WikiLeaks reopens debate over Russia-Georgia war

Source Reuters/Vostock Photo

Source Reuters/Vostock Photo

As soon as the WikiLeaks’ latest release of internal cables from the U.S. State Department started to make headlines, it became clear that the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 would be addressed sooner or later.

August 2008 saw the biggest crisis between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War. Its ramifications are still felt to this day. Even more importantly, the war of August 2008 led to the emergence of a new status quo in the Greater Caucasus and Eurasia as a whole, because this was the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union that territories in the former Soviet space that had not been former Soviet republics had their independence recognized. By recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow took on a new role as a creator of states, following the example of the United States, which opened this Pandora’s Box when it recognized Kosovo as an independent country.

In this respect, the five August days of 2008 still remain in the spotlight, and the debate continues as to who pulled the trigger. Can the documents released by WikiLeaks inform this discussion?

Now with the WikiLeaks release, we have evidence in the form of diplomatic cables by John Tefft, the former U.S. ambassador to Georgia, who says Tbilisi did not want to start the military campaign in Ossetia.

Apart from Tefft’s claims, WikiLeaks also posted materials on how these harrowing five days of combat are interpreted. The most interesting among them are documents on a meeting between Tefft and Franciszek Gągor, chief of the general staff of the Polish armed forces, as well as materials on NATO’s reaction to the August war. The meeting between Tefft and Gągor is very important since, along with the United States, Poland was a major lobbying force behind Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO. Surely, both the Polish government and army had reliable information on what was happening in the run-up to as well as during the five-day war.

As expected, Russia and Georgia saw the WikiLeaks postings in very contrasting ways. While Moscow chose to treat these publications as being of little significance, Tbilisi took them very seriously—its politicians, experts and journalists portrayed the new materials as an important diplomatic victory. Tengiz Ablotia, a Georgian publicist, wrote: “Help came from an unexpected source, debunking the myth of a sleeping Tskhinvali” bombarded by Georgian troops. But are John Tefft’s opinions so unequivocal? Do his reports indeed reveal the truth behind the war in South Ossetia?

To begin with, there are certain things in Tefft’s reports that Georgian politicians and experts along with their staunch supporters, including American expert David Smith, have overlooked. But these things deserve attention. In his first letter from Tbilisi, dated Aug. 6, 2008, Tefft writes: “From evidence available to us, it appears the South Ossetians started today’s fighting. The Georgians are now reacting by calling up more forces and assessing their next move. It is unclear to the Georgians, and to us, what the Russian angle is and whether they are supporting the South Ossetians or actively trying to help control the situation.” In other words, the document speaks of certain South Ossetian activity, but not about a Russian invasion as a pretext for Georgia to attack Tskhinvali—something that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his entourage insisted upon when trying to justify their actions to the West.

There are some fundamentally important considerations here that are often omitted when analyzing the August war. In fact, these “five days that shook the world” did not come out of the blue—August 2008 only happened to be the time when the Georgian-Ossetian conflict reached its boiling point in August 2008. When Georgia and South Ossetia signed the Sochi agreements in 1992, Georgia agreed to cede some of its sovereignty over South Ossetia. This is not wishful thinking, rather, it is a documented fact. The Joint Control Commission for Georgian-Ossetian Conflict Resolution, made up of Georgia, Russia, and South and North Ossetia, was established as the main body responsible for keeping the peace in the region along with joint peacekeeping forces. Many seem to have forgotten that the Georgian military was among the peacekeepers. Once those agreements were signed, the situation in the region began shifting from war to peace, albeit at a snail’s pace. Unlike in Abkhazia or Nagorno-Karabakh, the foundations for peace in South Ossetia were secured. Traffic ran between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali; there were quite a number of joint markets (tellingly, a market in the Georgian city of Gori was called “Osetinka” because South Ossetian immigrants traded there). There was also a special committee for refugees that effectively addressed their problems. Ethnic Georgians worked in the South Ossetian administration, while international organizations ran donor programs, although on a fairly insignificant scale.

All of this was thrown aside by President Saakashvili, who, despite his background in law, resorted to grossly and willingly violating the Sochi agreement in May 2004—and herein lies the first step on the road to August 2008—by bringing Georgian troops into the disputed territory and thus violating the obligations Georgia undertook in the agreement. This was followed by provocative statements from the Georgian parliament and the closing of markets on the pretext of fighting contraband. Violence resumed in the conflict zone in the summer of 2004, which dragged on, aggravating and easing at times, until the five-day war. Thus, the August war was not the result of just one attack or provocation, but of a deliberate policy of destroying the political and legal principles agreed upon in 1992 for settling the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. The reason behind it was Saakashvili’s unwillingness to come to terms with the loss of some of Georgia’s sovereignty over South Ossetia. To improve the situation, however, he did not find anything better than to pretend that there were no rights in the conflict area, and that it was just another ordinary part of Georgia.

Could Ambassador Tefft describe all this in his detailed letter of Aug. 6 or 7, 2008? Of course not, because he relies on his colleagues’ “default knowledge”. He is not a political scientist and not a historian, and he does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship. Experts, however, do have to establish where the cause and the effect are linked. Tefft writes how the Ossetians committed violent acts, but no one denies that. Calling anyone in Tskhinvali an angel would be an overstatement, but to say so of Georgian politicians would be just ludicrous. Indeed, they are the ones who orchestrated the senseless storm of Tliakana in 2004, writing a new page in South Ossetia’s violent history. They are the ones to blame for the shelling of Tskhinvali in September 2005, when South Ossetia was celebrating the anniversary of its independence. They are the ones who initiated, in violation of the Sochi agreement, the rotation of their peacekeepers more often than allowed, thus seeking to increase the number of Georgian troops familiar with the area. And finally, they are the ones who put Georgian peacekeepers under the direct command of the Ministry of Defense on the eve on the August events. All this is in addition to a Georgian-built military hospital with state-of-the-art equipment in Gori constructed several years prior to the war. The Georgians also repaired roads leading from Tbilisi to Gori and opened a morgue three times greater in capacity than needed in asmall town like Gori needs. Can all of this be seen as signs of peace?

What we see in Tefft’s letter is a confirmation of violence in the region, and that violence is on the rise. The question now is who began to thaw this frozen conflict. There are some more interesting excerpts in Ambassador Tefft’s report, which draw the picture of the political landscape in August in anything but black and white: “Saakashvili has said that Georgia had no intention of getting into this fight, but was provoked by the South Ossetians and had to respond to protect Georgian citizens and territory.” He continues: “All the evidence available to the country team supports Saakashvili’s statement that this fight was not Georgia’s original intention. Key Georgian officials who would have had responsibility for an attack on South Ossetia have been on leave, and the Georgians only began mobilizing Aug. 7 once the attack was well underway.” Does that mean that there were special officials in the Georgian government responsible for the attack on South Ossetia? If so, Tefft admits in his comments that Tbilisi did have plans to resort to violence. “Only when the South Ossetians opened up with artillery on Georgian villages did the offensive to take Tskhinvali begin,” he writes. There was an attack, and it was provoked by the South Ossetians, who were responding to actions by Georgian troops. It was not the result of “Russian imperialism,” as Saakashvili subsequently tried to prove. Tefft’s reports often cite Saakashvili’s position and his version of events. This is evident from his use of phrases like “as Saakashvili said,” “in the Georgian president’s opinion,” and so on. Thus, the independent informational value of these materials is to a certain extent called into question.

This is on-the-spot reporting rather than a thoughtful analysis. Such are the rules of the genre. What else can be said about them? Perhaps that the embassy of a great power should be something more than a mere translator of the opinions of the head of the state where it performs its mission. Professionals know that any source of information, even one that seems to be reliable, has to be checked and double-checked. John Tefft does sound skeptical at times: “It is increasingly difficult to get an accurate analysis of the military situation because of the fog of war and the fact that the Georgian command and control system has broken down.” This assessment was made after Russia interfered in the conflict. Gągor, at his meeting with Tefft, told the U.S. ambassador that Saakashvili, who, as he saw it, was manipulated by his advisors, originally drove the initiative to use force. Interestingly enough, the Polish general does not deny Saakashvili’s responsibility for what happened in Tskhinvali; he criticizes him for “giving in to provocations from Russia,” destroying his army and ruining any hope for NATO membership. The plots of “the Russians,” “agents of influence” and “bad advisers” sound like phrases from the Stalin era, when mistakes and crimes were blamed on “enemies” and “external factors.”

Last but not least, let us look at the publication of materials on NATO’s reaction to the events. Diplomatic correspondence between NATO member-states shows that there was no unity within the organization. Moreover, many chose to restrain from furthering their contacts with Georgia within NATO partnership. For example, a letter dated Aug. 8, 2008 shows that Germany insisted on cancelling a planned visit by the NATO Commission to Georgia, and another letter registers Paris’s “concern that NATO is becoming too active a player in the conflict in South Ossetia.” American diplomats spoke of three camps within the alliance that were divided in their stance towards Georgia and Russia. While the United States and post-communist Europe used tough rhetoric against Moscow, Germany, Spain, France and Portugal warned against crossing the line and severing ties with Russia.

The WikiLeaks publications will hardly give much information to those fond of political scandals. The many letters and reports only point to certain details and nuances that help better understand relations between the United States and Georgia, assessing Tbilisi’s dependence on Washington and vice-versa, not to mention internal disagreements within NATO, and the avenues western countries have for dealing with Russia. Those wanting to understand the history and evolution of the conflicts in the Caucasus should supplement these latest publications with a serious analysis of the situation before August 2008 and what finally led to the armed conflict. As for politicians keen on information wars, they don’t need any leaks to find a pretext for further action.

Sergei Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

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