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Analysis & Opinion
09.09.08 The Blame Game
By Shaun Walker

TBILISI, Georgia/ According to the Georgian version of events, its assault on South Ossetia was not an attack but a defensive play against a Russian invasion that was already underway and had indeed been planned for months. It was quite probably the first stage of an evil master plan by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev to resurrect the Soviet Union, and would be followed up by Russian tanks rolling into Crimea, Estonia and who knows where else. They had been warning everyone for months that this was on the cards, and the West had failed to believe them due to “shortsightedness” and an addiction to the Russian energy teat.

Believe the Russians, and the push into Georgia was a heroic defence of the small, beleaguered South Ossetian people against a vicious genocide perpetrated by the “lunatic” Mikheil Saakashvili and his band of American puppets. The Georgians, having lapped up American funding and training for their army, and were itching to send it into South Ossetia and Abkhazia to annihilate the brave and peaceful peoples living there as part of a plan to restore a “Georgia for the Georgians.” Russia had not sought conflict, but acted only when it was forced to defend its citizens and peacekeepers against the maniacal regime of a bloodthirsty nutcase. They had been warning everyone for months that this was in stock, and the West had failed to believe them due to the money and effort that had been pumped into Saakashvili’s country as part of a subversive, anti-Russian campaign.

Both versions contain elements of truth hidden amongst exaggeration and falsehood. The Georgians, due to a better organised PR campaign, and possibly a more sympathetic audience, got their message across to the international media far more efficiently. Many television stations and newspapers reported quite a few events that did not happen – the systematic destruction of Gori, the Russian march on Tbilisi, atrocities committed against civilians in Poti and Senaki – as fact. For journalists, getting into South Ossetia to assess the damage done by Georgians was difficult both due to initial danger and then to reporting restrictions imposed by the Russian side. Here, too, there was a good deal of false information, with early claims of “2,000 dead in Tskhinvali” rapidly downgraded.

It was not long after the first shots were fired that accusations of guilt followed from all sides, and weeks after a ceasefire agreement was signed between Russia and Georgia, one of the key, unresolved questions of the conflicts remains: who started it?

Despite the protests of both sides that their operations were an ad hoc response to aggression; it’s clear that both parties have been preparing for a military fracas for some time. The Georgians, with their vast increase in military spending, sent troops to Iraq to give them battle experience, and built a great deal of military infrastructure in and around Gori, very close to South Ossetia. On a visit to Tskhinvali way back in 2006, the South Ossetian leadership were furious at the military buildup in Gori, which they took as a sign that the Georgians were not serious about negotiations and were merely biding their time until they could launch a military assault.

The Russians, on the other hand, had been amassing troops in the North Caucasus during the previous months, and had carried out several training exercises that seemed to be preparation for just such a conflict. Other interventions appear suspicious in retrospect, such as the team of military engineers that worked to fix the railway in Abkhazia in the months preceding the conflict.

The exact sequence of events leading up to the Georgian assault on South Ossetia on the evening of Thursday, August 7, is murky in the extreme. Georgian officials close to Saakashvili, including one who was in the room at the time he gave the order to attack, insisted in conversations that the president was merely responding to an invasion of South Ossetia by Russia through the Roki Tunnel. The assault on Tskhinvali, they say, was a strategic decision aimed at halting the Russian advance as early as possible. This is the line that Saakashvili has tried to sell to the Western press and leaders.

But on the evidence available, it seems to be a false one. There was certainly shelling of Georgian villages on an unprecedented scale by South Ossetian separatists in the days leading up to August 7, and then on the evening of August 7, after Saakashvili had offered an unconditional ceasefire. But at the time, there was no mention of a Russian invasion. It wasn’t until the next morning, well after the assault on Tskhinvali was underway, that the Georgians reported the Russian tanks moving through Roki. They only started claiming that the Russians came through the Roki Tunnel from North Ossetia before the Georgian assault days later. On that Thursday night, the only talk, from a Georgian general, was of “restoring constitutional order” in South Ossetia. It was fairly clear that the operation in question was an attack against the rebels to stop the shelling, and not a defensive counterpoint to an invasion. The Georgians have been unable to produce satellite pictures, or any other hard evidence, that proves that the Russian invasion was the first move.

This is not to say that the Russians were not ready for battle, and they quickly seized on Saakashvili’s bizarre decision to go for an all-out attack, and rolled thousands of troops through the tunnel and into South Ossetia, routing the Georgian Army in not much time at all. South Ossetian troops also played their part in the battles; when I was taken into Tskhinvali by an Ossetian militia just a few hours after the Georgians had been flushed out, there was little sign of Russian troops in the town and hundreds of jubilant Ossetians riding through the streets in tanks.

There is some circumstantial evidence that Russia was spoiling for a fight. One Russian journalist said that he arrived in Tskhinvali on August 6 to find 50 Russian journalists already there, who had been bussed in and told to expect something big. But the Georgians have not been able to produce any convincing evidence of a Russian invasion prior to their launching of the attack on South Ossetia, nor have they been able to explain why they did not mention the attack at the time, and until they can do one or both of these, the idea that the Tskhinvali assault was defensive seems like an attempt at cynical manipulation of the facts.

But the Russians, as usual, appeared to have seized defeat from the jaws of victory in terms of their international image. When Saakashvili finally acted like the reckless gambler they had been warning the West about for months, they had been given the moral high ground and few could have begrudged a limited Russian incursion into South Ossetia to push back the Georgians.

Instead, the Russians moved into Georgia, lingering behind in several places well outside any buffer zone, even after they promised a retreat. Moreover, the Russians failed to stop revenge attacks and human rights abuses by Ossetian and other irregular militias in zones that they controlled. This is perhaps the area where the Russians have most questions to answer. The Georgians accuse the Russians of a cynical policy of turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing and burning to ensure that Georgian populated areas become uninhabitable. This may be taking it too far, but it’s difficult to understand why Russian soldiers allowed so much looting, especially on the road between Tskhinvali and Gori, which Russia controlled.

In the villages of Karaleti and Tkviavi, well inside Georgia proper, terrified residents endured days of looting and attacks, and this after Russian jets had bombed Tkviavi extensively on August 12. Tkviavi was a village inhabited mainly by elderly people, and was bombed days after the Georgian Army had left the area. With actions like this, Russia lost the moral credibility it had built up as the guarantor of South Ossetia’s security.

In the end, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that everybody was a loser in this conflict. The South Ossetians have got the independence they long dreamed of, but at a horrific price. The Georgians have lost much trust in the West and all hope of regaining their breakaway zones for a generation at least. The Russians have dealt a humiliating blow to one of their biggest foes and scored several strategic victories over NATO and the West, but may well find that by pushing the situation too far they have eroded the trust that other countries had in Russia, and provided a boon to the “New Cold War” brigade, who now feel justified in crowing that they were right all along and Russia can’t be trusted. In the long run, this could outweigh the gains.
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