The Capture of Sukhum – Part IV

Dear Readers:

Today we continue working our way through this piece by Russian journalist Alexander Rostovtsev.  Where we left off yesterday, the August 1992 war between Gruzia and Abkhazia was in full swing, with the former side employing aviation and heavy artillery (bequeathed to them by the Soviet Army); and the latter armed with hunting rifles, Third World type rocket launchers, and captured trophey artillery.

Mercenaries of anti-Russian forces, for example, the Ukrainian Banderite army UNA-UNSO, were flooding in to help the Gruzians against the Abkhazians.  In turn, volunteers from Russia and Transnistria arrived to help the Abkhazian side.

Gruzian soldiers arrest Lenin.

Thus, right from the very beginning, this conflict, as all the conflicts in the post-Soviet space, quickly became a proxy war between West and East.   NATO vs Russia, in essence.

An interesting technical sidebar for aviation enthusiasts:  Lacking a real air force, the Abkhazians nonetheless patched together three motorized “Delta planes”, I think they are called “hang gliders” in English.

The resourceful Abkhazians re-tooled the gliders with special containers to hold 30- and 50-kg bombs, which they proceeded to drop on concentrations of Gruzian artillery, as they flew overhead.

Peacemaking Attempts

On 3 September 1992 Russian Dictator Boris Yeltsin  (not even sure, but I think his official title at the time was “Prime Minister”) met in Moscow with Eduard Shevardnadze to try to work out a cease-fire agreement for the Caucasian conflict.  At the time Shevardnadze was in the very interesting and paradoxical position of being simultaneously President of the Russian Federation and Speaker of the Parliament of Gruzia.  Sitting on two stools, as the Russians say.

Peering into the future, just a few years later, Shevardnadze was later to replace Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a man whom he himself (=Shev) had once imprisoned, as President of Gruzia.  Shevardnadze swapped out from serving in Heaven (=post of national leader in the Soviet Union and in Russia) to ruling in Hell (=Prez of Gruzia).  But eventually he himself, two terms later, was deposed by his own rival, Mikheil Saakashvili.  But that is all in the murky and sometimes bloody future of Caucasian politics, and we must return to the events of 1992.

Sukhum is the capital of Abkhazia.

Yeltsin and Shevardnadze attempted in good faith to hammer out the type of agreement which has become all too common in the troubled post-Soviet world:  cessation of fire, removal of Gruzian troops from Abkhazian soil, return of refugees to their homes.  Unfortunately, neither side on the ground would stick to even one point of this agreement, and the conflict continued on full steam.

The Role of Russian Peacekeepers

Rostovtsev turns to the role of the Russian army in all of this.  During the whole 413 days that this war lasted, there was a contingent of Russian peacekeeping troops stationed in the Abkhaz Autonomy.  Their job, as in Transnistria, was to guard Russian assets and property — mainly an armory and a sanatorium belonging to the Moscow Garrision.  The troops were not authorized to engage in combat and were supposed to maintain a purely neutral and defensive posture.  The Gruzian troops on multiple occasions tried to shoot up these Russian objects but were cunning in their treachery, always lying and trying to point the finger at Abkhazian militias.  On 24 November 1992, during one of these routine Gruzian shellings, a Russian officer was killed and several other soldiers wounded.  After which, the Russian Defense Minister (Rostovtsev doesn’t name him, but I think that would have been Pavel Grachev) gave the order to return fire.

Russian air base in Gudauta

Russian airmen needed no urging:  A pair of SU-25’s flew out of the Russian airbase in Gudauta, accompanied by a couple of SU-27’s as cover.  Avenging their fallen comrades, the Russian fighter jets struck at Gruzian positions, taking out some “Grad” heavy artillery just to the North of Sukhum.  After this incident, a few months more of grinding war continued.

Rostovtsev expresses his personal feelings, which paragraphs I translate in full:

Вообще, грузины во время войны вели себя очень грязно, и даже не верилось, что ещё год назад с этими людьми мы жили в едином государстве и нас связывали столетия дружбы, страшная война против общего врага и бесчисленные культурные связи.
Грузинские вертолёты намеренно обстреливали катер «Комета» с беженцами, уходящими в Крым, из ПЗРК несколько раз сбивали российские самолёты с гуманитарными грузами, ранеными и беженцами. Грузинские боевики при удобном случае брали в заложники российских военных, обвиняя их в шпионаже. При регулярном завывании официальных лиц и СМИ Грузии о нападении России на грузинские войска.

TRANSLATION:
Generally speaking, the Gruzians during this time of war conducted themselves atrociously, and it was really hard to believe, that just one year before this, we [Russians] had lived side by side with these people in a single country; or that we were tied together by centuries of friendship, a terrible war against a common enemy [=WWII], and cultural ties too numerous to count.
Gruzian helicopters deliberately shot up the cutter “Kometa” filled with refugees fleeing to Crimea; several times used shoulder-held anti-air to shoot down Russian planes carrying humanitarian supplies, also carrying wounded soldiers and refugees.  Gruzian soldiers would take any opportunity to capture Russian soldiers as hostages, accusing them of being spies.  All the time their officials whining in the Gruzian media about Russia supposedly attacking Gruzian troops.
END OF TRANSLATION

By the end of 1992 the war had become “positional”, i.e., a type of trench warfare in which neither side could advance even one inch.  On 15 December 1992 the two sides signed still more truce agreements, and there were at least a few weeks of relative quiet.  However, at the start of 1993 fighting resumed when the Abkhazian side took the momentum and advanced on the city of Sukhum.  Sukhum was and still is the capital of Abkhazia.  Since the beginning of the war it had been in the hands of the Gruzian army.  The Gruzians call this town “Sukhumi“, and here is a helpful hint for those who are new to Caucasian politics:  If you see a source which spells the Abkhazian capital as “Sukhumi” and the South Ossetian capital as “Tskhinvali“, then these sources mostly likely root for Team Gruzia.  If, on the other hand, you see the spellings “Sukhum” and “Tskhinval“, without that final vowel, then this source most likely roots for Team Russia.

The first Abkhazian attempt to re-take Sukhum, on 5 January 1993, was repelled.  The second attempt to storm Sukhum, 16-18 March, ended in the worst and bloodiest defeat of the Abkhazian army  Losses included over 300 dead, mostly troops from the Armenian contingent.

[to be continued]

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