Russia and Georgia marked the one-year anniversary of the South Ossetia War on Friday with somber ceremonies in Georgia, and defiant statements from the Kremlin. Georgian officials organised midnight bonfires in towns across the former Soviet republic, and church bells rang in memorial of victims of the August 2008 conflict.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili led top members of the government in a public of minute of silence in remembrance of war dead, and later laid a wreath at Georgia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The raising of the Georgian flag on a hilltop overlooking the Georgian town Gori with Saakashvili, his entourage, and hundreds of Gori residents looking on, highlighted of Friday’s memorial events.
Georgia’s military and police together lost 201 killed and 1,995 wounded or missing, according to official Tbilisi estimates. An estimated 200 Georgian civilians were killed and more than 30,00 made homeless in the 11-day conflict.
Many of the war refugees fled from Gori after Russian air raids. South Ossetian militia accompanying Russian regular army forces looted the city.
Russian forces suffered 64 dead and 283 wounded in the fighting, ending after Russian tank columns had occupied roughly one-third of Georgia’s territory, and Georgia’s NATO-trained military was routed.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in an interview aired Friday by Russian state television called the war leading to an overwhelming Russian defeat of Georgia “a difficult decision … that we dealt with in a proper way.”
The war started after Saakashvili sent troops backed by heavy artillery into the renegade Georgian province South Ossetia, a mountainous Moscow-backed region with Russian “peacekeepers” based in its territory.
Russian paratrooper infantry held firm for more than 48 hours under a Georgian rocket and howitzer bombardment, gaining time for Russian armored columns to invade Georgia from the north, and Russian marines to land on Georgia’s Black Sea coast and drive into the Georgian interior.
Russian forces captured hundreds of Georgian vehicles and the bulk of Georgia’s navy. Much of the Georgian military hardware was taken intact, abandoned by fleeing Georgian troops.
Medevedev in the television interview rejected US and NATO claims the Russian response to Saakashvili’s attempted armed grab of South Ossetia was disproportionate, saying in part “Russia took hard steps resulting in the saving of hundreds, perhaps thousands of human lives, and re-establishing peace in the Caucasus.”
Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovystyn, overall commander of Russian forces during the war, in comments to the Interfax news agency argued Russian operations during the war actually were restrained, noting: “Had we set ourselves the goal of capturing Tbilisi we could have done it easily … But all of our operations were aimed at forcing Georgia to accept peace.”