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EPISODE 9 - BATTLE FOR GAGRA

 
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BRIEF

Battle for Gagra

Still unresolved, the war in Abkhazia 1992-1993 is largely overlooked. At the time nationalism was rampant throughout the Caucasus. Georgia, reeling from an internal squabble between its first elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and the head of the National Guard, Tengiz Kitovani and his ally Dzaba Ioseliani, launched an ill-fated attempt to solidify central government control over separatist minded Abkhazia.

The Georgians were finally driven out a year and a half later (September 1993) by Abkhazian forces strengthened, if not spearheaded, by hundreds of North Caucasus volunteers, among them future Chechen field commanders Shamil Basayev and Ruslan Galayev. Basayev actually received the Hero of Abkhazia medal and was credited for, among other military feats, liberating the northern city of Gagra and pushing the Georgians across the Psou River into Russia proper, where they were repatriated to Georgia via the ports at Poti and Batumi.

Although it took place early in the conflict, the Battle for Gagra was a turning point in the war. Georgian forces had made an amphibious landing to seize Gagra during the first weeks of the war, intending to then push southward and squeeze Abkhazian forces in a pincer movement between a second Georgian force moving north from Sukhumi. The Georgian forces’ failure to hold the strategic northern city, let alone use it as a base to launch further attacks southward, severely hampered its efforts to impose its will against the Abkhazian separatist movement.

Finally, there has been much written about Russia’s involvement in Abkhazia. Most analysis insists that without Russian support Abkhazia would not have been able to break free (In fact, believing Abkhazia to be another Transdeniester, hundreds of Ukrainian volunteers fought on the Georgian side). However, there are problems with this analysis. First, most of the foreign fighters involved in Abkhazia were not Russian soldiers but, like Shamil Basayev, independent minded fighters from the north Caucasus. Others came from the Abkhazian diaspora, primarily from Turkey. Second, complaints of Russian armor and aircraft involved in the fighting as proof of Russian complicity is problematic, as all armor and aircraft on both sides of the conflict was of Russian/Soviet origin. Georgian officials have even claimed publicly that they themselves “rented” Russian tanks and their crews for combat missions by the day or even by the hour, more accurately suggesting that rather than an instrument of policy, the Russian army, in a state of flux in 1992, was open to the highest bidder. Assuming that Abkhazian separatism was a Kremlin supported policy, it is more accurate that Russian interests and those of the north Caucasus volunteers dovetailed in Abkhazia, albeit for different reasons, creating a condition where Yeltsin had to do little but stand by and watch those pesky Chechens fight their battles for them.