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Analysis & Opinion
28.11.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Has Russia Been Vindicated?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Moscow is having the last laugh in the international war of words over Russia’s brief war with Georgia last August. Back then, Russia, while quickly routing the Georgian military, squarely lost the propaganda battle with Mikheil Saakashvili, who managed, with the help of Western PR consultants and his impressive English skills, to convince the international public that Georgia was a blameless victim of blatant and unprovoked Russian aggression, meant to destroy Georgia’s democracy. It now appears that Saakashvili’s side of the story is being challenged by the very Western media he so successfully exploited to rally Western support for his regime.

Contributors: Patrick Armstrong, Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Edward Lozansky, Nicolai Petro

Recent reporting from the Caucasus has put Georgia’s account of the origins of the war in question. A New York Times investigation by two veteran correspondents found that the shelling of civilian areas in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, began much earlier than the Georgian authorities had alleged.

A BBC documentary exposed the Georgian forces’ rampage in South Ossetia’s capital. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports also accused Georgian forces of deliberately targeting civilians and using cluster bombs in populated areas. OSCE military monitors (veteran British military officers, of all people) told the New York Times, BBC, NPR, other Western media outlets and even NATO military attach?s that the Russian forces entered South Ossetia eight to ten hours after Georgia began bombing Tskhinvali, and that Georgian forces attacked the positions of Russian peacekeepers.

Saakashvili skillfully exploited American statements that Georgia is on a path toward consolidated democracy, and that NATO membership was guaranteed. Mixed messages coming from the United States, most notably from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, contributed to the Georgian government’s sense that a successful war would get U.S. approval.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called the Georgian government “reckless” in its military actions, and the European Union has formed a commission to investigate Saakashvili’s behavior to determine whether international laws were violated.

Has Russia been vindicated? Has Saakashvili been exposed as an aggressor and a reckless gambler who, for his immediate political gain, exploited the goodwill of his Western allies and even tried to set them up for a confrontation with Russia? How will the West act in this situation? Will the United States and the EU withdraw their support for Saakashvili, allowing Georgian opposition forces to remove him from power? How will the West view Russia, now that its claims that it was responding to Georgian aggression have been proven true? Will Russia be more respected as a responsible world power, or will it continue to be viewed with suspicion and fear as an aggressive and unpredictable power? Have Russian media strategies proven more successful than those of Georgia?

Professor Nicolai N. Petro, Department of Political Science, Washburn Hall, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI:
The fact that the elite media got the Russia-Georgia conflict wrong does not mean that it got Russia right. To this day, the incident is still framed as an invasion of Georgia, rather than a humanitarian intervention. Russia's legal justification for intervention has been studiously ignored (an exception being an article by yours truly, forthcoming in the Fordham International Law Journal), although without them Russia's actions can only be interpreted as aggression. We should recognize that the media line has shifted only slightly, from condemning Russia for invading Georgia, to condemning Russia for "overreacting" to Georgia's use of military force.

Nor should we underestimate the anger felt by Russian elites at their unfair portrayal in the West. Without a new strategy by the Barack Obama administration to break with the stereotypical, knee-jerk assessments that are routinely advanced about Russia, relations will surely deteriorate, because there is simply no conceptual basis for improvement. Future disagreements will once again be cast as "tests" or "provocations," since this is the only interpretation of Russian policies that people gain from the mainstream media.

If there is to be change, it must come directly from the president of the United States. Only he can transform the image that Americans have of Russia, by using the bully pulpit in the same way that Richard Nixon used it to transform the image that Americans had of the "Red Chinese." It took many years, but his persistence eventually allowed for the emergence of an entirely new framework to view that country. A similarly dramatic shift needs to occur with respect to Russia, but it can only happen if Russia is treated as an essential ally in America's global strategy for the 21st century.

Patrick Armstrong, retired Russian Affairs Analyst for the Canadian Government, Ottawa:

Saakashvili seems to have completely lost his credibility among most of his Western supporters, who uncritically bought the line that Russia – in his own words – wanted to extinguish the shining city with tanks. This is best illustrated by the derision with which his claims that the Russians tried to assassinate him the other day have been received: even a Georgian news outlet showed lightly veiled disbelief. His versions of the reasons for the attack on South Ossetia are fading quickly, as he invents ever earlier Russian movements. The inquiry in Tbilisi on the causes of the war is falling apart – the testimony of Georgia’s former ambassador to Russia is particularly devastating.

In that respect, Moscow has been vindicated: its story, which has not changed, is holding up, while Saakashvili’s is collapsing. Even the U.S. State Department is trying to change the subject: “I think we need to get away from looking at, you know, who did what first, because as I said, I don’t think we’ll ever really get to the bottom of that,” said Robert Wood, a deputy spokesman of the Department of State, at a news briefing on November 7. “Who did what first” was very important indeed to the State Department a month or two ago.

“Have Russian media strategies proven more successful than those of Georgia?” I would say that it wasn’t clever “media strategies” that triumphed, it was the simple truth. Tbilisi’s attack on the sleeping inhabitants of Tskhinvali is too recent and too well attested to be forgotten: this is not something that slowly came to light as, for example, did the truth of Moscow’s allegations about the Pankisi Gorge; we can, in fact, “get to the bottom of that.” But it has nothing to do with Moscow’s rather poor skills of news management – despite fantasies in official Tbilisi which intimate that the OSCE observers were bought or suborned. Tbilisi had been preparing an invasion for some time, it lied about the sequence of events, and there is evidence to prove it and people who are angry enough to want to do so.

The West is still absorbing the fact that “Saakashvili lied 100 percent to all of us, the Europeans and the Americans.” The process will be slow and it will take time for Western governments to absorb this reality. Paris – perhaps because it has access to Salome Zurabishvili and Irakli Okruashvili, both former Saakashvili cabinet ministers now in opposition to him – understood the reality sooner than others. Perhaps people will start to learn that while, like most governments, Moscow lies some of the time, it does not lie all of the time.

My suspicion is that there will be a quiet replacement of Saakashvili by someone who is, how shall we put it, less volatile, but the real question will then be: will the West take a more realistic and fact-based view of Georgia and its problems with its large neighbor after he is gone?

The West has been gulled for years by Tbilisi. One can only hope that this latest Georgian catastrophe brought on by chauvinism and violence will finally destroy the Panglossian view of Georgia as a “shining city” menaced by Moscow.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow:

It looks like the mainstream Western media has not, after all, completely lost its integrity credentials. Correction: some media at least, since many outlets have not retracted their earlier exercises in propaganda warfare with Russia over the Caucasus military conflict and other international events. One of the leading voices in the “Russia the aggressor” campaign certainly belongs to the editorial section of the Washington Post, which from the old days carries a dubious title of “Pravda on Potomac.” Ironically, however, all those who wanted to know the truth could easily find it in the different sections of the same paper, for example, in the August 17 article by Peter Finn which he posted directly from Tskhinvali, or from the Post’s columnist Anne Applebaum on November 20, where she called for a halt to spreading disinformation (in Anne’s words, “mythmaking”) on Georgia.

Now there is an avalanche of information confirming Finn’s and Appelbaum’s stories, including that from the BBC and the New York Times correspondents, and even from the Georgian officials like Saakashvili’s confidant and Tbilisi’s former Ambassador to Moscow Erosi Kitsmarishvili.

All of them are clearly saying that it was Georgia’s president who gave the orders to start this war, which began with an indiscriminate killing of Ossetian civilians and Russian peacekeepers.

The irresponsible behavior on the part of the media, which tried and keeps trying to this day to spread false information, makes all of us who fought communism during the Cold War very sad indeed. In those days we believed the Western media to be our natural ally, and after communism collapsed, we have been doing our best to make Russia an integral part of the Western economic and security configuration. However, by presenting an unfair and distorted view of Russia, the media is stoking hostility where goodwill and harmony should prevail. Why it is doing so is a great mystery and a disappointment to many.

The interesting question, of course, is whether official Washington and London, who came out with unequivocal support for their best friend and “beacon of democracy” Saakashvili, knew what the real story of the conflict was. I, for one, have no doubt that they did.

Can one imagine that the Western intelligence services, with all their sophisticated 21st century laser and nanotechnology hardware and software, eavesdropping devices and high resolution satellites that can snap pictures of a fly in the Russian peasant’s cabbage soup, did not see the real picture? And what about hundreds of American military advisors on the ground in the conflict area? Didn’t they know what a few OSCE monitors and Human Rights Watch observers knew, and, as Applebaum now admits, even the Western journalists were aware of all along?

If this is so, why don’t we hear Saakashvili’s most ardent supporters like Condoleezza Rice, John McCain, and John Biden, to name just a few, admit – if not guilt, then, at least, the errors they committed? Instead, in the midst of the world’s current financial turmoil, property foreclosures and job losses, America is sending Saakashvili $1 billion of taxpayers’ money in addition to the $3.5 billion from the European Union – apparently to help him cling to power.
As a former member of Georgia’s parliament Tsotne Bakuria said, “Bailing out Wall Street and Detroit are one thing, but to ask Americans to financially support Saakashvili’s recklessness is a new low.”

It is pointless, however, to expect something meaningful from the current administration which is leaving the scene in a few weeks with the lowest ratings in U.S. history. On the other hand, one should feel sympathy for Barack Obama, who inherits a huge stockpile of unresolved problems. The United States is overextended militarily, diplomatically and economically. As Obama settles in the White House, Russia will not presumably be his top priority for quite a while. However, the sooner he realizes that Bush’s failed policy on Russia has to be totally revised, the better for him, America, and the world.

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

We all know the clich? that "he who laughs last laughs best." Unfortunately, what has occurred in Georgia is not a laughing matter; it is a human and political tragedy and I expect that it will ultimately prove bad for both Georgia and for Russia.

Even if Georgia "fired the first shot" and committed acts of atrocities against civilians (the fact of which I can accept as being true), one cannot forget that Russia gave the South Ossetian separatists the weapons with which they fought the (less than fault-free) Georgian government, and distributed Russian passports to the citizens of a foreign state (without requiring such individuals to obtain Russian citizenship as provided by Russian legislation). Furthermore, it should not be overlooked that Russian forces did not uniformly behave in an exemplary fashion either. There are plenty of opportunities for finger-pointing for both sides. I note an analogy that can be made with the respect to Texas' war of independence from Mexico -- but it is the victors who write history, or so I am told.

I think Ernst Hemingway wrote that if someone only complains about atrocities committed by one side in a conflict, that individual is a propagandist and not a humanitarian. While I do not doubt the accuracy of Human Rights Watch's and Amnesty International's reporting of specific facts (both organizations are indeed praiseworthy), the facts they report on cannot and should not be understood out of context (e.g. the Tutsi rebels’ killing of members of Hutu power after the Genocide in Rwanda).

Russia's unilateral resorting to force against a neighbor unfortunately reduces its moral authority to complain of the same sort of activity by others, and reinforces the opinions of those who are suspicious about whether Russia has truly accepted the sovereignty of the Soviet Union's other successor states. It is worth noting that one can count the number of states that recognize the new South Ossetia on one hand.

The world financial crisis will cause great hardship and unleash many forces on the Russian population. Its full extent is only now being acknowledged by the Russian political leadership. If economic conditions in non-ethnic Russian parts of the country deteriorate (e.g. Dagestan, Tatarstan, etc.), the overly-centralized Russian government will be ill-equipped to deal with the situation. If the legitimate grievances of the population are manipulated by outside extremists, the situation can get very ugly and destabilizing.

If I can find any silver lining to this unfortunate chapter, it is that perhaps Russia and Georgia (and other member states) will see the need for a strengthened OSCE role in the region.

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

Saakashvili may well have been discredited, but Russia has not been and should not be vindicated. Russia made it clear well before August 8 that it intended to provoke a war and detach South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, by building railroad lines to Russia, raising the number of troops, and escalating shelling attacks from those provinces on Georgia.

The possibility that Georgia may have used cluster bombs (I am not convinced of Human Rights Watch’s objectivity in other reports) and that Russian forces may only have reacted eight to ten hours later does not invalidate this point.
What the reports cited by Frolov indicate is Saakashvili's and his subordinates' recklessness and lack of judgment. Saakashvili has yet to tell us in any convincing way why he ordered the advance and shelling of Tskhinvali on August 7 and 8, and his efforts to do so make no sense (if Russian tanks were already past the Roki tunnel, it made no sense to begin a war). Furthermore, he and his lieutenants have made it clear that for some incredible reason they did not expect a Russian reaction.

As for the delay in Russian troops’ getting to the front, it is in fact easily explicable. As the Russian press reported, only President Dmitry Medvedev has the authority to order troops into combat, and not only did they have to locate him on his cruise at that time, but they also had to persuade him to authorize not just military action to restore the status quo ante, but an invasion of Georgia and the detachment of the two provinces from Georgia. Moreover, the speed and scope of the Russian moves that represented joint land, sea, and air actions against Georgia strongly suggests that Moscow had planned for just this kind of contingency, and was ready for it due to its previous provocations of Georgia.

Finally there is no justification whatsoever for the unilateral truncation of Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity here. Had Moscow merely restored the status quo, it could have forced a genuine peace conference (that would have been long overdue) to resolve this issue.

This action suggests what Russia's true goals always were and will make genuine peace impossible, for nobody will recognize these two provinces as independent states and they will remain (like Alsace-Lorraine in 1870) an open wound in the Caucasus.

The fact that the European Union (consistently with its inherent inability to act in foreign policy and its disposition to appeasement) has seen it fit to reopen negotiations with Moscow on a PCA (even though Moscow has conspicuously failed to live up to its obligations in the Nicolas Sarkozy-Dmitry Medvedev agreements) does not vindicate Russia either. It merely shows the EU's utter inability to advance the cause of European security, Sarkozy's ambition for status at the expense of a sound understanding of French and European strategic interests, and Italo-German greed for continuing deals with Moscow over the bodies of Georgia and other small states. Such actions will only generate more contempt in Moscow for the EU which, from Moscow's perspective, is amply justified.
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