A new front has opened between Georgia and Russia, now over which side was the aggressor whose military activities early last month ignited the lopsided five-day war. At issue is new intelligence, inconclusive on its own, that nonetheless paints a more complicated picture of the critical last hours before war broke out.
Georgia has released intercepted telephone calls purporting to show that part of a Russian armored regiment crossed into the separatist enclave of South Ossetia nearly a full day before Georgia’s attack on the capital, Tskhinvali, late on Aug. 7.
Georgia is trying to counter accusations that the long-simmering standoff over South Ossetia, which borders Russia, tilted to war only after it attacked Tskhinvali.
Georgia regards the enclave as its sovereign territory.
The intercepts circulated last week among intelligence agencies in the United States and Europe, part of a Georgian government effort to persuade the West and opposition voices at home that Georgia was under invasion and attacked defensively. Georgia argues that as a tiny and vulnerable nation allied with the West, it deserves extensive military and political support.
Georgia also provided audio files of the intercepts along with English translations to The New York Times, which made its own independent translation from the original Ossetian into Russian and then into English.
Russia, already facing deep criticism and the coolest audience in European capitals since the Cold War, is arguing vigorously against Georgia’s claims. Last week, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin expressed bafflement at what he saw as the West’s propensity to believe Georgia’s version of events.
In an interview arranged by the Kremlin, the Russian military played down the significance of the intercepted conversations, saying troop movements to the enclave before the war erupted were part of the normal rotation and replenishment of longstanding peacekeeping forces there.
But at a minimum, the intercepted calls, which senior American officials have reviewed and described as credible if not conclusive, suggest Russian military movements earlier than had previously been acknowledged, whether routine or hostile, into Georgian territory as tensions accelerated toward war.
They also suggest the enduring limits — even with high-tech surveillance of critical battlefield locations — of penetrating the war’s thick fogs.
The back and forth over who started the war is already an issue in the American presidential race, with Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, the Republican vice presidential candidate, contending that Russia’s incursion into Georgia was “unprovoked,” while others argue that Georgia’s shelling of Tskhinvali was provocation.
Georgia claims that its main evidence — two of several calls secretly recorded by its intelligence service on Aug. 7 and 8 — shows that Russian tanks and fighting vehicles were already passing through the Roki Tunnel linking Russia to South Ossetia before dawn on Aug. 7.