Who started the Russia-Georgia war?
Ask residents of this now battered Soviet-era provincial capital, you'll hear only one answer: Georgia.
Just hours after announcing a unilateral cease-fire on Aug. 7, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered a massive artillery and armored assault aimed at restoring rebellious South Ossetia to Georgian rule.
"Thank God the Russians came in time," says Elena Khublova, who says she survived by hiding in a basement. "The Georgians were killing anybody who came into the street."
But new details contradict that version of events, according to a Russian investigative journalist. At the United Nations last week, Mr. Saakashvili also laid out a starkly different narrative, and pleaded for an impartial international investigation to gain "a clearer understanding of how this war started, and who started it."
Finding the answer is not merely an academic or historical exercise. Russian observers say the answer is critical to current global perceptions of a resurgent Russia. Is it a rational – if increasingly assertive – regional power protecting its flanks? Or is it reviving the international ambitions and military expansionism of the former USSR?
Much is also at stake for Saakashvili, who argued at the UN that "Georgia was attacked because it is a successful democracy," and who is asking the West to back his tiny Caucasus nation's drive to join NATO.
"In Georgian society, as well as around the world, exactly how the war started is the biggest question mark," says Archil Gegeshidze, an expert with the independent Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. "We want to know whether this crisis was avoidable or not."
Was Georgia the aggressor?
The Kremlin insists that it intervened only to blunt the Georgian offensive and save South Ossetia's Russian-passport-carrying population under 1992 accords that designate Russia as the peacekeeper in the region. Most of the world accepts key elements of the Russian version, and very few contradict it.
South Ossetia, a Rhode Island-sized territory of about 70,000 people, declared independence from Georgia as the USSR was collapsing.
It defeated Georgian forces in 1992, and survived until last summer as a Russian protectorate with no chances of being recognized as an independent country, even by Moscow. Though the territory is Georgian under international law, Russian experts argue that Georgia's second attempt to seize it by force invalidate Tbilisi's claim.
"Russia had been actively preparing for Georgian aggression for the past six months, because our intelligence services warned us that Saakashvili was preparing an attack" on South Ossetia or Abkhazia, says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Russian State Duma's international affairs committee. Mr. Klimov has compiled a detailed timeline of events leading up to the war, that shows the Russian 58th Army entering South Ossetia on the afternoon of Aug. 8, nearly 20 hours after massed Georgian armor and artillery began bombarding Tskhinvali.
Or had Russia started invading first?
"When it happened, we were not as ready as we should have been, and Saakashvili had time to destroy Tskhinvali," Klimov says.
But Saakashvili's version, backed by at least one dissenting Russian military expert, is that he flung his forces into South Ossetia in an attempt to head off a significant Russian invasion already in progress.
Saakashvili has repeatedly insisted that Georgian intelligence identified huge numbers of Russian tanks and troops inside South Ossetia on Aug. 7, before Georgian forces assaulted Tskhinvali.
Top US officials told him that they are unable to verify this, he explained in a televised statement recently, because "their satellites were directed mainly on Iraq ... and it was impossible to see what was happening on the ground [in Georgia] because it was cloudy."
Georgian officials argue that Russia has been preparing a military strike since the Saakashvili-led "Rose Revolution" five years ago put the little country on a path to join NATO; Georgia declared itself a key US ally in the energy-rich Caspian region.
That case is broadly supported by US officials, but unexpected details have been provided by a Russian investigative journalist, Pavel Felgenhauer, military correspondent of the independent Moscow weekly Novaya Gazeta.
Citing military sources, Mr. Felgenhauer says, "The decision to make war against Georgia in August was finalized by Russia's General Staff in April," and Russia began preparing for an invasion.
The Russian Army inserted special troops into Abkhazia to repair the railroad lines, and in late July, the Vladikavkaz-based 58th Army began staging war games near the border with South Ossetia. "Those exercises were actually the final deployment of troops for the invasion," which began a week later, he says.
Russian officials say the Army exercises were routine, and that any longer-term preparations were due to an awareness that Georgian forces – who were also holding war games in July – were possibly preparing an attack.
"Those exercises take place two or three times a year," says Stanislav Kesayev, vice speaker of the Russian republic of North Ossetia's parliament. "It was well known that Saakashvili, who was desperate to show Georgia's readiness to join NATO, was getting ready to do something reckless," he adds.
Georgian experts say Russia's South Ossetian allies began a campaign of "provocations," including shelling Georgian villages and attacking Georgian police, in the days before the war began. "It was clearly Russia that wanted the war, and it made every effort to entrap Georgia through provocations," says Mr. Gegashidze.
However, most of the incidents cited by Georgian experts are matched by alleged "Georgian provocations," including assassinations and kidnappings of South Ossetian officials, detailed in Klimov's timeline.
Evacuations before the assault
South Ossetian officials admit that they evacuated much of their own civilian population from Tskhinvali in the days before the war began. Despite Russian claims of "genocide" by Georgian forces, human rights organizations have subsequently been able to document no more than 137 dead South Ossetians, most of whom appear to have been combatants.
"The war may have surprised the world, but we all knew it was coming," says Stanislav Dzheioyev, a South Ossetian official. "We could see the Georgian Army on the move, so we got our families out of Tskhinvali."
An investigation by the independent Russian human rights movement, Memorial, released last week suggests that the same thing happened in South Ossetia's Georgian-populated villages in the days preceding hostilities. "The villagers had all been warned by the pro-Georgian leaders to leave, and promised a swift return after it was all over," says Alexander Cherkasov, a Memorial activist.
Last week, standing near the fire-blackened shell remains of the huge, colonnaded parliament building that dominates Tskhinvali's central square, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity said the world can debate these questions as much as it likes, but he's only interested in rebuilding.
"We tried to achieve independence peacefully, but our neighbor didn't want it," he says. "Now we have won it, and it's something that's worth living and working for."
• Tomorrow: Will North and South Ossetia be unified?