Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - THE RUSSIAN ROLE BEFORE THE CONFLICT

Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - THE RUSSIAN ROLE BEFORE THE CONFLICT

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Like nearly every other aspect of Russian action in the Caucasus, Russian involvement in Abkhazia prior to the outbreak of war was fluid, ambiguous, contradictory, and appeared to represent the interaction, sometimes collusion and sometimes collision of several different political and military interests, rather than any single coherent policy.[33] Some trends can be discerned, at least with respect to the supply of weapons and security assistance.

Weapons supplies to the parties

The Georgian forces inherited a certain amount of former Soviet equipment from military bases on Georgian territory, commanded by the Transcaucasus Military District headquarters, originally of the Soviet Union and subsequently of the Russian Federation, in Tbilisi.[34] Some of this equipment was gained by local raids on supply depots by irregular Georgian paramilitary forces, but the transfer of the bulk of the military equipment took place under bilateral agreements between Russia and Georgia pursuant to the breakup of the USSR.[35] It is apparently this equipment that has largely sustained Georgian forces during the course of the Abkhaz conflict. It included such major weapons systems as main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, heavy artillery and heavy mortars.[36] These transfers have not been secretive, and the general types of weapons transferred have been acknowledged by the parties.

Abkhaz weapons sources prior to the conflict are harder to identify, although there is little doubt that whatever weapons there were came from Russian or Soviet sources. But this fact does not address the more important question, viz., what Russian sources supplied the weapons, and at what level of command? Several sources indicated to Human Rights Watch that, in their view, Abkhaz forces prior to the outbreak of hostilities had relatively few weapons except for small arms, and especially few, if any, heavy weapons, such as heavy artillery, that later came to play a prominent role in the fighting.[37] Methods of fighting by the Abkhaz forces upon the immediate outbreak of hostilities appear to bear out this claim for initially few, if any, heavy weapons.


The thirteen Georgian hostages held by Gamsakhurdia forces in an Abkhaz village served as the declared reason for the movement of Kitovani's National Guard units into Abkhazia. Ten of these men were freed by August 14, 1992 under Georgian military pressure. The remaining three were freed on August 19.[38]


Georgian National Guard forces, estimated to be around a thousand troops, continued on from the villages of the Gali region of Abkhazia where the hostages were held to the Abkhaz capital city of Sukhumi.[39] They reportedly took control of the Sukhumi airport – about twenty-five kilometers from the city center – around noon on August 14. By 1:00 p.m. they were forcing their way into the city. Although a news blockade was imposed on journalists, by 2:00 p.m. reliable reports filtered out of the city that the Abkhaz Council of Ministers building in Sukhumi was being shelled from the sea.[40] A parliamentary deputy, Natela Akaba, told Human Rights Watch:

On August 14 I was in the parliament building in Sukhumi. Around 11 a.m. we got a call. They said that a huge line of tanks had entered Ochamchira region. [A fellow deputy] didn't believe it because he had had a very friendly conversation with Shevardnadze. We completely did not expect this turn of events. There had been an agreement in the Gali region to send joint [Abkhaz and Georgian] troops to retrieve hostages, but that was far from Sukhumi....I went to the window of the Council of Ministry building. There was cross-fire. I saw helicopters and realized it was really serious, a landing of troops. It was decided that all deputies get into cars and leave because it was assumed that we would be the first targets. We went straight to Gudauta. The city was captured in the course of a half hour.[41]

Refugees and others present in Sukhumi at the time of the fighting conveyed to Human Rights Watch a picture of chaotic fighting. Georgian troops moved forward with tanks and armor, street by street, damaging many buildings with artillery shells, particularly government installations. Shevardnadze confirmed from Tbilisi that afternoon that there were clashes between Kitovani's National Guard troops and what were described as Abkhazia's MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) troops.[42]

Armed opposition to the Georgian incursion initially came from Abkhaz members of the MVD troops. The latter were relatively few in number, however, and armed only with small arms and light weapons. They faced what the press described as a mechanized battalion.

The Abkhaz defenders, who came to include members of the local Abkhaz population, used whatever weapons were available, built barricades in the streets, and hurled Molotov cocktails at Georgian troops.[43] A man in his sixties on crutches, his left leg amputated up to his thigh, recounted the following to Human Rights Watch:

I lost my left leg at 5 p.m. on the first day of the battle. I was shot by machine gun fire. We had gone out to meet [the Georgian forces] on the White Bridge. I was armed with a house gun. Of course, they were stronger than we were. We were completely unprepared. We didn't have five machine guns among us. They came in with tanks and machine guns.[44]

A doctor on duty in one of the Sukhumi hospitals described a scene of bedlam, with the wounded being brought in from both sides, an utter lack of essential supplies, and the hospital occasionally being attacked in the course of the night with small arms fire and sometimes shells.[45] The number of civilian casualties was highest relative to combatant casualties in the early days of fighting in and around Sukhumi. An estimated fifty persons were killed on the first day.[46]


Although Sukhumi was reported calm on August 15, and cease-fire negotiations went forward, fighting resumed across the Gumista river, just north of Sukhumi, on the morning of August 16.[47] The cease-fire agreement drafted the previous day called for Georgian troops to withdraw from the conflict zone, but on August 18, Kitovani's National Guard instead entered downtown Sukhumi and stormed the parliament building.[48]

In the face of losing Sukhumi, the Abkhaz government withdrew to the town of Gudauta north of Sukhumi, where it announced a full-scale mobilization of all Abkhaz men from eighteen to forty years of age.[49] Abkhaz forces also reportedly captured around 1,000 automatic weapons from an army unit of the Commonwealth of Independent States deployed in Abkhazia.[50] Georgian National Guard troops entered the village of Gantiadi on the afternoon of August 15.[51] Georgian troops also entered and took the towns of Leselidze and Gagra, close to the Russian border, landing from the sea. At this stage of the fighting, Abkhaz defenders were essentially hemmed in on the southeast, where the Georgians held Sukhumi, and on the northwest, where the Georgians held the border towns. The Abkhaz held only a slice of territory in the middle, around the town of Gudauta.

Fighting escalated following the arrival of volunteers from north Caucasus republics sympathetic to the Abkhaz – mostly from the republics that had signed the Confederation of Mountain Peoples document, including ethnic Chechens and Ingush. These volunteers amounted to at least hundreds in the first days of fighting. Russian volunteers and perhaps mercenaries – apparently not ethnic Russians from Abkhazia but instead "outsiders" – also quickly began arriving in the conflict zone.

On August 18, there were reports of intensive shelling of those parts of Sukhumi still holding out against the Georgian forces, as well as Abkhaz positions across the Gumista river and Gudauta, the last stronghold of the Abkhaz. Georgian helicopters and jet aircraft were reported to be taking part in the hostilities.[52] On that same day, Georgian troops took the Council of Ministers building in Sukhumi and raised the Georgian flag. Soon thereafter they took the remaining state institutions, including the television broadcasting station, telegraph and telephone companies, and the port. Kitovani declared the next day that the entire territory of Abkhazia was under Georgian control, except for the town of Gudauta and its suburbs.[53] The strategic issue, therefore, given the will of Abkhaz forces to resist, was whether they could lay hands on enough weapons to oppose Georgian forces before the Georgians had time to consolidate their positions.