya war. It just happened to take place on the Georgian border immediately prior to the invasion. “In their minds they were planning war. Saakashvili could have done something, but didn't.”

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A brief stretch of paved road on the way to Borjomi

The six hour drive to Borjomi taught me to appreciate pavement. Road conditions were fine only for the first thirty miles or so. As soon as we started heading into the mountains, smooth tar turned to gravel.

Trees Gravel Road to Borjomi.jpg
Gravel road to Borjomi, before it got bad

“Is the road like this the whole way?” I said.

“Sometimes it's worse,” Alex said.

It got worse almost instantly. Gravel gave way to rocks. Alex's four-wheel-drive handled okay, but I was violently jostled around in my seat during much of the trip. Sleep was impossible. So was taking photographs without stopping. After a while I got nauseated.

“A week ago I took 18 Israeli tourists on this road,” Alex said.

Road and Cows Road to Borjomi.jpg
The road to Borjomi

Israelis are unflappable. Few tourists went to Georgia during the Russian invasion, but I wasn’t surprised to hear that Israelis kept coming. They know from experience that you can travel to a country at war if you stay out of the conflict areas. That’s how it was during Israel’s second Lebanon war. The northern part of the country was abandoned and on fire, but the rest of Israel was unscathed. It was the same way in Georgia.

House and Hill Road to Borjomi.jpg
A house on the road to Borjomi

Vaguely Middle Eastern sounding music from Azerbaijan played on the radio. Static eventually overwhelmed the signal. We were in a remote part of Georgia where hardly anyone aside from nomadic sheep herders live. Alex did, however, manage to find a single station broadcasting news from Tbilisi. After a few moments he angrily turned it off. “The French ambassador was stopped for an hour and a half by Russian soldiers on his way to Gori,” he said. “This is killing my nerves.”

Winding Road to Borjomi.jpg
The road to Borjomi

Russia had effectively cut the country in half. It was possible for civilians in four wheel drive vehicles like Alex's to cross Georgia’s mid-section over the mountains, but rerouting all the highway traffic from Tbilisi up there would not have been possible. Large semi trucks weren't able to haul goods over that road, especially not when they were fully weighted down.

At one point we came upon a white van stalled on the side of the road.

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A stalled white van on the road to Borjomi

Alex pulled up next to the van and asked the driver if there was a problem. The driver said his engine didn't have enough power to get him to the top of the rise, but that he had a tow chain. So Alex attached the van to his truck and pulled the van a few hundred meters up the steepest part of the incline.

The road was even worse up ahead. One stretch was so steep I worried his truck would succumb to gravity and actually flip over backwards. I felt like I was in an SUV commercial.

Lake and Island Road to Borjomi.jpg
A lake on the road to Borjomi

The top of the pass above Borjomi was basically tundra. It was too high for anything but grass to grow. Cold wind whipped around the truck and lashed my ears when I stepped out to take a picture of the valley below where trees could still grow.

High Snaking Road to Borjomi.jpg
High mountain pass above Borjomi

“I was up here in June,” Alex said, “and it was snowing.”

Russians soldiers have since lifted their siege of the highway connecting the eastern and western halves of the country. If they ever decide to close the road during winter, Georgia will truly be cut into pieces.

*

The Borjomi area looks a lot like my native Pacific Northwest in the United States. And it was still burning. Columns of smoke rose from various scorched hillsides.

“Can we stop?” I said to Alex. “I need some pictures.”

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Fires on hillside outside Borjomi

The air smelled strongly of smoke from burning wood, and the fires were in a strange state. I've seen many forest fires in my home state of Oregon. We get them every year. This is not what they look like. Forest fires, whether they were started by lightning, human negligence, or arson, tend to be large single infernos. Individual fires burned all over the place near Borjomi.

Burned Hillside Near Borjomi.jpg
Burned hillside outside Borjomi

Perhaps these were the remnants of a single larger fire that had been mostly doused, but the fires were oddly spaced as though several really had been started at once in different locations. I couldn’t even see the bulk of the fire damage which was well away from the main highway and deeper into the forest.

Scorched Hillside Near Borjomi.jpg
Scorched hillside near Borjomi

I didn't notice anything unusual when we reached the town of Borjomi, but Alex did.

“This place is usually full this time of year,” he said. “But now everything is empty.”

Borjomi from Hotel.jpg
The view of Borjomi from my Soviet-era hotel room

That wasn't surprising. Aside from Alex’s Israeli clients from the previous week, and a handful of Americans I would soon meet, few tourists thought it wise to visit Georgia during Russia’s invasion and occupation. Even Georgians who wanted a break from the stress of conflict had a hard time getting there. Taxi drivers were charging 500 dollars for a one-way trip from the capital because the road did so much damage to their vehicles. Alex charged me far less than that, but even his four wheel drive took a hit when a deep gouge in the road knocked out his front shocks.

Borjomi is small, and it was full of fire trucks.

Firetrucks Borjomi.jpg
Firetrucks in Borjomi

Smaller fires near the town were still burning, and larger fires deep in the forest and out of sight were still blazing, but the worst was over. The air still smelled of smoke, but at least it was breathable.

I had made arrangements to meet Mako Zulmatashvili before Alex and I left Tbilisi. She agreed to show me around town, introduce me to some local officials, translate for me, and put me up for the night in her mother's guest house. She waited for us at a park across the street from the train station.

“I have some bad news,” she said. “We no longer have a room for you.”

Her brother Giga’s American in-laws showed up unexpectedly from the United States a day early, and they needed the room that would have been mine. Giga had recently married a young American woman who spent a few years in Georgia with the Peace Corps, and her parents were visiting from Connecticut for the first time. They picked a heck of a time to see Georgia, but they were committed and refused to be deterred by even a Russian invasion.

Alex and Rocket Launcher Road to Borjomi.jpg
A Georgian rocket launcher vehicle drives past me and Alex in Borjomi

Alex and I stayed the night in a Soviet hotel so the American family members could have the room.

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Soviet-era hotel, Borjomi

The rent at the Soviet hotel was cheap – a mere twenty dollars per night – but it was worth even less. That was obvious long before I even got to my room. There was no front desk in the dark cavernous lobby, so the woman who ran the place greeted guests on the front steps. She fished room keys out of her pocket and led Alex, Mako, and me to an elevator that promptly went dark as soon as the doors closed behind us.

The hotel manager sighed, fumbled for a button on the panel in the dark, and pressed something – I don't know what – that made the lights come back on.

“This is Georgia,” Mako said and laughed.

I wouldn't think it was funny if I got stuck in that elevator by myself in absolute darkness, but fortunately that didn't happen.

The hallway leading up to my room was dark. It was lit only from a single window at the end of the hall with the curtains drawn closed. If I hadn't used the flash on my camera, I'm not sure I would ever know what the hall looked like. The carpet, ceiling, and walls were filthy. A horrendous stench of mildew, mold, and decay had built up over decades.

Soviet Hotel Hallway Borjomi.jpg
Inside a Soviet-era hotel, Borjomi

“I'm sorry there's no room at the house for you,” Mako said. “I hope this is okay.”

“It's fine,” I said.

“It is just for one night,” Alex said and shrugged.

The hotel would not have been fine if we were staying for more than one night, but it was worth sleeping there once for educational purposes. The place was something to see. I will never really know what Georgia was like when it was part of the Soviet Union, but this hotel was a living museum piece.

The usual building materials you expect to see in a Western hotel, or in one of Georgia's more recently built or refurbished hotels, were not available when it was built during the communist period. The architects and designers had to make do with what little they had. The skeleton was made with poured concrete. Thin sheets of wood were slapped on the walls inside the rooms to soften things up. Cheap red fabric was stapled to these thin sheets of wood and used as a sort of wallpaper. The room made me think of a high-end tree fort.

Soviet Hotel Room Borjomi.jpg
Soviet-era hotel room, Borjomi

The mattresses on the bed were at most one inch thick. There was no tub in the bathroom, and the “shower” was a faucet sticking out of the wall two feet off the ground. I had to sit on the floor next to the sink to wash my hair the next morning. At least the water was hot.

Mako felt bad that I ended up relegated to the communist dump, but I honestly didn't mind. My normal hotel in Tbilisi just felt luxurious when I got back.

She invited me to her house to meet her family. Marina, her mother, wore an “I (Heart) New York” t-shirt and served cookies and tea. “This town survives on tourism and not much else,” she said. “I don't know what we're going to do.”

Old Buildings Borjomi.jpg
Borjomi, Georgia

I spent a few hours sipping tea and chatting with Mako’s family and her brother’s American in-laws.

Another American named Charles joined us. He had booked the other spare room in the guest house and was visiting Georgia as an actual tourist on holiday. He lives in Damascus, Syria, where he’s studying Arabic, and he came to Borjomi by ground through Turkey and Iraq.

“You're the craziest person in the room,” I said.

He shrugged and didn't think it was a big deal to backpack around what most people think are two of the world's most frightening countries.

“On the night the tanks came toward Borjomi,” Mako said, “I couldn't sleep at all. I thought it was the last days of Georgia's existence as an independent country. Then smoke and ashes and pieces of burning wood covered the town. We could hardly breathe.”

“There isn't much food left in the grocery stores here,” her mother Marina said. “We can't bring food in from the Poti port or from Tbilisi.”

Meanwhile, despite everything, many Georgians insisted they were showing hospitality to their invaders.

Mako Zulmatashvili.jpg
Mako Zulmatashvili

“We're cooking meals for them,” Mako said, “and letting them use our showers. They have nothing. We have always liked Russians here in Georgia. Do people in Russia even know we're letting them use our showers?”

“If Russians invade America they aren't using my shower,” I said. Everyone laughed. Of course hardly any American would let an enemy soldier use his or her shower. But of course that hardly meant Georgian civilians were happy with the Russian invasion.

“They're playing Braveheart over and over again on TV,” Giga's American wife said and wryly smiled in satisfaction.

*

The next morning Mako took me to meet Valerian Lomidze, editor-in-chief of Borjomi's weekly newspaper. He was able to give me a few photographs taken by his reporters before I arrived.

Turkish Plane Borjomi.jpg
A Turkish plane helps Georgians put out their fires (Copyright Borjomi weekly newspaper)

“The fire started in five places at the same time,” he said. “Obviously it was not started by natural causes. The fires started all along in a straight line, as though they were under a flight path.”

“Why do you suppose the Russians would do this?” I said. “To destroy the tourism industry in this part of Georgia?”

“Russia had a clear plan to do this,” he said. “They did different things in different places to destroy our various industries. We have nothing else to survive on in this part of Georgia except tourism. Russians said they came here for peace. But what peace? They bombed the port, the forests, the cities, and blocked the highway. These regions had nothing to do with the conflict areas.” The only contested portions of Georgia were Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has de-facto annexed in the meantime. Gori, Borjomi, and Poti were, like Lomidze said, well outside the conflict areas. “Russia is part of the conflict, not bringing peace.”

He worked at the same newspaper since 1974. What was it like during the Soviet era?

“We had more support from the government,” he said. “We could publish three times a week, but now only once a week. But we had no freedom to write. We had to work for the government and the party. Now we can write whatever we want.”

The Borjomi municipality's Governor Vakhtang Maisuradze said he could speak with me for a few minutes, and two women from his government -- Eka Londaridze, head of the local environmental protection agency, and Keti Mandjavidze who worked with refugees in Borjomi displaced by the Russia invasion – sat down with me briefly while I waited near his office. Mako translated again.

“We have been getting help from Turkey,” Londaridze said, “but they're out right now and we're expecting help to arrive from Ukraine.”

“What were the Turks doing to help you?”

Eka Londaridze Bojomi.jpg
Eka Londaridze

“They had two planes that they sent to Georgia to help us,” she said. “They brought water to put the fire out.”

The Turkish pilots filled their tanks with lake water in nearby Turkish Kurdistan, dropped the water on the fires, and returned to Turkey to load up on more.

“Are the fires actually inside the park?” I said.

“It's not the park exactly,” she said, “it's the wildlife safe area, not where the trails for hiking are. It's where our ancient trees are.”

The ecological destruction near Borjomi was significantly less than what Saddam Hussein unleashed in the Persian Gulf region when his soldiers ignited Kuwait's oil wells in 1991. Burning trees are much easier to extinguish than blazing geysers of fuel. But it seemed to me just as militarily pointless.

“Do you know for sure that these fires were started by Russian jets?” I said.

“We cannot say for 100 percent,” she said, “but I have seen pictures of the planes flying over, and an hour or so later there was smoke. On the one hand it's obvious that the Russians did this, but I don't want to say 100 percent until we have finished our research.”

“I saw the planes, too,” Mandjavidze said.

“Did the planes also fly over Borjomi?” I said.

Keti Mandjavidze Borjomi.jpg
Keti Mandjavidze

“Yes,” she said. “They flew over this area, and also over the cemetery.”

“Were they flying low or high?” I said.

“Low,” she said.

“It was pretty scary,” Mako said.

“Did you hear any explosions?” I said.

“It was hard to hear anything,” Mandjavidze said, “because the sound of the planes was so loud. Plus it's around 30 or 40 kilometers from here to where the fires started, so we couldn't have possibly heard it.”

“Did anyone in town panic?”

Mako had already told me that local people panicked, but it's always a good idea to ask more than one person.

“Yes,” she said. “There was panic. People thought the Russians were coming into our area. Lots of smoke came into Borjomi. People were helping each other and standing together.”

“It was ridiculous,” Mako said. “For two days it was hard to even breathe in Borjomi.”

Russia's occupation and de-facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are almost certainly permanent, but it seemed unlikely even at the time that the Russian military would maintain its blockade of Gori and the highways for much longer. Still, I wanted to know: how effective was the blockade? Russian soldiers can implement one again at any time, for any reason at all, and no one can do much to stop them.

An 800-pound gorilla can sit wherever it wants. Russian troops are now permanently based so close to Georgia’s transportation arteries that the country could be bisected, again, just a few hours or even minutes after an order is given. That threat will hang over the country for a long time. And a winter blockade would be devastating because the high mountain road Alex and I took would be buried beneath feet of unplowable snow.

“How are the supplies in town?” I said. “Do you have enough food and fuel?”

“We have food and fuel, but there is almost no children's food or diapers,” Mandjavidze said. “So we're in a hard situation with our children.”

“There is enough food in the stores?” I said.

“There is enough,” she said. “People are coming from the other side and from Armenia bringing food to the town.”

“If the Russians stay where they are for a few more weeks,” I said, “keep the roads closed, and the port blockaded, will there still be enough food?”

That would be a big problem,” Londaridze said. “After a month people would be starving. We have some ways to get food here, but not enough. The main way is from Tbilisi and it's blocked. We would need to find some other way. From Tbilisi it's impossible to get to the Borjomi area.”

“Are the Russians admitting to bombing the area,” I said, “or are they denying it?”

“There was no official information about it from the Russian side,” Mandjavidze said, “but if you watch the Russian TV channels, they say Georgia is a fascist country, it's run by a Nazi party.” She laughed. “They say everything that happened here we did to ourselves.”

“When you watch the Russian channels,” Londaridze said, “you see pictures of Gori and they say it's [South Ossetia's capital] Tskhinvali. You see pictures of Tskhinvali and they say it's Gori. Russian people are getting very mistaken information right now.”

“Why do you think the Russians bombed this area?” I said.

“It's clear that Russia wants to occupy Georgia,” Mandjavidze said. “Putin recently said it was a huge mistake that the Soviet Union fell down. His main goal is to rebuild everything that was ruined. But this isn't news. This is old news.”

“This is an ecological war,” Londaridze, the environmental protection head, said. “Borjomi is surrounded by mountains. Everything leads to Borjomi. The air here can't get out. They didn't need to bomb the whole area. Of course they wanted to damage Georgia. And of course we were damaged. We had to breathe all this smoke for days. It was pretty bad. As you know, the Borjomi National Park is the first in Georgia, the first in the Caucasus area. And this is the area where they started the fires. It's obvious that it was planned.”

“Turkey helps us a lot,” Mandjavidze said. “We're very thankful to Turkey and all the other countries that have helped us and supported us. Every country around us wants to help us, but they are afraid of the situation.”

That did not sound quite right. Armenia borders Georgia to the south and is Russia's ally in the region.

“What about Armenia?” I said. “Is Armenia being helpful?”

“No,” she said. “Armenia hasn't been helpful at all. But we understand. Armenia is a small country and will support every country that is larger than he is. Right now we are stronger than Armenia, but Russia is stronger than we are. Armenia, of course, says that Russia is right;

Mako and I were summoned to Governor Maisuradze's office for a few minutes.

“Tell me in your words what happened here,” I said.

“Not until the real answer is out can I specify whether it was Russians,” he said. “But nevertheless, for sure, somebody started this fire. It wasn't caused by the weather. Many people saw planes flying over and some heard bombing. On the first day the fires started in a straight line at regular intervals in places that people cannot get to by cars.”

He drew five evenly spaced dots connected by a straight line on his notepad. Then he made a plane-in-flight motion with his hand over that line.

“It had to be from a plane,” he continued. “And this is also where witnesses said they saw a plane flying over. But until the experts go into the forest and find out biochemically what happened, I can't say anything more.”

“Can you guess – and I realize you would be guessing – why the Russians might theoretically want to bomb this area?” I said.

“What did they want to do in Gori or in Poti or anywhere else in Georgia?” he said. “They wanted to cause panic. They wanted to damage the economy. It's pretty obvious that this was their plan. Of course. People can't get food in here. This is what they wanted. The main goal for this area is to become ecologically developed for tourism. The most effective way for them to damage us was to burn our forests. The only other thing they could have done was bomb our mineral water plant, but they didn't, thank God.”

Borjomi Water Billboard.jpg
An advertisement for Borjomi's unique natually-flavored mineral water

Borjomi is famous in the former Soviet Union for its naturally flavored mineral water. It tastes slightly sour, but only slightly. It tastes mostly like club soda, but with a slight twist that is impossible to identify. Supposedly it's a love-it-or-hate-it beverage, but I tried a bottle and didn't have a strong reaction one way or another.

“Russians love our mineral water,” Mako said. “They wouldn't want to bomb the plant because then we couldn't make more.”

Londaridze and Mandjavidze didn't think the blockade was hurting Borjomi too badly so far, but it was still only a few weeks old, and it was during the summer. What if the blockade lasted for months? What if it lasted for years?

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Borjomi municipality Governor Vakhtang Maisuradze

“We survived twenty one centuries,” the governor said. “We will survive twenty one more even though we don't have anything now. We can't get food and supplies, but we will survive another twenty one centuries.” He slapped the desk with the palm of his hand. “That is my answer.”

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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 Author Profile Page at September 24, 2008 8:15 AM

One word: biased!

Posted by: karbon Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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. Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 Author Profile Page 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 “give a woman a fish and she can feed her family for a day, but teach a woman to fish and she can feed her family every day” mode. See: http://themegobariproject.blogspot.com/
This is in response to: 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.
Posted by: Comrade_Tovarich
Thanks for the opportunity to let others know and feel free to pass on the information about the Megobari (meaning "friend" in Georgian)Project.

Posted by: Juliette Z Author Profile Page at October 29, 2008 4:39 AM
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