HYPOCRISY. There’s plenty of that to go around. NATO is taking its stance on the principle of territorial integrity – something that apparently didn’t apply in Kosovo – and Russia’s supposedly “disproportionate” response, despite NATO’s bombing of the Danube bridges in Novy Sad. For its part, Moscow is posing as a humanitarian hero – a quality in short supply in the Chechen wars, especially the first – and a defender of self-determination, ditto. So let us concentrate on the two salient facts, and ignore the posturing.

TWO FACTS. The first fact is that Ossetians do not want to be part of Georgia. And, apart from the Georgian Empire of the 1200s (and maybe not then either – note Alania on the map), Ossetia was only in the Georgian SSR because Stalin-Jughashvili, a Georgian, decided that it should be. There have been three wars since 1918 in which the Ossetians have made their feelings plain. The second fact is that South Ossetia trusts only Moscow, not NATO, the EU or the UN, for its protection. These are the central facts upon which any solution to this present mess must be based. The world made a mistake in recognising Georgia, and some other examples of Stalin’s cartographical jokes, without making the qualification that the secessionist problems had to be dealt with in a civilised fashion (as, for example, Kiev did with Crimea and Chisinau with the Gagauz; granting a sufficient degree of autonomy in each case).

RECOGNITION. After almost unanimous recommendations from the Federation Council and the Duma, Medvedev formally recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; here are the reasons he gave. Each is now pressing for Russian troops to be based in them. In my opinion, the recognition would have been better had it waited, but I don’t think Moscow cares any more: WTO membership is an ever-receding carrot; the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement seems to have been changed somehow (discussion); relations with NATO have never amounted to anything real; and as far as much opinion in the West is concerned, Russia is at fault anyway.

CASUALTIES IN SOUTH OSSETIA. The South Ossetian Prosecutor General Teimuraz Khugayev is reported by Interfax to have stated: “As of August 28, 1,692 people were killed and 1,500 were wounded as a result of the Georgian aggression. An estimated 3,500 citizens have been recognized as victims: those are the people who have lost their relatives and homes”. Having watched a lot of film from Tskhinvali, I do not find the numbers unbelievable but there is a disparity between the killed and wounded (normally the latter figure is two to three times the first. But Tskhinvali’s hospital was badly damaged early on).

INTERNATIONAL MONITORS. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has announced that Moscow would like to see international monitors replace Russian troops in the parts of Georgia adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia (EU and OSCE were mentioned) and Medvedev confirmed this today. This is consistent with the 6th point of the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan (if that still exists).

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION. Generally speaking, the opposition has rallied around the flag. But I do not expect this to last. An opposition leader, Koba Davitashvili, has called for a government of national unity saying: “all decisions on the governing of the state should be taken not by one person, but collectively”. Saakashvili does not take kindly to collective decisions, as Davitashvili, a former close ally, knows. Nino Burjanadze, another former ally of Saakashvili, said recently: “I’m afraid it will not be very easy for the government to answer all the questions”. Other opposition members are beginning to point the finger at Saakashvili. Something to watch.

MORE FROZEN CONFLICTS. Another of Stalin’s cartographical legacies is the territory on the east bank of the Dnepr; it was used as the nucleus of the Moldavian SSR pending the acquisition of the necessary territory from Romania in 1940. During the breakup of the USSR, when many in Moldova could only think that they should join Romania, the inhabitants of Transdnestr balked and a war began. The situation has been “frozen” since then and a tripartite peacekeeping force keeps the temperature down. Another Stalin decision to put people where they do not want to be is Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Again fighting broke out in the late 1980s and early 1990s and again the secessionists won. There is a ceasefire agreement which has held reasonably well but very little political movement. I believe that the inhabitants of Transdnestr can stomach being in Moldova with a reasonable degree of autonomy, but the inhabitants of Karabakh will never accept rule from Baku.

© Patrick Armstrong, Ottawa, Canada


WHAT MOSCOW SAYS. Moscow says that the Georgian retreat from South Ossetia became precipitous; the civil authorities, police and armed forces abandoned Gori. Russian reconnaissance elements (and it should be understood that the Russian Army, like many others, practises heavy recce – ie with tanks) found a base with many tanks, APCs and ammunition quite abandoned. The Russian command elected to “secure” this dump lest it fall into irresponsible hands. Moscow say that it is maintaining order in the power vacuum and suppressing looters. It says that something similar happened in many areas of Western Georgia where Russian forces are “securing” another dump in Senaki. There is a good deal of evidence from Western news agencies to support this. Readers are invited to check these links: not everything gets the emphasis it should. Retreat, power vacuum and looting, Western Georgia (note that reporter does not entertain the possibility that these are abandoned Georgian vehicles the Russians are driving: a similar mistake was made by the BBC in Gori), at least one jailbreak in Georgia, looters, some of whom are Georgians (go to 48sec). Moscow claims there is still occasional firing.

BUT/BUT. Moscow keeps saying that it has, or will soon, withdraw, but that never quite seems to happen: it has just been announced that troops will be pulled back “to the area of responsibility of the peacekeeping contingent in South Ossetia” by the end of today; or will it be in ten days? Russian troops keep appearing in the port of Poti and elsewhere, something for which Moscow has given no reason, while Moscow announces there are no Russian troops outside of South Ossetia. There are reports of determined efforts to destroy Georgia military infrastructure. There are unmistakeable indications of triumphalism and hubris in Moscow; perhaps understandable but most unwise. Moscow is also playing a game in which the difference between “peacekeepers” and “servicemen” is blurred. Moscow also intends to increase the “security zone” around South Ossetia. As Shevardnadze said in an interview: the longer the Russians stay and the more they call for Saakashvili’s departure, the less likely it is that the Georgian population will turn on him.

CEASEFIRE. There have been innumerable reports of ceasefire violations which obscure the question of when exactly the agreement that Sarkozy and Medvedev negotiated on the 12th was signed in Tbilisi. I believed, from the reports I had seen, that Saakashvili signed it in Sarkozy’s presence that day but it now seems it was not signed by him until the 15th. So what happened here? And what precisely are the terms of the agreement?

LATEST ACCUSATION. Moscow today charges that the OSCE observers in South Ossetia knew about the Georgian attack but did not warn the Russian peacekeeper force. Moscow is already asserting that the Georgian peacekeepers opened fire on their Russian colleagues. When Ruslan Gelayev’s fighters were moved across Georgia with Tbilisi’s involvement to attack Abkhazia in October 2001, Moscow made similar charges that the OSCE observers had failed to report it.

REPORTING. Interfax claims to have been quoted more often than any other news source during the war. I followed its reporting and found it to be invariably first with the news and most accurate. (No passing off Tskhinvali as Gori, for example).

AFTERMATH. A Georgian parliamentarian has given the following casualty figures on the Georgian side: 133 soldiers and 69 civilians killed and nearly 1500 injured of whom 446 are in hospital. A Russian spokesman has announced army deaths of 64 and 323 wounded. Prisoner exchanges are now happening. Casualties in South Ossetia are still not known, but will likely prove to be significantly fewer than the thousands originally reported but many people are said to have been killed in collapsed buildings or quickly buried. (French report from Tskhinvali.) A rally in Tskhinvali has asked Moscow to recognise South Ossetia’s independence. Abkhazia has likewise asked for Moscow’s recognition.

RUSSIA INC. It is reported that capital flight out of Russia (said to have been $US7 billion) as a result of the war has stopped; that revenue from energy sales has probably peaked as of 2008; agricultural output is said to be up about 5% year-on-year. Putin says that the first half year’s economic numbers were “not bad” but affected by inflation. The question to be asked is: does Moscow care any more about the West’s opinion? It seems to be coming to believe that WTO membership is nothing but an ever-receding carrot.

BLOGS. I have terminated my association with and will now appear here.

© Patrick Armstrong, Ottawa, Canada

Now Comes the Hangover

Note: Not sure where or when this was published. Date is my best guess. Think I had already severed my connection with Russia Blog at this time because of editorial interference.

France, which currently holds the Presidency of the EU, in the persons of President Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Kouchner, has induced President Saakashvili to sign the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement.

According to both President Medvedev’s office and a French news agency the terms are as follows:

1. Tbilisi must make a commitment not to use force to settle its secessionist problems.

2. Georgian armed forces must cease fire.

3. Georgian armed forces must return to their barracks.

4. Russian armed forces introduced into South Ossetia must also be returned to their barracks.

5. There must be free access for humanitarian aid.

6. The beginning of a serious international discussion about the situation.

Sarkozy has offered EU personnel or soldiers – the details are not yet worked out – for peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is a very helpful offer: not only will it be a further brake on Tbilisi but it may – finally – get Western attention focussed on the people in these areas and not on Tbilisi’s spin.

The reason why Sarkozy and Medvedev were able to come to agreement so quickly is that the terms conform precisely to what Moscow said it was doing all along. In my earlier post to this blog I quoted a Russian military spokesman who on Friday said: “In the future any shooting in the responsibility zone of Russian peacekeepers will be stifled”. On Monday the Russian Foreign Minister said: “besides a ceasefire by Georgian units, it is also important to achieve a full and unconditional withdrawal of the Georgian troops from South Ossetia, a halt of the military action against it from all regions of Georgia, and a prompt signing of a legally binding agreement on the non-use of force between South Ossetia and Georgia.”

Moscow has been trying for years to get Tbilisi to commit to not using force and trying to get the outside world to seriously look at these problems and not just swallow Saakashvili’s view. And the 58th Army and the Pskov Airborne regiment were never going to stay there. All credit to Sarkozy for understanding the justice of these points.

In short, Moscow has done exactly what it said it would do, no more and no less. There is nothing in this agreement about regime change, conquest of Georgia or any of the rest of the hysterical reporting from so much of the world’s media, Russia troops have not invaded the rest of Georgia, they do not occupy Gori or Senaki or Poti (readers can amuse themselves by watching CNN quietly retreat from these claims on its interactive map).

Most of the world’s media has been appallingly irresponsible in its coverage. At least one news agency took film from Russia Today’s coverage of the destruction of Tskhinvali and gave the impression it was film from Gori. I have heard that a Spanish TV station went farther and actually passed off pictures of refugees from South Ossetia as Georgians and Tskhinvali as a Georgian city. In almost every case they repeated what Tbilisi told them and didn’t bother to check. Newspaper headlines all over the world gave the impression that Russia was marching on Tbilisi bent on overthrowing Saakashvili. Unfortunately these reports have influenced official statements by foreign governments. I encourage readers to go to news media websites and see these reports before they quietly disappear.

None of it was true: Moscow did exactly what it said it would do. On occasion, as it admitted at the time, that involved airstrikes on Georgian facilities or spoiling raids on Georgian military forces. There is a military logic: some of the fire that Russia was “stifling” came from artillery and aircraft outside South Ossetia; no army would just leave them alone. By the way, the Russians claim to have found a map in a Georgian command vehicle outlining an attack on Abkhazia. That probably explains the spoiling attack on the Georgian base in Senaki (which the Russian announced at the time).

There are some rational and informed voices (see here for example) but, thus far, they have been overwhelmed by a torrent of one-sided, sloppy and over-heated nonsense.

But I believe, perhaps naively, that the truth will out. French Foreign Minister Kouchner and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb had the moral courage to go to the refugee camps in North Ossetia and speak to the people there. What they saw and heard cannot be ignored. The inclusion of the sixth point in the settlement and his remarks in Moscow show that Sarkozy does understand that the secessionist problems in Georgia can no longer be dismissed as just something cooked up in Moscow.

That having been said, I do wish the Russians would just keep their mouths shut. Don’t say that they can never trust Saakashvili again; let the Georgians and all the Westerners who cosseted him figure that out by themselves. Don’t fulminate about Washington’s responsibility in encouraging him; leave Washington to its own self-examination. Don’t opine that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will never be part of Georgia; let the rest of the world realise that that is now impossible. These are all perfectly obvious: they speak for themselves.

In short a mind is a hard thing to change and a lot of mind-changing will have to go on. It will take time: it is after all, only since Thursday midnight that the re-thinking began.


THE WAR. A few hours after President Saakashvili went on TV and promised autonomy to South Ossetia and that Russia could be its guarantor, Georgian MLRSs opened fire in Tskhinvali. Hundreds if not thousands of Ossetians were killed and wounded. Moscow came to their rescue. French President Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Kouchner (who actually went to talk to the refugees who had escaped into North Ossetia) swiftly negotiated a settlement with Medvedev and then induced (what is the mot just?) Saakashvili to sign it. The leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have just signed as well. The settlement exactly corresponds to what Moscow has said was its intention from the beginning: cessation of fire; withdrawal of Georgian forces from South Ossetia (and Russian from South Ossetia); a declaration by Tbilisi that it will not use force in the future; opening access for aid and the beginning of a serious international discussion of Georgia’s secessionist problems. The Medvedev-Sarkozy settlement has two important points in it that Moscow has been calling for for years: Tbilisi is to make a formal promise not to use force (now perhaps one can understand why Moscow was always calling for such a promise) and the world should start taking a closer and more balanced look at Georgia’s secessionist problems. The EU is taking the lead: Sarkozy’s fast initiative has got us to where we are today. Besides, Washington is seen by Moscow (and the Ossetians) as too complicit.

SAAKASHVILI. Long time readers will know that I have been warning about Saakashvili and his bellicose desires for years. An attack on South Ossetia in 2006 failed in defeat and so, as I have long predicted, did this one. Complete defeat: thousands of refugees in Georgia, the apparent collapse and precipitate withdrawal of the Georgian army and the local administration from Gori, the abandonment of weapons and ammunition in Gori and Senaki (which, in the power vacuum, the Russians are securing), Georgia’s credit rating is dropping. And a legacy of destruction in Tskhinvali which the Western press is just now starting to discover. In November thousands of people on the streets of Tbilisi demanded his ouster – I would not be the least surprised to see bigger crowds in a few days when the extent of this folly becomes apparent. If I may give some advice to my readers regarding Georgian politicians: take the effort to find out what they say when they think you’re not listening: it’s often very different. See this, by a Georgian as it happens, summarising his recent statements. Will he be President of Georgia in a week? From his first domestic-audience statements, I expected Gamsakhurdia redivivus – someone else hailed as a “democrat” by naïve Westerners – and so he has proved to be.

MEDIA COVERAGE. The Western news media covered itself with shame, relaying every report from Tbilisi without hesitation. Some balance has been restored – the BBC in particular is starting to report what its people actually see in Tskhinvali and Gori rather than passing on Tbilisi’s press releases. But the degree of inaccuracy and bias have been made plain to any objective viewer.

LARGER ISSUES. It is too early to speculate on NATO-Russia, Moscow-Washington or anything like that. The West – especially Washington, whose reaction has been especially ill-informed – has a severe learning curve in front of it and Sarkozy (and Kouchner) have begun the process. For 15 years the West has believed the secessionists in Georgia were something created out of whole cloth by Russia; since the “Rose Revolution” Saakashvili has been a darling in the West; for years Moscow’s warnings have been contemptuously dismissed.

SOUTH OSSETIA FUTURE STATUS. No one in South Ossetia will ever believe a Georgian politician again unless there is a complete change and admission of what they have done since 1991. This is the third time since 1991 Tbilisi has attacked and they still speak of the “genocide” of 1920. Too much history, too much blood. This is simple reality. Stalin made these maps: they are not fixed by God.

ABKHAZIA. Expecting to be next on the list, the Abkhazians have driven Georgian forces out of Kodori.

OTHER POSSIBLE SECESSIONS. Tbilisi has not been able to locate Emzar Kvitsiani in Svanetia; the people in Javakhetia are potentially restive; Ajaria may take advantage.

FURTHER READING. By me on the sequence of events, “Now comes the hangover” and this on the terrible situation in Gori yesterday (the Georgian police have apparently come back). This essay on the cost of the West’s ignorance is very informed or this which is more breathless and not entirely to my taste but has lots of links. Russia Today has, until very recently, given the only coverage of Tskhinvali and the refugees in North Ossetia.

© Patrick Armstrong, Ottawa, Canada


SOLZHENITSYN. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a man of unshakeable integrity and courage, who did more to kill communism than anyone else, died on Sunday. His body lay in state at the Academy of Sciences and Putin and Gorbachev paid their respects. He was buried yesterday at the Dmitriy Donskoy Monastery in Moscow and Medvedev attended. Lately he had begun to sound rather out-of-date but I suspect his influence will endure for many years.

CORRUPTION. Medvedev signed his national anti-corruption plan and the Russian text is up on his website. A number of laws and amendments are expected to go to the Duma next month. Some features are restrictions and regulations for disposal of state assets and a provision by which companies can be responsible for the corrupt actions of employees. Speaking of which, the labour in the Augean Stables continues: so far this year, the military prosecution office says that 5 generals have been found guilty on corruption charges and the Investigative Committee states that 757 criminal cases have been opened against legal officials.

THE CADRE PROBLEM. As Stalin once said, “cadres resolve everything”. Medvedev is starting to wrestle with the question of where Russia’s civil servants come from and how they get to where they are. He has recently been musing on the subject and has suggested that some sort of “reserve” be formed of likely people. That won’t do the trick either – it’s a perennial idea in Western bureaucracies and it all goes the usual way.

KHODORKOVSKIY. The Levada Centre released an interesting poll which indicated that 55% had little sympathy for him even though only 15% believed his conviction to be lawful (85% were either doubtful of the legality or gave no opinion); 35% thought he should be paroled – his hearing is set for 21 August – while 30% did not. Apart from anything else, it shows that Russians are more capable of making up their own minds than the conventional view, which assumes an imposed official opinion, has it. (JRL/2008/142/28).

XENOPHOBIA. In most Western press coverage, Russia is treated as a sort of freak show – an endless catalogue of disasters – but, typically, coverage is often short on the facts. One of the current memes is the epidemic of attacks on foreigners. Well, according to Aleksandr Brod, director of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, who is not likely to understate the numbers, so far this year 73 have been killed and 200 injured. While this is much more than nothing, it is hardly an “epidemic” in a country of 150 million. Neither is it a uniquely Russian phenomenon.

USA-RUSSIA. The latest US National Defense Strategy takes some shots at Russia: “Russia’s retreat from openness and democracy… leveraged the revenue from, and access to, its energy sources; asserted claims in the Arctic; and has continued to bully its neighbors… more active military stance… threatened to target countries hosting potential U.S. anti-missile bases…. retreat from democracy… intimidation of its neighbors”. Too many unexamined clichés in that catalogue, I fear.

CHECHNYA. Sulim Yamadayev has been put on the federal wanted list on charges connected with kidnapping and murder. A real attempt at justice, or the removal of a potential opponent?

OSSETIA-GEORGIA. The small-scale war has intensified with reports of car bombs, artillery shelling and sniper fire. Each side blames the other. I have always maintained that Moscow’s principal motivation in the South Caucasus is that a war there could – as it did before – spread into the North Caucasus. And, rhetorically at least, it is spreading. Kokoity threatens to declare mobilisation and call on North Caucasians for help; Abkhazia has put its forces on alert; Tskhinvali claims volunteers from North Ossetia are arriving and a Cossack hetman says he’s ready to help. The Ossetians claim to have driven a Georgian force off a hill with some killed: Tbilisi first denied and later admitted losses. The correlation of forces may be changing: Saakashvili has just made a speech on TV: he ordered a ceasefire adding “And I am offering the Russian Federation to be a guarantor of the South Ossetian autonomy within Georgia… I offer a very important role to Russia in resolving this conflict… Georgia is a natural ally for Russia… We need a real mediator.” Words not before heard: he sounds quite nervous. As he should be: Tbilisi has been consistently defeated in its wars with South Ossetia and, if Abkhazia joins in, anything could happen in that rather fragile country. Illusion meets reality.

© Patrick Armstrong, Ottawa, Canada