The weekend’s events in Ukraine remind me of my 27th birthday. Not because I invaded a neighbouring state, but because it’s the day I took the photo above.
The town in the picture is Tskhinvali, capital of Russian-occupied South Ossetia. The sandbags framing it are part of the network of trenches held by Georgian police troops.
The lines are held by militarised police for a good reason: this isn’t a border with another country, it’s a line of occupation inside Georgian territory.
It was a scorching hot day when I and two friends traveled north, past camps of refugees from the Russian invasion in 2008, to see the former conflict zone for ourselves.
Turning off the highway onto a potholed road, our taxi driver nervously asked if we were sure about where we wanted to go. Earlier he’d suggested we bring passports, and only relented when we reassured him we weren’t going to try to cross the lines.
After a couple of miles of largely abandoned countryside, an incongruous mixture of bombed out buildings, shrapnel-marked farms and ancient Roman fortifications, we met our first Georgian policemen. Sweating in camouflage and kevlar body armour, an older NCO and a young recruit pointed their rifles at the taxi and gestured for us to get out. We were journalists, we explained, friends of Georgia who wanted to see the Russian occupation with our own eyes.
They didn’t understand English, so we waited, sunbathing on the bonnet of the car, for an officer to arrive from the nearest command point, while the older guard spat pistachio shells onto the road and eyed us suspiciously.
I hadn’t intended to spend my birthday having guns pointed at me in the middle of nowhere, but here we were.
The young captain arrived 45 minutes later. A friendly, muscular man in a pristine uniform, he took our ID and headed off to check it – with a vague promise that he would be “back soon”.
The sun baked, the crickets clicked, the patch of pistachio shells grew into a hillock, while all attempts to talk to the guards manning the checkpoint were rebuffed. Suddenly, a radio blared and it was all go – not only was the captain back with our papers, but he had brought two armoured vehicles with him – he shouted to the taxi driver to join the little convoy, and off we headed, up the road.
A mile further on, we stopped in a cloud of dust. The road stopped, too – ending in barbed wire, machine gun nests and heaps of sandbags. Told to keep our heads down and shut up, he led us into a slit trench which deepened into a fully-fledged reconstruction of the Western Front.
Gravestones leaned up on either side of the trench. The lines ran through the middle of a village cemetery – some on the Georgian side had flowers, sheltered in the lee of the small rise in the ground, while those in no man’s land just a few feet away were leaning, or pockmarked from small arms fire.
A machine gun was removed from a loophole by a surprised-looking soldier, and there it was: Tskhinvali, with the Russian army between us and the blocks of flats once home to the people who sheltered in the refugee camps we had passed on our drive north. It was a surreal feeling, to have left Tbilisi, a modern city with a European feel, that morning and to have arrived so swiftly in a place that had more in common with 1915 France.
Every photo we took was closely scrutinised, and those which provided details of any defences were deleted, but the officer and his men swiftly thawed. One of my friends fumbled his camera, and almost dropped it over the parapet into contested territory. “A present for Vladimir Putin”, I told the captain – he translated, the troops laughed and offered us a drink.
That day has been in my mind because this is the future which may well await Ukraine and the Crimea. A European country, divided piecemeal by trenches, barbed wire and armed men, all because the Kremlin wishes to destabilise and dominate its neighbours.
NATO and the West turned a blind eye when Russian tanks rolled into Tskhinvali, perhaps hoping it would all go away. But as with any appeasement, the fruit of that decision can be seen today in the thousands of Russian troops entrenching themselves in Crimea. Putin learned the lesson of 2008, that if he acted forcefully and swiftly there would be no price for his territorial gain. Ukraine learned the lesson, too – which is why, unlike the Georgians, they have not fought back, cowed by the knowledge that if they did so no-one would be there to support them.
My colleague Paul Goodman is no doubt right to say that there are few options available to us in the current crisis. But there can be no valid claim that it comes as a surprise – it is now almost six years since Georgia was invaded and its land occupied, but the reaction of the West has been to pooh-pooh those who warned that Putin might do it again rather than to prepare for when he inevitably did.
Contrary to the Russian spin, this is not a protective action born of a Ukrainian crisis – it is a long-planned step in a regional strategy by which Russia intends to extend its sphere of influence, and undermine any chance of its neighbours becoming embarrassingly free and successful. As John Hulsman points out in today’s City AM, no country with an ongoing territorial dispute is allowed to join NATO – by snatching territory, Putin prevents either Georgia or Ukraine from ever joining the only alliance which can contain Russian expansionism.
The seriousness of what we had seen, already hanging over the sunny day, was driven home further when we returned along the crumbling road. Our tax driver stopped by a ruined railway station, a bombsite alongside rusting rails which once led to Tskhinvali. In a small, chained off area was a tall cross, standing above a huddle of modern gravestones. This was the site where a group of Georgian soldiers had been killed three years before.
The men of their families had gathered to eat and drink to their memory – they welcomed us, offering slices of watermelon and plastic cups of homemade spirits, and showed us the shelf where they lit votive candles alongside the tattered remnants of their sons’, brothers’ and fathers’ uniforms.
The place names may be obscure, or more associated with history books than modern events, but these are not petty local disputes, or harmless spats in a land far away of which we know nothing. They are stages in the Kremlin’s great game, and Moscow intends us to lose whether we agree to play or not.