Has Russia Been Vindicated? (Ossetia War)


Russia Profile Weekly Expert’s Panel

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.


TERM LIMITS. The Duma has approved the Constitutional amendments on term increases for itself and the President. When two-thirds of the regional legislatures approve (and not much doubt that they will) the new rules will take effect at the next election cycle. A reminder, for those who are still obsessed with the idea that Putin wants to be President forever, of how easy it would have been for Putin to have abolished or modified Art 81.3 had he wanted to.

POLITKOVSKAYA TRIAL. After much back and forth, the trial re-opened yesterday. The prosecution’s attempt to remove the judge has failed and the trial is open now to reporters and they are reporting.

DEMOGRAPHICS. More signs of an improvement: RosStat says the Russian population decreased by 116,600 to 141.9 million in the first 9 months of the year; last year’s equivalent decrease being 199,900. Births are up to 1.27 million from 1.18 million. Deaths are up slightly to 1.57 million from 1.56 million. Too early to make long-term conclusions, but the various programs are evidently having an effect. Not unconnected with the death rate is the Interior Minister’s statement that Russia has the highest rate of traffic accident mortality in Europe.

CORRUPTION. An Interior Ministry official tells us that, so far this year, police in Russia have committed over 60,000 violations and more than 3000 crimes. Public surveys typically rank police near the top of corrupt institutions.

UNITED RUSSIA CONGRESS. The ruling party held its annual meeting last week. Putin’s address concentrated on the financial crisis and his confidence that Russia would weather it. (For what it’s worth, the Finance Minister says banks’ liquidity has improved and they are lending more to the real sector). Putin also spoke of the social programs designed to reduce poverty and improve mortality numbers. These seem to be his current priorities.

SUBMARINE ACCIDENT. A sailor from the SSN Nerpa has been charged with negligence in connection with the fatal accident on the 8th.

UKRAINIAN ARMS SUPPLIES. Georgia received a lot of offensive weapons from Ukraine and the issue is causing a slow-burning scandal there. A summary of the situation can be found at JRL/2008/213/29. Certainly, it is hard to imagine how Georgia could have paid for what it received (or from the Czech Republic where, to my knowledge, there has been silence). So who did?

GEORGIA. On the 23rd Saakashvili claimed that shots were fired at him and Polish President Kaczynski near the border with South Ossetia. This report was picked up by a few Western news outlets but seems to have been generally treated with the derision it deserved and it is now reported that the Polish security forces are calling it a “Georgian provocation”. He has lost his credibility: the Civil Georgia report of the incident is remarkable for its lightly veiled disbelief. Meanwhile, Nino Burjanadze seems to be playing a careful game; keeping away from street demonstrations, she has created a new opposition party and described its immediate program: “We must get elections held and a new democratic leadership brought to power in a constitutional way”. Saakashvili has said he will not run again: do we see the shape of a palace coup developing? The Georgia parliamentary commission on the war is starting to run out of control. The testimony of the Georgian Ambassador to Russia has been especially devastating to Saakashvili’s version of events and his claims of endless Russian hostility. He stated there was a plan to attack Abkhazia in May that was called off (in late July Moscow sent some aircraft over Georgia that it thought, wrongly as it turned out, “dampened the zeal of hotheads in Tbilisi”). He also reported that “our leadership was saying that they had US support to carry out the military operation”. Personally, while I do not believe that Washington actually approved the invasion, I do regard it as culpable for not recognising what sort of person Saakashvili really is: in dealing with “hotheads” or “volatile” people, diplomatic language is rarely blunt enough. Tbilisi certainly thought it had Washington’s approval and it is understandable that it would: the training, the courtship, the rhetorical support. And all those weapons that flowed in while Washington said nothing.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (See http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)


POLITKOVSKAYA TRIAL. Indictments were handed down and, having first agreed to have the trial open, the judge closed it at the request of the jury. Given that the prosecution’s contention is that she was murdered in a mob hit, that both the actual killer and the boss who ordered it are in Europe and that the plot was assisted by members of the security forces, I can’t blame them for feeling insecure. However, one juror, who has resigned, said the jury only objected to live video and TV. The trial has been recessed until 1 December.

RUSSIA’S PROSPECTS. The World Bank has produced a report. The prognosis is not so bad: growth this year is estimated at 6% but will fall to 3% next year (which, the way things are going, may make Russia a star); inflation will remain in the 12%-14% range. As it says, the impact of the global crisis in Russia is cushioned by its large cash reserves and “prudent fiscal policy”.

BALANCE SHEET. The Duma heard reports on Russia’s reserves. The Reserve Fund is US$131.26 billion ($129.32 billion in June) and the National Welfare Fund US$61.16 billion ($32.60 billion in June). Some money is invested outside Russia; the Central Bank reduced its investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds from US$65.6 billion to US$20.9 billion over the year (everybody thought they were solid investments it seems!). The Bank has spent $57.5 billion between September and October supporting the ruble exchange rate. So, still money in the kitty although it is being spent and energy prices mean it is not arriving at the old rate.

DEMOGRAPHICS. The Health Ministry reported the highest birthrate in 16 years: up 100,000 in the first 9 months to 1.2 million. Reasons were a combination of the encouragement program and better medical care.

NEW PARTY. SPS, Civil Force and the Democratic Party have disbanded and re-formed as Pravoye Delo.

FIRST FRUITS? The Ingushetia Supreme Court has overturned the “accidental death” ruling in the case of Magomed Yevloyev and ordered a new investigation. New President, new telephone? Or shutting off the old?

PIRACY. A Russian warship, Neustrashimyy, is escorting ships in the Horn of Africa and claims to have prevented the seizure of a Saudi Arabian ship on Sunday. An issue that offers the possibility of real international cooperation and there have been meetings between French and Russian sea officers in the area.

OSCE. The former OSCE official, Ryan Grist, insists that the observers in Tskhinvali warned Vienna of Georgian preparations to attack saying it was an “absolute failure” that the warnings were not passed on. Not for the first time I wonder what they do in the OSCE headquarters. (See Ruslan Gelayev’s attack on Abkhazia in 2001 right under the noses of observers).

EU-US. I have long suspected that a fallout of the war will be a rift between the EU and Washington. Sarkozy is quoted as saying that Washington did not want him to go to Moscow in the first place. I remain stunned, given the resources it is supposed to have, by how ill-informed the White House was (I prefer that to the other possibility). When Daniel Fried testifies “the Georgians told us” as his source for key events, all I can say is !!!.

SOUTH CAUCASUS SECURITY. The Geneva meeting on Tuesday produced some progress and delegations from South Ossetia and Abkhazia attended. Given that the root cause of the situation is their refusal to be part of Georgia, nothing can be decided without their presence. Meanwhile Moscow says its bases in Abkhazia (Gudauta) and South Ossetia (Java) are fully manned with 3700 troops each.

GAS WARS. Ukraine is – again – behind in payments. Will we have another orgy of “Russian gas weapon” stories? Or will the West, having been so readily manipulated in the Ossetian war, have learned scepticism? Why shouldn’t Ukraine, and the others, pay the going rate?

UKRAINE AND NATO. Another poll in Ukraine in which 45.6% of respondents say NATO membership would be destabilising. I cannot think of any issue better calculated to split Ukraine than NATO membership – so much so that one wonders whether Washington wants to break up the country.

CAUCASIAN RUMOURS OF WARS. More events. In Ingushetia attacks on military convoys on the 13th and 18th and a bomb on the 16th ; in Dagestan 4 jihadists were killed on the 17th and there was an assassination attempt on a cleric on the 18th.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (See http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)


POLITICAL CHANGES. Medvedev has sent his first changes in the political system to the Duma. He wants the President’s term to be 6 and the Duma’s to be 5 years. It appears, from what the Speaker said, that the Federation Council will return to being elective (the method of choosing “senators” has gone through several iterations). In his speech Medvedev also spoke of loosening the (in my opinion) over-strict requirements for parties to qualify for Duma elections. Naturally the Western press is fitting this and that into their preconceptions. Especially worthless was this piece. Let it be repeated again: if Putin had wanted to stay on as President, he could have. He had the power and the popularity to have the Constitution amended; there was no need for some later elaborate scheme. But logic should never get in the way of the anti-Russia meme.

MILITARY REFORM. We move another (long-awaited) step; at least in planning. The Soviet Army was structured to fight a very big war with the basic building blocks being divisions organised into armies and fronts. The actual decisions were made at front level (as they had been in the Second World War). The formations were designed to be filled out by conscription. Thus an army of many divisions, many officers, much weaponry, huge reserves but fully manned only in front-line formations. This is obsolete today, and has been for some time. For several years there has been an intention to move towards brigades (in Commonwealth military terms: “brigade groups”) and a number of steps have been taken in this direction. Eight years ago Putin called for “a smaller, better-equipped, technically perfect army” but there is a powerful vested interest for the old way in the Russian Armed Forces, especially in a context where so many in the West are doing their best to create a new cold war. These interests have fought hard: they have been losing, but they have dragged the process out for many years. The latest plans to restructure formations have been announced: starting next year and finishing in 2012, all divisions will be disbanded (23) and be replaced by 12 brigade groups. In the process the Armed Forces will shrink by 270,000 soldiers and officers (160,000 of them!). The program is quite correct: Russia’s real threats require smaller and more flexible formations that can operate independently but we will see if the reform succeeds this time.

MISSILES. Foreign Minister Lavrov has made it clear that the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad would only take place if Washington were to emplace its missiles.

SUBMARINE. On the 8th there was an accident in the Russian SSN Nerpa in the Sea of Japan while on sea trials. Apparently the Freon fire suppressant system was accidentally triggered and 20 people, most of them civilian workers, suffocated. The boat is said to be undamaged and will be taken into Russian Navy service (and not leased to India as some reports have it).

OLD STORIES NEVER DIE. The US Defense Secretary congratulated Estonia with beating off mass-scale Russian cyber attacks. The Moscow cyber attack story is rubbish – read this: “These were simply hackers whose fathers and grandfathers had made huge sacrifices for Russia during World War II.”

CHECHNYA. It has been announced that the Vostok and Zapad battalions will be disbanded and re-constituted as companies in an MR division in Chechnya. The Russian Prosecution Service has ordered the Chechen Interior Ministry to bring former Vostok commander Sulim Yamadayev to interrogators by force. This could lead to trouble: this photo of a captured Georgian BMP shows a certain loyalty to Yamadayev in the Vostok battalion; he created it.

GEORGIA. The opposition held a one-day protest in Tbilisi attracting several thousand people; one notable slogan was “Stop Russia-Stop Misha!”. It passed off without incident. The opposition has developed a plan to hold protests with the goal of holding parliamentary and presidential elections in the spring. Saakashvili’s version of the start of the war is collapsing rapidly with testimony from OSCE observers and the like. I am amused that a US State Department spokesman was quoted as saying: “We may or may never get to the bottom of who was actually responsible for what went on there”, which is quite a change from the earlier line. Actually, it’s not such a mystery as all that. See this.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada

Saakashvili’s story is sinking fast


Moscow’s version of events in the recent Ossetia war has not varied. It says that Georgia attacked on the night of 7 August and that Russian troops did not arrive until the next day. It is clear, furthermore, that they did not appear in South Ossetia in strength until at least 24 hours after the first Georgian shots were fired.

Saakashvili’s story, on the other hand, has changed several times. On the 7th, a few hours before his forces opened fire, he made a speech on TV in which he said he had 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.” The next day, when he believed victory was at hand, he made another speech. A Georgian source reported him saying that Georgian forces now controlled “most of South Ossetia” and that “A large part of Tskhinvali is now liberated and fighting is ongoing in the centre of Tskhinvali”. In this he made two assertions to justify the attack: first that “South Ossetian militias responded to his peace initiative on August 7 by shelling Georgian villages” and second that “Georgia had come under aerial attack from Russian warplanes”. No mention of Russian troops entering South Ossetia then.

Of course, his victory announcement was premature and a few days later, he needed a bigger justification for the catastrophe. It was then that he started claiming that the Russians moved first. “‘I am sickened by the speculation that Georgia started anything,’ Mr Saakashvili told a conference call with journalists days later on August 13. ‘We clearly responded to the Russians . . . The point here is that around 11 o’clock, Russian tanks started to move into Georgian territory, 150 at first. And that was a clear-cut invasion. That was the moment when we started to open fire with artillery, because otherwise they would have crossed the bridge and moved into Tskhinvali.’”

Then the story changed again: on 23 September in a piece he wrote in the Washington Post, he claimed that “Russia then started its land invasion in the early hours of Aug. 7, after days of heavy shelling that killed civilians and Georgian peacekeepers.” He expected his readership to believe that the Russians had had an 18-hour head start on a 60-kilometre race and that Georgia had invaded anyway. Too preposterous and it seems to have been quietly forgotten.

Saakashvili’s stories are collapsing one after the other: the first story about a response to heavy Ossetian shelling is directly contradicted by two former British officers who were part of the OSCE team in the area: they report “Georgian rockets and artillery were hitting civilian areas in the breakaway region of South Ossetia every 15 or 20 seconds” and deny that there was the shelling of Georgia villages that Saakashvili claimed on the 8th.

The second story of the Russians entering South Ossetia just before – “supported” with the laughable claim of an intercepted telephone call which was mysteriously “lost” for several weeks – collapses in the BBC program of a couple of weeks ago (Part 1, Part 2). Americans were finally introduced to the accurate version in the New York Times nearly three months after the war began.


MEDVEDEV ADDRESS. Yesterday Medvedev made the annual address to parliament (Russian, English ). It is a meaty speech and is the formal announcement of his program. A memorable remark: “The cult of the state and the alleged wisdom of the administrative apparatus reigned in Russia for centuries. A person, with his rights and freedoms, personal interests and problems, was viewed as a tool, at best, or, at worst, as an impediment to the strengthening of state might.” He then quoted Stolypin saying that first comes the citizen and then the civic consciousness will follow (I watch for references to Stolypin). What struck me about it was evidence of something I have predicted before. Putin had a tendency to settle all problems by centralising power; perhaps necessary in 2000, over-centralisation now strangles initiative. I see in Medvedev’s speech many proposals to decrease centralisation of power. He gave a strong statement of Russia’s values which, one may be sure, will receive little coverage in the West. I would summarise the speech by saying that the overall emphasis was on making Russia “modern” in all senses of the word. In short, Putin stopped the rot, Medvedev has to build something and that something may require some dismantling of Putin’s structures. Read it yourselves: don’t let the biased and incompetent Western MSM tell you what he said. As a guide to coverage: the Russian text is 8315 words. Security occupied 13% of it and missiles in Kaliningrad 1.7%.

MISSILES. Medvedev’s announcement that Russia will station missiles and radar jamming equipment in response to the planned US deployment in Europe should be understood as conditional. If the US does that, Russia will do this. He made it clear that he believes Moscow has been forced to respond.

SOMETHING YOU WON’T HEAR ABOUT. An organiser of the nationalist “Russian March” in Moscow on Tuesday has been fined for organising an unauthorised demonstration.

DUUMVIRATE. Putin has opened a website which will have an English section. I do not recall any other PM having his own website and this is another indication, to my mind, that a degree of pluralism of power exists in Russia with two (cooperating) power centres.

INFLATION. RosStat announced that consumer prices grew 11.6% January to October as compared with 9.3% for the same period last year. This is not as bad as was feared earlier in the year.

CORRUPTION. A Moscow court found the former 1st Deputy Director of the Kremlin Property Department Settlements-Financial Centre, “guilty of squandering money” (I quote Interfax) and sentenced him to 7 years in prison. It is good that officials are being hit in the anti-corruption drive (a significant theme in Medvedev’s address) but it would be better yet if their offices were closer to Medvedev’s.

INGUSH REPUBLIC. Medvedev has repaired one of Putin’s mistakes and replaced Murat Zyazikov as President of the Ingush Republic (“at his own request”). Security has been gradually getting worse and he was extremely unpopular. Medvedev nominated a general, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, born in 1963 in Prigorodniy Rayon, North Ossetia. Will this prove to be the popular and effective choice that Zyazikov never was?

BEST LEADER IN 100 YEARS. VTsIOM asked Russians who were the best and worst rulers of the past 100 years and Putin won handily. The ratios of “best” to “worst” responses are: Putin 10 to one best over worst; Nikolay II 1.41:1; Brezhnev 1.17:1; Lenin 0.94:1; Stalin 0.73:1; Yeltsin 0.27:1; Gorbachev 0.27:1; No particular nostalgia here for the Soviet past (although some for the placidity of the Brezhnev years).

HISTORY. A plaque commemorating Admiral Kolchak was unveiled at a Moscow church last week. There has also been a successful movie made about him.

PRESIDENT OBAMA. What will be the future of Russia-US relations? I don’t know: as I see it, Obama is a palimpsest on which his supporters have written their dreams.

GEORGIA. The opposition – now with a great number of former allies of Saakashvili – is planning a big demonstration tomorrow. We will see what happens: but my bet is that, at the end, Saakashvili will be gone.

KARABAKH. On Sunday the presidents of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Moscow and issued a statement on Karabakh. It is rather anodyne but may represent a step forward. I suspect that the disaster of Tbilisi’s latest military adventure has had a sobering effect all round.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada