Nation & World

Unchallenged air power was Russia's trump card

TIRDZNISI, Georgia — The Russian fighter jet screamed low to the earth and peeled off so quickly that the bomb wasn't visible until it hit the ground. The explosion shook everything and sent a shower of debris flying over the head of a young Georgian soldier.

The soldier, lying against an embankment on the side of the road, shouted in a panicked voice for everyone to stay still. His palms were flat on the dirt in front of him. "It's Russian MiGs," the soldier said, his eyes wide.

For three days, Russian jets and bombers have unleashed a massive aerial campaign against Georgian forces that, more than anything, dramatically changed the war's direction.

Until Russian jets showed up, Georgian tanks and infantry looked to be on their way to defeating rebel forces in Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

But Georgia's ground troops couldn't do much against Russian aircraft, whose repeated bombing runs drove them from Tskhinvali on Sunday and chased them along the road toward the town of Gori. In the early morning hours Tuesday, it suddenly seemed possible that all that remained of the war was for the Russians to brush past Gori into Tbilisi, Georgia's capital.

At first, news of Russia's aerial attacks came in fragments. An airfield was hit, a radar station demolished. But by Monday, as bombs fell among the withdrawing Georgian forces, it was only too clear what the Russians had been up to.

The early strikes had made it impossible for Georgians, who in the war's first day had shot down four Russian aircraft, to mount an effective response. Now Russian jets could dominate the skies.

Col. Gen. Anatoly Nagovitsin, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff, put it bluntly: "I can report on Russian supremacy in the airspace. Georgian aircraft stopped flying."

Outside Tskhinvali, Georgian soldiers huddled beneath trees and bridges, trying to stay out of the line of sight of passing Russian jets. In addition to military trucks, troops were being moved around in civilian buses and vans. In Gori, soldiers worked out of a university building.

They had to hide; there was no answer to the Su-25 fighter jets, TU-22 bombers and others streaking nearby, looking for prey.

"We have good artillery, but not good antiaircraft systems," said Sgt. Ucha Chulukhadze, a Georgian soldier who was standing in a small shelter on the side of the road. To speak with a reporter, he and other soldiers insisted on walking across the street, where there was shade and they'd be less visible.

The soldiers looked tired and unsure what would happen next.

"If no one stops them" — the Russians — "then they will do worse here than what they did in Chechnya," said Eldar Durglishnti, a reservist who'd been called up for the fighting.

When a car load of journalists started to leave, one of the soldiers walked up to the window with a plea: Call the Red Cross and tell it that he was getting cell phone calls from soldiers who were stuck in bunkers in Tskhinvali.

A group of Georgian soldiers who were standing next to a truck down the road, its tires flat, heard the boom of an airstrike in the distance and scrambled to take cover.

"It's coming again," one of them hollered, looking at the sky.

Later in the afternoon, a Georgian sergeant was sitting on a curbside in Gori, recounting what he'd seen Sunday in Tskhinvali before his unit retreated. Moving his hand through the air like a plane, he mimicked the sound of bombs falling.

"There people were dying," said the soldier, who gave only his first name, Dato. "They dropped bombs everywhere . . . they destroyed us."

A group of people had gathered at the hospital across the street, many of them female soldiers, to check the lists of wounded and dead posted on a wall. Tracing the names with their fingers, the women spoke in low voices.

When a soldier hobbled up, his hand bandaged, a friend looked back and explained, "he was shot," which meant that he'd heal to fight another day.

Those who were caught by the bombs of Russian jets wouldn't be seen again.

An ambulance doctor, Levan Makashvili, was reading a newspaper in the hospital's parking lot and trying to keep his mind off the war for a few moments.

The aftermath of the bombings, he said, was terrible.

"The ones with head wounds," he said in a matter-of-fact tone, "they frequently die."

More from McClatchy:

United States holds little leverage over Russia in Georgia conflict

Images of War