On August 7th, 2008, just before midnight, Georgian forces launched an attack on Tskhinvali, the provincial capital of South Ossetia, or what Georgians call Samachablo. Georgia claimed it was responding to a Russian invasion. Russia, whose troops surged immediately and rapidly into Georgia, claimed the Georgians attacked first.
A small mountainous territory on the southern side of the Caucasus range (population around 100,000 in 1989, and 3,900 square kilometers), South Ossetia seceded from Georgia in 1992 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since its unilateral declaration of independence, South Ossetia has survived but with no permanent resolution of its status. It is officially part of Georgia, unrecognized until recently by anyone in the international community. It has its own government, though largely staffed by Russian state employees, and its security is assured by Russian troops stationed in the region, erroneously described as "peacekeepers."
Over the past sixteen years, South Ossetia has been a "frozen conflict" with occasional flashes of violence. Tensions among Georgia, Russia, and South Ossetia grew, however, after the election of Mikheil Saakashvili as Georgia's President in 2004. Saakashvili, young (36 at the time of his election) and an enthusiastic state-builder, promised to restore Georgian territorial unity. Over the last four years he has attempted to unfreeze the conflict by both diplomacy and military threats. He has presented a number of plans for South Ossetian autonomy, which have been regularly dismissed by the South Ossetian government as too little too late. In the days and weeks leading up to August 7th, fighting intensified between South Ossetian irregulars supported by Russian "peacekeepers" and U.S.-trained Georgian units.
During August 7th, Georgian and Ossetian leaders made plans to meet and defuse the situation. Temuri Yakobishvili, the Georgian State Minister of Reintegration, traveled to Tskhinvali to meet his South Ossetian counterparts, who did not turn up. Saakashvili made a speech offering South Ossetia "unlimited autonomy," which would be guaranteed by Russia.
However, that night Georgia launched an artillery barrage and a ground assault of infantry and tanks on Tskhinvali. The Georgian government declared it was acting as any sovereign and independent state would to defend itself against violent secessionists and Russian aggression. South Ossetians accused Georgia of perfidy.
Moscow's response to the Georgian attack was fast—so fast according to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that she thought it pre-planned and premeditated. Tanks and troops poured across Georgian borders, picking up South Ossetian militia along the way. The Georgian army retreated under intense artillery and air strikes on its positions in Tskhinvali.
Russian troops quickly crossed over from the demarcated conflict zones in South Ossetia where they had operated with official UN sanction as peacekeepers since 1992. They drove deep into Georgian territory, occupying Gori (the birthplace of Joseph Stalin), the vital Georgian port of Poti on the Black Sea coast, and many other towns.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Beijing for the Olympics at the time of the Russian attack, returned to Vladikavkaz in the Russian province of North Ossetia to oversee operations. Putin had bitter relations with President Saakashvili, and may have felt a personal stake in teaching him and Georgia a lesson.
The Georgian attack caused significant damage in South Ossetia, although arguments continue as to how severe. One Ossetian interpreter in Tskhinvali reported on August 10 that he was standing in the city center, "but there's no city left." Later UNOSAT imagery suggests around 5-6% of the city was destroyed, though predominantly in residential areas.