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2008-08-11

Up to 2,000 Killed as Russia-Georgia Fighting Enters Fourth Day

Guests

Col. Sam Gardiner, retired Air Force Colonel. He has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College, Air War College and Naval War College. His recent posts on Georgia have appeared on the blog NewsDissector.org here and here.

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After four days of heavy fighting, Russian tanks are now approaching central Georgian cities away from the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian officials say Georgia provoked the assault by attacking South Ossetia late last week, causing heavy civilian casualties. NATO’s Secretary General and President Bush have both condemned Russia’s “disproportionate” use of force in Georgia. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the escalating conflict between Russia and Georgia. Amidst reports of over 2,000 dead and 40,000 displaced, NATO’s Secretary General and President Bush have both condemned Russia’s "disproportionate” use of force in Georgia.

After four days of heavy fighting, Russian tanks are now approaching central Georgian cities away from the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian officials say Georgia provoked the assault by attacking South Ossetia late last week, causing heavy civilian casualties. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told journalists he signed a ceasefire proposal Monday, but news reports indicate the fighting continues.

Georgia is a close US ally, and despite Russian objections, the US has backed Georgia’s bid to enter NATO. On Friday, at the Security Council, the United States and Britain appeared to back the Georgian invasion. Georgia also plays a pivotal role in the supply of oil from the Caspian region to the West, as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline runs through much of the country.

Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner has been closely following the conflict. His reports are available on Danny Schechter’s “News Dissector” blog. Colonel Sam Gardiner joins us now on the phone. Welcome to Democracy Now!

Colonel Gardiner, are you with us? Colonel Gardiner is speaking to us from his home in the Washington, D.C. area. We’re just checking that phone line. Are you there? We’ll go to a music break, and then we’ll come back to what’s happening in Georgia. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We turn back now to the escalating conflict between Russia and Georgia. Amidst reports of over 2,000 dead, 40,000 displaced, NATO’s Secretary General, President Bush, both condemning Russia’s "disproportionate” use of force in Georgia.

After four days of heavy fighting, Russian tanks are now approaching central Georgian cities away from the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian officials say Georgia provoked the assault by attacking South Ossetia late last week, causing heavy civilian casualties. The Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told journalists he signed a ceasefire proposal Monday, but news reports indicate the fighting continues.

Georgia is a close US ally. Despite Russian objections, the US has backed Georgia’s bid to enter NATO. On Friday, at the Security Council, the United States and Britain appeared to back the Georgian invasion. Georgia also plays a pivotal role in the supply of oil from the Caspian region to the West, as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline runs through much of the country.

We’re now joined on the telephone by retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, who’s been closely following the conflict.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

COL. SAM GARDINER: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this area that probably most people in this country have never heard of before.

COL. SAM GARDINER: Yes. It’s very interesting that it is probably what some analysts have called an area of frozen conflicts. After the Soviet Union dissolved, there remained areas in which, despite the fact that new states were created, there were tensions. One of those is the Ossetia or South Ossetia, which is where we’ve seen the fighting, and the other one, inside Georgia, is Abkhazia. There were agreements signed in the early 1990s that sort of solidified these as semi-independent territories. In one, there is a UN peacekeeping force, and then in South Ossetia, there is essentially independence, and, you know, they sort of ran their operations separate from the Georgian government.

And then, tensions began to increase over the past few months, because the president of Georgia has promised to retake — his words — retake the — particularly South Ossetia. That was a problem, because, by now, 90 percent of Ossetians there were holders of Russian passports. They had voted to become part of the Russian Federation. There was clear movement in the direction of this enclave, closer and closer ties with Russia. And then, last week, almost without announcement, the Georgians launched a strike into Ossetia with the apparent objective of putting this back under the Tbilisi control, back under the control of the Georgian government.

The Russians responded, responded probably in a way that was a great deal surprise to the Georgians, probably was also a surprise to the United States. And as of this morning, the Georgians seem to have pulled out of South Ossetia and the Russians have control of the capital city and are beginning to put in humanitarian aid.

The one issue left up in the air has to do with the other enclave, Abkhazia. There was a small portion of that enclave that was controlled by the Georgians. It was called the Kodori Gorge. Operations were launched there yesterday, some on Saturday night, in attempt to dislodge the Georgians and turn that territory over and completely make it independent from Georgian control. So, this morning, the fighting seems to be waning, although there are reports of still air strikes going on. It appears as if we have gotten through the heavy part of the fighting, but certainly not the important strategic consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about significance of this, in terms of nuclear warfare in Russia? Do we have anything to fear along those lines?

COL. SAM GARDINER: Absolutely. Let me just say that if you were to rate how serious the strategic situations have been in the past few years, this would be above Iraq, this would be above Afghanistan, and this would be above Iran.

On little notice to Americans, the Russians learned at the end of the first Gulf War that they couldn’t — they didn’t think they could deal with the United States, given the value and the quality of American precision conventional weapons. The Russians put into their doctrine a statement, and have broadcast it very loudly, that if the United States were to use precision conventional weapons against Russian troops, the Russians would be forced to respond with tactical nuclear weapons. They continue to state this. They practice this in their exercise. They’ve even had exercises that very closely paralleled what went on in Ossetia, where there was an independence movement, they intervene conventionally to put down the independence movement, the United States and NATO responds with conventional air strikes, they then respond with tactical nuclear weapons.

It appears to me as if the Russians were preparing themselves to do that in this case. First of all, I think they believe the United States was going to intervene. At a news conference on Sunday, the deputy national security adviser said we have noted that the Russians have introduced two SS-21 medium-range ballistic missile launchers into South Ossetia. Now, let me say a little footnote about those. They’re both conventional and nuclear. They have a relatively small conventional warhead, however. So, the military significance, if they were to be conventional, was almost trivial compared to what the Russians could deliver with the aircraft that they were using to strike the Georgians.

I think this was a signal. I think this was an implementation on their part of their doctrine. It clearly appears as if they expected the United States to do what they had practiced in their exercises. In fact, this morning, the Russians had an air defense exercise in the southern part of Russia that borders Georgia in which they — it was practicing shooting down incursion aircraft that were incursion into Russia. They were prepared for the United States to intervene, and I think they were prepared — or at least they were wanting to show the United States that their doctrine of the use of tactical nuclear weapons, if the US attacks, was serious, and they needed to take — the United States needs to take Russia very seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Colonel Sam Gardiner about this war that is taking place. Would you call it a war, Colonel Gardiner?

COL. SAM GARDINER: Well, you know, I like that term, and I wish I had invented it: it’s called "frozen conflicts." It is in resolution of a conflict that’s been around for seventeen years. It was pushed off-center by the Georgians. Even the Georgians were reluctant to declare war. They declared a state of emergency. Certainly, the Russians haven’t declared war. In fact, I guess I would say, Amy, you know, with our war on terrorism, I don’t even know if there’s a definition of “war” anymore. Probably it’s best to call it a very serious conflict that could have been escalated.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the pipeline that is there?

COL. SAM GARDINER: Well, the United States, beginning about ten years ago, obviously saw the vulnerability of the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf. So the United States pushed very hard to set up a pipeline that went from Baku in Azerbaijan, taking out the Caspian Sea oil, to a port in Turkey, Ceyhan. That oil pipeline carries about one percent of the world’s oil supply.

Two weeks ago, that pipeline was blown up in a Turkish area by the Kurdish rebels that the Turks are fighting. There were reports that the Russians had bombed this over the weekend. Reports this morning, however, say — suggest that there hasn’t been an interruption, except that Azerbaijan has shut off flow in the pipeline. So this interferes with a major flow of oil to the economies of the West. It’s an important source of the oil flow.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Gardiner, I also wanted to ask you about the presidential candidates’ responses to the conflict — Senator Barack Obama and John McCain — the report coming out about John McCain’s adviser, Scheunemann —-

COL. SAM GARDINER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —- who helped a US firm win a Georgian energy firm deal while lobbying for Georgia’s NATO membership.

COL. SAM GARDINER: I must say that I have not heard a lot of good words from the McCain campaign about how to deal with this. It’s painful that the standard answer one gets is the testosterone-based foreign policy that we’ve seen for the last eight years. This is a very complex situation. And John McCain has said earlier that he wants to throw Russia out of the G8. That is absolutely the worst thing the United States could do. Russians have been saying — and the White House has not been listening — “We are a major player, and you have to listen to us.” This is the way the President said the Chinese are major players, and we now listen to them. The Russians have been saying that. The White House has ignored that.

I also would say, on the other hand, that this is one of those situations where Obama’s talk about it is probably not a good solution, either. The United States made some errors when it left the impression with the Georgians that our support somehow meant they were free to undertake this operation. That was clearly a bad idea that we communicated with them.

The other thing that is significant here is, there is an Israeli dimension to the problem. Israel has been training and supplying the army of Georgia. That’s caused some tensions within Israel, because there are those who believe that this just encourages the Russians to provide conventional arms to the Iranians. Israel has talked about it over the weekend, decided not to stop providing arms to the Georgians.

It isn’t over. There are a lot of strategic things that are going to fall out of this. Probably most important is that it’s not now Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, it’s now Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran that our new president is going to have to deal with.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Sam Gardiner, I want to thank you for being with us. We’ll certainly continue to follow this conflict. Colonel Gardiner, retired Air Force colonel, has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College, as well as the Air War College and the Naval War College.

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