August 2008

Earlier this month the attention of mass media turned towards the events that took place in Georgia, a small country in the Caucasian Mountain region. It is still unclear how or why, but Georgia attacked one of its breakaway regions (South Ossetia) and Russia responded in force by invading Georgia. Eventually peace was settled and the Russian troops have mostly retreated now from Georgia.

Euronews, a news agency from the European Union, took interviews of officials on both sides. As expected, when comparing the claims of Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister with the ones of Georgian Foreign Minister they are almost entirely contradictory. For those of you who want to read more, here is a combination of both interviews:

With Bold is Russia with Italic is Georgia.

The source is:

Mr Deputy Prime Minister, what’s your view of what has happened in the past few days? / What’s your view of what has happened in the past two weeks?


“It was an attempt to destroy the Ossetian people, to push them out of the territory of South Ossetia. That – as Mr Saakashvili [the president of Georgia] and probably some of his Western sponsors believed – would solve the problem with the separatist region. And according to the documentary proof we’re now seeing, they planned, after that, to conduct the same operation in Abkhazia. That’s what has happened. Genocide is what has happened, widespread physical destruction with artillery shells, tanks and guns, of thousands of Russian citizens. Basically, an ethnic cleansing operation was carried out.”

“Well, in the past two weeks, an unbelievable chain of events evolved in my country. I would never believe that in the 21st century, in a modern civilized community, in Europe, my country would be militarily invaded by the neighbour country – the Russian Federation. That’s what happened. What we’ve seen – it was already not ad hoc skirmishes from the separatist regimes only, but it was well-planned large scale military operation, with which we’ve been placed in a position either to respond or right away to surrender to the Russian military. Because on the night when the large scale confrontation happened, the [Georgian] villages were extensively shelled, and through the Roki Tunnel from the north already tanks and armoured vehicles were coming in a large scale. So the attack was very harsh, casualties were rising at the time, so the decision was taken to respond to that, basically.”

The situation in South Ossetia has been building for a long time. Was the Russian military operation prepared in advance, or was this operation started only after the reports came in of Russian civilians and Russian peacekeepers being killed? / You’re saying that Russian forces entered Georgian territory before Tskhinvali [capital of South Ossetia] was attacked by Georgian forces – is that right?


“Let’s be rational. If the Russian Federation had known in advance, as you say, that Saakashvili had such insane plans – then, of course, we would have acted accordingly and would at least have put our military forces directly along the border between Russia and South Ossetia and by the Rockskiy tunnel (between North and South Ossetia). In that case, we could have responded within a couple of hours. But, naturally, that didn’t happen, because we couldn’t know about Saakashvili’s plans. Of course, we needed some time – about a day – to send our troops to South Ossetia to protect our citizens and peacekeepers. And in that time, Georgian troops shelled a city without being challenged, they fired on it with tanks and artillery, they crushed children under tank tracks, they burned women who were locked in sheds – all in all, they conducted genocide and ethnic cleansing.”

“Yes, it was from the Roki tunnel – it is the North part of the South Ossetia region. It is the main connecting route from Russia to South Ossetia. It was this tunnel with which all the military equipement had been coming, it was already on the 7th of August that the large scale movement started – meaning tanks and armed vehicles coming into the territory of South Ossetia. […]every other state which has intelligence information from aerial pictures – it’s credibly seen that within a day there were already 6,000 Russian soldiers on the territory of South Ossetia.” [officialy Georgia started the conflict on the 7th of Augsut while Russia’s response came on the night of the 8th of August]

Georgia claims it was defending itself, and says its troops didn’t target civilians in Tshinvali. / Why was Tskhinvali attacked, and not the Roki tunnel, where, as you say, Russian military was entering Georgia? Did Georgian forces use multiple rocket launchers and other indiscriminate assault weapons against residential parts of Tskhinvali, as Russia claims?


“Defending itself from what? From the Ossetian people? At the moment when Georgia unleashed its military action in the conflict zone, there were about three hundred and fifty Russian peacekeepers, armed only with machine guns, since no other weapons were allowed according to the (ceasefire) agreement (then in place between Russia and Georgia for South Ossetia). There were no ‘Grads’ (multiple rocket launchers) and no tanks there. It was peacekeepers and local civilians. And a very small force, dwarfed by the Georgian army, the military forces of South Ossetia. The number of soldiers was completely mismatched. So who was it Georgia was defending itself against? It wasn’t defending, it was attacking. And only after we sent our additional troops to reinforce the peacekeeping contingent and to start a peace-enforcing operation – only then did Saakashvili cry out hysterically that Russia was attacking him.”

“Well, first of all the response was to the threat to the Georgian villages, and then the threat was coming from the shelling of Tskhinvali, and it was the military response to that. And other than that – the tactical moves around the Roki tunnel – I know that we were able to damage the bridge from which the equipement what we already knew of had come, out of the Roki tunnel, but then they managed to bypass the bridge and then still enter with heavy equipment.”

“Well, the targets that were identified for the military forces on the Georgian side were legitimate targets, which was the artillery weapons from the other side. It was very unfortunate that the artillery from the other side had been placed in some cases in the residential areas, because it’s the responsibility of the party which uses any weapons to install these weapon or an object, a military object, which in itself is a legitimate target for an attack, outside of any locations with which civilians can be impacted. It would have been the same obligation for the Georgian forces not to place its own weapons right in the middle of the residential areas, so that when the opposing party would respond to the artillery or any other firing from the Georgian side they would inevitably hit the civilian targets as well.”

What was the point of your strikes against targets outside the conflict zone – targets in Georgian territory, including civilian targets, according to eyewitnesses? / […]Russian military sources say some Georgian artillery was placed in Gori [Gori is a city in the north of Georgia].


“Eye witnesses? I think it’s more something that President Saakashvili’s has said. I wouldn’t trust such eyewitnesses too much, as many of them resemble too much Goebbels’ propaganda, trying to present white as black and vice versa, trying to present a victim of an aggression as the initiator of the aggression, and vice versa. Our ground forces never crossed the border of the conflict zone – instead they launched strikes in response to the Georgian forces attacks, such as artillery, which were still targeting Tskhinvali. There was speculation, panicky rumours and disinformation – that Russian tanks had allegedly entered Gori; stories of Russian planes bombing Tbilisi. They were all Goebbels style lies invented by the Georgian leadership.”

“Absolutely incorrect. I was in Gori during the confrontation myself several times, nothing was ever placed in the center of Gori. What we’ve seen from the Russian side was not collateral damage to the civilians that they inflicted, but direct targeting of civilians.”

If Russia had evidence of genocide in South Ossetia – why didn’t it present that evidence to the UN Security Council and get UN backing for the use of force? / Russia argues it had to conduct a peace enforcement operation after the assault on Tskhinvali left hundreds or even thousands dead – mostly civilians and mostly Russian citizens. Doesn’t Moscow have a point there?


“For several days the Russian Federation was conducting a military operation of peace enforcement. That operation is now concluded successfully. By that I mean that Georgia is now no longer capable of repeating its military offensive in South Ossetia or Abkhasia. And only now, when the operation has been completed and its goals achieved, can Russian criminal investigators and other law-enforcement officials work in the field to collect evidence which will then be presented to the international community along with corresponding accusations against the Georgian leadership.”

“If there’s any need for enforcement of peace in any part of the globe, it’s a specific task of the Security Council and the Chapter 7 to decide upon those measures and implement those measures. No state can ever unilaterally take upon itself a role of a peace enforcer. Leaving that aside, in terms of the propaganda that Russia is using in this whole endeavour well, “Human Rights Watch” was already in position to see the situation on the ground, and then collect information, and the statement that we’ve already seen from the HRW is quite clear saying that the information Russian side puts out is not substantiated. There are no evidence to confirm the level of casualties, of the level of damage that the Russian side portrays as the pretext for its military invasion into Georgia, so if Russian side has any evidence – they had better present that.”

In conclusion – how solid do you think the ceasefire is that is now been established between Russia and Georgia? / Russia says the re-integration of Georgia is now impossible. Apparently Moscow is ready to recognise the independence of the breakaway republics. Do you see any way out of this?

“I hope it will hold. I hope this time the Georgian leadership will have enough sense not to repeat the adventures it has pursued lately. I hope very much that the ceasefire will hold firm, but I’ll repeat: to ensure the ceasefire lasts we will take all necessary action for the security of our Russian citizens living in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”
euronews: What action precisely? Will the Russian army stay in those internationally unrecognised republics?”
“Not the Russian army, but peacekeeping forces, deployed there legitimately. You have to agree there’s a big difference, and the difference is fundamental.”
euronews:“Georgia says they are ‘occupying’ forces.”
“Well, Georgia can call them whatever it wants, it won’t change the reality.”

“Well, plans from the Russian side are quite clear: they wanted to initially destabilise Georgia, to provoke confrontation in Georgia and with that to make sure that Georgia can never be an independent state from Russia. That’s their ultimate goal. That’s why the regime change was something that they targeted. And I don’t have any expectation that they will give up that target, so it will be a very tense period in which we’ll have to be united in confronting the aspirations of the Russian Federation.
euronews: Do you have any hope of solving the territorial conflict now?
“Definitely yes. If we can establish a genuinely international format for negotiations and security on the ground – I’m more than confident that we’ll be able, step by step, to establish a process in which the re-integration of these regions will be full scale, for the benefit of all who used to live in those regions, who now live in those regions, and they will be prosperous parts of a prosperous Georgia, if that is the case then.”

Full interviews can be found:


Georgia (“Gruzia” in the Georgian language) is a small, 70,000 square km country, barely the size of South Carolina.  Geographically it is situated in the Caucasian mountain region next to the Black Sea, close to the Middle East.
It is doubtful that many people knew about this countries’s existence, but the recent conflict with Russia has brought the country in the attention of the entire world.

Unfortunately mass media is not necessarily impartial and it is not necessarily presenting the truth, but that is a whole other story. Long story short, this small country decided to attack one of its rebel regions, killing some civilians and a couple of Russian soldiers on an UN Peace Keeping mission. The Russians got really upset because of this and decided to push out the Georgian military forces from the rebel regions while taking a long detour of about 100 km into Georgian territory. About 64 Russian and 215 Georgian soldiers died and around 1,500 civilians. Although not a major conflict the impact it had on the relations of Russia with the US and other West European countries was at least, significant.

How did we get here?

The conflict we see today is by no means new. Back when the USSR was falling apart, Georgia, the birth country of Joseph Stalin, emerged as a new state. However, when the borders of the new country were settled, it seems they were not settled properly. With the exception of Turkey, Georgia has border disputes with all the countries around it, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the worse situation is in the two regions of South Osetia and Abhazia (North Osetia is part of Russia). In both of these two regions the majority of the population is not Georgian and seems to be more friendly towards Russia. As a result, back in 1991, they wanted to break away. However, Georgia was not as willing to let things go this away and between 1991 and 1992 military conflict started between Georgia and these regions. Eventually the conflict was settled and an UN Peace Keeping Mission maintained by Russian soldiers was installed in the area.
All went well until a couple of months ago, when Kosovo, a region of Serbia, declared independence on its own, independence which was quickly recognized by most major West European countries and USA. This gave an impulse to other break away regions around the globe, regions just like South Osetia, to fallow a similar path. Backed by the USA, which keeps promising NATO membership, offers military training and free weapons, Georgia decided that military force was the best solution against Osetia’s bid for independence.

Now, another important aspect of this conflict which has not been said is that until about 3 years ago, Georgia was under Russian influence. Although Georgia did not fallow directly Moscow’s agenda, it was by no means hostile to it. But in 2006 the Orange Revolutions started, some of which were successful, one in Ukraine and one in Georgia. The Orange Revolutions attempted to change regimes which were either corrupt, pro-Russian or both with ones that were pro-Western and vehemently opposed to Moscow. Some may even call these revolutions “peaceful coups” which tried to break these countries away from Moscow’s influence. The reason for which they can be called “coups” is because they tried to change a political class which won a first set of elections. This usually started by having a claim that the elections were not fair (usually these claims were not entirely groundless). Then, after building strong public support and with international pressure from Western countries, the political figures leading the “Orange Revolution” would usually ask for the cancelation of the first elections and have a rerun. The old political class would then be replaced not by manipulating the actual votes but by swiftly and efficiently manipulating public opinion so that people will change in a very short time their political support and as a result their vote in the second elections. Regardless if this was legitimate or not, this was not seen with good eyes by Russia, especially in countries like Ukraine which was historically under Russian influence and has direct and strong ties with Russia.

The new pro-Western regimes were heavily supported by the West, a good example of this is the attempt to make Ukraine and Georgia part of NATO (in Ukraine about 65% of the population opposes NATO membership).

How did it go?

Getting back to Georgia, on the 1st of August 2008, one of the sides either Georgia or South Osetia (it is still unclear who), started the fight with little apparent reason. The fighting although small at the beginning, intensified and on the 7th of August Georgian troops entered in force into South Osetia, shelling the capital of the region, Tshinvalli. Later, that is two weeks later, they justified this by saying Russians moved some troops into the area, it is hard to tell how much truth is in these claims. In the attack many civilians died under artillery shells (MRLS) but also some Russian soldiers. It does not take a brilliant mind to figure out that when you attack a regions under an UN Peace Keeping Mission things will not turn out well for you. The only rational explanation for why the Georgians attacked is that according to the status of the UN Peace Keeping Mission, the number of Russian troops in the area was not supposed to be more than 350 and only armed with machine-guns (hard to say if the Russians respected these terms). It is likely that Georgia did not consider Russia’s small Peace Keeping Missions a credible threat and with the backing of US, believed that Russians will not take military action. Russians took about a day to scramble their forces and move into South Osetia, then Abhazia and then with some smaller forces further into Georgian territory. The number of military casualties show that there was little direct confrontations but more likely skirmishes and artillery shelling, all of which the main victims were civilians. However, the scale of military mobilization, the speed at which both countries took action suggests that neither was taken unprepared which is a bit puzzling. After about a week of fighting, a peace treaty was settled and now the Russians are slowly retreating.

Another interesting part here is that in many pro-Western countries, Russia was presented as an invader, as an evil, “undemocratic” country which bullies smaller countries (Afghanistan, Iraq anyone ?). One would not expect to see Russia presented positively, after all Georgia is supported by the West, but the fact that they were presented in such a negative way points out that the relationship between Russia and USA/Western Europe is at a very low level.

What are the results?

In the past few years Russia has been distancing itself from the West (US and Western Europe) becoming a world of its own. The West has also been encroaching into Russian controlled areas like Ukraine and Georgia, directly threatening its sphere of interest and power. This spring, when US announced it wanted to push for a Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership, Russia did not express strong disapproval but anger and made it clear that this was going too far. Taking this into consideration, for Moscow, Georgia was the perfect opportunity to show to the West that they will not be pushed around easily.

For Georgia, South Osetia is its territory and unlike Serbia which gave up on Kosovo peacefully it decided to fight for it. Now that all is over, it appears Georgia has lost its control over the region along side with Abhazia. But this may not be a complete loss, because for Georgia it was impossible to join NATO as long as it had territorial disputes and Russian troops on its territory. If South Osetia and Abhazia declare independence, then the path for Georgia’s NATO membership is opened.

As for the Russians, besides the fact that they were mostly presented as “evil” by Western media, they showed to the rest of the world that they will fight for what they believe to be their sphere of influence. Maybe in the future US will think twice before going further into the Russia’s controlled areas because Moscow will not just stand and watch.

In the end however, regardless of who won or lost, many civilian lives were lost in a conflict that was not theirs. It is sad when this happens, and we should not forget them.