The Washington Diplomat / September 2008
By Larry Luxner
The way Vasil Sikharulidze sees it, big bad Russia attacked tiny, struggling Georgia without provocation, blocking its main roads, destroying its infrastructure and slaughtering innocent civilians — in a well-orchestrated attempt by the Kremlin to reassert its hegemony over the entire former U.S.S.R.
Sikharulidze, Georgia’s ambassador in Washington, didn’t mince words as he told a gathering at the conservative Heritage Foundation in mid-August why Moscow cannot be trusted in the wake of the most serious confrontation between Russia and another former Soviet republic since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“Before Aug. 6, I never would have anticipated having to speak about Russian invasions or occupations,” he said. “I want to be clear: The Russian invasion was highly organized — and planned months ahead. You don’t move 100 tanks and 15,000 soldiers within 12 hours without previous planning. Just two months earlier, a Russian fighter jet shot down an unarmed Georgian observation drone in direct violation of United Nations ceasefire agreements.”
Absolute nonsense, counters Alexander Darchiev, chargé d’affaires of the Russian Embassy here. In comments e-mailed to The Washington Diplomat, Darchiev called Sikharulidze’s allegations laughable.
“Quite the contrary: It is Georgia’s leadership which for a long time planned to take control of South Ossetia by military force,” he said, noting that the current fighting, which began the night of Aug. 7, marks the third time since Georgia’s independence that Georgian troops have moved into the pro-Russian breakaway region of South Ossetia.
“One should not forget who is responsible for the current crisis. It is impossible to deny that the Georgian troops were indiscriminately shelling defenseless civilians in Tskhinvali and its neighborhoods for more than 12 hours, using Grad multiple rocket launchers, bombers and heavy artillery in an attack joyfully broadcasted by Georgian state TV. And then the ground assault started,” he charged. “At the same time, Georgian special forces attacked a small Russian peacekeeping force of about 500 men, which was not equipped with any heavy armor or weapons, and whose main responsibility was to observe the ceasefire according to 1992 peace agreement.”
Darchiev said the attack — personally ordered by Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili — “represents a serious crime under international law” because it resulted in the deaths of at least 1,600 people, most of them Russian citizens. “More than 30,000 refugees from South Ossetia are in Russia now,” Darchiev added. “Of course, in this situation, the Russian government had to react swiftly in order to repel the aggression and to prevent further loss of human life.”
A government spokesman in Tbilisi told reporters Aug. 20 that 215 Georgians — 69 of them civilians — have been killed in the conflict since Aug. 8, when Georgian troops opened fire on Tskhinvali, capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
In response, soldiers with the 58th Russian Army rolled into South Ossetia, reinforced by the 76th Airborne Pskov Division. Meanwhile, the Black Sea Fleet blockaded Georgia’s coast and shelled the strategic port of Poti, while other troops seized military bases deep in Georgia and fighter jets bombed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline — the only route for exporting Central Asian energy. As of press time, Russia continued to pledge that it would withdraw its troops from Georgia following a French-brokered ceasefire, although signs of progress were mixed as Russia clearly maintained its grip on certain parts of the country.
At the Heritage gathering, Sikharulidze warned a packed audience of about 200 that “this is no longer just about us, it’s about you,” calling the Russian actions a thinly veiled attempt to gain control over oil and gas routes from the Caspian Sea and beyond.
“This is a simple story of a small country being invaded by a great power that seeks to subjugate its neighbors,” the Georgian envoy said. “This is not about what Russia did to Georgia, but what Russia intends to do to Europe. Russia is using this moment to project a message to the world: It’s back as an imperial power, and the West is powerless to respond.
“Russia is trying to hide its crimes,” Sikharulidze continued. “Every single time the West said us Georgians were emotional or crying wolf, we proved to be right. All along, we had indications that Russia was planning this operation. Months ago, they distributed leaflets to their soldiers called ‘Know Your Enemy,’ the enemy being Georgia.”
Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia’s minister of reintegration, further claims that 25,000 Russian troops are now in his country — and that Moscow has deployed more tanks in Georgia than during its 1980 invasion of Afghanistan.
“What Russia is feeding the media, that Georgia was the aggressor, is bullshit,” Yakobashvili declared in a live telephone hookup from Tbilisi. “Russia committed crimes in South Ossetia, and we are going to prove it to The Hague.”
Predictably, Darchiev countered that Georgia — not Russia — is “engaged in a massive disinformation campaign” to hide atrocities committed by its own troops.
“We have credible evidence that South Ossetians and captured peacekeepers were executed after taking prisoner. Wounded civilians, even children, were finished off by bayonets and gunshots. The grenades were thrown into the shelters where people were hiding from bombardments,” Darchiev told The Diplomat. “The Georgian war operation codename, Clear Field, itself speaks volumes about the real plans of Mr. Saakashvili to cleanse this region of its native population.”
Darchiev said a team of Russian forensics experts is now in Georgia collecting evidence and that Moscow will soon formally accuse the Saakashvili government of genocide and crimes against humanity.
“What the Georgian ambassador didn’t tell you is that for 15 years, his government has continually refused to recognize the right of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian people to obtain Georgian passports. The government wanted to force them into exile or strangle them economically,” Darchiev charged.
“By doing this, however, the Georgian government just pushed those people closer to Russia. The Abkhaz and South Ossetians, having no other options available, started to apply for Russian citizenship, and it is a reality that more than 90 percent of them are now citizens of Russia.”
But Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation, claims the absorption of South Ossetians is just part of Russia’s long-term strategy. He ran down a litany of goals Moscow has regarding Georgia, which include “expulsion of Georgian troops and termination of Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia and Abkhazia; regime change by bringing down Saakashvili and installing a more pro-Russian leadership in Tbilisi; preventing Georgia from joining NATO and sending a strong message to Ukraine that its insistence on NATO membership may lead to war and or its dismemberment; shifting control of the Caucasus — and especially over strategic energy pipelines — by controlling Georgia, and recreating a 19th century-style sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, by the use of force if necessary.”
Force is exactly the tool Russia relies on in its policies toward the region, adds Stephen Blank, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College, who warns that “Russia today is a neo-Czarist, revisionist state” whose military policies are becoming more aggressive than ever.
“This is the fourth war in 17 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia perceives enemies at home and enemies abroad. It retains the Leninist threat paradigm and is obsessed with recovering great — if not superpower — status.”
He continued: “For the first time in years, force has been used to revise European boundaries. The Helsinki accord has been broken in cold blood, and the European reaction has been disgraceful, to say the least. There is no real response, and even in Washington we see a failure to come up with a coherent policy since this invasion.”
Blank also suggested that the Bush administration must stop thinking of Russia as a partner in anything, except possibly with regard to nuclear arms control.
“The central target is going to be Ukraine, and then Azerbaijan will come under pressure to break its ties with the West. Ukraine is even more vulnerable, and without Ukraine, Russia is merely a great power. With Ukraine, it’s an empire — and it’s determined to amputate Ukraine if it doesn’t get its way.”
But other experts caution against exaggerating the threat Russia poses, reminding critics of Georgia’s role in a conflict where there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“Saakashvili ordered the assault last week knowing that South Ossetia would resist, knowing that his forces would have to take on Russian peacekeepers and knowing that Moscow has been spoiling for a fight. In fact, his own government had claimed for some time that Russia was preparing to attack,” wrote Paul J. Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center, in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post.
Also writing in the Post,reporter and author Michael Dobbs argued that recent analogies comparing Putin to Hitler were off the mark. “Actually, the events of the past week … are better understood against the backdrop of the complicated ethnic politics of the Caucasus, a part of the world where historical grudges run deep and oppressed can become oppressors in the bat of an eye,” Dobbs said. Although he agreed that Russia’s response was more than disproportionate, as most in the West have accused, he also noted that “Ossetians viewed Georgians in much the same way that Georgians view Russians: as aggressive bullies bent on taking away their independence.”
But Darchiev claims Russia isn’t trying to take anyone’s independence away and is only defending its interests, accusing critics like Blank and Cohen of spreading lies to suit their own neoconservative agenda.
“It seems that those who do not like Russia always disseminate conspiracy theories, accusing us of expansionism and domination plots. History proves otherwise,” he said. “In 1991 the Soviet republics divorced peacefully only because Moscow blessed their departure and recognized their independence. We said hundreds of times that we do not want to occupy Georgia. We want it to be to be truly sovereign and prosperous state living in peace with its neighbors, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
He also noted that Russia has no intention of controlling energy pipelines outside its immediate territory. “We have much more substantial resources in Russia, and have long-term and economically viable contracts with Central Asian producers to meet the growing world demand for oil and gas.”
Sikharulidze isn’t convinced and wants Russian troops must leave his country immediately and permanently.
“We ask for international pressure on Russia to live up to the ceasefire and peace agreement. Secondly, Russia must pull its forces out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Third, we believe the free world needs to become alert to Russia’s ambitions,” he said. “This is no longer the Russia of Boris Yeltsin. This is a Russia which is willing to break the rules.”