Gear for Tbilisi

I’ve been stewing on my Lara Marlowe post for some days. While I lack any of her experience in the field, and don’t intend filing copy in any way similar to her own, I do find myself asking how I would do things differently. And if I am to do things differently, I have to put up or shut up. My date for departure looks to be around September 20.

Provisionally, the equipment I will bring with me to Georgia will be the following:

My Canon 20D. Still learning the intricacies, and with a standard lens for now. Battery grip and two batteries. 2 x 1GB compact flash and 1 x 4GB.

An EeePC 901. Relatively solid, portable. 1 x 8GB SDHC card for portable storage. I will probably bring this instead of my MacBook Pro.

A Flip Ultra. Will be testing it shortly, so this would be a make-it-up-as-you-go-along effort. But could prove invaluable, it is compact, durable and solid-state. The Mino would be nicer but I haven’t seen it around.

What other gear should I bring, if any?

Update: Michael Totten recommends an Olympus voice recorder. I might get one in duty free.

Bias and a trip to Georgia

I have been accused of being biased in favour of Georgia in prior posts. I guess I should explain.

Since the conflict I have been watching just as much CNN and Sky News as I have been Russia Today. The coverage of Russia Today has been astounding. I can’t recall watching such bile, it could even compete with Fox News for sheer blatant propaganda. Indeed one British Russia Today journalist resigned as a result of an editorial decision not to let him talk about the Russian bombardment of Gori.

But it is not so much that I am biased in favour of Georgia, it is that I question the claims of Russia. In order for 2,000 civilians to be killed in Tshinvali, there would have to be several times that figure injured. Not even the pictures from Russia Today show that level of injury (and I’m sure if there were, they would). Recent reports from media outlets and Human Rights Watch back up the claim that far, far less than 2,000 people were killed in any bombardment of Tshinvali. Perhaps just 5% of that figure.

So too is Russia using Ossetia as a casus belli in Abkazia, and further movements into Georgia proper, including the destruction of Georgian civilian infrastructure which goes far beyond Russia’s stated aims of reducing Georgian military abilities.

But I realise that from Ireland it is not entirely easy to ascertain the facts of the situation. Depending on the security situation in Georgia, I plan on going to Tbilisi in mid-September. Perhaps I can get a better idea of what happened or what is happening.

I plan to start from the Georgian side simply because it is easier in terms of access and visas, and I have contacts in the city who can provide accommodation and translation. If I can gain access to the Russian side, I will. And again it depends on the security situation.

Any trip will also include travel away from Tbilisi, specifically to Telavi in the north-east of the country, where relatives of friends reside. This region has been relatively unaffected by the conflict.

I won’t decide on any travel to the more volatile regions, such as Gori, until I am in the country. And if readers are concerned that I am being somewhat rash, please don’t be. I had planned on visiting Georgia last year but had to postpone it. Things look like they have settled down sufficiently to allow safe travel to a degree I find acceptable.

Who started it?

It seems to be this has been the biggest question of the war. In general, Western media have attributed blame to Saakashvili for starting an assault on Tshinvali. They then conclude that this was a massive miscalculation on his part. But we have no evidence either way of who fired first, or whether Georgia was essentially provoked.

In this week’s edition, The Economist makes a stab at trying to say who did start it.

In early August Georgian and South Ossetian separatists exchanged fire and explosive attacks. South Ossetia blew up a truck carrying Georgian policemen and attacked Georgian villages; Georgia fired back at the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali. On August 7th Georgian and South Ossetian officials were due to have direct talks facilitated by a Russian diplomat. But according to Temur Iakobashvili, a Georgian minister, the Russian diplomat never turned up.

What happened next is less clear. Russia claims that Mr Saakashvili treacherously broke a unilateral ceasefire he had just announced, ordering a massive offensive on Tskhinvali, ethnically cleansing South Ossetian villages and killing as many as 2,000 people. According to the Georgians, the ceasefire was broken from the South Ossetian side. However, what triggered the Georgian response, says Mr Saakashvili, was the movement of Russian troops through the Roki tunnel that connects South Ossetia to Russia. Matthew Bryza, an official at the State Department, says he was woken at 2am on August 7th to be told that the Georgians were lifting the ceasefire. “I tried to persuade them not to do it,” he says.

That same night, Georgia started to shell and invade Tskhinvali. Then the Russian army moved in—the same troops that had taken part in the military exercise a month earlier. The picture Russia presented to the world seemed clear: Georgia was a reckless and dangerous aggressor and Russia had an obligation, as a peacekeeper in the region, to protect the victims.

Russia’s response was predictable. One thing which almost all observers agree on is that Mr Saakashvili made a catastrophic mistake by walking into the Russian trap. As Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, puts it: “When you have a choice between doing nothing and doing a stupid thing, it is better to do nothing.” But Mr Saakashvili, a compulsive risk-taker, did the second. Even now he is defiant: if the clock were turned back, he says his response would be the same. “Any Georgian government that would have done differently would have fallen immediately,” he says.

Bush's push

As confusion reigns about what exactly the Russians are doing in Georgia, the situation no longer looks as stable at it did yesterday. So Bush has taken the first option I indicated, “he could escalate the stakes by sending a US fleet to the Eastern Mediterranean or the Black Sea”.

President Bush also said U.S. Defense Robert Gates will oversee a “vigorous and ongoing” humanitarian mission to Georgia involving aircraft and Naval forces. It was not immediately clear when the mission will begin.

Of course this is being done under the guise, only perhaps partially true, that it is for humanitarian reasons ships are being sent to the region. The message to Russia though is clear, whether the US navy and air force are in the region for humanitarian reasons or not is irrelevant. The fact is, they will be in the region.

It sends a clear message of American interest and capability, without increasing tensions to any huge degree. The US Navy were probably already given orders to sail to the region, and will likely get there soon, most likely a task force from the Sixth Fleet. But we will have to wait and see what form any military deployment takes.

On the move?

There are a huge amount of conflicting reports about what exactly Russian troops are doing in Georgia. AP is reporting that “Troops waved at journalists and one soldier jokingly shouted to a photographer: “Come with us, beauty, we’re going to Tbilisi!”

Georgian and Russian officials appear to be denying it is a move towards Tbilisi. At last report, Russian troops were 12 miles from the capital.

If the EU is sending in troops peacekeepers, then it would want to do so soon.

Marlowe in Georgia

I have been reading and indeed listening with interest to Lara Marlowe’s exploits in Georgia. The telephone interview with her is up on the Irish Times website.

The IT has recently gone down this route of interviewing their own journalists in various locations. It certainly adds value. But could she be doing more?

I’d like her to take some photos of her own, perhaps of the people she interviewed, and put them up on Flickr, or the IT website. Afterall, there is no shortage of space there like this is in a newspaper. A point and shoot would have done, a DSLR would have been preferred.

I’d like if she had a Flip Ultra with her, filmed the Hind helicopters flying overhead and hitting pylons, and then uploaded it to her YouTube account. That could have been embedded on the IT website, or indeed anywhere. It would have gone well with her written account. As would plain raw unedited footage of what she saw, including conversations with people. A podcast would have been nice too.

For now though, it seems we will be treated to the plain old text version, with radio-style interviews.

Is it asking too much? Too much equipment to lug around? I’m not sure. Flip Ultra, a Canon 20/40/400D, an EeePC (back at base either) and perhaps a good quality dictaphone. Internet access back in Tbilisi. A few spare CF cards and batteries.

Is that I am a news junkie that I would like all the other stuff, or would the general interest reader like it also? I wonder does Marlowe know about all this stuff, but prefer to stay traditional?

What does the US do now?

Bush said:

Russia’s government must respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The Russian government must reverse the course it appears to be on, and accept this peace agreement as a first step toward resolving this conflict.

Russia’s actions this week have raised serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region. These actions have substantially damaged Russia’s standing in the world. And these actions jeopardize Russians’ relations — Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe. It is time for Russia to be true to its word and to act to end this crisis.

Of course the question everyone is asking is: “Or what?”. If Russia does not do this, what can the US do about it?

Bush would not have said this if there were not plans in the works to follow up. Plans usually involve some sort of sanction or escalation. Bush can’t say these things to Russia without having actions ready to follow. So if Russia ignores US protests, what action could follow?

I guess there would be two strands to US action. The first would be public, the second would be private.

In public, Bush has a number of options. He could escalate the stakes by sending a US fleet to the Eastern Mediterranean or the Black Sea. He could send air assets to Turkish airbases, in a public/media driven demonstration of capabilities. He could publicly supply Georgia with equipment. He could seek support from regional allies in terms of military assets. He could send a submarine or two into the eastern Black Sea, surfacing purposely in sight of Russian ships. He could seek to impose economic sanctions beyond the remit of the UN.

In private, though perhaps with or without the knowledge of the Russians, he could arm Georgia with more advanced weaponry. This would take the form of anti-tank missiles like the Javelin or manpad systems like the Stinger. This option is perhaps less than likely.

But Bush cannot make statements like he did last night if there are not already plans in progress to back up his demands. This will all be moot if the Russians comply with those demands.

By Friday we will know if this was a week long skirmish, or if it will turn into a multi-year conflict.

Update: It now appears this may be moot, given Russian pronouncements.

Bush's statement

Reading between the lines this statement is has a number of consequences. My reading of what he said is this: Threatening, bombing or taking Tbilisi International Airport (giving away some American, likely satellite, intelligence) is a Rubicon moment. If Russian forces act against the airport, it will be taken as crossing the Rubicon. Bush made no mention of likely consequences, and why should he?… it would be giving away his hand.

The message to Putin was clear: Withdraw, do not attack the airport, do not overthrow the Georgian government. Accept the EU-brokered ceasefire. Leaving the consequences of Russian rejection to the imagination is an entirely natural response.

And it rolls on

The latest reports indicate that Russian forces have captured the Georgian airbase at Senaki, in Georgia proper. We have to ask why Russia is now pushing on, and what its strategy may be. We also have to question the media’s rather curious comparisons between Russia’s conventional military power, and that of Georgia.

Let’s take the second question first. The media have been making wildly odd comparisons between Russia’s military and that of Georgia. It is hardly valid to compare the two. We knew before the conflict began that Russia has one of the largest militaries in the world, and has recently been undergoing something of a revival under Putin. Georgia’s conventional forces are no match, and never were.

But even a cursory look at the CIA factbook page would tell an alternative story. The Russians face serious problems if they attempt to prolong the conflict. First is the Caucuses mountains themselves, second is the Georgian winter, third is the simple fact of almost 1,200,000 Georgian men between the ages of 16-49 who can fight. Even reducing this figure to men who have received the compulsory 18 months military service would still leave several hundred thousand men, fighting with the simple motive of defending their homeland. There is also the fact that Georgian households invariably have one or two assault weapons each, in what is by Western European standards a rather militarised society. If worse comes to worse, these are men willing to fight, who know the territory and how to use it. A guerilla war would be easily fought by Georgia, and prove hugely taxing on Russian forces in the region. As StragetyPage notes:

Until a few years ago the “reserves” constituted the entire body of conscripts discharged over the past 15 years. But this pool, of about 250,000 men, was just that, a pool. The “reservists” were not subject to periodic refresher training, and so no more than perhaps 10 percent of them could be considered useful in the event of activation. Beginning four years ago, Georgia instituted a more rigorous reserve training program. An active reserve has been created, which apparently numbers over 10,000 men, and is expected to grow to as many as 100,000 over the next few years, as conscripts (drafted at 18 to 18-24 months) leave active service, and enter 5-10 years of reserve duty.

While Georgia doesn’t have the money for modern equipment (it’s stuff is mostly Russian Cold War vintage), it does have enough professional soldiers from the old Red Army, and a military tradition going back centuries. Much to the discomfort of Russia, the United States has been supplying Georgia with military trainers and some equipment. Partly, this is in response to Georgian help in Iraq. Georgia first sent 800 peacekeepers to Iraq, and began increasing that force. Currently there are 2,000 Georgian troops in Iraq, where they obtain useful operational experience.

That apart, Russia is asking for trouble if it continues on its current path. There is a reason the Russian Empire could never control Georgia, and a reason the Russian language is not the first one. Geography is one of the main reasons, the Georgian people are another.

So what is Russia doing? Demonstrating its new found military strength. Taking no shit from Georgia. Ignoring the international community. Using the language of its US: “We bombed Gori because the Georgian forces were using civilian infrastructure as cover to launch attacks on us.”, “Our peace enforcement mission is seeking to protect Ossetians…”. And this is how it is played to the Russian population. No doubt many Russians are delighted at this new found military projection of power.

But will Russia escalate it to a point, and then wait and see, or will it push on? It’s hard to say. To me it seems they have achieved whatever objectives they set out to attain, and any further push into Georgia would be counter productive.

Read: Zbigniew Brzezinski’s interview in HuffPo.

Civil Georgia has been under cyber attack, it has now moved to blogspot.

Charlie Whitaker has a similar roundup to myself.

Steve has good links and analysis here and here.

Oh and have a look through my Caucasian Politics archive, I have posts on Ossetia and Abkhazia going back four years.

Russia-Georgia is a Georgian blog about the conflict.