The Battle of Tskhinvali (Russian: Бои за Цхинвал, Georgian language: ცხინვალის ბრძოლა ) was a fight for the city of Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia. It was the only major battle in the 2008 South Ossetia 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 International peacekeeping force stationed in the city. Later that day, 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 goals
The cities of Tskhinvali and Gori are located in the valley of the Greater Liakhvi River, within about 32 km (20 mi) of each other. The Georgian military was based at Gori, to the south, while Tskhinvali was the primary objective of the Georgian forces. It was suggested by Civil Georgia, that the ultimate goal of the Georgian forces was to control the Roki Tunnel further north, which is the sole major land route from Russia to South Ossetia. Another strategically important target was the Didi 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 about 12,000 troops and 75 tanks on the South Ossetian border by 7 August. On the opposite side, there were said to be 1,000 Russian peacekeepers (under the mandate of Joint Control Commission for Georgian–Ossetian Conflict Resolution) and 500 South Ossetian fighters ready to defend Tskhinvali, according to an estimate quoted by Der Spiegel.
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. In anticipation of a Georgian operation to destroy the Roki tunnel, South Ossetia had deployed the bulk of its force to protect the tunnel and the town of Java in the north, which had left Tskhinvali sparsely defended.
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, Georgia opened fire against fixed and moving targets of enemy forces. The less than 10 minute interval was supposed to allow the civilian population to leave dangerous areas. At 23:45, OSCE monitors reported, that shells were falling on Tskhinvali every 15–20 seconds. The equipment used in the artillery and rocket barrage included 27 rocket launchers, such as BM-21 Grad units; 152-millimetre guns, as well as cluster munitions.
Operation Clear Field
Early on the morning of 8 August, Georgia launched a ground attack (codenamed Operation Clear Field) against Tskhinvali, as well as operations on the left and right flanks of the city. The left flank operation was undertaken by the 4th Infantry Brigade coming from Vaziane, 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 Didi 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.
After the heights surrounding Tskhinvali were occupied, 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, tanks and Su-25 ground attack planes. Georgia says that the entry to Tskhinvali took place at 06:00 am; according to South Ossetian sources, a tank attack by Georgian forces on the southern suburbs of Tshkinvali had already been repelled by South Ossetian forces at 03:46 am. By 08:00 am, Georgian infantry and tanks were engaged in a fierce battle with Ossetian forces and the Russian JPFK peacekeeping battalion stationed in the city. According to Georgian officials, 1,500 Georgian ground troops had reached the centre of Tskhinvali by 10:00 am, but were pushed back three hours later by Russian artillery and air attacks. An estimated 10,000–11,000 soldiers took part in the general Georgian offensive in South Ossetia.
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 the official Russian timeline, by 11 am Georgian forces had captured the southern base of the JPFK peacekeeping battalion, and were attempting to take the northern peacekeeper base. In order to break down the resistance of peacekeepers and South Ossetian forces, Georgia sent in armoured units. 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. In total, 10 Russian Peacekeeping force soldiers were killed during the war. The peacekeepers' cafeteria was completely destroyed and all of their buildings went up in flames.
Georgian advance is stopped
By the afternoon of 8 August, the Georgian military had reportedly taken control of large parts of Tskhinvali, the only exceptions being the northern quarters and the centre of the city. However, the Georgian forces were now meeting heavy resistance from Ossetian militia as well as Russian soldiers that were being reinforced via the Roki tunnel. During 8 August the Russian air force mounted attacks on the advancing Georgian infantry as well as on the Georgian artillery, but stopped making sorties for the remainder of the battle, after taking early losses from anti-aircraft fire. The Georgian flank operations were not successful in achieving their main goal of blocking the Gupta bridge and the main routes leading to Tshkinvali from the Roki tunnel and the Java base. The Georgians became bogged down and their advance was stopped. Ossetian snipers managed to kill a Georgian special forces member and later that day a Russian precision air strike killed 20 Georgian soldiers, bringing the fatal casualties of the Georgian Armed Forces to a total of 41 at that time.
Arrival of Russian reinforcements
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.
The Security Council of South Ossetia appealed to Russia at around 11:00 on 8 August, requesting military help. Soon after this, the Russian government made a decision to conduct an operation to prevent Georgia from seizing the territory of South Ossetia.
The first Russian combat unit—a battalion of the 135th Motorized Rifle Regiment—passed through the Roki Tunnel at 14:30 on 8 August, 14 hours after the Georgians had begun their assault on Tskhinvali, according to a senior Russian official. The unit was said to have reached Tskhinvali on the evening of 8 August, meeting fierce resistance from Georgian forces. Georgia disputes the account, saying, that it was in heavy combat with Russian forces near the tunnel long before dawn on 8 August. According to the Georgian account the first Russian units crossed the tunnel at 5:40 on 8 August, passed through Java and proceeded to advance on Tskhinvali, using the Dzari bypass 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 Ossetia
Russian aircraft—including Su-24, Su-25, Su-27 and Tu-22M models—started flying missions over South Ossetia in the early hours of 8 August. Targets inside Georgia proper were also bombed. Some sources have claimed that Russia 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 8 August 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.
The Russian Air Force made a total of 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.
Fighting between Georgian and Russian forces
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 cleared the roads and heights around Dzari, Kverneti and Tbeti districts and as far as the western edge of Tskhinvali. In total, the Russians moved between 5,500 and 10,000 troops to South Ossetia through the Roki Tunnel, according to Der Spiegel.
During the evening of 8 August, vicious fighting was going on in the area of Tskhinvali and in South Ossetia. Russia undertook action to suppress the Georgian artillery and the 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 sending of reinforcements to South Ossetia. Official military casualties, as reported on 8 August, were claimed to be 30 Georgians including 20 which were killed by airstrikes and 21 Russian soldiers 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. 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.
At 3 a.m. 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. Only 5 of the original 30 vehicles strong mechanized battalion were initially reported to had survived the attack. 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. Eyewitness accounts from the journalists who moved with the column state that Khrulyov was constantly trying to call for reinforcements shouting into the radio that his entire unit was about to be wiped out. While the Georgians were tightening the ring, Vetchinov managed to keep them at distance and is credited with killing a Georgian soldier while being wounded severely in both legs. When trying to change position he got hit in the head and died of his wounds afterwards. The remaining Russian units managed to break out of the encirclement carrying out their general and badly wounded Vetchinov. The Georgian forces eventually ran out of ammunition and abandoned the area expecting a Russian counter-attack. At 5 a.m. 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 withdrawal
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, as the Russian intervention advanced and Russia's forces gained superiority on the ground, signs of moral collapse appeared among the Georgian troops in the afternoon, as Russian air sorties continued. 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 Achabeti, Kekhvi, Kurta and Tamarasheni on the approach to Tskhinvali from the north. Georgian forces in several of Georgian enclaves were pushed out. During the withdrawal, the Georgian 4th Brigade was bombarded by Russian aircraft and the unit suffered heavy casualties. Only in the area around the village of Zemo-Nikosi did Georgian units stubbornly resist, repelling several large Russian attacks for a short time, but were soon defeated. Nevertheless, Georgian units and artillery continued to shell Tskhinvali from a number of high points. By the end of 11 August South Ossetia was completely cleared of Georgian forces, and Russian units moved into Georgia proper by the next morning.
According to a CAST claims, the Georgian troops maintained the tactical initiative on the outskirts of Tskhinvali throughout 9 August and even during 10 August. "What thwarted the Georgian operation in the end was not the Russian Air Force, but the resistance offered by peacekeepers and lightly armed, poorly organized South Ossetian units that stayed behind to defend the capital... Essentially, the Georgian troops failed to take Tskhinvali because they were not prepared psychologically for severe urban fighting."
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.
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. Due to hot weather and the ongoing fighting many Tskhinvali civilians were buried by relatives or neighbours in the backyards of houses. Therefore, the total number of civilian casualties is hard to identify.
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