Wikileaks on the South Ossetia War





I have been a diplomat: I have written reports like the ones leaked and I have read many. And my conclusion is that some report writers are better informed than others. So it is with a strange sense of déjà vu that I have read the Wikileaks on US reports.

My sources for the following are the reports presented at this Website (passed to me by Metin Somnez – thank you): (Direct quotations are bolded; I will not give detailed references – search the site). The reports published there are a small sample of all the communications that would have passed from the posts to Washington in August 2008. They are, in fact, low-grade reporting tels with low security classifications and only a partial set at that. Nonetheless they give the flavour of what Washington was receiving from its missions abroad. (It is inconceivable that the US Embassy in Tbilisi was reporting everything Saakashvili told it without comment in one set of reports while another said that he was lying; that’s not how it works).

One of the jobs of embassies is to inform their headquarters; in many cases, this involves passing on what they are told without comment. But passive transmission does not justify the fabulous expense of an Embassy – official statements are easy to find on the Net – informed judgement is what you are paying for. We don’t see a lot of that in these reports. What struck me immediately upon reading the reports from Tbilisi was how reliant they were on Official Tbilisi. Had they never talked to Okruashvili, or Kitsmarishvili? They could have told them that the conquest of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was always on the agenda. They actually did speak to Kitsmarishvili: he says he met with Ambassador Tefft to ask whether Washington had given Tbilisi “U.S. support to carry out the military operation” as he said the Tbilisi leadership believed it had. He says Tefft “categorically denied that”. How about former close associates of Saakashvili like Burjanadze or Zurabishvili who could have told them how trustworthy he was? (The last’s French connections may have helped insulate Paris from swallowing Saakashvili’s version whole).

The first report from Tbilisi, on 6 August, deals with Georgian reports of fighting in South Ossetia. This doesn’t mean anything in particular – sporadic outbursts have been common on the border since the war ended in 1992 – they are generally a response to the other side’s activities. What’s important about this particular outburst is that it formed the base of Saakashvili’s Justification 1.0 for his attack. We now must remind readers of his initial statement to the Georgian people when he thought it was almost over: “Georgian government troops had gone ‘on the offensive’ after South Ossetian militias responded to his peace initiative on August 7 by shelling Georgian villages.” His justification changed as what he had to explain grew more catastrophic. The US Embassy in Tbilisi comments (ie not reporting what they were told: comments are the Embassy speaking) “From evidence available to us it appears the South Ossetians started today’s fighting. The Georgians are now reacting by calling up more forces and assessing their next move. It is unclear to the Georgians, and to us, what the Russian angle is and whether they are supporting the South Ossetians or actively trying to help control the situation”. The comment sets the stage: the Ossetians started it and Moscow may be involved. There appears to be no realisation that the Ossetians are responding to some Georgian activity (itself a reaction to an Ossetian activity and so on back to 1991, when the Georgians attacked). Shouldn’t Tefft have wondered at this point why Kitsmarishvili had asked him that question a few months earlier? (Parenthetically I might observe that there is never, in any of the reports that I have seen, any consideration, however fleeting, of the Ossetian point of view. But that is the Original Sin of all of this: Stalin’s borders are sacrosanct and Ossetians are nothing but Russian proxies).

On 8 August comes what is probably the most important message that the US Embassy in Tbilisi sent to its masters in Washington: “Saakashvili has said that Georgia had no intention of getting into this fight, but was provoked by the South Ossetians and had to respond to protect Georgian citizens and territory.” The comment is: “All the evidence available to the country team supports Saakashvili’s statement that this fight was not Georgia’s original intention. Key Georgian officials who would have had responsibility for an attack on South Ossetia have been on leave, and the Georgians only began mobilizing August 7 once the attack was well underway. As late as 2230 last night Georgian MOD and MFA officials were still hopeful that the unilateral cease-fire announced by President Saakashvili would hold. Only when the South Ossetians opened up with artillery on Georgian villages, did the offensive to take Tskhinvali begin. Post has eyes on the ground at the Ministry of Interior command post in Tbilisi and will continue to provide updates..,. If the Georgians are right, and the fighting is mainly over, the real unknown is what the Russian role will be and whether there is potential for the conflict to expand.” The Embassy also reported “We understand that at this point the Georgians control 75 percent of Tskhinvali and 11 villages around it. Journalists report that Georgian forces are moving toward the Roki tunnel”. How wrong can you be? The Georgians did not control 75% of Tskhinval and they were not approaching Roki; at this time their attack had already run out of steam, stopped by the Ossetian militia.

Saakashvili and the Georgian leadership now believe that this entire Russian military operation is all part of a grand design by Putin to take Georgia and change the regime.” Already we see that Tbilisi is preparing the ground for Justification 2.0. I refer the reader to Saakashvili’s “victory speech” made on Day 1. As I have written elsewhere, when Saakashvili saw that his war was not turning out as he expected, he changed his story. The Embassy reports the beginnings of Justification 2.0 without comment: “Saakashvili, who told the Ambassador that he was in Gori when a Russian bomb fell in the city center, confirmed that the Georgians had not decided to move ahead until the shelling intensified and the Russians were seen to be amassing forces on the northern side of the Roki Tunnel.” From the US NATO delegation we get the final version of Justification 2.0: “Crucially, part of their calculus had been information that Russian forces were already moving through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia. Tkeshelashvili underlined that the Russian incursion could not have been a response to the Georgian thrust into South Ossetia because the Russians had begun their movements before the Georgians.” But, really – think about it – would Georgia have invaded in the hope that its forces could beat the Russians on a 60 kilometre road race into Tskhinval that the Russians had already started?

But at last we begin to see some scepticism: “It is increasingly difficult to get an accurate analysis of the military situation because of the fog of war and the fact that the Georgian command and control system has broken down.” By the 12th Georgian reports are accompanied by some caution: “Note: Post is attempting to obtain independent confirmation of these events. End note.” At last it is comparing the different stories: “Merabishvili said that 600 of his MOIA special forces, with their Kobra vehicles (armored Humvees with 40-mm guns), took Tskhinvali in six hours, against 2,000 defenders. He claimed that in the future they will use the attack to teach tactics. He returned again to the subject, noting that ‘we held Tskhinvali for four days despite the Russians’ bombing. Half of our men were wounded, but none died. These guys are heroes.’ (Comment: Post understands MOIA control of Tskhinvali was actually closer to 24 hours. End Comment.)”

Nonetheless the Embassy passively transmits: “bombed hospitals”; “Russian Cossacks are shooting local Georgians and raping women/girls”; “The Georgians suffered terrible losses (estimated in the thousands) overnight”; “Russian helicopters were dropping flares on the Borjomi national forest to start fires”; “Russia targeted civilians in Gori and Tskhinvali”; “the Backfires targeted 95 percent civilian targets”; “raping women and shooting resisters”; “stripped Georgian installations they have occupied of anything valuable, right down to the toilet seats”.

However, enough of this: it’s clear that the US Embassy in Tbilisi believed what it was told, had not in the past questioned what it was told and, for the most part, uncritically passed on what it had been told. The US Embassy reports shaped the narrative in key areas:

  1. Ossetians (and maybe Moscow) started it;
  2. The Russian forces were doing tremendous and indiscriminate damage;
  3. Possibly the Russians wanted to take over Georgia altogether.

Many reports deal with attempts to produce a unified statement of condemnation from NATO and show differences among the members. On the one hand, “Latvia, echoed by Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland highlighted their Presidents’ joint statement on the crisis and invited Allies to support that declaration. Each of these Allies expressed that Russian violence should ‘not serve the aggressor’s purpose’ and that NATO should respond by suspending all NRC activity with the exception of any discussion aimed at bringing an end to the conflict. Bulgaria liked the idea immediately”. But not everyone bought into Washington’s contention that Ossetia or Moscow had started it: “Hungary and Slovakia called for NATO to take into account the role Georgia played at the beginning of this recent conflict, suggesting that Georgia invaded South Ossetia without provocation.” Germany is even described as “parroting Russian points on Georgian culpability for the crisis” and described as “the standard bearer for pro-Russia camp”. Would Berlin’s scepticism have any connection with the fact that Der Spiegel was the only Western media outlet that got it right: “Saakashvili lied 100 percent to all of us, the Europeans and the Americans.”? Eventually, after a lot of back and forth, there is agreement that Moscow’s response was “disproportionate”. (But how much was that judgement affected by Tbilisi’s hysterical reports of indiscriminate bombardment, casualties in the thousands and the exaggerated reports about the destruction of Gori? To say nothing of meretricious reporting by Western media.)

The Western media – with the exception of Der Spiegel – was no better. Perhaps the best example of its slanted and incompetent coverage was passing off pictures of Tskhinval as pictures from Gori: one newspaper even tried to pass off a Georgian soldier – wearing a visible Georgian flag patch – as a Russian in “blazing” Gori. It was months before the New York Times or the BBC, for example, began to climb off their Tbilisi-fed reporting.

During the war I was interviewed by Russia Today and I said that, sitting at my computer in my basement in Ottawa, far from the centre of the world, I had a better take on what was happening than Washington did. I see nothing in these reports to change my opinion. I also said that the war would be a reality check for the West when it was understood that Moscow’s version of events was a much better fit with reality than Tbilisi’s. And so it has proved to be.

Why did I do better? Assumptions. The American diplomats assumed that Tbilisi was telling the truth (despite the strong hint from Kitmarishvili). People in Warsaw, Riga and other places assumed that Russia wanted to conquer Georgia. On the other hand, my assumption was that Tbilisi hardly ever told the truth – I had followed all the back and forth about jihadists in Pankisi or Ruslan Gelayev’s attack on Abkhazia. I knew about Saakashvili’s takeover of Imedi TV. I knew that Ossetians had reasons to fear Tbilisi years ago and more recently. I knew that they were only in Georgia because Stalin-Jughashvili had put them there and that they wanted out. I remembered the Gamsakhurdia years when all this began. I was not pre-disposed to believe Tbilisi on this, or, truth to tell, anything else. Assumptions are everything and that is what we see in these reports. Russia is assumed to be evil, Georgia assumed to be good.

But, what a change in only two years: today NATO courts Russia and Saakashvili courts Iran.


NATO-RUSSIA. A major change, at least on the rhetorical level. NATO adopted a new Strategic Concept. About Russia it said: “NATO-Russia cooperation is of strategic importance… we want to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia… the security of NATO and Russia is intertwined”. Medvedev attended the last day and a joint statement reiterated the above. Russia was invited to join a Europe-wide missile defence system. Medvedev welcomed all this at the press conference. Undeniably a major step forward in cooperation, quite unimaginable two years ago. But, given that I regard NATO as little more than a “rhetorical organisation”, implementation will have to come from bilateral activity. As a first result Moscow has signed an agreement that NATO’s military equipment can pass through Russia; in both directions it seems.

CORRUPTION. Ella Pamfilova gives the most intelligent discussion of what she calls Russia’s “systemic corruption” I’ve seen so far, neither the extreme of “nothing is happening” nor that it’s all under control. (JRL/2010/216/2). Formerly human rights council head, she now heads the Russian branch of Transparency International (it is reported that she will receive the Order of Honour “for her longstanding productive government activity”). She said that before changes in 2008, Russian law had been completely inadequate. For her the principal problem is people “ensconced within the regime” feeding off state contracts. She was insistent that there must be the possibility of bottom-up action: media freedom is essential; informers must be protected; elections give the possibility of removing corrupt officials whereas, if appointed from above, “there is absolutely nothing that people can do”. The Web will also help. (“If you can electronically enrol your child in a kindergarten, who are you going to pay — the computer?”). Visible arrests of important people are necessary: the effort has to be seen to “draw blood”. Worth a read.

POLITICAL COMPETITION. There isn’t much in Russia. “Liberals” only quarrel with each other, Zhirinovskiy and the Communists have a comfortable existence inside the status quo, and the pedestal party sweeps up those who want to be in tight with Power. As for Just Russia, it exists, but I don’t see how there can be two parties of power with slightly different flavours. United Russia is reported to support Medvedev’s initiative to encourage political competition. Of course the Pedestal would never be seen to disagree with the Statue, but UR members have little interest in sharing the fruits of obsequiousness. Political pluralism cannot come from the top and there isn’t a lot of evidence, over the past 15 years, to suggest that it is coming from the bottom.

INFRASTRUCTURE. Medvedev worries about infrastructure, saying “According to estimates, over 60% of the public utilities infrastructure has outlived its service life”. Fortunately Russia these days has the money to do something about it. I keep thinking that Eisenhower’s highway development is a model of how Russia can grow. It can be done mostly with internal resources, it creates wealth as it is done and creates wealth when it is finished. But investment is happening: see below.

FACTORIES. I was intrigued with the pictures of this pipe-making plant in Chelyabinsk. A reminder that, while the foreign MSM obsesses with Medvedev v Putin speculation, many more important things are happening. The pipe plant reminded me a bit of this ultra-modern VW plant in Dresden. Also see this small lumberyard (although they could use some protective equipment) and a plethora of modern equipment at Domodedova. Most of the equipment appears to be foreign, but that’s an indication that energy revenues are not being squandered. (Thanks to Arthur Vanzetti).

POLITKOVSKAYA. It is reported that Russian investigators are looking for her killers in Belgium. The investigators have all along said the person who ordered the killing is in Europe.

GEORGIA. On Tuesday Saakashvili told the European Parliament “that Georgia will never use force to restore its territorial integrity and sovereignty, that it will only resort to peaceful means”. Moscow and Sukhum are sceptical. As am I: he wouldn’t be saying this if his attempt to use force had succeeded two years ago. It’s a stunt. Unless it’s a declaration to South Ossetia and Abkhazia witnessed and guaranteed by everyone else; but I’d be very surprised if he did that. Meanwhile the opposition has started up again.

KYRGYZ REPUBLIC. The trial of former President Bakiyev and other officials for ordering the violence against the protesters in April has begun. He, still in Belarus, denies responsibility.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

Putin’s Problems

Note February 2016: I wrote this as a reply to a comment on something I’d written. My recollection now is that it was something along the lines that Putin  is only interested in power.

Your remark deserves a much longer answer (and you’ve made me think I should write something). In essence you’re suggesting that Putin talks a better game than he plays. There is, I think, some truth in this but I believe that there is a good explanation. And the point is to try and explain things, not to judge them.

Go back to the situation of Russia when Putin was handed the keys. We all know about the economic/social picture – pretty desperate, even hopeless – but consider the security situation.

Khattab and his jihadists had attacked Dagestan and Russia itself – something had to be done about that (and with Armed Forces that had shown themselves to be pretty ineffective). Billionaires who had stolen their money thought they owned the place and were buying politicians. Corruption was wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling especially in the regional governments. Regional govts were doing whatever they wanted. The central govt had no money. NATO was expanding happily away and had just arrogated to itself the right to decide who has a country and who doesn’t. I believe that Putin actually thought (lots of references in his speeches to this) that Russia was in danger of disappearing – breaking up in a catastrophic collapse. Scary times if you’re a patriotic Russian.

So his problem is how to get there from here. His answer was to centralise things and take it slowly. Not an unreasonable plan, especially given what had happened in the 1990s. He had no tail, was generally unknown in Moscow and was dropped right into it. So he centralised control where he thought it could be trusted (witness all the jobs he dumped on Ivanov) and controlled and moved slowly and carefully (see his replacement of Defence Minister – forgotten his name just now – and the head of Gazprom as an illustration of his management style). Gradually he replaced people (pretty successfully as it turned out) and got things back on an even keel.

Then enter the “coloured revolutions” which, as time goes on, look to be more and more faked by outside interference. He and his circle seemed to have feared that a similar CR was being prepared for Russia and he tightened some more. His suspicions and fears are not lessened by still more NATOX, absurd and hostile reporting in the West and so forth. Still scary times.

If you’ve been reading my stuff, you will know that for 3-4 years I have been saying that he tightened too much and his successor would have to loosen things. I believe Putin’s over-centralisation, however much sense it may have seemed to make ten years ago (not an immense period of time BTW in what is necessarily a long-term plan) is now getting in the way of modernisation. And I believe we are seeing — I believe we are seeing — an easing of this today – but it’s the same plan with the same team carrying it out. (Don’t forget that the schedule was derailed at least a year by two events: the international financial crisis and the Ossetia war).

I cannot emphasis too much that people should read his Russia at the turn of the Millennium. It’s all laid out there: 4 tasks 1) turn the economy around 2) reverse the fissiparous tendencies 3) improve Russia’s standing in the world 4) institute a rule of law (or at least a rule of rules).

He did pretty well on the first 3 but the 4th still eludes him (as he admitted in a speech a while ago).

BTW his remark that only democracy is intransient is, IMO, extremely profound.

Another BTW: for the first time in Russian history since Peter there are two cooperating centres of power in Russia. That’s a rather interesting thing. Very few commentators have worked that one out.

As to political competition it’s true there isn’t much. Do you recall the story that he begged Yavlinskiy to cooperate with the other liberals so that they could get into the Duma? You can’t make bricks without straw and the political landscape is pretty barren. As to civil society, it is slowly appearing but it’s slow. But he’s doing something here too, that hasn’t been noticed: see Charles Heberle’s account

Finally, here’s a little thought experiment. Let’s pretend that all the Moscow-based Western reporters had gone to St Petersburg to find out about this mysterious guy who had suddenly appeared at the top of the tree. And had found that he was the trusted deputy of Mayor Sobchak, one of the poster boys for the “new democratic Russia” and that Western businessmen had dealt with him many times and had high respect for him. Don’t you think that would have given a very different colour to the reporting over the next decade?

But, as I said, your question deserves a longer response, with support (too much written on Russia is simple assertion – that’s why I put in hyperlinks. I don’t make stuff up).


PRIVATISATION. The government has approved a privatisation plan for state-owned entities. Economic Development Minister Nabiullina hopes that it could raise US$33 billion over the next 3 years. Some big entities will be affected. But only United Grain Company is fully for sale; for all the others the government will retain the dominant share and, therefore, control. So it’s not clear how attractive small pieces of these companies will prove to be. The other problem of course is that the big privatisations of the 1990s were rigged, the government got little and well-connected individuals became super rich. But there are some important differences today – apart from better government control. The assets of Soviet-era monster companies of the 1990s were entwined with enormous debits owing to the Soviet custom of running social amenities out of factory complexes. Therefore it was difficult to work out what a fair price for something like, say, Norilsk Nikel would have be. While the buyer acquired some valuable plant and a big supply of the raw material, he also essentially had to take responsibility for the city, which in true Soviet style, was little more than an extension of the plant. So together with things a buyer actually wanted came polyclinics, rest houses, soccer teams, some incredibly obsolete plant (part of the “assets” was machinery put in Finland in the 1930s by Inco and shipped back to the USSR as war booty), egregious over-manning and so on. One assumes the companies now for sale are leaner and more efficient. To my mind the main significance of the privatisation is that it is another step in Medvedev’s mission of loosening control. It will also be a test of legality and transparency.

NATO-RUSSIA. More straws in the wind. The Russian Foreign Minister said Moscow was ready to cooperate with NATO on missile defence on condition that the security of all nations was taken into consideration (whatever that means). And the Air Force Commander says he’s ready too. A session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly emphasised the importance of relations with Russia. It sounds more and more if the coming NATO summit will have some agreement on missile defence with Russia.

CASPIAN. At long last the various presidents met in Baku and, according to Medvedev, agreed to divide the Sea up along national lines. The obvious solution, now that most of them have found hydrocarbons in their own patch, but a long time coming.

THE THIRD TURN. Readers will recall I have been talking about a change in the West’s perception of Russia. The first – big brother helps little brother – didn’t come to much; the second – the Russia enemy meme – failed reality. I believe a third, calmer and more realistic, is underway. My argument is here.

LUZHKOVS. A spokesman for the Investigative Committee says a criminal case has been launched into the sale of land to companies connected to Yelena Baturina, Luzhkov’s wife. They might be nibbled to death by cases.

RUSSIA INC. RosStat informs us that fixed capital investment has begun to grow – up about 10% year-on-year.

FEDERATION COUNCIL. More mutterings that members of the Federation Council should be directly elected: this time from the Speaker. The system has been through several variations: if I remember aright they were first appointed by the President, then there was a period when the local heads were ex-officio members, and now they are selected by the ruling parties in the regions. I expect direct election for these (and governors) will come in the next five or so years.

AUDITS. The head of the Russian Audit Chamber has announced that the efficiency of the Ministry of Defence’s arms procurement practices will be examined next year. The Russian Audit Chamber now – and for some years – sees its job not just checking that money allocated for X actually was spent on X but also the more subtle assessment of whether X was the most effective way to spend the money.

SOUTH STREAM. Putin was in Bulgaria signing a deal to create a Russian-Bulgarian JV to oversee the construction of the Bulgarian section of the pipeline. The line will carry Russian gas under the Black Sea to Europe. If all the proposed lines are eventually built, there will be many routes from Russia to its customers. Which would be good for everyone.

BLUE LIGHTS. Yesterday the Interior Ministry hit Moscow; 86 car owners, including 18 police officials, were fined for misuse of flashing lights. A victory for the “blue buckets”. Traffic flow seems to be the new Mayor’s chief obsession. Not an easy problem, given the “dartboard” design of the city.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see

The Third Turn

Author’s note January 2016. Well, this didn’t turn out the way I expected, did it? Thanks to Washington’s machinations and especially the Ukraine coup, the “Assertive Enemy” phase remains with us, with a vengeance.





1. JRL/2010/216

2. Pravda














The Third Turn

The hypothesis of this essay is that the conventional Western view of post-Communist Russia has passed through two cycles and is entering a third. While the first two were grounded mostly on what observers wished to see, the third is shaping up to be based more on reality.

Little Brother

As Tom Graham wisely observed some years ago: while no one will take seriously a country with a declining GDP, no one can ignore one whose GDP is rising. When the USSR fell apart in 1991, its extraordinarily centralised economy, whose links were now were blocked by new national borders, choked and died. Living standards sank, inflation exploded, the tax base collapsed, state employees went months without pay, factory employees were paid in kind, the social support system failed and the demographic decline that had begun in the Khrushchev period accelerated. All indicators worsened at once. This was the time when “free fall” was a favourite descriptor. A reminder of this period was a piece that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 2001, starkly entitled: “Russia is Finished.” Still available on the Net, it makes curious reading today.

The apparently unstoppable collapse of Russia led to two prevailing views in the West. The first was that Russia was a kind of “little brother” which Western expertise could educate or lead into a future in which the world had reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. In furtherance of this teaching mission, Russia filled with Western NGOs coming to transform its institutions. The second, and related view, was that Russia was no longer a threat but had become a danger. This was the period of “red mercury”, missing “suitcase nukes” and other nuclear weapons, crazy Russian generals in the provinces – in short, Russia’s collapse was a danger to the rest of us. This first phase might be summed up by the expression that we must help little brother lest he blow up and spatter all over us.

But Russians have a different view of the 1990s. I can think of no better illustration than a woman I know in Moscow. At the beginning of the period, she had saved up enough money – about 5000 Rubles – to buy a car. A year later that sum of money would have bought a monthly Moscow transit pass and a year later two loaves of bread. But at least she had a job. While hundreds of thousands saw their standard of living disappear, some individuals, feasting on the decaying carcass, became fabulously wealthy; the apogee of this period was Berezovskiy’s boast in 1996 that he, and five others, owned Russia. And perhaps they did: through fixed auctions and financial prestidigitation, they certainly controlled a good deal of it. Much of the so-called free press of the time was devoted to their wars as they calumniated each other in order to steal more.

Many Russians acquired bad associations with the word “democracy”. The democracy the West advocated was experienced by them as theft, corruption, poverty, crime and personal suffering. I recommend two books to readers for this first period: Janine Wedel’s Collision and Collusion and Chrystia Freeland’s Sale of the Century. Also, I recommend a consideration of the HIID scandal. In my more cynical periods, I think that the lasting effect of all the Western aid/assistance was to teach the Russians how to steal big time. Suspicious Russians, sticking to the zero-sum game, were strengthened in their suspicion that the West really wanted a weak and divided Russia.

The Assertive Enemy

But in 2000 the decline began to slow. The 1990s had been cursed, from Moscow’s perspective, by declining energy prices. Given that the overwhelming proportion of Russia’s money-earning exports came from sales of oil and gas, declining prices were a heavy blow. But they began to increase in the late 1990s giving the state budget some openings.

Enter Putin. For reasons not entirely clear even now, Yeltsin picked Putin to be his successor. He brought him from St Petersburg where he had been Mayor Anatoliy Sobchak’s deputy, to head Russia’s internal security force in 1998. He appointed him Prime Minister next year, resigned in his favour and Putin was duly elected President in 2000. Western reporters, mostly based in Moscow and having little knowledge other than in the Rolodexes inherited from their predecessors, fixated on the fact that he had begun his career in the 1st Chief Directorate of the KGB and stuck with that as their descriptor. Had they bothered to go to St Petersburg, they would have learned that he was very well known there because one of his jobs had been the City’s contact with Western businesses. But the mould was cast and Putin was forever a Chekist; his speeches and writings – especially his Russia at the turn of the new millennium – were combed for KGB-sounding entries. When he said “Russia was and will remain a great power”, it was interpreted to mean he wanted to invade Poland.

No one noticed that he also said in the document “The current dramatic economic and social situation in the country is the price which we have to pay for the economy we inherited from the Soviet Union”; that he spoke of “the outrageous price our country and its people had to pay for that Bolshevist experiment”; that he said that it would be “a mistake not to understand its historic futility It was a road to a blind alley, which is far away from the mainstream of civilisation”. A few did observe his blunt assessment that “It will take us approximately fifteen years and an annual growth of our Gross Domestic Product by 8 percent a year to reach the per capita GDP level of present-day Portugal or Spain, which are not among the world’s industrialised leaders.” Commentators especially missed this encomium to democracy: “History proves all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government, are transient. Only democratic systems are intransient”. The whole “Putin program”, which continues today, is laid out; read it for yourself.

Selective quotations set the style for most commentary for the next decade or so. Returning to Graham’s observation, as GDP began to grow under the “steely-eyed former K-G-B spy”, Russia gradually morphed from a danger into a threat. It became “resurgent” and “assertive”; that is to say it stopped declining. “Putin Wants a New Russian Empire” we were told.

As an illustrative example of this one-eyed coverage, “the steely-eyed former intelligence officer told us in advance that Russia would no longer sell its precious gas to its immediate neighbours for a third or a quarter of what it could get on the world market. For fifteen years Russia subsidised all its neighbours for billions and billions. Putin warned us – but not loudly enough – that this would no longer go on. But, when Russia started re-negotiating contracts to move the price up, its neighbours cried wolf. Russia was not trying to sell one of its most important assets for as much as it could get, it was threatening Europe and its neighbours with its gas weapon.

We were now regularly warned about Putin’s new Russian empire: “only one agenda on Mr Putin’s mind: to increase his iron grip on his country and rebuild the once-mighty Russian empire”. The foundation stone in the edifice of this notion was the endlessly repeated assertion that in a 2005 speech Putin had given the game away by saying that the breakup of the USSR had been “the greatest” geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century. (In that same speech he said: “I consider the development of Russia as a free and democratic state to be our main political and ideological goal”; but, even if reporters bothered to read that, they presumably decided that it was just for show). But he did not say it was “the greatest”: the Russian is very clear. What he said was this: “Прежде всего следует признать, что крушение Советского Союза было крупнейшей геополитической катастрофой века.” (“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.) And he went on to say that it had been so because “Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” One can argue with his opinion about how “big” this “disaster” was, but his speech was not a call for empire. Western commentators continued their practice, established when the Moscow-bound Western press had not bothered to find out what people in St Petersburg thought of their Deputy Mayor, of fitting whatever Putin said into the once-and-future-KGB mould. This misquotation, and the theoretical edifice erected upon it may be found here, here, here, here, here; the reader is invited to search for more. But it’s not what he said.

In each of these two examples – which were much made of at the time – we see the continuation of the initial prejudging: Putin had started out in the KGB, “once a Chekist always a Chekist”, therefore everything he does is a threat to his neighbours. Everything he says that can be twisted into a threat is true, everything else is false. The propensity to believe that Putin means some of the things he says but not others is the apodictic indicator of partisanship.

In the 1990s the word “democracy” had acquired distasteful attributes for Russians and it acquired another in the second period. This was the period of “coloured revolutions” in which victors immediately began to talk about NATO’s interests as if they were identical with theirs. Ukrainian President Yushchenko seemed to have little else in his program and, just before he went down to defeat this year, made it clear: “if we don’t give [a positive] answer [to the question of NATO membership] as a nation, then we will not have independence. We will lose our democracy.” NATO membership had now become the new meaning of “democracy”. For many Russians in the 1990s “democracy” had meant corruption and poverty and now geopolitics was added to its meaning: a geopolitics directed against them.

And now we come to Russia’s so-called invasion of Georgia. The desire of Ossetians and Abkhazians not to be ruled from Tbilisi was clear to those who knew the background: they fought Tbilisi when the Russian Empire collapsed; when the USSR collapsed they defeated Georgian attacks and won de facto independence. On 8 August 2008, just a few hours after President Saakashvili had said “Georgia is undertaking an immediate, unilateral cease fire”, his army invaded. The Ossetians stopped them and, when Russian troops arrived, the Georgians broke and ran, abandoning their cities and their weapons. In the end, South Ossetia and Abkhazia welcomed their Russian liberators, as they call them, and declared their independence.

The Third Turn

I believe this war marked the beginnings of a reassessment of Western views of Russia. Paris took a lead in trying to settle the war. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner arrived in Tbilisi on 10 August and from thence went on to Moscow. But in transit he did something quite remarkable – he visited the Ossetian refugees in Russia and spoke to them. This was remarkable because Western coverage had never considered the Ossetians: the whole story was cast in terms of Russia, Georgia, NATO and other large issues. Kouchner learned that, for the Ossetians, Russia was the saviour and Georgia the oppressor. I believe that this experience inoculated Paris against swallowing Tbilisi’s story whole.

A ceasefire was negotiated, the Russian forces pulled back to South Ossetia and Abkhazia and those two declared their independence. But there were lessons learned. The obvious one was that Moscow was no longer the weak and spiritless place it had been a decade ago. But also learned was that Saakashvili was simply not reliable: you could not believe anything he said. Even the long-delayed and feeble EU report on the war did not accept his post-bellum assertion that the Russians had moved first (his story changed several times). Once one began to think along those lines one was forced to question the whole narrative that Tbilisi had given out. It was like pulling on a thread in a poorly knitted sweater: the whole narrative of Moscow wanting to conquer Georgia and telling lies about it began to unravel.

With the end of the “Orange Revolution” another yarn unravelled: Ukrainians did not want to be pawns in some grand geopolitical game and Viktor Yanukovych was not a Russian stooge who could only win elections by cheating. In the latest gas crisis with Ukraine Moscow was smarter and more transparent: it became evident that the blockage of Russian gas going west was not in Moscow but in Kiev. This was another thread in the sweater; the narrative about the “gas weapon” had studiously avoided noticing that Moscow was putting up the price for everyone, friends and enemies alike: Armenia and Belarus also had to pay more. The sweater unravelled some more.

The “coloured revolutions” ended unhappily. President Yushchenko of Ukraine was defeated: never more than a quarter of Ukrainians had expressed support for his NATO aims and only a twentieth wanted him back. The revolt and change of government in the Kyrgyz Republic finished off the “Tulip Revolution”. The declining group of defenders of the “Rose Revolution” now have to overlook Saakashvili’s machinations to remain in power and his apparent courtship of Iran.

Another important development since 2008 is that the Putin program has proved to have legs: despite apocalyptic predictions, Russia got through the financial crisis reasonably well. Here are two small indicators: Russia’s unemployment rate is actually less than the USA’s and the IMF predicts better growth for Russia over the next five years than for any other G8 country. Russia is not about to collapse into insignificance. And, internally, Russia’s leaders enjoy overwhelming majority support.

I suggest that the West is entering a new cycle in how it perceives Russia. Gone is the patronising little brother phase and going is the Russia is the eternal enemy phase. What we are entering, I believe, is a period – perhaps the first ever – in which Russia is seen as a country much like others. A country with which its neighbours must deal but deal with in a normal fashion: neither as an idiot failure nor as an implacable enemy. An important partner in security, not the cause of insecurity.

The West has not had a very good record of seeing Russia as it is; more often it has been a palimpsest on which the visitor has written his notions. I recommend Martin Malia’s Russia Under Western Eyes which starts with Voltaire’s imaginary ideally-governed Russia or David Foglesong’s The American Mission and the ‘Evil Empire’ which details a century of American obsessions about a Russia seen as a disappointingly stubborn and backwards twin brother.

But it is certain that change there has been since August 2008. Here are some indicators.

The famous “reset” of the Obama Administration. Some of the fruits, apart from a new nuclear weapons treaty have been:

The US State Department finally put the leader, but not the organisation itself, of the Caucasus Emirate on its terrorist list (the jihadist foundations of the second war in Chechnya has been one of the West’s persistent misunderstandings).

The abandonment of strategic missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic. Although the deployment had little support in either Poland or the Czech Republic, it was strongly supported by the political classes in each country. Another example, it seems, of democracy becoming geopolitics.

The air crash that killed Polish President Kaczynski and the open and sympathetic reaction of Russians has opened possibilities with Poland, previously one of Russia’s most implacable opponents inside NATO.

The financial crisis has hit many of the former post-USSR success stories quite hard and made them re-think relations with Russia. Latvia is a pertinent example.

Relations with NATO are changing rapidly. NATO expansion has been dealt a blow: it’s clear that Ukraine will not join and no one wants to share a table with Saakashvili. But more to the point, NATO has, after a dozen years of treating Russia with contemptuous indifference, realised that it needs Russia in Afghanistan. While the General Secretary of NATO says different things to different audiences (for example in Tbilisi saying that Georgia will be a member of NATO one day), he has also been making overtures to Moscow, calling a few weeks ago for a “true strategic partnership.” I suspect that Paris and Berlin (and perhaps now Warsaw too) are pushing him.

For several years, President Medvedev has been calling for a re-think of the European security system. At first dismissed as “an attempt to split Europe” his idea is receiving better reception.

Crying wolf – what more ridiculous example can there be than this hyperventilation: “Putin’s shadow Falls over Finland” – is losing its effect. Russia’s neighbours have not been bludgeoned into slavery by the “gas weapon”, Russian troops did not “conquer Georgia” and annex the pipelines. After these and (many) other predictive failures, new doom-filled warnings are that much less believable.

The metaphorical sweater is unravelling rapidly. If Ossetians and Abkhazians regard Russians as their protectors, one cannot believe the story Tbilisi has been telling us for years. If Yanukovych won a fair election, perhaps it was the “Orange Revolution” that was the fraud. If Armenia has had its gas prices go up as much as Ukraine, then it can’t be a “gas weapon” to reward friends and punish enemies. What was stopping Russian troops from seizing large parts of Georgia proper? perhaps Putin neither wants the empire back nor to control the pipelines. If Russia’s principal enemy in the North Caucasus is a “terrorist”, then what’s really going on there? If China and Zimbabwe are members of the WTO, why isn’t Russia?

Paris and Berlin continue to lead: at the three-way summit in Deauville, overtures were made as was clear from the press conference. President Sarkozy said “We are certain that Russia, Germany and France share common positions in many respects” and that “we live in a new world, a world of friendship between Russia and Europe.” Chancellor Merkel said “we need to put relations between Russia and NATO on a rational track. After all, we face some of the same threats in the world today.” Medvedev, for once not the suppliant, was less forthcoming but made it clear he was listening.

These are, to be sure, straws in the wind but there are now quite a few of them and more come every day. Barring some unexpected catastrophe, I expect this development to continue. Paris and Berlin (and perhaps Warsaw) are leading developments but others will join in. The coming NATO summit will move the process a step further.

The end result, for perhaps the first time in history, will be a Western view of Russia more nearly as it actually is; no longer an imagined reflection. As an important player with its own interests Russia will have to be accommodated. Not an enemy, not an opponent, not necessarily an ally, but an important player that, in fact, marches in the same direction most of the time. And when it doesn’t, disagreements can be discussed and reasonable compromises made. In short, a Russia that is seen to be “in the box”.


NATO. NATO’s courtship of Russia proceeds: now, according to the Secretary General, Russia is a “partner of strategic importance”. An earlier meeting between Russia’s CGS and SACEUR seems to have passed off productively. So maybe, although inevitably it will be concealed in NATO’s wooden language, the Lisbon summit may produce a breakthrough in relations – long overdue but welcome nonetheless. I could understand if Moscow, after 15 years of abuse and no longer the suppliant, were cool to NATO’s overtures. But for the good of us all I hope it rises to the occasion.

GAS WARS. Now that the zero-sum emotions are draining out of the gas price question, negotiations are quietly proceeding. Ukraine, which is in dire economic straits (the EU has just granted it a loan – after billions from the IMF), probably can’t pay the price previously agreed to (indeed one can wonder whether that’s where the loans have gone). So somewhat of a reduction appears to have been negotiated and a working group has been set up. In the meantime Moscow and Warsaw have quietly made an agreement. As another indication of the “Third Turn”, the EU Energy Commissioner proposed that Russian experts participate in developing the new European energy strategy. Amazing what you can do when you take geopolitical fantasies out of business discussions. The customers need the gas, Russia needs the customers: each has the upper hand, so to speak.

PROTESTS. The “31” protest on Triumfalnaya Sq attracted 800 or so people and passed off without incident. Except from Limonov, that strange ally of people who call themselves democrats, who, naturally, tried to make trouble. (Report) (Film) On the other hand, a small unsanctioned rally at the Japanese Embassy was broken up. The Duma passed amendments to the law which would have restricted protests. Medvedev vetoed them. And pretty forthrightly too: the amendments placed unwarranted restrictions on the right to protest. (Text in Russian here). Clearly the authorities have stopped worrying about peaceful protests (after all, a “coloured revolution” imported from outside is utterly inconceivable now; however unrealistically, I believe the authorities feared that one might be attempted back when they were the fashionable thing). And it’s a victory for the protesters and now we’ll see if there is actually anything there. But they should cut loose from Limonov and his NatBols.

RATINGS. A recent Levada poll puts approval ratings of Medvedev and Putin nearly even at 76% and 77% respectively. This will fire up the Putin vs Medvedev for next president industry. Not Putin I say. Another poll shows a good level of satisfaction and optimism in the population. Which is, of course, directly connected to the first poll. It’s not all that complicated: you don’t need huffing and puffing “that the country is living through a fresh round of repressions reminiscent of Soviet times” to explain the Duumvirate’s high support.

KASHIN. A newspaper reporter was severely beaten up on Saturday reawakening concerns about reporters’ safety. Medvedev ordered the Prosecutor General and Interior Minister to closely supervise the investigation. Most violence to reporters in Russia is because they run foul of biznessmen; this will no doubt be the same.

CORRUPTION. Investigators have sent the case against Sergey Storchak, a former deputy finance minister accused of embezzlement, to the Prosecutor General for a decision on whether to go to trial. Meanwhile, Konstantin Chuichenko, the head of the presidential financial oversight administration, says that corruption costs about 2.9% of GDP every year. This estimate is much lower than many that we have seen (often absurdly high, I think) but I gather that he’s talking mainly about kickbacks on state procurements. He proposes a monitoring board to reduce the problem.

AFGHANISTAN DRUG RAID. Last month Russian and US agents cooperated in a raid on a heroin factory in Afghanistan. President Karzai was reported to have been seriously offended because the raid was a surprise to him. However Medvedev spoke to him a few days later and apparently the issue has been resolved. Poppy cultivation is a major concern for Moscow because so much of the heroin winds up in Russia.

GEORGIA. The Iranian Foreign Minister visited Georgia on the 3rd and 4th. Highlights of the trip were agreements on visa-free travel between the two and the opening of an Iranian consulate in Batumi which is a significant port and the terminus of an oil pipeline. This ought to make even Saakashvili’s flacks in the USA, who tend to be suspicious of Tehran, give pause. I wonder if Saakashvili has decided he wants a new sponsor, given that the West wasn’t much help in his war in Ossetia.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see