A Year After: The South Ossetian War

1 August 200 9

A Year After: The South Ossetian War

By Gwynne 20Dyer

A year ago this week, Georgia attacked Russia. It was like Jamaica attacking the United States. It was such a foolish and foredoomed act that at first most people believed the Georgian propaganda blaming it all on the Russians. Surely Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili wouldn’t do something so utterly stupid. But he did – and he lost, of course.

There are two hang-overs from the week-long war that still have not cleared up, however. One is the lingering impression in the West, left over from the way that Western media reported the conflict at the time, that the “Russian bear” has turned nasty and expansionist. The other is a promise to Georgia that should never have been made.

In the year since the war, it has become clear that the Georgian attack, which sought to regain control of the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, was planned well in advance. The Russians only responded after their peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia came under Georgian attack, but the Georgians won the propaganda battle.

Saakashvili painted the Russians as evil aggressors, relying on Cold War stereotypes: “Russia’s war on Georgia echoes events in Finland in 1939, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968,” he told the Washington Post in August, 2008. It fitted Western preconceptions, so the media went along with it.

So did US presidential candidate John McCain, condemning Russia’s “violent aggression” and claiming that “Russian actions, in clear violation of international law, have no place in 21st century Europe.” Barack Obama was more circumspect, but in the midst of an election campaign he chose not to expose his flank to the Cold Warriors of the Republican Party by openly challenging their version of events.

The other problem, from a European perspective, was US President George W. Bush’s push to get Georgia and another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, admitted to the NATO alliance. These countries are to the south of Russia, not between it and Western Europe, and bringing them into the Western alliance would alarm and alienate the Russians. Yet there is no practical way that NATO could defend them if they got into a fight with the Russians.

Indeed, this concern may have been the main motive behind the creation of a European Union commission to investigate the origins of the war. The commission is led by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who has served in the area as an observer, and it has been gathering evidence for almost a year now. If its conclusions blame the war on Georgia, as seems likely, they will not be unwelcome in Brussels.

Some of those conclusions were leaked last spring to the German newsmagazine “Der Spieg el”, and they support the contention that Georgia deliberately concentrated its troops and launched a surprise attack on South Ossetia, with the aim of seizing control of the province before Russia could respond.

Between 16,000 and 20,000 Georgian troops, all equipped with modern US weapons, attacked the South Ossetian militia and about 1,000 Russian peacekeeping troops who were stationed there on the night of 7 August. Even the Georgian “peacekeeping” battalion that was also stationed in the province took part in the attack. The local capital, Tskhinvali, fell into Georgian hands within hours, and dozens of Russian troops were killed or injured.

Moscow responded quickly, and a large Russian force, including heavy armour, was sent south from the Russian province of North Ossetia through the tunnel under the main Caucasus range (which the Georgians had failed to secure) on 8 August. In one more day Georgian troops had been driven out of South Ossetia, and the Russians even followed them some distance into Georgia proper before withdrawing again at the end of the month.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Georgia’s former ambassador to Moscow and a former confidant of Saakashvili’s, testified to the Georgian parliament last November that Georgian officials told him in April 2008 that they planned to start a war to recover Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s two breakaway regions, and had 20received a green light from the United States government to do so. He said the Georgian government later decided to start the war in South Ossetia, the other region, and continue into Abkhazia.

Both the evidence of observers on the ground and the testimony of disillusioned Georgian officials like Kitsmarishvili are driving the EU commission towards the conclusion that Russia merely responded to the Georgian aggression. It will be helpful to have an authoritative Western body acknowledge that Russia has not undergone some fundamental change of strategy.

The EU commission, whose report has been postponed until next month, will not formally recommend against Georgia joining NATO, but the implication there will also be clear. Nobody really believed that NATO would ever fight World War Three to save Georgia, even it were the innocent victim of Russian aggression, but by attacking Russia Saakashvili got everybody off the hook.

Retired British army colonel Christopher Langton, Senior Fellow for Conflict and Defence Diplomacy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, summed it up only weeks after the war. “Georgia’s dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“In the year…battle”; and “So did…events”)