Reply to Ronald Asmus’s Claim Russia Attacked First

Note Feb 2016: Can’t remember exactly what Asmus said but his general line was that Russia was the aggressor. Of course, as I show here and elsewhere, Saakashvili changed his story and the “Russians already in the Roki Tunnel” version only appeared when he had a defeat to explain away.

Response to Ronald Asmus JRL/2009/59/04

Will this canard never die?

Below is what Civil Georgia reported in 8 August in its entirety (my emphasis)

“President Saakashvili said he had announced a general mobilization of reserve troops amid “large-scale military aggression” by Russia.

In a live televised address on August 8, Saakashvili said Georgian government troops had gone “on the offensive” after South Ossetian militias responded to his peace initiative on August 7 by shelling Georgian villages.

As a result, he said, Georgian forces now controlled “most of South Ossetia.”

He said the breakaway region’s districts of Znauri, Tsinagari, as well as the villages of Dmenisi, Gromi, and Khetagurovo, were “already liberated” by Georgian forces.

“A large part of Tskhinvali is now liberated and fighting is ongoing in the center of Tskhinvali,” he added.

He also said that Georgia had come under aerial attack from Russian warplanes on August 8, which was an obvious sign of “large-scale military aggression” against Georgia.

The Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs said that three SU-24 Fencer attack aircraft had breeched Georgian airspace on August 8, and one of them had dropped two bombs close to a police station in Kareli, slightly injuring several people.

“Immediately stop the bombing of Georgian towns,” Saakashvili told Russia. “Georgia did not start this confrontation and Georgia will not give up its territories; Georgia will not say no to its freedom… We have already mobilized tens of thousands of reserve troops. Mobilization is ongoing.”

“Hundreds of thousands of Georgians should stand together and save Georgia,” he added.

Note there is no mention of Russian forces in the Roki Tunnel: he gives quite different excuses.

Saakashvili’s story has changed: see my piece (with Georgian sources) on JRL/2009/ ( documenting the change. The “Russians are already in the Roki Tunnel” excuse – of which Saakashvili put forth two variations) only appeared after the operation went so badly wrong.

And BTW – here’s the Civil Georgia report of the Kurashvili statement from 8 Aug (

A senior official from the Georgian Ministry of Defense said Georgia had “decided to restore constitutional order in the entire region” of South Ossetia. Mamuka Kurashvili, an MoD official in charge of overseeing peacekeeping operations, told journalists late on August 7 that the South Ossetian side had rejected Tbilisi’s earlier decision to unilaterally cease fire and had resumed shelling of Georgian villages in the conflict zone.


USA-RUSSIA. The Kissinger-led group’s trip to Moscow and Gorbachev’s trip to Washington are visible signs of potential changes. More directly the Chair of the US Senate Armed Services Committee said Washington should seek cooperation with Moscow on missile defence. Of course, many attempt to head off any change by saying Obama is soft on Russia (an example which includes the current charge sheet). As Stalin said: “the struggle intensifies…”.

ANTI-CRISIS PLAN. The text of the government’s anti-crisis program has been published (Eng) (Rus). No sugar-coating here: “After ten years of continuous economic growth and improvement in living standards, Russia has faced a very serious economic challenge…The global economic downturn is affecting Russia in a special way because of its deformed economic structure, and a number of immature market institutions, including the financial system.” But maybe (maybe) Russia Inc has stopped dropping.

MILITARY REFORM. The Ground Forces commander has said that 20 motorised infantry brigades have been created. This is of course a re-organisation, not an addition. The current (and indeed long-announced) idea is to replace the old large-war structure of fronts/armies/divisions and move to smaller and more flexible brigade group structures. For years the General Staff fought for the large war concept and strove to preserve the structure, even though most of the divisions and armies were empty of troops. More than ten years ago, most of the “empty divisions” disappeared. The first Chechen war taught them the utility of special forces and the complete uselessness of their structure; after that war the first brigade groups were created in the North Caucasus at Buynaksk, Maykop and Budyonnovsk (ah! people must miss the CFE Treaty and all the information it produced!). There was talk then of completing the restructuring, but once again the process stalled and there were a number of under-strength “divisions” retained (troop sizes for motorised rifle divisions in 2002 ranged from 4700 in Kaliningrad to 15,000 in Groznyy). The Ossetia war seems to have taught them that the Russian Army is simply not as well-equipped or as flexible as it has to be. Last November, it was announced that the Kantemirovskaya tank division and the Taman motorised rifle division, as far as I know the most capable divisions Russia had, would be re-organised into four brigades. We’ll see if the plan is followed through this time. The reorganisation is, by the way, a convincing sign that Moscow does not seriously fear a big war with NATO; as is the location of its troops: the North Caucasus dominates.

PIPELINES. On Monday, Ukraine and EU signed a cooperation declaration to modernise Ukraine’s gas pipeline network. Putin is in a huff and called the agreement “unprofessional”. But why? Ukraine owns the pipelines; they are rather elderly and Tymoshenko has said Russia can invest. Gazprom’s official line is that this could uncoordinate what was designed in the first place as an integrated network.

FOR YOUR AMUSEMENT. Irreverent Russian art.

CAUCASIAN RUMOURS OF WARS. The Dagestan Interior Ministry has announced that a “special operation” has been concluded: 12 “militants” and 5 security servicemen were killed.

SOUTH OSSETIA WAR. The latest canard is that the assertion that BGen Mamuka Kurashvili said that there were orders to “restore constitutional order” in South Ossetia is “part of a series of lies and misinformation” by Russia. Well, here’s a Georgian report from 8 August quoting him as saying just that. Clearly Tbilisi is anticipating a bad report from the EU commission and is pre-muddying the waters.

GEORGIA. The dance continues and the government is making its moves. On the 17th the Georgian Times Media Holding announced it had shut down the Georgian edition of The Georgian Times, claiming “pressure” and “intimidation attempts.” The Interior Ministry has arrested a number of oppositionists, accusing them of illegally buying weapons; Burjanadze, from whose party they are said to have come, says it’s a plant and Alasania is sceptical.

AZERBAIJAN. In a referendum, limits on presidential terms were eliminated. Ilham Aliyev is 47 and he has a son. His father Haydar Aliyev brought a level of stability to Azerbaijan and, after the coups and other disorders of the 1990s, security was rather desirable to many of the citizens.


© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

Hyperlinks ought to work immediately but, if not, right-click, copy link location, put it in your browser.


USA-RUSSIA. More indications that something is happening under the surface.

The mighty Russian arms build-up. Medvedev has (again) announced plans to re-equip the Armed Forces (Eng) (Rus). But before hyperventilating, consider that the Defence Minister then said the aim was to have 30% “modern” weaponry by 2015 and 70% by 2020. (REF) A very long way to go. And that I myself heard Russian generals outlining much the same intention a decade ago. Doing is harder than saying.

BRICKS WITHOUT STRAW. Reading JRLs after a week or so away from Russia, I am struck with all the pieces on 1) how Russia’s economy is collapsing (and with it Putin) and 2) how Medvedev and Putin are starting to split. I can’t find any real evidence of either and editorials from the usual sources or endless regurgitation of the “car riots” in Vladivostok only convince the already convinced.

FINANCIAL CRISIS. Putin stated government spending on anti-crisis measures will be 12% of GDP in 2009 and outlined a 2009 budget of US$198 billion revenues, $287 billion expenditures and a deficit of $88 billion 7.4% of GDP.

UNITED RUSSIA. There has been some coverage of Gorbachev’s criticism that it is “a party of bureaucrats” reminiscent of the CPSU. But here’s Putin himself in November 2007: the party lacks a set of serious principles, has attracted some criminals, but “we don’t have anything better”. Sounds much the same to me. (Can’t find the original but I mentioned it in Sitrep 20071115).

DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN. Medvedev has declared that all state officials, including himself, must annually publish their incomes and property holdings. I seem to recall an earlier attempt at doing this that dissolved into risible declarations of parsimonious adherence to state salaries, broken-down dachas and a part share in a Zaporozhets. Despite a plethora of fancy watches and elaborate holidays.

NEWS YOU WON’T HEAR. A sanctioned protest – Day of People’s Wrath – on Sunday in Moscow was disrupted by Young Guard (usually termed “pro-Kremlin”) counter protesters: the police arrested them.

IRAN. A Russian source has admitted that there is a contract with Iran to deliver S-300 SAM systems but insists that no missiles have been delivered and that fulfilment would depend on the world situation. Sounds like a bargaining chip to me. According to this however, thanks to Belarus, Iran already has some of an earlier version (the earliest versions of the system were fielded 30 years ago).

FRANCE. Readers will recall that I believe Paris had a “reality check” last August about the actuality of the situation in Georgia and the consequences of NATO expansion. Some signs of this, I think. France will return to the NATO military structures – giving it more say – and its Defence Minister said Russia should be consulted before NATO expands further.

TRANSDNESTR. Yesterday Medvedev hosted talks between Moldova and Transdnestr; nothing much is reported other than a communiqué which doesn’t say anything new. Of the five unrecognised mini-states created after the USSR’s dissolution: Chechnya is “solved” (although I remain convinced that the leadership – all now Chechens, many of them veterans of the first war – still want eventual independence); Abkhazia and South Ossetia have a kind of solution. That leaves Karabakh, which seems as far from solution as ever, and Transdnestr. I believe Transdnestr is solvable and that the solution is more-or-less on the table already.

GAS WARS. Are now raging inside Ukraine itself. Too complicated, too many accusations and counter-accusations for me to summarise: see JRL/2009/54/40. Ukraine is taking less gas than it contracted to but Gazprom will not seek compensation; as Putin said: Ukraine is “on the verge of bankruptcy and as you well know you should not finish off your partners”.

GEORGIA. On the 10th 9 opposition parties began to collect signatures demanding Saakashvili’s resignation. There is a disagreement among the opposition whether to collect signatures, hold protest rallies or do both. It is intended, starting 9 April to begin continuous protests but they have already begun (Pictures). Will Saakashvili go quietly, or will he turn to the police again; and if so will they turn out for him? (It would be interesting to know who paid for all that expensive equipment the police have).


© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

Kitsmarishvili Testimony


In response to David J. Smith’s piece “Russia Was First” (JRL/2009/53/34) allow me to just add a few things that may have escaped his attention.

This from the testimony of Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Georgia’s former ambassador to Russia and a one-time close ally of President Saakashvili. Reference at The whole thing, covering relations with Moscow related by someone who was intimately involved, is worth reading.

“But an incident took place between Okruashvili and Kokoity [Kitsmarishvili did not specify] and escalation started to raise in the region; a special operation was then carried out in South Ossetia, which was led by Okruashvili; on that day Okruashvili announced [on August 19, 2004] that [the Georgian troops] killed eight Cossacks fighting on the South Ossetian side. But eventually it turned out that only one person was killed.”

“During that meeting, President Saakashvili asked the question whether to launch a military assault on Tskhinvali or not? Vano Merabishvili, Irakli Chubinishvili and Zurab Adeishvili were against of launch of this operation; then we asked Gogi Tavtukhashvili whether there were enough capabilities to secure control over the region in a next few days in case of the military operation; Tavtukhashvili failed to give us a positive answer on that question; We were very close to taking a decision in favor of the operation, because Okruashvili, who was in favor of the military operation, was at that time very close associate to President Saakashvili;”

“In the second half of April, 2008, I have learnt from the President’s inner circle that they have received a green light from the western partner to carry out a military operation; When asked to specify “the western partner” Kitsmarishvili said: after a meeting with the U.S. President George W. Bush [the meeting between Bush and Saakashvili took place in Washington on March 19], our leadership was saying that they had the U.S. support to carry out the military operation; In order to double-check this information, I have met with John Tefft, the U.S. ambassador in Tbilisi and asked him whether it was true or not; he categorically denied that;”

The military operation should have been undertaken in direction of Abkhazia; military instructors from Israel were brought here in order to prepare that military operation; Kezerashvili also said at that meeting that the operation should have started in early May, or at least before the snow melted on the mountain passes; This decision was not materialized;”

In short, according to one of the insiders, an attack by Tbilisi was always in the cards. And, as Mr Smith appears to have forgotten, but Mr Kitsmarishvili has not, there actually was an attack in August 2004 (which resulted in another defeat for Tbilisi).

Moscow’s taking preparations is hardly proof of aggressive intent.

Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Eastern Europe in Danger?

When NATO expansion was light-heartedly (George Kennan’s expression) begun by the Clinton administration its proponents sold the idea (I well remember earnest Americans patiently explaining this when I was a diplomat in Moscow) as a means of improving European security. And, had there been any serious intention to include Russia, perhaps it would have been. But wiser people, like Jack Matlock, foresaw that the exclusion of Russia would make things rather less stable.

And so it has proved to be. Even proponents of NATO expansion can see the connection with Tbilisi’s attack on South Ossetia last August and are fond of claiming that Russia puts up gas prices in order to weaken Ukraine (ignoring the fact that Russia has put up prices for everyone – even Armenia and Belarus which have no intention of joining NATO). NATO expansion has steadily crept east, from Poland to Latvia and now to Ukraine and Georgia (although their accession looks less likely today). Now the argument seems to be little more than because Moscow does not want these countries in NATO, they must be admitted (and, above all, we must not give Moscow a “veto”). A thin reason indeed.

NATO now has members that have re-painted their history under communist rule: gone are the home-grown communists like Wladyslaw Gomulka or Martin Latsis and in their place is a picture of Russian imperialism and native resistance. These countries are a lobby pushing NATO into a reflexive anti-Russian stance. They do not need actual evidence of Russian hostility: Russian imperialism is the very foundation stone of their new historical mythology. Perhaps the most preposterous example of this reconstruction of reality was the proposal that the still-existing museum in Gori Georgia to its favourite son, Iosef Bissarion-dze Jughashvili, be re-named the museum of the Russian occupation of Georgia. Perhaps Russia should create a museum of the Georgian occupation of Russia: given the importance to Russian history of Stalin, Beria, Orjonikidze, Golglidze and Gvishiani, this would have more historical credibility. “In 1939 the whole of the USSR could be said to be controlled by Georgians and Mingrelians” says Donald Rayfield in Stalin and his Hangmen. But these people have been painted out of the portraits – de-communisation was often more airbrushing than an honest recognition of the reality of enthusiastic native participants. And now they’re selling these paintings to NATO. As Matlock saw ten years ago: “it creates greater polarization of attitudes as the line moves east”. Kennan called it “a tragic mistake”.

The actual problems of the post-communist countries are all similar: corruption, out-dated industry, bad work habits, decaying infrastructure, crashing demographics and fragile economies. Countries that had the full 70-year dose of communism are worse off than those who received the 40-year dose to be sure, but the problems are shared. NATO is not the answer to any of them.

There is no better illustration of this truth than the parlous state of Ukraine today. The post “Orange Revolution” obsession with NATO has only exacerbated the political division in the country.

And finally, why would Russia, which is surviving the financial storm better than most – if not all – of its neighbours, want to acquire these countries anyway? Much more trouble (and expense) than they’re worth. After all, there wasn’t much stopping Russia from seizing most of Georgia last August if it had wanted to.


US-RUSSIA. Something is happening under the surface with the two Presidents corresponding. Unfortunately someone leaked it, which is never good when delicate negotiations are beginning and each has been forced to insist there will be no tradeoffs or quid pro quo. The Russian Defence Minister reiterated that the stationing of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad has always been conditional (something some don’t seem to understand). For what it’s worth, here’s Shevardnadze’s opinion of how we got here (JRL/2009/41/34): “So who is the initiator of this new tension between the US and Russia?” Shevardnadze: “America”.

CRIME. Medvedev addressed the Collegium of the Prosecutor General’s Office on the 25th: “The total number of crimes registered has decreased, this is indeed the case, but nonetheless, more than 2,000 murders were unsolved last year, tens of thousands of people are listed as missing, and crimes of an extremist nature rose by almost a third.” No sugar coating there.

CORRUPTION. The Prosecutor General says about 3700 corruption-related criminal cases were opened in 2008. Meanwhile charges have been laid against Navy officials suspected of attempting to smuggle weapons to China.

POLITKOVSKAYA TRIAL. The Prosecutor General’s Office, still reeling from the collapse of the case, insists that the Makhmudov brothers were involved and has appealed the acquittal. Meanwhile, Medvedev is reported to have told the prosecutors that they “should learn to work with the existence of the institution of the jury… It is time to learn to do this, and not discuss how good it was back when this institution did not exist”.

PROTEST. Kasparov & Co’s latest vehicle, Solidarity, held a rally in Moscow on the 21st. This time, rather than refusing the location offered by the city (a central one on the Boulevard Ring) and forcing a confrontation for the sake of Western media coverage, they accepted it; a few hundred turned out and there were no incidents.

DEMOGRAPHICS. Still declining, but not as badly: in 2008 the population declined 363,500, about 20% better than the year before. Putin claimed the highest birthrate since 1992 with 260,000 more than 3 years before and claimed life expectancy was up nearly 3 years.

RUSSIA INC. RosStat reported foreign direct investment had dropped by 14.2% to US$103.8 billion in 2008. (In a bright spot McDonald’s announced plans to invest US$120 million in opening more restaurants). The Finance Minister said capital flight between October and January had been about US$200 billion. Foreign debt totals about US$40 billion. The Reserve and National Wealth Funds total about US$220 billion. Putin told the United Russia party conference that the crisis had not ended but again expressed his confidence that Russia would get through.

COLOUR-FAST. His predecessor and his former ally think Mr Orange should quit; his former ally thinks Mr Rose should quit and, with the closing of Manas, Mr Tulip is being regarded as a Russian stooge. Stage managed quasi legal overthrows for the sake of the NATO expansion obsession were not, in fact, the answer to these countries’ problems.

GEORGIA. I’m sure many of my readers think I bang on too much about Georgia but I do so because of the absurd coverage that is prevalent in the West and the importance of Georgia to the anti-Russia mental construct (for 15 years now!). I highly recommend you read the interview with Nino Burjanadze in JRL/2009/45. She explains why it is necessary to get rid of Saakashvili; she is not Moscow’s apologist or stooge but understands that Georgia should have “stayed within the framework of civility”.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see