openDemocracy | Wikileaks has finally settled the controversy over who attacked whom first in the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008, with papers firmly pointing to a miscalculation by Georgia and its superpower friend. For Hans Mouritzen, however, such historical details are dwarfed by a more significant subsequent development: the US-Russia great-power reset.
A dispute still rages over who started the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008. Both sides have led a spirited campaign to get their own interpretation accepted by the media and by other countries. This should now be terminated: Wikileaks has provided a solid answer to the question. It has also shed light on the prevailing US-Russia ‘reset’ and what it means to Georgia.
Let us begin with what is undisputed. It is generally accepted that the war was preceded in early August by shooting and violence in South-Ossetia between militias loyal to the de facto regime in Tskhinvali and militias loyal to Tbilisi (the Georgian government). Likewise, most agree that Georgia launched a massive and indiscriminate bombardment of Tskhinvali from 11:35 pm on 7 August (with GRAD artillery amongst other things). A major issue of contention has, however, been whether Georgian President Saakashvili and his associates believed that Georgia was being invaded by regular Russian forces already before launching this bombardment.
Initially, a Georgian press release issued at 1:47 am on 8 August and the Foreign Ministry website only mentioned para-military volunteers coming from North-Ossetia, not regular Russian forces. Three days later, however, the Georgians changed their official webpages (as documented by Jørgen Staun) and gave a new version that still prevails: Georgia had been exposed to a full-scale Russian invasion at 11.30pm, thus five minutes before the bombardment of Tskhinvali (one may wonder why Georgian resources were spent for this purpose in the face of a foreign invasion, but that is another matter). This amended Georgian version has been denied by Russia (dating its army invasion to 2:30pm on 8 August) and doubted by the ‘Independent International Fact-Finding Mission’, which could find no evidence of an early invasion. The Georgian explanation for its shift of versions (obtained in an interview conducted by this author) was that the first one was meant to provide a “fig leaf” for the Russians, so they could withdraw without losing face in front of the international community.
The Wikileaks revelations of confidential communication from the US embassy in Tbilisi, however, gives a different picture. At 10:10 in the morning of 8 August, Ambassador John Tefft reported to Washington that “if the Georgians are right, and the fighting is mainly over [i.e. Georgian victory], the real unknown is what the Russian role will be and whether there is potential for the conflict to expand”. In other words, no Russian action had yet taken place. Moreover, Saakashvili was concerned that the South Ossetian fighting “might have been a Russian pretext and a further attack could be expected [my italics]”. There was also information about how the Georgian foreign minister had briefed the diplomatic corps in the morning and had “called on the international community to put pressure on the Russian government to take no action”. Finally, the US ambassador mentioned that “the South Ossetians are reportedly now accusing the Russians of betraying them” – in other words passively watching from the sideline. All this unequivocally contradicts the second (prevailing) Georgian version of events, uncritically accepted by Ron Asmus (see the below book reference).
The US-Russia reset recognises a new status quo in southern Caucasus. The between-the-lines message reads: “We don’t like what happened during and after the war, but there is nothing we can do about it, and there are more important problems in the world than Georgia!”
This would clearly indicate, therefore, the bombing of Tskhinvali was an attempt to teach the local ‘bandits’ a lesson, and that it was supposed Russia would not react so severely. Based on wisdom-after-the event, this assumption appears naïve, but the Georgians seem to have been misled by US/Western assurances that a large-scale invasion was “inconceivable in the 21. century”. In neat harmony with this misjudgement, US satellite surveillance was instead directed towards Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan during the critical period. The US and thereby Georgia were largely blind to the Russian build-up on the ground close to the Georgian border (although Georgia had sharply increased defence spending during the previous years, it had also reduced its intelligence – preferring, it would seem, to trust the Americans blindly). This blindness co-contributed to the almost suicidal decision to bomb Tskhinvali. Having contributed significantly to the Iraq “Coalition of the Willing” and having made pledges regarding Afghanistan presence, it would be unsurprising if Georgia felt misled by its superpower friend.
Wikileaks is useful, too, for demolishing other myths, for instance the Russian allegation that Washington orchestrated the events that led Georgia to initiate war. Quite to the contrary, the US sought to discourage any such initiative. This is nothing new, but the cables demonstrate that the US embassy in Tbilisi, and thereby State Department, was just as much in the dark as anybody else at the eve of war events – this despite some 130 US military advisors being present in the Georgian Ministry of Defence.
The US-Russia reset, initiated in March 2009 and still functioning two years later, meant a US recognition of the new status quo in southern Caucasus. Between the lines, the US message was: “We don’t like what happened during and after the war, but there is nothing we can do about it, and there are more important problems in the world than Georgia!” In other words: “You (Russia) can have your sphere of interest, although we would hardly, as an ex-hegemon, admit it in public”. Thus, Georgia’s prospects for NATO-membership decreased from modest to negligible. Apart from America’s own problems, there were issues that should preferably be solved in cooperation with Russia: the global effects of the US financial meltdown, relations with Iran, Afghanistan, terrorism, organized crime, weapons control, nuclear non-proliferation, etc. The height so far of US-Russian cooperation came with the announcement, in connection with NATO’s Lisbon summit in November 2010, of plans for a NATO-Russia missile shield.
In the theoretical literature on the “power of the weak”, the consensus is that cooperation between the strong – in case the US and Russia – is more dangerous to the weak than a ‘medium’ level of conflict; think of Sweden losing Finland after the Tilsit summit between Napoleon and the Russian Tsar or the fate of Poland and the Baltic countries after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Even if the consequences are likely to be less drastic here, the states that have built their security on US counterweight against Russia (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Georgia, and to some extent Azerbaijan) have been weakened - some more, some less. Ukraine has switched to the Russian side. The three Baltic countries saw themselves in analogy to Georgia (Russian population or citizens within their borders) and increasingly felt their NATO membership to be an empty shell with no physical back-up in the form of military bases, and Poland lost the planned NATO missile shield, as the US abandoned this plan in favor of the indicated solution with Russia. These states have allegedly been compensated, though hardly to their full satisfaction; for instance, the Baltic countries got an article 5 “defence plan” vis-à-vis a military attack from Russia (secret until it was wikileaked). Georgia has received large amounts of US financial assistance, but no military assistance since the 2008 war:
A decision to move towards a more robust military relationship with Georgia will imperil our efforts to re-start relations with Russia.…We see no way to neutralize the advantages of geography, size and capabilities enjoyed by Russia (from a wikileaked cable by US ambassador to Moscow John Beyrle of June 2009).
The consensus is that cooperation between the strong – in case the US and Russia – is more dangerous to the weak than a ‘medium’ level of conflict. Following the “reset”, states that have built their security on US counterweight against Russia (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Georgia, and to some extent Azerbaijan) have been weakened, while Ukraine has switched to the Russian side.
The outgoing Bush administration signed a ‘Charter on Strategic Partnership’ with Georgia, but this document is anything but strategic. If anything, it is a fig-leaf for the fact that the US has put relations with Georgia on a backburner. Possibly as a result of this, Georgia has diversified by increasing contacts with Turkey and Iran. US representatives have tried to comfort their Georgian colleagues by arguing Georgia can feel safer now that a reset with Russia is functioning. Of course, this forgets to say the reset is probably more vital to the US (cooperation regarding Afghanistan and Iran) than it is to Russia.
Hans Mouritzen is senior researcher at the Danish Institute for the International Studies in Copenhagen.