Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, addressing the nation via television August 8, indicated that Georgia had won the opening battle for control of the separatist territory of South Ossetia. The outcome of the war, however, remains very much in doubt.
Clashes began August 7 between Georgian troops and South Ossetian separatists. [See related EurasiaNet story]. After nightfall, Saakashvili went on television to tell viewers that Georgian forces "completely control" Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian separatist capital, as well as "all population points and all villages" in the territory.
The Georgian leader went on to call for national unity and attempted to cast the military operation as an unavoidable action amid the country's transformation from formerly Soviet republic to a Western-oriented democracy. "The fight for the future is worth fighting," he said. "If we stand together, there is no force that can defeat Georgia, defeat freedom, defeat a nation striving for freedom -- no matter how many planes, tanks, and missiles they use against us."
It remains to be seen whether Georgia will be able to consolidate its battlefield gains. Russian leaders have vowed to punish Tbilisi, and Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev told state television that "the guilty will get the punishment they deserve." A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman announced that Russian troops have been dispatched to South Ossetia, nominally to support Russian peacekeeping troops already on the ground, the official RIA-Novosti news agency reported. In addition, witnesses have reported that dozens of Russian tanks and armored vehicles have moved into the conflict zone, along with hundreds of supposed "volunteers" ready to assist beleaguered South Ossetian separatist forces.
According to Russian military sources, at least 10 Russian peacekeepers had been killed and 30 wounded during the initial Georgian thrust into the separatist-held territory, according to a RIA-Novosti report.
Meanwhile, Tbilisi accused Russia of conducting electronic warfare against Georgia. Several Georgian government websites, including those operated by ministries of defense and foreign affairs, came under attack by Russian hackers, according to an official statement. The news website Civil Georgia also was inaccessible due to hacker interference. The cyber attack was part of a systematic effort by the Russian Federation to undermine the sovereignty of Georgia, the government statement said.
As night fell over Tskhinvali, Georgian officials in Tbilisi and troops in South Ossetia braced for a Russian riposte. There were some early indications that the Kremlin might not limit its response to Ossetia. For example, the Rustavi-2 television station in Georgia reported late August 8 that jets coming from the direction of Armenia bombed a site in the southwestern Georgian hamlet of Bolnisi, not far from the borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Such reports are especially ominous, given that they portend a widening of the fighting. US President George W. Bush conferred with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Beijing on August 8. "We urge restraint on all sides -- that violence would be curtailed and that direct dialogue could ensue in order to help resolve their differences," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.
Some Georgian officials, including Georgian National Security Council chief Kakha Lomaia, have publicly compared Tbilisi's current predicament to that faced by Hungary in 1956 and the former Czechoslovakia in 1968, references to invasions carried out by Soviet military forces. Lomaia has announced that roughly half of the approximately 2,000 Georgian troops now in Iraq as part of the US-led coalition were being brought home to help contend with the domestic security crisis.
Although the strategic situation late August 8 seemed favorable to Georgia, Saakashvili sounded as though his side was on the defensive. He conveyed a feeling that the challenges in the coming days will only mount for Georgia. "We will not give up, and we will achieve victory. I call on everyone to mobilize. I declare, here and now, a universal mobilization of the nation and the Republic of Georgia," he said during his televised address. "I hereby announce that reserve officers are called up -- everyone must come to mobilization center and fight to save our country."