Was Shamil Basayev a GRU Recruit?

Some claim that Shamil Basaev was recruited by the GRU (Soviet then Russian military intelligence) in order to make trouble for independent Georgia. (See the Wikipedia entry for the story). This charge, of course, supports the meme that Georgia would have been sufficiently peaceful had Moscow not stirred up trouble. Several things need to be considered before this may be believed. First the Russian media in the 1990s was little more than the house organs of the oligarchs in their wars with each other: much content was subordinated to this purpose. Second, the period after the breakup of the USSR was one of extreme confusion: in particular the former “organs of state security” and the Armed Forces had little notion of their future. Intermittently paid in depreciating money, unsure of their “ownership” (especially true of former Soviet garrisons in the newly independent countries) and with little control from anywhere, sometimes attacked by forces in the wars of the time, they survived as best they could. It is indeed fortunate, that rogue units did not become the “White Companies” of the twentieth century. As to Basaev the story is that he was noticed by the GRU at the White House siege in August 1991, trained and inserted into Abkhazia. (See Col. Stanislav Lunev: “Chechen Terrorists in Dagestan – Made in Russia”; Newsmax.com; 26 August 1999 (http://archive.newsmax.com/articles/?a=1999/8/25/210119). The author claims to be a former GRU officer and was a source for, among other things, the “suitcase nuke” excitements of the 1990s. He defected to the USA in 1992: in short about the time of the events he describes). However, it appears that Basaev would have been rather too busy for GRU training courses at the time. The months after the White House events, troubles begin in Chechnya ending in Jokhar Dudayev’s presidency and successful defiance of Moscow. Chechnya declared independence in March 1992 and resistance to Dudayev began to gather that summer. Surely Basaev was there: he is said to have been one of the hijackers of an Aeroflot aircraft in November 1991. Some say that he fought in Karabakh in 1992. He seems to have appeared in Abkhazia around August 1992 and remained there until the end of the fighting. When the First Chechen War began in December 1994, he became one of the leading rebel commanders. Khattab, the Arab jihadist with a carefully chosen team of specialists, arrived in Chechnya about summer 1995 and some time thereafter Basaev joined forces with him. It is said that he received training in Afghanistan at one of Bin Laden’s structures as he completed his transformation from fighter for an independent Chechnya to warrior in the international jihad. This schedule would not appear to leave much time for training from the GRU. I personally have never seen any real evidence to support the assertion that Basaev was trained by or was any sort of asset of the GRU and I do not take the assertion seriously: assertions are plentiful but evidence is not.

“Hot Spots” in the Former USSR


Note February 2016. These were done for the Russia Profile Weekly Experts’ Panel which I cannot find on the Net now. Many were picked up by other sources and I have given links where I can find them.

Let’s start with a little chronology. Abkhazia and South Ossetia won their wars against Georgia in the early 1990s and each declared independence. Moscow did not recognise them. The clock turned over: new decade, new century; Moscow still didn’t recognise them. Georgia attacked again in 2008; Moscow recognised them.

Moscow has its own potential territorial problems: Kaliningrad, parts of Karelia, the “Northern Territories”; the border with China; North Caucasus independentists. It is a status quo power that prefers that everything stay the way it is because it has other things to worry about. It has little sympathy with irredentist claims.

So why did Medvedev decide to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008? Let’s ask him: “We restored peace, but we could not extinguish fears and hopes of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in a situation when Saakashvili continued (with participation of and encouraged by the US and a number of other NATO members) to speak of re-arming his military and re-establishing control over ‘the Georgian territory’…. Russia was left no choice” (Regnum News, 28 August 2008). In short: recognition was the only way Moscow could think of to stop Tbilisi attacking again.

But why does Moscow care whether Tbilisi attacks again? My personal conviction is that its real fear is blowback. The last time Tbilisi went adventuring in South Ossetia and (especially) Abkhazia, North Caucasian militias (particularly Shamil Basayev’s Chechen Brigade) intervened. In those days, there was a desire to recreate the short-lived “Mountaineer Republic” of 1918. Basayev and his fighters, having defeated Tbilisi and established the western end of the “Mountaineer Republic”, returned to Chechnya to create the eastern end. Thus we can connect the Georgian attack on Abkhazia with the first war in Chechnya, the second war and Moscow’s troubles in the North Caucasus today. Ergo, Moscow does not want that to happen again; ergo it must ensure that Tbilisi will not attack Abkhazia and South Ossetia again; ergo recognition means that Tbilisi will know that another attack means it faces Russia; ergo that should stop it from attacking again. QED.

The other ex-Soviet “hotspots” are still negotiable. Transdnestr needs a guarantee that should Chisinau join Romania, this former piece of the Ukrainian SSR does not have to follow it and Karabakhians need a guarantee that they won’t be massacred by “Turks”. These are still imaginable. These borders are Stalin-Jughashvili’s creations and there’s no reason the rest of us should take them as sacred and unchangeable.

Few Western capitals have figured this out. In the meantime the status quo is endurable from Moscow’s point of view. Therefore, as things stand today with fragile ceasefires holding, Moscow has no reason to recognise either Transdnestr or Karabakh.

Everyone should have followed Kiev’s wise and just treatment of Crimea or Chisinau’s wise and just response to Gagauz wishes.

But who in the West has ever heard of either?

Stalin’s Cartographical Time-Bombs

Note February 2016. These were done for the Russia Profile Weekly Experts’ Panel which I cannot find on the Net now. Many were picked up by other sources and I have given links where I can find them.

No reference found.

When the USSR fell apart five of Stalin’s cartographical time-bombs exploded. After the fighting, each of the five had secured its liberty: North Ossetia, Abkhazia, Karabakh, Transdnestr and Chechnya. Of these, only Chechnya has been resolved (for the time being anyway) but only after immense bloodshed and destruction. The other four maintain their independence.

International attempts to negotiate an end to these standoffs fail, over and over again, on five obstacles.

The first is the contradiction between two fundamental principles of international relations: territorial integrity and the right of self-determination. There is, however, no means of resolution when the two principles collide as they do in these four cases. As to a third principle, uti possidetis, the “international community” seems to be too squeamish to accept that the four won their independence in war and are therefore entitled to keep it.

A second difficulty is the question of who sits at the negotiating table. This issue has particularly bedevilled attempts to resolve Karabakh. Karabakh is a player, it cannot be left out of the talks. But Baku is adamant that it will negotiate only with Yerevan. That is understandable: for Baku to admit Stepanakert as a negotiator would be to concede much of what Stepanakert demands. And so discussions fail because one of the principals – the most important, for it won its war – is not party to them.

A third difficulty is the status quo. The four, whatever their long-term hopes may be, prefer the status quo of self-government to the visible alternatives. Stepanakert’s incentive to make Baku happy or Tiraspol’s to make Chisinau happy is low.

Fourth, whatever the casus belli may have been – unwillingness to join Romania in the case of Transdnestr and fear of massacres in the case of Karabakh – the four gained their independence in war and much blood was shed on both sides. They feel that they earned their independence. Several times a possible solution to the Karabakh problem has been blocked by enraged war veterans on both sides.

Finally, there is no outside power that can “deliver” any of them. While much commentary in the West seems to assume that all of these problems were fomented or caused by Moscow that is not true; they were sui generis. Neither Moscow nor any other outside power can force a solution on any one of the four.

Perhaps there were possibilities in the 1990s to peacefully resolve these problems. For example, Kiev wisely conceded autonomy to Crimea and Chisinau to the Gagauz and these potential problems were resolved in a civilised way. But, in the cases of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdnestr and Karabakh these possibilities were not available. (Moscow did negotiate an autonomy agreement with the Chechen parliament but Dudayev would have none of it.) And so it was left to war to resolve the problems.

I do not hold out much possibility for any future negotiating session to overcome these obstacles. The irony is that the end-state – something resembling the arrangement of the Åland Islands for example – is visible. But it is hard to imagine, given the five obstacles, how to get there from here.

Wikileaks on the South Ossetia War



RUSSIAN http://www.inosmi.ru/caucasus/20101201/164613543.html







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): http://matiane.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/wikileaks-war-in-georgia/ (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.

On the Commemoration of the Circassian Exile

Note February 2016. Wrote this for a website discussing Circassia and I can’t find the original.


I do not think such commemorations are a good idea because the memory of yesterday’s miseries can lead to tomorrow’s.

Warfare is one of the engines of history – people live in this place and not that, speak this language and not that, have this religion and not that as the consequences of victory or defeat in war. The Circassians lost a long and brutal war and many of them went into exile as miserable refugees. But all peoples have the same past; all have been losers, all have been winners. My own ancestors, Border Reivers, were dispossessed of their lands and driven from Britain 400 years ago. It aids no one to dwell on these past miseries and injustices.

Therefore, commemorations of past tragedies can fuel present disputes that will lead to future tragedies. They should be matters of history to be dispassionately remembered and assessed. These events happened and, in most cases, had the losers been the winners, they would have done the same to their enemies.

Flying So High You Can’t See the Ground


JRL/2010/25/31 2 Feb 10

Ukrainians will be electing a new President on Sunday and, while we do not yet know who will win, we know that neither Yanukovych nor Tymoshenko is running on an overtly anti-Russia platform. Therefore, whoever wins, relations between Kiev and Moscow will likely be calmer than they have been since the “Orange Revolution” of 2004. Stratfor sees this in apocalyptic terms: “The next few months will therefore see the de facto folding of Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence” and “a new era of Russian aggressiveness” now begins The author goes on to talk about the Carpathians as a defence shield for Russia, Ukraine as Russia’s “breadbasket” and so on.

But who decided that this was the question that Ukrainian voters were answering? It was the “Orange Revolution” and its outside backers that injected into Ukrainian politics the binary choice of either joining the West or becoming Russia’s appendage: at no point was there support among the majority of Ukrainians for such a choice. And there is absolutely no reason to treat the recent election as having made such a choice. While Yushchenko was indeed the binary candidate: “either this pro-Kremlin couple and pro-Kremlin policy wins, or the pro-European policy does”, he and his view have been brutally rejected by the voters. No surprise, of course, to those who have been watching opinion polls in Ukraine.

Typical of such stratospheric analyses, there is nothing in the Stratfor piece about the Ukrainians themselves. The fundamental assumption of the authors is that either Ukraine is a member of the free Western alliance or it is a subject of Moscow. There is no in-between. But there is absolutely no reason to suppose that Ukrainians voted to reject Yushchenko and his “Orange Revolution” so that they could be under Moscow. Polls like this one, indicate that Ukrainians want good relations with Russia yes, but also with the EU. The voters reject the either-or option. Ukrainians spurned Yushchenko and his program because his term in office was a black hole into which every hope disappeared: according to a Gallup poll last summer, Ukrainians’ support for their government is “the lowest in the world”. The economy is not noticeably better; indeed it may even be worse. Corruption is as bad as ever. Ever since the “Orange Revolution” the government system has hardly functioned at all. The hope (and the hype) of the “Orange Revolution” has evaporated leaving disgust. There is nothing in these results to suggest that Ukrainians want Moscow to be their puppet masters. The fact that Moscow may be happier with this turn of events, does not mean that Moscow orchestrated it; to assume so is a ludicrous example of the petitio principii fallacy.

This is what stratospheric analysts miss: they are so lost in their perception of a chess game high in the sky that they fail even to see the actual decision makers.

A similar blindness is found in two recent books on the Ossetia war of August 2008. Cornell’s book does not include a chapter discussing the Ossetian point of view. Judging from the reviews, Asmus’ book also ignores the Ossetians. It too is full of stratospheric analysis in which the war was “really” between Moscow and the West and the Ossetians (and the Georgians too, come to think of it) were mere pawns moved around by the chess players in the sky. But, why don’t these books, which claim to be contributions to the discussion, discuss the Ossetians? After all the real casus belli, for 90 years now, is the desire of the Ossetians not to be part of Georgia. They fought Georgians at the end of the Russian Empire, at the end of the Soviet Union and they did so again in August 2008. They stopped the Georgians in the streets of Tskhinvali and then welcomed the Russian troops as liberators. There is no anti-Russia liberation war in Ossetia. That, in itself, ought to be an important indication of reality.

Any serious examination of the background to the war must start in 1918 when the Democratic Republic of Georgia attempted to add South Ossetia by force; carry through with Stalin-Jughashvili’s decision to cut Ossetia in two and give the southern half to the Georgian SSR; mention Ossetian demands to retain the rights they had had in the Soviet system (as an “Autonomous Oblast”); refer to Tbilisi’s rejection of that; describe the Georgian attack in 1991. A perceptive account would reflect on the “hosts and guests theory” prevalent in Georgia in the late 1980s and what non-Kartevelians thought about it. There should be recognition of the truth that the Ossetians are actors, not marionettes and that they have shown, by plebiscites and by fighting, that they do not want to be part of Georgia.

But, as soon as these actors are taken into account, the beautiful simplicity of stratospheric analysis becomes impossible to sustain. Rather than the machinations of omniscient chess players in the sky, we have their fumbling reactions to events they did not plan. But it is simply easier to maunder on about Carpathian barriers, bread-baskets, Russia’s sphere of influence and other high-falutin but vague phrases: how boring to study Ukrainian opinion polling or actually to talk to an Ossetian.

It’s nonsense; it’s an example of the logical fallacy of assuming your conclusions; after twenty years of this, it’s time to stop giving it house room. Ukrainians and Ossetians (and Georgians) have their interests: they’re not pawns in the East-West chess game and its sloppy, and silly, to write up everything at such a stratospheric level that nothing remains but initial assumptions fleshed out with claptrap. The Ukrainians have just shown that the “Orange Revolution” was based on false premises and a futile – and damaging – interference in Ukraine’s affairs by ignorant outsiders. The Georgians will soon show the same about the “wilting petals” of the “Rose Revolution” (the same Gallup poll shows support for the government there at only 21%).

And, as to Stratfor’s assertion that “Ukraine is the Russian Empire’s breadbasket”, in the latest figures available (2003/2004), Russia exported 35 times as much wheat as Ukraine did.

The EU Report: Little and Late








The long-delayed Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia was finally issued on 30 September, 13 months after the war. It is to be found here: Vol I (Introductory); Vol II (Report); Vol III (Submitted material). In what follows quotations are from the BBC-supplied version (which is somewhat faster loading). Generally speaking, I regard it as rather little, rather late, naïve and incomplete. It is also excruciatingly delicate – even precious – in what it says and what it avoids saying. It concludes with a number of unexceptionable, but rather vague, recommendations.

It is incomplete because it, evidently seeing the conflict as one between Georgia and Russia as other commentators have, leaves the Ossetians out. While the authors feel it useful to give some historical background on Georgia, going back to the Treaty of Georgievsk in 1783, there is no equivalent discussion of the Ossetian (or Abkhazian) point of view. But, if asked, Ossetians would certainly speak of their unwillingness to be part of Georgia and refer to earlier Georgian attacks in 1920 and 1991. Their arguments for independent status (here is Abkhazia’s) should be heard out even if they are to be refuted. Tendentious perhaps but a significant factor in Ossetian (and Abkhazian) perceptions. The fact is that the Ossetians, rightly or wrongly, do not want to be part of Georgia, fought for their independence when the Russian Empire collapsed, were placed in the Georgian SSR by Stalin-Jughashvili, tried to be excluded from it when the USSR collapsed, fought another independence war and, very probably, stopped the Georgian attack before the Russian forces got there (some Tskhinvali combat footage at 7:50). To leave their point of view out of the Report is to be incomplete. Added to which, the discussion about their citizenship (the authors assert that they were Georgian citizens) is to altogether ignore their contention that, while they were certainly Soviet citizens in 1991, they never agreed to becoming Georgian citizens. Indeed the world recognised Georgia, in the borders that Stalin gave it, while the disputes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia were actually going on.

The Report is legalistic: “According to the overwhelmingly accepted uti possidetis principle, only former constituent republics such as Georgia but not territorial sub-units such as South Ossetia or Abkhazia are granted independence in case of dismemberment of a larger entity such as the former Soviet Union. Hence, South Ossetia did not have a right to secede from Georgia, and the same holds true for Abkhazia for much of the same reasons.” This may well be true from a narrow legal perspective but by dismissing the Ossetians’ wishes it hardly points to a solution of the problem. Nor should it mean that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should lose the status they had had under the Soviet system just because Tbilisi says they should. It is not Moscow’s fishing in Georgian waters, but Tbilisi’s refusal under Gamsakhurdia in the 1990s to entertain the possibility of South Ossetia and Abkhazia retaining the quasi-autonomy they had had in the Georgian SSR that is where and when this latest round in the conflict began. The world recognised Stalin’s Georgia without consideration of this problem (just as it did with Azerbaijan and Karabakh and Moldova and Transdnestr. And Russia and Chechnya). In retrospect, it would have been better had we all made recognition conditional on a civilised compromise (as, for example, Ukraine’s government negotiated with Crimea).

The Report is incomplete because it fails even to mention two important pieces of evidence. One from the former Georgian Defence Minister, Irakly Okruashvili: “But Okruashvili, a close Saakashvili ally who served as defence minister from 2004 to 2006, said he and the president worked together on military plans to invade South Ossetia and a second breakaway region on the Black Sea coast, Abkhazia.” The second, from Georgia’s former Ambassador to Russia in 2008 Erosi Kitsmarishvili who said in his November testimony in Tbilisi:

  • first that an attack was considered in 2004 (“During that meeting, President Saakashvili asked the question whether to launch a military assault on Tskhinvali or not?… 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”);
  • second that there was a plan to attack Abkhazia earlier in the year that was put off (“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);
  • and third that Saakashvili thought that he had Washington’s approval for the attack on South Ossetia (“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;”).

Thus, these two men, close to Saakashvili and to decision-making in Tbilisi, attest there was always a war plan and that there had been several close calls. This is a very important part of the background to the August war: one can assume that Moscow and Tskhinvali had knowledge of this. To leave testimony from such sources out of the Report altogether is to seriously distort the discussion of the immediate background.

The Report is naïve in its discussion of the ceasefire. In one part the authors say “On 10 August, the Georgian Government declared a unilateral ceasefire and its intention to withdraw Georgian forces from South Ossetia. This ceasefire, however, was not followed by the opposite side”. Why would Moscow believe Saakashvili? He preceded the attack on Tskhinvali with a ceasefire declaration. It is naïve of the authors to expect Moscow – or anyone – to trust Saakashvili’s declarations after that. But at another place they write: “After five days of fighting, a ceasefire agreement was negotiated on 12 August 2008 between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and French President Nicolas Sarkozy”. But did Saakashvili sign it? A French Report says that he did but another report suggests that he only signed on the 15th. There was also some confusion over just what he signed. Then the Report refers to an implementation agreement on 8 September. The Report charges “However, the Russian and South Ossetian forces reportedly continued their advances for some days after the August ceasefire was declared”. My question is which “August ceasefire?” the 10th, the 12th or the 15th? At one point the authors write “Furthermore, all South Ossetian military actions directed against Georgian armed forces after the ceasefire agreement of 12 August 2008 had come into effect were illegal as well.” Ah, but when did it “come into effect”? It is naïve to think that there is any such thing as a unilateral ceasefire and it is naïve to expect forces in contact to stop shooting immediately.

The Report is incomplete in its charge that “Russian armed forces, covered by air strikes and by elements of its Black Sea fleet, penetrated deep into Georgia” going “far beyond the reasonable limits of defence”. Georgia is not a very large country, to be sure, and “deep” there does not mean the same distance as it would in a larger country. But of the list of towns mentioned in the Report – Gori, Zugdidi, Senaki and Poti – Senaki, at about 40 kilometres from the Abkhazian border, is the deepest. I would not have used the word “deep” here, but that is a matter of opinion. What is more important, showing both naïvety and incompleteness, is that no reason for the Russian “penetration” is entertained. But the fleeing Georgian forces, still in contact, with no mutually agreed ceasefire, abandoned significant amounts of weapons, armoured vehicles, ammunition and fuel in the army bases at Senaki and Gori (at least a battle group’s worth in the latter). In the case of Gori, certainly and probably also Senaki, all local authorities, from the mayor to the police, had fled with the retreating army. Should Russian forces have just left these weapons unguarded? One can imagine what the authors of the Report would have said had the Russian commanders shrugged their shoulders and left these tanks, APCs and artillery pieces, fuelled and armed, to the first group of Ossetians or Abkhazians bent on revenge. Poti was a naval base for warships that had fired at Russian ships and Zugdidi is on the way to Senaki. War has its logic and part of that logic is that forces, once set in motion, seek out the enemy and destroy his resources. Until there is a ceasefire, and as we have seen, the authors of the Report fudge the issue of just when there was a mutual ceasefire, that military logic holds. Therefore this charge is weak, naïve and, its use of “deep” is rather questionable.

The Report several times charges the Russian forces with “massive and extended military action ranging from the bombing of the upper Kodori Valley to the deployment of armoured units to reach extensive parts of Georgia, to the setting up of military positions in and nearby major Georgian towns as well as to control major highways, and to the deployment of navy units on the Black Sea.” More naïvety: just because an artillery piece, or air base firing on Russian forces is not actually located in South Ossetia does not give it immunity. Russian forces attacked Georgian air assets until they stopped action; it attacked artillery units until they stopped action. It occupied key positions until there was a solid ceasefire and then it left them. That is war and, it is to be recalled, Saakashvili chose war. At least the Report avoids the fatuous expression “disproportionate”. The Russian reaction was in fact quite “proportionate”. If one wishes to see what a “disproportionate” use of force would be, one may consider the case of Novy Sad which was bombed many times by NATO aircraft in 1999: every single bridge over the Danube was destroyed, the oil refinery was destroyed, the TV station was destroyed and its water and electrical supplies were knocked out. Novy Sad is over 200 kilometres from Kosovo. Nothing like that happened to Georgia.

Many refugees were created (“far more than 100 000 civilians who fled their homes. Around 35 000 still have not been able to return to their homes”). And, given the way the war turned out, most of them are Georgians who have left (or been pushed out) from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Report spends much time discussing them, and rightly. But it fails to take into consideration what would have happened had the outcome been different. Which is naïve. There is some reason to suspect that the Georgian aim, by bombarding the population of Tskhinvali just after Saakashvili had secured surprise by saying “I have been proposing and I am proposing Russia act as a guarantor of South Ossetian autonomy within Georgia”, was to force as many Ossetians to flee north as possible. The Report ought to at least entertain the alternative possibility. But, throughout, it refuses to speculate on Tbilisi’s intentions. Which is remarkable given that the authors accept that Tbilisi fired first. What was Tbilisi trying to do? The authors are quite incurious.

On the other hand, the authors are clear that Tbilisi fired first and that its action was unjustifiable: “There is the question of whether the use of force by Georgia in South Ossetia, beginning with the shelling of Tskhinvali during the night of 7/8 August 2008, was justifiable under international law. It was not…. It is not possible to accept that the shelling of Tskhinvali during much of the night with GRAD multiple rocket launchers (MRLS) and heavy artillery would satisfy the requirements of having been necessary and proportionate in order to defend those villages.” The authors of the Report judge the action, but they do not understand it because they fail to ask the key question: “What war did Saakashvili think he was starting?” Certainly not the war he got. This failure is probably the most naïve and unreflective part of the Report. The authors treat the events of August and September 2008 as if they were disconnected: Russia is justified to do this but not that; Georgia that but not this (“In a matter of a very few days, the pattern of legitimate and illegitimate military action had thus turned around between the two main actors Georgia and Russia”). When Saakashvili ordered the opening of fire, he took an irrevocable step and transformed a long crisis into something else. The Ossetians fought back, the Russians intervened, the Georgians collapsed and fled leaving their weapons and the population they were supposed to defend behind, a period of confusion ensued in Tbilisi and elsewhere, revenge for the devastation of Tskhinvali was taken, soldiers secured themselves against danger, eventually an agreed settlement appeared and it stopped. It is a continuous flow of actions and reactions; it cannot be packaged into discrete segments and judged independently. The weakness of the legalistic approach taken by the authors of the Report is precisely this lack of context and understanding of the connectedness of events. Especially as concerning wars which are easy to start but difficult to finish. The authors seem to assume that everyone had perfect knowledge and perfect control.

But at least the Report got who started the war right and most of the headlines have concentrated on that point. It is amusing to see Tbilisi’s apologists now pretending that the bombardment didn’t really matter: “Tagliavini’s Report does state that Georgia started the war. That should not be confused with the question of responsibility. Indeed, the Report acknowledges that firing the first shot does not necessarily mean bearing responsibility for the conflict”. This is to burke the essence of what happened: Saakashvili claimed that Ossetians were Georgian citizens, and after professing his “love” for them – indeed the timing means that he must have already given the preparatory orders – ordered what the Report calls “a sustained Georgian artillery attack” on the town of Tskhinvali. Curious indeed to pretend that this action, from which there could be no turning back, is not “responsibility”.

The Report is dismissive of Moscow’s claimed justifications for action. To prevent “genocide”: well, it’s true that there were no mass deaths in Tskhinvali but the Report does not take into consideration the excited reports of casualties at the time, the thousands of refugees fleeing north or what might have happened had Tbilisi won. This is consistent with its inexplicable lack of curiosity over what Tbilisi’s plans and intentions were. It spurns Moscow’s rationale of protecting Russian citizens by decreeing that the South Ossetians were not Russian citizens at all, dismissing the issue of whether, in the conditions of the collapse of the USSR and the skirmishing already happening there (and in Abkhazia), it is really correct to say that they were Georgian citizens, given that to have accepted Georgian passports would have been to concede their whole argument and desire. It dismisses the “humanitarian intervention” justification in what seems to me to be a rather confused paragraph, (“Could the use of force by Russia then possibly be justified as a “humanitarian intervention”, in order to protect South Ossetian civilians? To begin with, it is a highly controversial issue among legal experts whether there is any justification or not for humanitarian intervention. It might be assumed, however, that humanitarian intervention to prevent human rights violations abroad is allowed only under very limited circumstances, if at all. Among major powers, Russia in particular has consistently and persistently objected to any justification of the NATO Kosovo intervention as a humanitarian intervention. It can therefore not rely on this putative title to justify its own intervention on Georgian territory. And as a directly neighbouring state, Russia has important political and other interests of its own in South Ossetia and the region. In such a constellation, a humanitarian intervention is not recognised at all”.)

But, to be sure, there was plenty of hypocrisy on Moscow’s side. In August 2008 Moscow posed as a humanitarian hero – a quality in short supply in the Chechen wars, especially the first – and a defender of self-determination, ditto. But NATO’s position (and the EU’s) was equally hypocritical: they took their stance on the principle of territorial integrity – something that apparently didn’t apply in Kosovo – and Russia’s supposedly “disproportionate” response, despite their actions in Kosovo. Moscow’s real concern, in my opinion, was the fear that Georgia’s war with South Ossetia and Abkhazia would, as it did in the 1990s, attract fighters from the North Caucasus and spread back into Russia. But, it is certain, Moscow cannot be unhappy with Saakashvili’s discomfiture and the likely end of Georgia’s entry into NATO.

Saakashvili’s story changed several times. Initially, in his “victory speech” on the 8th when he believed Georgian forces controlled “most of South Ossetia”, he made no reference to Russian forces entering South Ossetia before the Georgian attack. It was later, on the 23rd when he had a catastrophic defeat to explain away, that his story became “Russia then started its land invasion in the early hours of Aug. 7”. (No matter how preposterous the idea was that, having giving the Russian forces an 18-hour head start on a 55 kilometre road race, he would order the attack anyway). It is evident that the later charge was false – had he had evidence that the Russians had invaded, he would certainly have mentioned it on the 8th. The Report is coy in its assessment of this obvious falsehood: “The Mission is not in a position to consider as sufficiently substantiated the Georgian claim concerning a large-scale Russian military incursion into South Ossetia before 8 August 2008.” Not “sufficiently substantiated” – does that mean it’s not true? Tergiversations like this justify the adjective “little”.

As to Abkhazia; of course it seized its chance to clear Georgian forces out of the last corner of the former Abkhazian ASSR – and Tbilisi should count itself fortunate that Svanetia, Javakhetia and Ajaria did not: perhaps they would have had the war lasted longer. But, as Kitsmarishvili’s testimony shows, Abkhazia had reason to fear it would be next on the list.

This sentence caught my eye: “The military aid [from Washington to Tbilisi] was at first designed to assist Georgia in regaining full control over the Pankisi Valley in the Caucasus where Chechen fighters had allegedly sought refuge, as Russia had claimed.” “Allegedly” “as Russia claimed”? More tergiversation: was Russia correct in so claiming? A very confused sentence altogether. In fact, Moscow was correct in so claiming, as Georgian officials finally admitted in 2003 and the earlier denials by the Georgian government helped to form Moscow’s opinions about Tbilisi’s veracity and reliability.

This Report is late because all of its conclusions, thirteen months afterwards, were knowable at the time. There is nothing in the Report from Tbilisi’s starting the shooting, to the falseness of Saakashvili’s claims, to the hypocrisy of Russia’s stated war aims that I (and many others) did not see.

Thus the Report is little, late, naïve and incomplete.

And finally, I don’t pretend to any kind of knowledge of international law but, according to Wikipedia, uti possidetis is defined as “a principle in international law that territory and other property remains with its possessor at the end of a conflict, unless provided for by treaty. Originating in Roman law, this principle enables a belligerent party to claim territory that it has acquired by war. The term has historically been used to legally formalize territorial conquests, such as the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the German Empire in 1871”. Does that mean that South Ossetia and Abkhazia were independent in 2008 by virtue of having won their independence wars against Georgia in the early 1990s? The Report is clearly referring to this meaning of the term, but one can ask. Certainly the so-called international community has to come up with a better answer to long-held grievances than the mantra of “territorial integrity”. Especially when the territory in question was designed by someone like Stalin.


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/ (http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/2008-170-21.cfm) 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 (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=18941&search=)

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.

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 http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=20026. 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.

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.