The Ossetians, who number about 60,000, are part of the patchwork of ethnic groups that inhabit the mountains of the Caucasus. They have long yearned for separation from Georgia, appealing to Russia, their northern neighbor, for support.It appears that the Georgian military thought that they could quickly conquer South Ossetia from its more open South side, while the Russian military would be delayed by negotiating the tunnel and single road in from the North. That would have permitted the Georgians to present a fait accompli to the world before the Russians could get into combat.
Over the years, ethnic tension became a way of life in Tskhinvali, the provincial capital of South Ossetia, a city ringed by highlands where concrete street barriers were sometimes erected to keep the groups apart. During flare-ups, gangs of young men would ambush convoys on mountain roads. [Snip]
Although Abkhazia has far more strategic importance to both sides, the city of Tskhinvali is in a valley ringed by Georgian-held villages, on terrain easily navigable by tanks.
Mountains seal off the region to the north, toward Russia, so separatists rely on a single key route — the Roki Tunnel, which cuts deep through the mountains — for commerce, military aid and evacuation to the north.
Georgian leaders have long felt they could take the enclave swiftly, pushing north in one or two days to the Russian border. [Snip]
Hostilities routinely flare in the region late in the summer, when scarce water supplies pit neighbors against one another, said Sabine Freizer, the director of International Crisis Group’s Europe program.
[Emphasis added by Editor]
Obviously that strategy failed. If the Russians had already moved their armor into South Ossetia, it was hopeless. Had the Georgians been able to tell where the Russians were forming up, or had the Americans had satellite surveillance of the area, perhaps the Georgians would not have attacked South Ossetia.
Since the Russians have been pushing the Georgians for months to make that attack, it is probable that they were completely prepared for it. What is really surprising is that the Americans weren't watching Russian troop movements, or if they were, didn't inform the Georgians.
Map of Georgia with A at Tskhinvali Pull back out and look at all of Georgia in the Terrain mode. I notice that google does not provide a road map of Georgia, probably so that the map can't be used for military reasons.