The Battle of Tskhinvali (Russian: Бои за Цхинвал, Georgian: ცხინვალის ბრძოლა) was a fight for the city of Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia. It was the only major battle in the Russo-Georgian War. Georgian ground troops entered the city on early 8 August 2008, after an extensive artillery barrage. Their advance was stopped by South Ossetian militia and members of the Russian peacekeeping force stationed in the city. Russian combat troops began entering South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel. After being initially forced to withdraw, the Georgian troops made several attempts to retake the city. Due to the difficult logistics of the terrain, the arrival of Russian reinforcements was slow. After fierce fighting, Georgian troops were finally forced to withdraw from the city on the evening of 10 August. On 11 August, all Georgian troops left South Ossetia. Parts of Tskhinvali were devastated in the three-day fighting.
Deployment and goalsEdit
Tskhinvali is located about 25 km (16 mi) from Gori. The Interior Ministry of Georgia stated that the ultimate goal of the Georgian forces was to control the Roki Tunnel further north. The Georgian aircraft's target was only the Gupta bridge, which links the northern part of South Ossetia to its southern part where Tskhinvali is located.
The Georgian forces deployed on the South Ossetian border on 7 August included the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Infantry Brigades, the Artillery Brigade, elements of the 1st Infantry Brigade, and the separate Gori Tank Battalion, plus special forces and Ministry of the Internal Affairs troops – as many as 16,000 men, according to Moscow Defense Brief. International Institute for Strategic Studies and Western intelligence experts give a lower estimate, saying that the Georgians had amassed by 7 August about 12,000 troops near South Ossetian border and 75 tanks and armored personnel carriers near Gori.
According to the materials that were made available to Independent International Fact-Finding Mission by South Ossetian authorities, the South Ossetian military forces consisted primarily of light rifle battalions with seconded artillery units and obsolete Soviet-made armoured vehicles. The total strength of the republic's military and law enforcement personnel, including reserve units which took part in the combat, was less than 3,500.
According to Konstantin Makienko, Deputy Director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), the Georgian objective in the Battle of Tskhinvali was a rapid destruction of Ossetian armed forces and a lightning capture of Tskhinvali before the Russian army could have a chance to intervene. "It appears that during the night from 7 to 8 August. Tbilisi intended to deliver strikes on the positions of the Russian peacekeepers and the South Ossetian army in order to paralyze the chain of command. The next objective was to take Tskhinvali during 8 August, install a puppet government by Dmitry Sanakoyev and bring residents of Georgian enclaves in the republic onto the streets during pro-Georgia mass rallies."
At 23:35 on 7 August, Georgian artillery units began firing smoke bombs into South Ossetia. Soon afterwards, at 23.50 Georgia opened fire against fixed and moving targets of enemy forces. The interval was supposed to allow the civilian population to leave dangerous areas. The equipment used in the artillery and rocket barrage included 27 rocket launchers, 152-millimetre guns, as well as cluster munitions.
Early on the morning of 8 August, Georgia launched a ground attack to put an end to the South Ossetian fire, as well as operations on the left and right flanks of Tskhinvali. The left flank operation was undertaken by the 4th Infantry Brigade coming from Vaziani, while the 3rd Infantry Brigade from Kutaisi took to the right flank. The aim of the flank operations was to occupy important heights around Tskhinvali and then, moving further northwards, to take control of the strategically important Gupta bridge and the roads, including the Ossetian-controlled Dzara by-pass road, leading from the Roki tunnel to Tskhinvali. This was done in order to block Russian reinforcements from travelling through the tunnel to Tskhinvali. Georgians seized several strategic South Ossetian villages located on higher ground around the city.
The artillery of the 4th Brigade began to pound targets inside Khetagurovo at 00:40. The brigade's two light infantry battalions began to attack at 01:00 and quickly took the village of Muguti without a fight and then seizing the village of Khetagurovo after a battle with an inferior South Ossetian force. Another battalion took several Ossetian border villages of Znaur District to the west of the city without encountering resistance, while the several villages of Leningor District were occupied without a fight by squads of Georgian Interior Ministry commandos.
After several hours of bombardment, and after key heights around Tskhinvali were secured, Georgian forces began to advance towards the city. South Ossetian forces employed artillery, mortars, and rocket launchers against Georgian forces massed in the village of Zemo-Nikosi, but the bombardment was largely ineffective. South Ossetian sources claimed that a Georgian tank attack on the suburbs of the city was repelled by South Ossetian militia at 3:46 AM. At 4:00 AM, Georgian forces approaching Tskhinvali began engaging South Ossetian forces and militia. At first Georgian tanks shelled South Ossetian positions from a safe distance, without entering the city. At dawn Georgian special task-force units of Georgian Interior Ministry also attempted to take the village of Kvaysa, west of Tskhinvali, but were repelled by a platoon of South Ossetian troops manning fortified positions, losing several wounded. At 6:00 AM, the Georgian 3rd Brigade launched an offensive into the Eredvi region, east of Tskhinvali, seizing villages and strategic vantage points. They soon encountered resistance from a company-sized South Ossetian force, firing from fortified positions at the Prisi Heights.
After the heights surrounding Tskhinvali were secured, special forces of the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), equipped with Otokar Cobra armoured vehicles, moved into the city. Their assault was supported by artillery and tanks. Georgia says that the entry to Tskhinvali took place at 06:00 AM. The Russian peacekeepers' southern compound, manned by about 250 soldiers, lay in immediate vicinity of the entrance to the city. After Georgian troops approached the compound, an exchange of fire with Russian peacekeepers broke out. The Georgian Otokar Cobra vehicles opened fire at the base with heavy machine guns, and the Russians positioned three BMP-1 armored vehicles at the perimeter of the base. The Georgians then called in tank support, and three T-72s from the Independent Combined Tank Battalion soon arrived. At 6:30, the tanks opened fire. According to the Russian source, the first shell destroyed an observation post on the roof of the compound, killing a Russian peacekeeper and a South Ossetian observer. The tanks also shelled the three Russian BMP-1 vehicles stationed in front of the base, killing five of their crews: the soldiers from 135th Motorized Infantry Regiments. During the engagement, one of the Georgian tanks, which was damaged by an RPG-7 rocket, became trapped in an irrigation ditch near the compound and was abandoned by its crew. The other two tanks pulled back and continued shelling the compound from a distance, and were soon joined by artillery and mortars. By 08:00 AM on 8 August, Georgian infantry and tanks had entered Tskhinvali and engaged in a fierce battle with Ossetian militia and the Russian peacekeeping battalion stationed in the city. Georgian forces entered particular parts of the city, located Ossetian positions, and then pulled back and called in artillery and airstrikes on identified enemy positions. Georgian snipers fired on Ossetian military, and according to Ossetian sources, indiscriminately shot civilians.
According to Russian sources, Georgian troops had captured the Southern Base of the Russian peacekeepers by 11:00 AM and were attempting to take the northern peacekeeper base. Georgian forces then sent in armored units to smash resistance offered by Russian peacekeepers and Ossetian militia. The servicemen stationed at the northern base repelled five Georgian attacks and were continuing to engage overwhelming enemy forces. At this point, the peacekeepers allegedly suffered their first casualties: two servicemen killed and five wounded. Georgia maintains that it only targeted Russian peacekeepers in self-defence, after coming under fire from their bases. At 12:15 AM on 8 August, the commander of the Russian JPKF peacekeepers, Marat Kulakhmetov, reported to the OSCE monitors that his unit had come under fire and that they had casualties. According to a top Russian military commander, over 10 Russian peacekeepers were killed during fighting in Tskhinvali. The peacekeepers' cafeteria was completely destroyed and all of their buildings went up in flames.
Georgian shelling left parts of the capital city in ruins. Russsian TV showed damaged houses and apartment buildings in Tskhinvali. According to Ossetian sources, Georgian troops burned down the South Ossetian Presidential Palace, Ministry of Culture, and Parliament. A number of apartment block buildings were set ablaze, and the streets were pocketed with numerous bomb craters. A Guardian reporter claimed that while some neighborhoods were intact, "there were patches of terrible destruction". Russian authorities claimed that the civilian casualties in Tskhinvali may amount up to 2,000. These high casualty figures had been later revised down to 162 casualties as of 23 December 2008.
1,500 Georgian ground troops had reached the centre of Tskhinvali by 10 AM on 8 August, but were pushed back within two hours by Russian artillery and air attacks.
Arrival of Russian reinforcementsEdit
According to Western intelligence agencies, the involvement of Russian regular forces began at 07:30 on 8 August, when Russia launched an SS-21 short-range ballistic missile against military and government bunker positions in the city Borzhomi, southwest of Gori. The first Russian air attack was recorded two hours later, at around 09:30, on the village of Shavshvebi in the Gori District.
At 2:00 AM, the Russian Army intervened, when reinforced battalions from the 693rd and 135th Motorized Rifle Regiments began arriving in South Ossetia through the Roki Tunnel. They began securing positions on the road from the Roki Tunnel to Tskhinvali, so as to ensure the safe entry of additional Russian forces into the region.
The Security Council of South Ossetia appealed to Russia at around 11:00 on 8 August, requesting military help. On the morning of 8 August, the Russian government made a decision to conduct an operation to prevent Georgia from seizing the territory of South Ossetia. Russia claimed to have responded to an attack on the peacekeepers base and in defense of South Ossetian civilians against what they called "complete genocide". Starting at 2:06 PM, international press agencies began running reports of Russian tanks in the Roki Tunnel.
A captain in the 135th Regiment, Denis Sidristy, said in the interview published by Krasnaya Zvezda that his unit had been ordered to move to Tskhinvali on 7 August. According to a senior Russian official, General Uvarov, the first Russian combat unit, the First Battalion of the 135th Motorized Rifle Regiment, was ordered at around dawn of 8 August to move through the Roki Tunnel and reinforce forces in Tskhinvali. According to him, the unit did not pass through the tunnel until 2:30 PM. According to him, it reached Tskhinvali in the next evening, having met heavy resistance from Georgians. Georgia disputed the account, saying that it was in heavy combat with Russian forces near the tunnel long before dawn of 8 August. Some Western intelligence experts believe that Russian troops did not begin marching through the tunnel until roughly 11 AM on 8 August.
According to the Georgian account, the first Russian units crossed the tunnel at 5:30 on 8 August, passed through Java and proceeded to advance on Tskhinvali, using the Dzara road. The first motorcade of Russian tanks, armored vehicles and ammunition trucks reached Tskhinvali at 18:44 and opened fire on the Georgian forces in the city and surrounding heights. The second motorcade, which also came from Russia via the Roki tunnel, was stopped near the Georgian-controlled area of Dmenisi, 7 kilometers north of Tskhinvali, and the Russians commenced heavy fire on Georgian forces.
Air operations in South OssetiaEdit
Russian aircrafts started flying missions in the early hours of 8 August and targeted Georgian air defence installations in the Gori district. Units employed during the war included Su-24, Su-25, Su-27 and Su-29 models. Some sources have claimed that Russian air force, including Su-25, Su-24, Su-27 and Tu-22 models, managed to establish air superiority. However, according to CAST, Russia never gained air superiority in the South Ossetian theatre, as the Russian Air Force took early losses (3 Su-25s) to Georgian anti-aircraft fire, and was forced to stop making sorties for the rest of the battle. Citing eyewitness reports, CAST writes that "... there were no Russian aircraft over Tskhinvali on August 8 or the following day – that is. during the most critical period of the conflict. In effect, the Russian military command was forced to bring motor-rifle units into battle from the march, without first gaining superiority in numbers and firepower." Russian aviation only reappeared on 10 August. The Georgian troops had at least one battalion of relatively modern Buk-M1 self-propelled SAM systems, at least two battalions (a total of eight units) of Osa-AK self-propelled SAM systems and 6 to 10 of the upgraded Osa-AKM version. The Georgian army managed to deploy surprisingly strong, air defenses right in the conflict zone.
During the early stages of the battle, the loss of two Russian planes, Sukhoi Su-25 and Tupolev Tu-22, was admitted by Anatoliy Nogovitsyn of Russian General Staff. The fate of their pilots was unknown then. Reuters reported that one Russian pilot was probably taken prisoner. South Ossetia claimed that its soldiers shot down two Georgian planes.
The Russian Air Force made around 200 sorties during the war, including missions in Georgia proper. Due to the lack of widespread night-vision equipment, it mostly operated during daytime, while the Georgian Air Force was able to operate at night as well. Problems in suppressing enemy air defences (partly due to lack of training in this role), meant that the Russian air force was unable to provide direct support to its own troops. Even by 11 August, Russia had not completely achieved air dominance, and the Georgian aircraft were still attacking Russian troops and Tskhinvali, according to International Institute for Strategic Studies. Moscow Defense Brief strongly criticised the performance of the Russian Air Force, saying that there was a total absence of co-operation between the army and air force, and that of the total 6 Russian planes lost during the war, half were downed by friendly fire.
Georgian advance is stoppedEdit
By the afternoon of 8 August, Georgian forces had captured large parts of Tskhinvali, but had been unable to take the Northern quarter and the city centre. However, the Georgians were meeting heavy resistance from the opposite side, including from Russian air force and artillery. Around 1:00 AM South Ossetian reinforcements passed from Java on the Zara highway and entered Tskhinvali, carrying with them anti-tank weapons which proved successful in fighting Georgian armor. At around 2:00 PM, a Georgian T-72 tank with its entire crew was destroyed by General Barankevich. Several minutes later on the same street, the South Ossetian militia hit another two Georgian T-72 tanks. Almost simultaneously with the destruction of the three Georgian tanks, a pair of two Russian Su-25 aircraft raided the Georgian positions in the western outskirts of Tskhinvali, killing more than 20 Georgian soldiers. The Georgian battalion fled in panic and left behind its dead and much of the equipment, including at least three T-72 tanks.
Georgian flank operations were unsuccessful in their goal of blocking the Gupta Bridge and the main routes leading to Tskhinvali from the Roki Tunnel and Java base. A Georgian air attack against the Gupta bridge reportedly damaged it, but the bridge was quickly repaired. Georgian tanks units were engaged by Ossetian militia with rocket-propelled grenades and became bogged down on the streets of Tskhinvali, stopped increasingly un-coordinated attacks and eventually were burned, put out of action or deserted by their crews by the night time. Isolated from the main Georgian forces, the Georgian Army's battalion-strong Kchevi Tank Group attacked from a Georgian village enclave and hit Russian forces moving along the detour Zara highway in the flank, but was stopped by Russian artillery fire and airstrikes.
Ossetian military and civilian casualties mounted, and the operating room at Tskhinvali hospital was relocated to the basement. According to the hospital's head surgeon, Dr. Nikolai Zagoyev, a total of 700 operations were performed by candlelight. As blood supplies were low, many doctors donated their own blood before performing surgery. Priority was given to treating lightly injured Ossetian militiamen, so that they could rejoin the street fighting. The surgeon claimed that 25 of the staff became casualties.
Fighting between Georgian and Russian forcesEdit
Later on 8 August, according Moscow Defense Brief, three tactical battalion groups from the 135th, 503rd and 693rd Motorized Rifle Regiments of the 19th Motorized Rifle Division (based in Vladikavkaz) of the 58th Army of the North Caucasus Military District were deployed in battle formation to Java and Gufta and by the end of the day had pushed Georgian forces from the roads and heights around Dzari, Kverneti and Tbeti districts and as far as the western edge of Tskhinvali. During the evening of 8 August, vicious fighting reportedly took place in the area of Tskhinvali. Russia also undertook action to suppress Georgian artillery fire. Russian Air Force launched strikes on Georgia's logistical infrastructure. Russian special units reportedly prevented Georgian saboteurs from blowing up the Roki Tunnel, which could have hindered the Russian military operations, as the capacity of the other roads was not sufficient. Russian media reported that exchanges of fire between Russian and Georgian troops continued throughout the night.
Official military casualties, as reported on 8 August, were claimed to be 30 Georgians and Moscow claimed 21 Russian soldiers had lost their lives so far.
Experiencing growing resistance, the Georgian forces withdrew from the centre of Tshkinvali but still held their positions in the southern parts of the town. They were regrouped and reinforced by the 2nd Infantry Brigade from Senaki. Reportedly, the 4th Brigade reinforced the Ministry of Interior special forces in Tshkinvali, while positions and objectives of the 4th Brigade on the left flank were transferred to the 2nd Brigade.
The passage of Russian forces through the narrow Roki Tunnel and along the mountain roads was slow and the Russians had difficulties in concentrating their troops, forcing them to bring their forces into battle battalion by battalion. In the afternoon of 9 August, a fierce battle took place as the regrouped Georgian troops tried to regain their control of position in Tskhinvali. The Georgians were able to launch several attacks, including some with tanks. The assault was met with resistance and the Georgians suffered losses, forcing them to withdraw. Because of the gradual increase in troops, the amassed Russian forces in South Ossetia outnumbered the Georgians for the first time on 9 August. In total, the Russians moved between 5,500 and 10,000 troops to South Ossetia through the Roki Tunnel, according to Der Spiegel.
On 9 August, a convoy led by Russia's 58th Army commander Lieutenant General Anatoly Khrulyov moved into Tskhinvali from the Roki Tunnel and got ambushed by Georgian special troops aided by a number of reservists. General Khrulyov was wounded very early by shrapnel and unable to control the situation. A Russian major named Denis Vetchinov created a defense perimeter to evacuate the wounded. While the Georgians were tightening the ring, Vetchinov managed to keep them at distance and is credited with killing a Georgian special force officer with a trophy Georgian machine gun while being wounded severely in both legs. Later he got hit in the head and died en route to hospital. Vetchinov was awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation posthumously.
The remaining Russian units managed to break out of the encirclement carrying out their general and badly wounded Vetchinov. At around 5 AM on 9 August, according to a Russia Today timeline, a Russian unit broke through to the camp of the besieged peacekeepers and started evacuating the wounded.
Turning point and Georgian withdrawalEdit
The Georgian troops maintained the tactical initiative on the outskirts of Tskhinvali throughout 9 August and even during 10 August. By the morning of 10 August, the Georgians had captured almost the whole of Tskhinvali, forcing the Ossetian forces and Russian peacekeeping battalion to retreat to the northern reaches of the city. However, Moscow Defense Brief writes: ... on this very day the accumulation of Russian forces in the region finally bore fruit, and the fighting in South Ossetia reached a turning point. Toward the evening of 10 August, Tskhinvali was completely cleared of Georgian forces, which retreated to the south of the city. Georgian forces were also repelled from the key Prisi heights. The bulk of Georgia’s artillery was defeated. Meanwhile, Ossetian forces, with the support of Russian divisions, took Tamarasheni, Kekhvi, Kurta, and Achabeti on the approach to Tskhinvali from the north. Georgian forces in several of Georgian enclaves were eliminated. According to Russian sources, Georgian artillery continued shelling Tskhinvali. South Ossetian government representative claimed that Georgian troops opened the irrigation canal to flood basements and prevent civilians from seeking shelter.
By the end of 11 August South Ossetia was completely cleared of Georgian forces. During the withdrawal, the Georgian 4th Brigade was bombarded by Russian aircraft and the unit suffered heavy casualties. Georgian units continued to resist stubbornly in the area around the village of Zemo-Nikozi, repelling the Russian attack for a short time, but were soon defeated.
According to CAST, what stopped the Georgian advance in the end was not the Russian Air Force, but the resistance offered by peacekeepers and lightly armed, poorly organized South Ossetian units located in Tskhinvali. The Georgian troops failed to take Tskhinvali because they were not prepared psychologically for severe urban warfare.
The Georgian Defence Minister later acknowledged, that the Georgian military tried to push into Tskhinvali three times in all. During the last attempt, they got a very heavy Russian-led counterattack with massive air support which Georgian officials described as "something like hell." In total, the fighting in the Tskhinvali area lasted for three days and nights. An estimated 10,000–11,000 soldiers took part in the general Georgian offensive in South Ossetia.
The BBC reported that Georgia may have committed war crimes during its attack on Tskhinvali, including possible deliberate targeting of civilians.
Human Rights Watch reported that the Georgian forces used Grad rockets, self-propelled artillery, mortars, and howitzers during the attack. The South Ossetian parliament building along with several schools and nurseries were used as defence positions or operational posts by South Ossetian forces and volunteer militias. Georgian artillery fire targeted and hit these buildings. In many of the shelled villages, Ossetian militia positions were in close proximity to civilian houses. Georgia claimed that the attacks only intended to "neutralize firing positions from where Georgian positions were being targeted." HRW documented the witnesses stating that civilian objects were used by South Ossetian forces, thus rendering them legitimate military targets. HRW concluded that South Ossetian forces were responsible for endangering civilians by setting up defensive positions in close vicinity of or directly inside civilian structures. Georgia was also responsible for the indiscriminate nature of its attacks and insufficient focus on minimizing risk to civilians.
Tskhinvali Hospital's chief surgeon, interviewed by Human Rights Watch, spoke of 273 wounded, both military and civilians, and 44 dead bodies being brought to the hospital, supposedly the majority of people killed in the city. The hospital itself was damaged by a rocket and patients had to be moved into the basement during the fighting.
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