By Nicholas Dima l October 17, 2009
In December 2008 the Council of the European Union set up a special fact-finding mission to examine the causes of the August Russian-Georgian War. It was the first time that the EU had stepped in directly and actively to investigate an armed conflict. The mission was independent and international and at the end of its mandate its findings were presented in a detailed report by Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, a Swiss diplomat and former head of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia.
In welcoming the presentation of the report, the EU Council noted in a press release that “a peaceful and lasting solution to the conflicts in Georgia must be based on full respect for the principles of independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity as recognized by international law, including the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the United Nations Security Council Resolutions.”
Chronologically, the August war lasted only five days. A cease-fire was reached under the EU’s initiative chaired by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The conflict left hundreds of people dead, displaced some 35,000 Georgians, and brought the U.S. and Russia into a brief Cold War-style confrontation. The conflict exposed Western Europe’s and America’s weakness, while strengthening Moscow’s position in the Caucasian region. Despite wide-spread international opprobrium, Moscow recognized officially the independence of South Ossetia, which had caused this brief war, as well as of Abkhazia, the other Georgian break-away province.
The EU’s official inquiry, known as the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, was conducted during a period of debate in Western Europe over how to back Georgia in its conflict with Russia. The results of the inquiry were published on September 30, 2009 in a document of almost one thousand pages, which can be found at http://www.ceiig.ch/Report.html. Its findings were awaited with interest by many circles and especially by Russia and Georgia, which blamed each other for triggering the war. The main conclusions of the report were somehow anticipated. Yet, the way the findings were phrased made some analysts conclude that they were stretched to avoid challenging the Kremlin. The mainstream media in the East as well as in the West dedicated substantial commentaries to the report.
One of the main conclusions of the investigation was that “the armed conflict was triggered by Georgia.” However, the report stressed that “Russia prepared the ground for war to break out and broke international law by invading Georgia as a whole.” On September 30, BBC radio reported the same findings, but used different wording. It said that “the onus of having actually triggered the war lies with the Georgian side, but the Russian side, too, carries the blame for a substantial number of violations of international law.” Another BBC broadcast of the same period also claimed that the war was started by a Georgian attack that was not justified, but it added that the attack “followed months of provocations, in which both sides violated international law.”
It seems that from the outset the European investigators sympathized with Georgia, but they did not want to upset Russia with their findings. Other than that, the report found plenty of blame to go around, but in the end it left it up to the reader to decide which side was to be blamed. Maybe Tbilisi triggered the war, but it was Moscow that cornered Georgia and gave it no alternative but to defend its integrity.
In reality, if Georgia fired the first shot, it was Russia that created and exploited the conditions that led to war. For several years prior to the conflict, Russia encouraged separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, trained their military forces, and hired mercenaries to challenge the Georgian authorities. At the same time, Moscow granted Russian citizenship and distributed Russian passports in massive numbers to Georgian citizens who sided with the Kremlin. Dutifully, the report mentions these acts. Later, Moscow claimed that it intervened in the conflict to defend those citizens it had hastily created. In fact, Moscow said that it invaded Georgia “to protect Russian citizens” and allegedly “to stop a Georgian genocide.” The reality was quite different and the EU report acknowledges it in many ways.
The report found, for example, that Russia backed the Ossetian militias who committed atrocities and ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages. Actually, it found that “ethnic cleansing was practiced against ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia both during the war and after the conflict.” Specifically, the report found that Russian military forces either “would not or could not control the South Ossetian militias.” At the same time, the report found no evidence to back Russia’s claims that it was Georgia that committed acts of genocide.
The report also faults the international community for failing to intervene with effective diplomacy when it was clear that the conflict was imminent. Yet, the report notes that the United States, Ukraine and Israel supplied economic and military aid to Georgia which allowed Tbilisi to consolidate its military forces. By implication, one may conclude that by helping Georgia militarily, those countries emboldened and encouraged the Tbilisi government. Inarguably, it was Georgia’s right as an independent country and as a member of the United Nations, albeit not a member of the EU, to take whatever measures necessary to defend its sovereign territory.
The question is why only America, Ukraine and Israel helped Georgia? The answer is geopolitical. The U.S. is interested in the stability and integrity of the oil-rich Caucasian-Caspian Sea area. The Ukrainian government at the time was trying to do everything to weaken Russia’s grip on its neighbors and implicitly on itself. As for Israel, the answer is more complex. One of the proposed reasons is the proximity of Georgia to Iran and Israel’s intentions to neutralize Iran’s nuclear ambitions by using Georgia as a way station. Yet, the report stops short of mentioning either the real causes of the war, or the grave consequences of a larger Caucasian conflict.
According to the Wall Street Journal of October 1, 2009, Russia and Georgia received the report with interest and both claimed vindication. Moscow claimed the report “found that Tbilisi triggered the conflict.” But Tbilisi was quick to point out that according to the same findings “Moscow acted illegally in the extent of its invasion” and in addition “its troops allowed ethnic cleansing on Georgian territory.” Actually, Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, stated that he had no choice but to order the shelling of South Ossetia’s capital “to stop imminent attacks on Georgian villages, to bring the region under Tbilisi’s control, and to deter a Russian invasion already in progress.” From this point of view, certain Western analysts concluded that if sovereignty means anything, it means that leaders of a state have the right to take proper actions within their borders as they see fit to defend their countries. Within these confines, Georgia acted legitimately, the Wall Street Journal concluded. Indeed, why blame a small country defending itself against a colossus since according to the report “the EU and the US consider that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have no right to secede from Georgia.”
The Georgian government also claimed that the European investigators ignored evidence that Russian soldiers were already in South Ossetia on August 7, 2008, when the war started. Accordingly, Georgia said it had acted in self-defense. Tbilisi’s envoy to the European Union also stated that the inquiry had confirmed “almost all the facts which Georgia had been alleging, but it erred by determining that Russia’s military actions did not qualify as an invasion.” The report emphasized indeed the “years of provocations, mutual accusations, military and political threats, and acts of violence” that led to the war and urged readers to look beyond the issue of “who shot first.” As for Russia, Moscow interpreted the findings differently. “For the first time, the report directly names the causes of the conflict,” said Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Russian Parliament. And as reported on October 1, by the Wall Street Journal, he stressed the fact that the report pointed to Georgia as a trigger of the war vindicated Russia’s position in the eyes of the world.
However, Jorg Himmelreich, a German analyst with the German Marshall Fund, wrote in his article “Missing From the Georgia Report” published on October 3, 2009, that interpreting the five-day war was more complicated. In his opinion, the report has a major flaw: “It fails to thoroughly analyze the decisive role that the United States played before, during and after the conflict.” Only a detailed assessment of President George W. Bush’s policy and its failures, he wrote, can fully explain the outbreak of the war. He continued: “Once the war broke out President Bush decided against any U.S. military action, and instead encouraged President Sarkozy of France to seek a cease-fire.” He claims that this was a mistake because only the United States had the political clout and power “to negotiate and enforce a serious peace agreement with Russia.” Himmelreich further added that “Mr. Sarkozy deserves credit for stopping the war, but he had to accept onerous Russian conditions.” Thus, in his opinion, President Bush’s failure was one of “not doing rather than wrongdoing; not stopping Mr. Saakashvili and not taking the lead in the peace settlement.”
One may say that the position of the previous U.S. administration was clear, but not firm enough. On September 18, 2008, during the ceasefire, the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the keynote speaker at the Marshall Fund meeting in Washington, DC. Her comprehensive speech addressed the state of American-Russian relations in light of the just ended Russian-Georgian War. Interestingly, she foresaw many of the ideas and a good part of the spirit of the EU report, revealing how difficult it is to solve anything in the so-called Russian “Near Abroad.” The very next day the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs refuted Ms. Rice’s statement, point by point. The two pronouncements were posted on the respective web sites of the State Department and of the Russian Embassy in Washington. The official positions of the two governments could not have been further apart. Yet, both countries were careful, were coldly polite, and avoided aggravating the situation and ending up in a renewed Cold War.
Here is one excerpt from Ms. Rice’s speech that confirms the later findings of the EU commission:
“… All sides made mistakes and miscalculations. But several key facts are clear. ..On August 7th, following repeated violations of the ceasefire in South Ossetia, including the shelling of Georgian villages, the Georgian government launched a military operation into areas of the separatist region… But the situation deteriorated further when Russia’s leaders violated Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – and launched a full scale invasion across an internationally-recognized border. .. Russia’s leaders established a military occupation that stretched deep into Georgian territory…”
And here is the official Russian reaction to Secretary Rice:
“It is not the first time that events provoked by Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia are crudely distorted in a speech by a member of the American leadership. Not particularly surprising, given Washington’s predisposition to support the bankrupt regime in Tbilisi. There is no need to rebut yet again the false interpretation of what happened… The Georgian army and its special forces killed hundreds upon hundreds of civilians in South Ossetia most of whom were Russian citizens. It was an attack on Russia, and we had no choice but to use our self-defense right in full compliance with Article 51 of the UN Charter.”
An independent analyst should emphasize that in cross-cultural relations each side mirrors its values, expectations, beliefs, as well as its past experience. In cross-political settings each side reflects and defends its “interests.” In the Caucasus region, the United States is promoting Western interests in a more open and less aggressive way which mirrors America’s experience. Russia is doing the same thing, but according to its own historical experience which is one of brutal force and aggression. In the case of Georgia, the main difference is that Russia was promoting its interests close to home while America was thousands of miles away. And Moscow continues to treat the Caucasian region as part of the Russian geopolitical sphere of influence. To counteract this, the United States must show clarity of purpose, strength and determination. Angry pronouncements or acts of accommodation would not do it. The result is that the Caucasian conflict continues to be today where it was before the publication of the EU report and where it was at the time of Ms. Rice’s speech in Washington. Actually, Moscow is in a stronger position now than two or three years ago and the world community cannot do much about it. In a way, the international comments of the findings of the report have arrived at the same conclusions.
A Russian official, for example, said that he did not expect the conclusions of the EU report to have any major impacts on Western policy toward Russia or to change the status quo in the area of conflict. And he noted that the topic of Georgia came up only briefly during the recent meetings of the United Nations. This statement was quoted by Ellen Barry from Moscow in an article published by the Wall Street Journal on September 29, 2009. At the same time, Alexandr Gabuyev, a Russian journalist with the Kommersant, wrote that neither Moscow nor Tbilisi have managed to prove that their military actions in August 2008 were justified. According to him, however, the report indicates clearly that the EU will never support Russia’s actions in the Caucasus and will never come to terms with the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His remarks were aired by BBC News on October 1, 2009. As for Georgia, although she feels exonerated, according to the same broadcast, her chances of regaining control of the two breakaway regions are dim and the hopes of joining the EU and NATO are very slim.
Generally speaking, the EU findings are neither fully conclusive nor broad enough to settle the many unsolved problems regarding this war and the lingering bitter relations between Russia and Georgia. In fact, by blaming both countries, the report seems unlikely to resolve the debate over which bears more overall responsibility and how to settle the ongoing dispute. Yet, it should be noted that the Eastern European countries have insisted that Russia’s policies in Georgia epitomized Moscow’s new and dangerous expansionist tendencies. And Himmelreich, the German analyst of the Marshall Fund, stressed that the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 did not end the political conflict, adding that the conflict has all the potential to explode into a new armed confrontation any day.
The truth is that Russia is not giving up its geopolitical claims to the “Near Abroad” and is working tirelessly to regain its previous sphere of influence. The 2008 Caucasian war was chiefly a conflict for the control of a larger area with huge oil and gas resources stretching from the Black Sea to Central Asia. Russia is determined to regain control over a big buffer zone bordering NATO and the EU. Will the next battle between Russia and the West be over the former Soviet Central Asia? And will Moscow win again? In this regard, the new American administration will have to clarify its position and to take a firm stand if it wants to contain an expansionist Russia.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to