Ever since the August war in Georgia, various stories have circulated via many media outlets about what exactly happened the Georgian navy. Danger Room provided extensive coverage and links about the stories circulating. It included the blog post, Inside the battle for the Black Sea.
When I visited Poti on September 25 I was told something of a different story. I also took some photos of the damage done by Russian forces. One of the damaged Georgian ships has since been removed from the water, and two others remain partially submerged.
The thrust of the story told is at best patchy. Names of ships have been confused (as is natural in fast moving situations), and some appear to have been mistaken. I wanted to get to try and get a clearer picture of what happened the Georgian navy, so I went and asked.
I spoke to Captain Badri Putkaradze of the Georgian military in Poti, who was one of the Georgian soldiers to return from Iraq during the war, and who had previously served aboard both the Georgian flagship, Dioskuria, and aboard the Soviet-era missile boat Tbilisi. He was not in Poti during the engagement, but I believe him to be high-ranking enough to report accurately what happened that day.
I asked him about the apparent engagement with Russian forces, and an alleged attack on the Russian ship Moskva. Putkaradze openly laughed at the suggestion. He said Georgian ships stood no chance against Russian forces and “turned 180 degrees” without engaging them at all. Indeed he went as far as to say that the Georgian Navy simply didn’t have the capability to fire missiles at Russian ships, and that to do so would be suicide.
He also said that Georgian ships were ordered to escape to the south, to Batumi. The Soviet-era missile boat, the Tbilisi, did not escape to Batumi, but remained docked at Poti. “Why did this ship not go to Batumi?,” I asked. “Its engines were not working,” Putkaradze said. “We had to leave it here.”
The Georgian ship sunk was not the Tbilisi, as the sailor suggests. Rather it was the Georgian patrol boat P-21 Georgy Toreli. A night battle in the littoral, the Georgians armed only with guns, yet the little flotilla of four was able to get in close to Moskva and start a little fire. Covering its withdraw, the Mirazh missile boat is reported to have sunk the ship in only 90 seconds in what was reported as 300 meters of water.
According to Al Jazeera, the Coast Guard base in Poti was attacked with artillery on Wednesday after the cease-fire, destroying the rest of the coast guard ships in port. The Tbilisi, which was reported to be in bad condition prior to the war, was sunk in that attack.
Indeed the Tbilisi was in bad condition. Some reports say the Tbilisi was hit by a missile, this report says it was hit by artillery. The damage was certainly extensive. But it is clear from the other two ships that charges were used to destroy them. I do not know how the Tbilisi was destroyed.
As you can see from these photos of one ship recently removed from the water, it appears to be a plain old charge. I cannot confirm the name of this ship but the Georgian script is visible on the top. UPDATE: A reader has said it is called the Tskaltubo.
Here is an earlier photo which appears to show the same ship (in the background) before it was removed from the water. Only the top part of the bridge is visible, which coincides with the marks left by the water on the pictures I took:
The Dioskuriya was also destroyed the same way, as can be seen from the widely circulated video:
Here are some photos I took of the remains:
Incidentally I was told that the Dioskuriya is too heavy (thanks to the water) to lift with any cranes available to the Georgians. Apparently the US is paying for a crane to be dispatched from Turkey to lift the ship from the harbour.
As for the Tbilisi, the damage was far more visible. Putkaradze was unable to say why this was so, “crazy Russians”, he said.
I can’t say how the Tbilisi was destroyed. But maybe the pics will help get an answer.
Stories, well more like rumours, have circulated that the entire Georgian Navy and Coast Guard was more or less destroyed. This is untrue. The same day, I photographed these ships docked in Poti:
That’s three coast guard ships appearing undamaged. In the background of this photo you can see damage to the hull of the coast guard vessel.
But that’s not all. Before Captain Putkaradze told me the story about Georgian ships fleeing to Batumi, I had not told him that I had been there the day before and taken these photos:
It’s two Georgian Navy patrol vessels, and one smaller patrol craft. I assume these are some or all of the ships Putkaradze was referring to when he talked about the retreat. Here is talking to me about the Tbilisi, in the background.
The story has been confused and I can’t confirm or deny much of it. But from what I was told, there was no concerted effort by Georgian forces to engage the Russian Navy. As Information Dissemination noted, there was no clear visible damage to the Moskva. That is possibly because no damage was done.
I cannot say what happened to the P-21 Georgy Toreli, which is said to have been destroyed by a Russian missile. But I will endeavour to find out soon.