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Analysis & Opinion
05.09.08 Why Is Russia Losing The Media War?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Eugene Ivanov, James Jatras, Andrei Liakhov, Edward Lozansky, Darren Spinck, Ira Straus

One of the hotly debated aspects of the Russian military operation in Georgia is how Moscow managed to lose the war in international media while winning the battle on the ground.

The Russian government, at least in the early stages of the war, was ineffective in trying to convince the world that the operation to roll back Georgian forces from South Ossetia was justified.

An initial announcement of the Russian military action was made by a Vladimir Putin spokesman, who told reporters that “war has started today in South Ossetia.” Medvedev’s appearances were confined to choreographed meetings with Putin and top security officials. He did not make a televised address to the nation to explain the rationale for sending Russian troops into combat with Georgia.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili went on the air with Bloomberg News just hours after the Russian forces entered South Ossetia on August 8. In the days that followed after the war with Russia began, he logged in five hours of air time in 20 appearances on CNN, the BBC, Sky News, Bloomberg News and other outlets. Georgia's public-relations firm, Aspect Consulting, has dispatched some 200 e-mailed press releases to journalists.

Saakashvili succeeded in getting his message across to the international audiences that Georgia was a victim of Russian aggression and that Russia’s objective is to destroy pro-Western democracy in Georgia. He effectively manipulated Western public opinion by tapping into the clich?s about Russia that portray it as an inherently aggressive and bullying nation that does not share Western democratic values. Although his media blitz did not help him win the war, as his army dissipated under the Russian assault, he did succeed in mobilizing Western public support for Georgia that left little room for maneuver for Western governments. He also managed to cover up his own recklessness and miscalculation in sending Georgian troops into South Ossetia in violation of international agreements.

nly during the third week of the crisis, after Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, did the Russian government begin its own media offensive. On advice by Ketchum, a U.S. PR-agency hired by Moscow, president Medvedev and prime minister Putin gave lengthy interviews to major international news organizations, including live appearances on CNN, BBC, ARD, and Al Jazeera. Medvedev published an opinion piece in the Financial Times, explaining his reasons for recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Ketchum began emailing press-releases to Western journalists presenting the Russian side of the story.

This effort may be too little too late as the battle for Western public opinion appears to have been lost by Russia despite the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in modern media infrastructure, including several foreign language TV channels and sophisticated websites.

The question is why Russia has been so inept in presenting its case before Western audiences at the time when it clearly had the means and the capability to be much more effective. Why did they blow it? Is it a lack of understanding of how the Russian action would inevitably be perceived in the West? Is it a lack of capable English-speaking spokesmen for the Russian government? Is it a sense of tardiness to engage Western reporters and embed them with Russian forces? What should have Russia done differently to counter Saakashvili’s media blitz? Or was the outcome preordained by the enormous bias against Russia in Western media? What should be Russia’s way forward from here?

Eugene Ivanov, Innovation Program Manager at InnoCentive, Boston:

The notion that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has won a propaganda war in the conflict over South Ossetia reminds me of an old joke. Two Russian immigrants are chatting on Brighton Beach in New York City. One of them says, “Don’t you think that after all these years in America, it’s time for us to finally learn English?” A car stops by, and a driver, an American, asks for directions. The two Russians stay silent. Realizing that no answer is coming, the American drives away. The second immigrant points to the leaving car and observes: “Well, did his English help him?”

In truth, president Saakashvili’s media performance has been impressive, if somewhat theatrical and, at times, entirely hysterical. But the superb organization of the media blitz only proves one thing: everything – both Georgia’s military assault in South Ossetia and its media coverage – has been planned well in advance. One doesn’t just send out 200 e-mailed press releases on a spur of a moment.

Characteristically, Saakashvili began his media offense on August 8, when it became clear that the military part of the whole operation had spectacularly failed, leaving him about to finish with less than when he started. From this point on, his attempts to portray “democratic Georgia” as a victim of unprovoked Russian aggression have served only one overreaching goal: to ensure his own political survival. (“L'?tat, c'est moi!”)

The fact that Saakashvili and Western media outlets were singing the same song is hardly surprising: you begin a sentence with “Putin” (or “KGB,” or both) and these smart guys from CNN or BBC will finish it for you. However, whether Saakashvili has been successful in making a long-lasting impact on Western public opinion remains to be seen. Let’s not confuse Western public opinion with election campaign rhetoric of those whose opinions are heavily influenced by a pro-Georgian lobby.

And the question of whether Saakashvili’s media savvy has impressed his compatriots is a completely separate issue. Those who know Georgians, a people with an acute sense of national pride, would understand how humiliating this military defeat – or any military defeat for that matter – must be for them. I suspect that the vast majority of Georgians, including Saakashvili’s circle of close advisers – and, perhaps, even Saakashvili himself – would trade his “victory” in a propaganda war in a heartbeat for something more tangible.

Russia’s handling of the media aspect of the conflict has been sloppy as usual (but who actually expected something different?). In part, this could be attributed to the confusion of the first 12 hours after the beginning of the Georgian attack. When you’re trying to reach someone in Tbilisi or attempting to get the UN Security Council involved – all in vain – the last thing you would think of is a TV interview with a foreign source.

Yet, I suspect that both Medvedev and Putin were unpleasantly surprised with the effectiveness with which Saakashvili has been able to sell his interpretation of the events to the rest of the world. I feel that this fact alone, rather than persuasive arguments by Ketchum, has prompted the Kremlin to launch a delayed media counter offense. Hence Medvedev’s interviews with CNN, BBC, TF1, and Al Jazeera and Putin’s unparalleled solo performances on CNN and ARD. The intrinsic limits of this avenue were highlighted by the fact that of the total 45 minutes of the CNN interview with Putin, only 3 were broadcasted in the United States, and only 9 minutes of the one-hour ARD interview were broadcasted in Germany.

A number of Russian officials have shown that they can be reliable communicators in critical situations. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn has turned out to be a surprisingly effective spokesperson. Next time (sounds awful!) he could host a media-center feeding Russian and foreign press corps with the news in real time. Vitaly Churkin at the United Nations has been good, too, with his meticulously measured bursts of outrage. On the other hand, Foreign Minister Lavrov has been sorely disappointing. He completely forgot that his job was to explain the Russian position, rather than settling petty scores with his American and French counterparts.

Next, Russia’s interpretation of the conflict – especially of its initial phase – has been certainly helped by the more nuanced approaches taken by two European heavyweights, Le Monde and Der Spiegel.

In the end, judging from Tuesday’s resolution at the EU summit, has Russia lost the propaganda war very badly?
Looking beyond this, every war, including propaganda war, requires weapons and ammunition. Russia must energetically continue the development of its own media resources capable of targeting the world’s public opinion. English-speaking Russia Today has done a superb job covering the conflict. Money spent on RT expansion will be money well spent.

The only mistake that the Kremlin should not be making is to believe the idea that sending a bunch of articulate English-speaking spokesmen in front of ADR, BBC, CNN, or TF1 cameras will let the truth speak for itself.
The Western media isn’t interested in “Russian” truth. Besides, can it actually handle it?

Andrei Liakhov, Doctor of Law, Professor, London:

As I understand, the Russians were caught off guard by the Georgians, who planned the whole PR campaign well in advance. For example, Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze participated in a conference call with a number of leading investment banks and fund managers on August 9. Everyone who is involved in corporate finance knows perfectly well that the so-called investor conference calls take several weeks to arrange.

Furthermore, the Georgians had embedded reporters, invited a number of foreign correspondents to Tbilisi and had prepared for almost every scenario.

The Russians, however, had not prepared for the public relations aspect of this easily predictable conflict.
In addition, the timing of the operation was perfect from the PR point of view; Moscow was completely empty (everyone who is anyone was either at the Beijing Olympics or on holidays). Had the Georgian assault been successful, the Western media would not have even noticed it. Thus there was no one to comment or make public statements when required. The overcentralized system of media management prevented any notable Russian official from commenting in the wake of the Georgian assault. However, this is only partially true. Russian domestic media coverage was excellent and it is surprising, to say the least, that the Western media showed no interest in the Russian side of the story. For example, no Western correspondent applied to the Russian Ministry of Defense to be sent to South Ossetia on Friday, August 9... What is also true of the Western media coverage of the story is open manipulation of the footage - both CNN, Fox and the BBC showed footage of burned Georgian tanks in Tskhinvali, while Russian tanks destroyed by Georgian troops in Gori were ignored. Columns of retreating Georgian forces were reported as "Russians advance on Tbilisi" despite obvious differences in camouflage and markings.

The experience of the first three days showed two things: firstly, Western media is tightly controlled and is incapable of any initiative; and secondly, it is not enough to use and launch English language TV stations to get one's message across - these must be supported by the powerful pro-Russian lobby in the West which is simply not there yet.
As it stands, Russia is suffering from what the Pentagon defines as the "Tet Syndrome" - i.e. an inability to earn political advantages from a clear military victory. Reasons for that are numerous, ranging from the excessive “reticence” of the Kremlin administration (in the widest sense of the word) to lack of a powerful pro-Russian lobby in the West.

James George Jatras, Director, American Council for Kosovo, Washington:

If there’s a war and only one side is fighting, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who’s going to win. Information warfare is no exception.

Stark, black full-page advertisements have been run in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and possibly other newspapers, with the following message: “Lenin. Stalin. Putin. Give in? Enough is enough. Support Georgia.” The reader is then referred to the website

The SOS Georgia website has for a long time dedicated itself to anti-Russian malice. It attributes the actions of today’s post-communist Russia to those of the Soviet Union in Hungary, the Czech Republic (in 1968 it was Czechoslovakia), Afghanistan, and other places. But it is notably short on information relating to who is running this propaganda and disinformation mill. The site’s “About Us” link would have one think the effort reflects nothing more than “some friends” in Tbilisi. Given the cost of the adverts, it is unlikely that SOS Georgia is funded by just a few “friends” passing the hat. Maybe some intrepid members of the media might track down the funding sources, but I’m not holding my breath. I doubt Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime has had to foot the bill. Who are the likely suspects – Boris Berezovsky? George Soros? Maybe some agencies of the U.S. government? All of the above?

Besides its obviously copious level of financial support, the SOS Georgia campaign is noteworthy for two key aspects: firstly, it expresses itself in an American turn of phrase, not a Georgian one, while making use of Georgian sources as needed; and secondly, its “dumbed down” appeal to some Americans’ anti-Russian prejudice among those who probably don’t even know where Georgia is (evidently Stalin is a Russian now) to craft a simplistic “good guys (Georgians) vs. bad guys (Russians)” presentation untroubled by the historical, political, and demographic complexities of the Caucasus. That is, SOS Georgia, along with the rest of the anti-Russia info-war, has adroitly packaged itself in a manner designed to resonate in the American psyche.

Along with its tardiness, the Russian counter-effort is entirely deficient in this crucial area. Yes, it is important to get statements and interviews of Russian officials out there in the Western media. Yes, it is important to have presentable, English-speaking Russian spokesmen available. But to reach the necessary range of American opinion it is also necessary to “nativize” – to Americanize – the Russian message for maximum resonance, as SOS Georgia has done.

This means combining substance with political influence and a media-savvy rapid response “war room” (essential for U.S. political campaigns) for factual, unapologetic, and, most importantly, fast delivery of the Russian message (again, in an American voice) to the points of influence. U.S. media, think tanks, the administration, Congress, public interest groups, etc., need to know: “If you want the straight story on Moscow’s side of things, come to us. Here is why a measured approach to the crisis is in the American interest.” Even more important than giving Russian spokesmen some media attention, favorable and authoritative American voices, targeted toward specific audiences, need to be mobilized.

A program of this sort goes well beyond the one-dimensional “public relations” approach on which Moscow has thus far lavished its resources with little to show for it. Like the SOS Georgia message, a Russian counter-effort must take, as its guideline, the Americans’ lack of knowledge about the specifics of the region of conflict. It must also tie into increasing concerns in the United States that globally we already have bitten off more than we can chew and don’t need to pick a new fight, this time with the Russians. In short, the message needs to be crafted not primarily from the perspective of what Russia wants to say; instead, it must tap into what Americans already may be thinking and what their existing anxieties may be. This also suggests the value of polling, focus groups, and other standard research tools to target the intended audience effectively. Finally, to the extent possible, the case must be presented briefly and in categorical black-and-white terms, as SOS Georgia has done to good effect. We Americans have little patience for lengthy, detailed analysis or nuance. If you can’t put it on a bumper sticker, it isn’t worth saying.

By all odds, the anti-Russia bias prevalent in the American media, as well as the bipartisan foreign policy elite – whether it’s the “liberal interventionists” of the Joseph Biden, Madeleine Albright, or Richard Holbrooke mold, or the assorted neoconservatives and “Vulcans” who dominate the GOP apparatus – will remain a serious problem. But it is incorrect to say the outcome is preordained by such bias. What it means is that Russia is fighting an uphill battle and cannot afford to confine itself to the passive and pro forma effort it has made so far. Moscow has to be willing to commit resources to a sustained, incremental operation without expecting any rapid turnaround (of course a similar effort in Europe is imperative). If properly managed, a retooled opinion campaign can begin to address not only Russian vulnerabilities that the pro-Saakashvili mouthpieces have exploited, but to take advantage of the strengths Moscow can bring to bear, especially those relating to perceptions of declining American power.

Russia cannot afford to dawdle in putting in motion a strong, pro-active American program. There will be other, perhaps worse, crises to come. The aim of SOS Georgia and the rest of the pro-Saakashvili agitprop is to do to Russia today what was done to Serbia in the 1990s. That outcome still can and must be prevented.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow:

The answer to the question of “why Russia is losing the media war” is very simple: the number of professionals in Russia who simultaneously possess the foreign policy, journalism, and debating skills in perfect English is very limited. Even for the domestic audiences when the commentary or debate is performed in Russian, the list of available specialists is not that much longer. Otherwise, why would we see the same faces over and over again? And why are the main TV channels so desperate for presenters that they often have no choice but to invite such pathetic figures as the former Politburo members or other communist apparatchiks to comment on the hot issues? What kind or credible opinion can these people offer besides the old Soviet style propaganda?

On the other hand, Tbilisi has a rather impressive number of media experts at its disposal. They include western PR and lobbying advisors like Aspect Consulting, Orion Strategies, and other less known firms which orchestrated a huge flow of favorable press releases and organized dozens of radio, TV and print media interviews for Saakashvili and his team.

The fact that many Georgian government officials, including Saakashvili, studied in the United States or Europe, speak foreign languages and have been widely exposed to the ways the Western media operates also played a certain role.

However, I think the most important factor in this informational warfare was that Washington, to a large degree, was able to convince the world’s public opinion that Georgia is a small and proud nation which pledged allegiance to the West but faces a mortal threat from the Russian bear who is trying to resurrect the Soviet empire.

Of course, the list of Georgian advantages will not be full if we do not mention Saakashvili’s hiring of lobbyist Randy Scheunemann, who is the current foreign affairs adviser to the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain. “Misha” paid Scheunemann hundreds of thousands of dollars and this is when the average salary of a Georgian worker is around $50 per month. Scheunemann worked hard for this money and delivered many direct links between Saakashvili, McCain, and other key players in Washington. It’s no wonder that McCain, and other well known U.S. politicians, are the strongest supporters of Georgia in its conflict with Russia.

As a result, for the first few days of the August armed conflict, Russia was definitely losing the information war. However, when the real facts and truth started to emerge, more and more media reports began to present a more realistic and balanced picture. A very impressive flow of objective articles appeared practically in all major U.S. and European papers. I personally think that one of the best so far was brilliantly written by the famous political writer Francis Fukuyama in Financial Times on September 2.

So, it appears that the best media coverage in Russia’s favor was made, ironically, by the Western and not Russian journalists and experts. This should tell the Kremlin something.

I recall my meeting with Gorbachev’s right-hand man Alexander Yakovlev back in 1989 when he asked the visiting American delegation what in our opinion should be done to help to smooth their most difficult transition from totalitarianism to freedom. Our humble advice to him was to open as many Western-type business schools as possible to educate a new class of Russian free market managers. The question of PR never crossed our minds since we were absolutely sure that the United States and Europe would welcome the new Russia with open arms and therefore there would be no more need for propaganda or, as it is termed in the West, PR.

However, if we were asked the same question now, I’d guess our advice would be to quickly develop a substantial amount of educational programs with the joint major in political science, international journalism and PR.

Darren Spinck, Principal, Global Strategic Communications Group, Washington, DC:

The saying “there is no such thing as bad press” does not apply to Russia’s rapidly growing PR problem, which is having an impact on everything from its relations with Euro-Atlantic institutions to its previously red hot economy (Russian shares are down 30 percent since May). Russia’s image in the West has been an ongoing difficulty for quite some time, but was greatly magnified following the recent armed conflict with Georgia. It is now widely agreed that Russia masterfully won the military operation, but Georgia succeeded in portraying Russia as a ruthless aggressor and won the PR war.

The battle for public opinion was overwhelmingly dominated by Georgia primarily for the following reasons: Georgia’s rapid response, the use of new media, American and European policy influencers speaking on behalf of Georgia’s point of view, and Georgia’s lobbying operation complementing the PR program.

While President Dmitry Medvedev and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov should be applauded for communicating Russia’s standpoint, their efforts and speed in such endeavor paled in comparison to those of Mikheil Saakashvili. Although Saakashvili does not know much about how to properly execute a military operation, he is skilled at manipulating the media and using sound bites to sway public opinion. During his interview with CNN on August 8, Saakashvili breathlessly compared Russia’s military operation to the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. These points were parroted by policy makers, decision influencers, and journalists including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and influential FOX News commentator Bill O’Reilly. By successfully portraying Russia as an aggressive invader early on, Saakashvili turned the Western media and much of the world against Russia and no amount of spin by the Russian side would change this.

With a 24-hour news cycle, public relations firms should no longer rely on the tried but no longer true method of solely pumping out press releases to spin a client’s story. The use of opinion-editorials, email distributions, and advertising are also effective, but Georgia has used new media sources such as websites, blogs, and social networking sites to turn public opinion against Russia.

The recently developed SOS Georgia website was launched with a flurry of advertisements in major media outlets such as Financial Times and The Washington Post. Visitors to the site are bombarded with anti-Russian vitriol. What is particularly impressive about SOS Georgia is its “analysis” section which dissects other media stories and spins Georgia’s points. Although the site lacks some effective tools such as the ability to contact policy makers, there are no English language sites comparable in support of Russia.

While the social networking site Facebook is not the best tool to influence policy makers, it is quite effective at reaching an influential demographic - highly educated 18-35 year olds. One Facebook group “Stop Russian Aggression against Georgia” has 22,000 subscribers, more than the registered subscribers for both the Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin groups. As a point of comparison, the Facebook group “Georgia Attacked Russia, Russia Responded” has 537 subscribers. Many of these young and educated Facebook subscribers supporting Georgia have turned the blogosphere against Russia, whipping up Russophobic sentiments not seen in such abundance since the Cold War.

Russia cannot win the PR war without support from American and European surrogate speakers. president Medvedev, prime minister Putin, and first deputy prime minister Ivanov are capable and articulate. But just as a political candidate utilizes surrogate speakers to communicate the campaign’s message, so too should Russia in its campaign to improve its image. In addition to Saakashvili hitting the airwaves, countless decision influencers spoke out in support of Georgia. This was not a coincidence. Through the education and media training of prominent American and European policy makers and commentators, Russia too could revel in effective, positive PR.

Quite simply, PR and lobbying go hand in hand. A strategic PR program for a country should always include a lobbying component. Georgia understands the importance of lobbying, while Russia does not. The results are obvious. For years, Georgia has pushed for NATO membership. The U.S. media has not generally understood the negative ramifications of NATO membership for Georgia and has included many Georgian talking points in articles and commentaries. As long as Georgia influences Washington and Brussels, Russia must be prepared to counter with a lobbying operation of its own. Russia can do this through a combination of programs, such as developing an NGO to communicate Russia’s messages to Western audiences, direct meetings with U.S. and European leaders/policy makers, and white papers/conferences developed to educate policy makers and the media about Russia’s policy decisions.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, & Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C. :

Russia has not merely lost the media war with respect to its decision to send forces across the Georgian-Russian border – it has convinced most European leaders that they cannot regard Russian foreign policy objectives as benign (even if they are not willing at this time to adopt sanctions against Russia).

For the Russian leadership to claim that it was motivated by humanitarian or legitimate security concerns is not credible. No media campaign can change that perception no matter how well designed. It is troubling that the Russian government did not anticipate that its actions would be counter-productive and believe that its “public diplomacy” could expect its media relations to achieve goals that cannot only be obtained by concrete actions.
Whatever legitimate complaints the Ossetians may have against the Georgian central government, the fact that separatists received weapons and other support from a foreign power undermined their cause.

Almost from the beginning, Russian official statements were inconsistent with the Russian armed forces' operations. Prime minister Putin accused the United States of using Georgia as a weapon against Russia, when most indications seem to show that the United States sought to constrain the ill-advised actions of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. That the Russian political establishment might feel militarily threatened by a Georgian army numbering fewer than 25,000 may be indicative of how tenuous it perceives its hold on parts of its country.
History is likely to show that the long-term consequences of Russia have been overwhelmingly negative. Russia's neighbors are becoming increasingly vigilant in monitoring Russian foreign economic, military and political actions. Russia has strengthened foreign political leaders and analysts who have long argued that it cannot be trusted.
Throughout the world, international borders are arbitrary. The nationality of populations within a given territory is generally not uniform and while some central governments will consider permitting particular regions of their countries greater autonomy, few will stand idly by and react passively to what may be the first stage of their dismemberment. Most world leaders oppose the disproportionate use of force in a conflict by a more powerful against a weaker state. Both world public opinion and international law do not favor “ethnic cleansing.”

Ultimately, Russia's foreign “adventure” will harm the citizens of the Russian Federation. Officers and directors of foreign companies will find it more difficult to convince their shareholders to pursue investment opportunities in Russia. While the withdrawal of Western capital has led to a dramatic decline in the Russian stock market, it is also a harbinger of a decline in the Russian economy. Economic hardship inevitably will have political and social consequences in a country. Such a situation is not desirable for Russians and foreigners alike.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

Russia does not lack capable English speakers. Rather, it lost the information war because it has a bad story. Its war in Georgia is one of provocation before the war, aggression and efforts to dismember Georgia afterwards, prolonged occupation and violation of its own ceasefire.

Drunken Russian soldiers looting the population, false claims about Georgian genocide and war crimes that may yet be counterbalanced by truer accounts of bad Russian behavior - beyond that, Russia is threatening everyone in sight to show that it is a great power even if they send humanitarian aid to Georgia. In other words, the Russian line is one of mendacity, provocation, aggression, belligerence, and undisciplined raiding.

Compounding this is the failure of its leadership to address foreign audiences and the fact that when they do so they resort to the kind of language analogous to the behaviors described above. All this suggests, firstly, that the Russian leadership is still uninformed and does not understand the West, and is relying upon slanted and deliberately falsified intelligence reporting, and, secondly, that it believes the West can be manipulated as easily as its own supine media or that it does not have to explain itself to anyone, the hallmark of autocratic behavior. In any case, it is an old truism in public relations that you cannot successfully put lipstick on a pig and succeed in persuading people that it is not a pig. A bad story falls of its own account, especially in an atmosphere of open media in a 24-hour news cycle. Russia's invasion of Georgia, like our invasion of Iraq, is just such a story – and the government's behavior merely confirms it.

If the purpose or one purpose of the invasion is to demonstrate Russia's great power status, it has also been to display Russian arrogance to all concerned. In that respect, the invasion has succeeded. It has revealed the true face of the regime, i.e. mendacity, provocation, aggression, and a neo-imperial swagger leavened by a general boorishness. Ultimately no amount of media massaging, Ketchum notwithstanding, can overcome so deeply rooted and historically entrenched a reality and set of behaviors.

Ira Straus, U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Russia in NATO:

Russia protests too much. Despite all Russia's media heavy-handedness, and all of Georgia’s media connections, Georgia was losing the media war – until Russia blew it, moving its forces beyond South Ossetia into Georgia proper and Abkhazia, then staying there overtime, breaking its commitment not only to Georgia but to the entire EU about a pullback.

First, people need to remember that Georgia was losing in the media after the first day or two of major fighting. It had sent in massive force, abrogating its unilateral cease-fire after only a few hours, and had made a very media-unsavvy proclamation of a mission of restoring constitutional order in South Ossetia. It was dawning on people in the West that Saakashvili was a hothead. Despite all the deep suspicions of Russia, and despite the knowledge that Russia has been provoking this conflict for months, the trend of thinking in the West was that we should have put more emphasis on warning and restraining Saakashvili.

Then Russia quickly moved in en masse, a mass that greatly overshadowed Georgia’s. While it presented this as reactive, evidence soon began pouring in that its move was well underway by the time of Georgia’s main moves. Further reminders began seeping into the media about how Russian forces had been massed along the border in the last several months, unilaterally breaking previous agreements. It gave an air of plausibility to the claims of Georgia that it was all fully premeditated on Moscow’s part, and further, that Georgia’s own reactions were reactive and defensive, even though this latter claim doesn’t sit well with the fact that Georgia had earlier put out a statement about restoring constitutional order.

There is still in the West a pretty strong impression of Georgian hotheadedness, but it is overshadowed by the impression of Russian premeditation. An aggressiveness that, as various neighbors of Russia have taken the occasion to warn, could be turned on almost any other country nearby, on similar pretexts of protecting its ethnic clients.

A pall is cast over all other relations by the Georgia war. No matter how stupid Saakashvili was, and he is still somewhat discredited in the West, no one around here is going to make any excuses for the way Russia had provoked the war over a course of months, prepared for it, and seized on it for obviously premeditated purposes.
It seems Putin has done in Medvedev as an international actor for some time to come. Any chance of improved relations is now years off, whether or not one believes in the sincerity in Medvedev’s overture language of a mere couple months ago.

It is necessary to belabor the obvious on some of these points. Russia will be judged more severely than Georgia. That is as it ought to be. Russia is a great power and Georgia isn’t. Russia can be a threat to lots of other countries, Georgia can't.

It was one thing for Georgia to break its unilateral cease-fire, whatever its motive (whether hotheadedness, or intelligence about Russian troop movements). It was another thing for Russia to break its signed cease-fire commitment to the EU and the entire world, for no reason except that it didn't want to keep it.

Such things have severe consequences. In this case, it’s time to stop blaming others for the consequences. Russia brought the consequences upon itself.

Ditto when Russia proceeded to recognize the two statelets it was sponsoring, just days after calling for international talks on their status. It turned the whole thing into an exercise in territorial conquest, no matter what the complexities of the earlier historical background in the region. Don't blame the media for giving this impression; blame the reality of Russian actions for repeatedly giving and verifying this impression.

It is unfortunate for those of us who didn’t want a new Cold War. The New Cold Warriors are having a field day, McCain among them. Putin has noticed this, and proceeded with his conspiratorial mindset to accuse George Bush of plotting the war as a gift to McCain. There is an element of projection in this, as Putin did indeed inevitably have a major part in the preplanning for this war, and perhaps doesn’t like the consequence that he gave such a big gift to McCain. It is on a par with his old conspiracy theories that were used for blaming the independent media in Russia for things like the sinking of the Kursk where it was Putin’s power organs that bore the real responsibility; and proceeding to enforce this paranoid projective mentality by suppressing the independent media. However, it won’t work as well with America: he lacks the reach for suppressing media or politicians in America, his paranoid comment is simply counterproductive here.

It seems to me that the price Russia will pay for its minuscule territorial gains will be global and long-lasting. And this has nothing to do with media bias; it is the bitter reality of a logical and unavoidable consequence of what was done.
What happens to the NATO agreements not to station bases and permanent troops in the new NATO member states around Russia? Those agreements and pledges were made on condition that those countries were not facing any threat (from Russia). They are nullified by Russia’s action. The new NATO members now have a clear perception of threat, with evidence to back it up. The agreement with Poland, hastily concluded within days of the Russian “peacekeeping” operation, is symptomatic. Poland had long been demanding a U.S. base presence for its protection from Russian wrath, as its quid pro quo for agreeing to a U.S. ABM radar on Polish soil, and now it will have it: the two sides suddenly became quick about making the necessary compromises and getting it done. There is already discussion of a need for bases and forces in the Baltic area. The arguments for it are almost depressingly clear and logical.

Will the Ukrainian population now make up its mind to join NATO? It used to seem that there was no way the Ukrainian government could convince its people to want to join NATO against Russia (as distinct from joining NATO alongside Russia, something Ukrainians would always have been ready to do) – not unless Russia attacked Ukraine directly. Now it may be that Russia has achieved the equivalent effect indirectly, by attacking Georgia. Maybe, maybe not. We’ll have to await polls to find out, and see how the debate in Ukraine develops. If enough Ukrainians do want to join NATO to make it a viable proposition, it may well be that NATO will throw all the other secondary membership criteria to the wind, since those were meant for an era of leisurely exercises in building decent-quality democracies, not for urgent strategic defense of new democracies. Today there is a strategic stake on quick action.
If Ukraine does join NATO, yet another thing may now go by the wayside – the old pledges that this would not mean NATO bases on Ukrainian soil. And the tolerance for Russia’s naval base might wear thin even before the lease runs out; already years ago there were stories and reports from the Orange leadership, the veracity of which I do not know, of it being used as a threat to damage Ukraine's political sovereignty.
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