(This article was published in the final issue of Radar magazine, which was bought out and shuttered just as the issue went to print in late September.)
Tskhinvali, South Ossetia — On the sunny afternoon of August 14, a Russian army colonel named Igor Konashenko is standing triumphantly at a street corner at the northern edge of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, his forearm bandaged from a minor battle injury. The spot marks the furthest point of the Georgian army’s advance before it was summarily crushed by the Russians a few days earlier. “Twelve Georgian battalions invaded Tskhinvali, backed by columns of tanks, armored personal carriers, jets, and helicopters,” he says, happily waving at the wreckage, craters, and bombed-out buildings around us. “You see how well they fought, with all their great American training — they abandoned their tanks in the heat of the battle and fled.”
Konashenko pulls a green compass out of his shirt pocket and opens it. It’s a U.S. military model. “This is a little trophy — a gift from one of my soldiers,” he says. “Everything that the Georgians left behind, I mean everything, was American. All the guns, grenades, uniforms, boots, food rations — they just left it all. Our boys stuffed themselves on the food,” he adds slyly. “It was tasty.” The booty, according to Konashenko, also included 65 intact tanks outfitted with the latest NATO and American (as well as Israeli) technology.
Technically, we are standing within the borders of Georgia, which over the last five years has gone from being an ally to the United States to a neocon proxy regime. But there are no Georgians to be seen in this breakaway region — not unless you count the bloated corpses still lying in the dirt roads. Most of the 70,000 or so people who live in South Ossetia never liked the idea of being part of Georgia. During the violent land scramble that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the South Ossetians found themselves cut off from their ethnic kin in North Ossetia, which remained part of Russia. The Russians, who’ve had a small peacekeeping force here since 1992, managed to keep the brewing conflicts on ice for the last 15 years. But in the meantime, the positions of everyone involved hardened. The Georgians weren’t happy about the idea of losing a big chunk of territory. The Ossetians, an ethnic Persian tribe, were more adamant than ever about joining Russia, their traditional ally and protector.
The tense but relatively stable situation blew up late in the evening of August 7, when on the order of president Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s army swept into South Ossetia, leveling much of Tskhinvali and surrounding villages and sending some 30,000 refugees fleeing north into Russia. Within hours, Russia’s de facto czar Vladimir Putin counterattacked — some say he’d set a trap — and by the end of that long weekend the Georgians were in panicked retreat. The Russian army then pushed straight through South Ossetia and deep into Georgia proper, halting less than an hour’s drive from Saakashvili’s luxurious palace. All around me is evidence of a rout. A Georgian T-72 tank turret is wedged into the side of a local university building, projecting from the concrete like a cookie pressed into ice cream. Fifty yards away you can see the remains of the vehicle that the orphaned turret originally was part of: just a few charred parts around a hole in the street, and a section of tread lying flat on the sidewalk. Russian tanks now patrol the city unopposed, each one as loud as an Einstrzende Neubauten concert, clouding the air with leaded exhaust as they rumble past us.
But listening to Colonel Konashenko, it becomes clear to me that I’m looking at more than just the smoldering remains of battle in an obscure regional war: This spot is ground zero for an epic historical shift. The dead tanks are American-upgraded, as are the spent 40mm grenade shells that one spetznaz soldier shows me. The bloated bodies on the ground are American-trained Georgian soldiers who have been stripped of their American-issue uniforms. And yet, there is no American cavalry on the way. For years now, everyone from Pat Buchanan to hybrid-powered hippies have been warning that America would suddenly find itself on a historical downslope from having been too reckless, too profligate, and too arrogant as an unopposed superpower. Even decent patriotic folk were starting to worry that America was suffering from a classic case of Celebrity Personality Disorder, becoming a nation of Tom Cruise party-dicks dancing in our socks over every corner and every culture in the world, lip-synching about freedom as we plunged headfirst into as much risky business as we could mismanage. And now, bleeding money from endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re a sick giant hooked on ever-pricier doses of oil paid for with a currency few people want anymore. In the history books of the future, I would wager that this very spot in Tskhinvali will be remembered as both the geographic highwater mark of the American empire, and the place where it all started to fall apart.
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