13 August 2008
Have the Russians taken Gori?
Hysterical claims are being made that the Russians have taken Gori. They haven't, but that is not stopping the claims from being made. So what's going on?
The quick answer to that question is that the Russians are basically inside their lines, the Georgians are huddled in Tblisi, and militiamen are roaming the area in between.
We need to remember that the Georgian government is frantically throwing petrol on the flames in the hope that western intervention may yet save their wretched skins. Their army abandoned Gori without a fight and fled like frightened rabbits to Tblisi. Had they behaved like an army should then their civilian population would not today be under threat from the militias who are now roaming freely in the undefended parts of Georgia.
Georgian propaganda has been helped by a Russian column of about 50 to 70 vehicles that has been spotted driving along Georgian roads. A BBC crew caught up with it and did what journalists are supposed to do - they asked the lead driver where his column was going? The man replies that they "just drive, drive drive". By that time the column had turned off the road and had stopped in some fields.
As you can see from this video, which was a shot by another BBC crew who did not join the convoy, the vehicles were moving at a slow pace and were being overtaken by civilian traffic that was also on the road. Many of the vehicles were soft-top trucks that were mixed in with armoured personnel carriers and at least one anti-aircraft battery. This was not an armoured spearhead advancing onto Gori, what we saw was a resupply column that had managed to get lost and then turned off into the fields to figure out what they were going to do next.
If the Russians really were attacking Gori they would not have sent a mixed bag like that to do it. Tanks would spearhead the drive, closely followed by infantry in their APCs. Anything on the road that did not belong to the attacking formation would be blasted to kingdom come with careless abandon.
Very well, but what is going on in Gori? There is still no clear evidence that anything is going on there, but based upon this Reuters video, South Ossetian militiamen - and probably quite a lot of other militia groups from outside the territory - are now now doing their thing in the villages just to the north of the city. If you watch the video closely you will see that many of the armed men that are shown in it are wearing trainers and blue jeans. Sorry, people, but those are militia groups and not the Russian army.
The Guardian's reporter has added his own voice-over to the video and he states that Russian forces may have arrived in those villages early this morning, but only to warn people that the militias were on their way. They seem to have told people to hang white flags from their windows and keep out of sight. Then they withdrew and the militias moved in.
As this blog reported last Friday, Cossack hosts and various militia groups were flooding into South Ossetia to join the local militia who were already there. We said then that those "irregulars are an example of what could turn out to be a messy and long drawn out conflict, even after the regular armies have finished damaging everything around them," and it looks as if we were right.
So, a Russian column gets lost as irregular fighters from all over the region get stuck in to the revenge routine. The Georgian government is stirring the panic as part of its strategy to try and encourage outside intervention even at this late stage.
It is all very messy and pretty much what we predicted last Friday. What it is not is a Russian onslaught to take over Georgia.
Update, 14-August-2008, 12.45am:
Russian troops did take over an abandoned Georgian military base just outside Gori, which they proceeded to wreck. Some of the soldiers then seem to have gone for a wander in the city proper. Whether those men were from the column that was spotted around the nearby villages is still unclear, but what is clear is that this operation was not part of any dastardly plan to occupy Georgia as a whole.