Although a senior U.S. official blamed Russia for launching “a pre-planned operation” against Georgia, he also noted that the use of force against South Ossetia by Tbilisi was “unwise.”
“The Georgian leadership’s decision to employ force in the conflict zone was unwise,” Eric Edelman, the under secretary of defense for policy, said on September 9. “Although much is still unclear, it appears the Georgians conducted what they thought was a limited military operation with the political aim of restoring Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia to eliminate the harassing fire from the South Ossetian separatists on Georgian civilians.”
He told a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the Georgian operation was “hastily planned and implemented.”
“The use of artillery fire and multiple launched rockets into urban areas and into the proximity of Russian peacekeepers is lamentable, and we do not condone this activity,” he added.
Daniel Fried, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told the same committee hearing on September 9 that the U.S. had warned Georgia against using force.
“And on August 7, we warned them repeatedly not to take such a step,” Fried said. “We pointed out that use of military force, even in the face of provocations, would lead to a disaster. We were blunt in conveying these points, not subtle. Our message was clear.”
He also pointed out that Georgia’s move into Tskhinvali had provided Russia with “a pretext for a response that quickly grew far out of proportion to the actions taken by Georgia.”
“There will be a time for assessing blame for what happened in the early hours of the conflict, but one fact is clear – there was no justification for Russia’s invasion of Georgia. There was no justification for Russia to seize Georgian territory, including territory well beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” Fried said.
U.S. DoD official Edelman agreed, saying Georgia’s ground operation was only a pretext for Russia.
“It is clear that Russia’s political and military leadership executed a pre-planned operation to forcibly and quickly change the status quo in Georgia,” he said.
Edelman also told the Senate committee hearing that tensions started to escalate in South Ossetia in late July and early August, when Georgian and South Ossetian forces engaged in tit-for-tat attacks.
Shelling, he said, increased “substantially on August 5-6, as South Ossetian separatist forces trained their artillery on Georgian villages to the south and north of the separatist capital.” He also pointed out that on August 7 Georgia unilaterally announced a ceasefire, but, according to the Georgian authorities, despite this ceasefire, the South Ossetian militias continued shelling Georgian villages.
“That night, the Georgians announced that they were compelled to protect their citizens and began to suppress South Ossetian firing positions with ground operations,” Edelman said.
“Within hours of Georgia’s moves into South Ossetia, thousands of hardened Russian combat troops and hundreds of tanks, vehicles and dozens of planes were flooding into South Ossetia and conducting air and missile strikes into Georgian areas controlled by Tbilisi,” he added.
Edelman said that U.S. officials, including those from the Department of Defense, were in contact with Russian military officials, who were claiming at the time that their objectives were limited only to protecting Russian citizens and peacekeepers and the removal of Georgian forces from their post-August 6 positions.
Edelman, however, added: “What became clear is there never seemed to be a limit to Russia’s operational – nor strategic – aims.”
He also claimed that despite tensions in the region the United States “had little warning of an impending large-scale conflict until August 7.”
The first indication of Georgia’s general mobilization, Edelman continued, came when “Georgian troops being trained for their future deployment to Iraq did not show up for training.”
At the time, U.S. military instructors were training Georgia’s 4th Brigade for its deployment to Iraq, scheduled for winter 2008.