War in Ossetia: The Russian view

Young Russians love to tell the story of an perplexed American from the U.S. state, Georgia, who phoned her local radio station, saying “I don’t see any planes from where I’m standing!” The urban legend pokes fun at a simple American housewife, but behind the joke lies a real critique of Western politicians and media.

Young Russians love to tell the story of an perplexed American from the U.S. state, Georgia, who phoned her local radio station, saying “I don’t see any planes from where I’m standing!” The urban legend pokes fun at a simple American housewife, but behind the joke lies a real critique of Western politicians and media.

Although Russia was never formally at war with Georgia, this fact was dismissed as immaterial as the chance to headline with the words “war” and “Russia” beckoned.

The incoming president of the UN General Assembly, Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, thought it worth clarifying at the opening of the organisation’s 63rd session that “Georgia was the one who invaded Ossetia”. He delivered the words with passion, and his speech was widely broadcast in Russia. From the Russians’ view, the statement was long overdue. The United States and its North Atlantic allies have consistently labelled Russia as the aggressor in the conflict. A recent U.S. Senate debate on the issue was titled “Russian aggression against Georgia”. Curiously, Mr. Brockmann’s native country is Nicaragua – the only country besides Russia to currently recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That’s just one of those coincidences a rotating presidency occasionally throws up. There’s no need to fear a Moscow-Managua axis just yet.

The recent conflict is only the latest in a string of violent clashes over the past two decades. During the Soviet Union’s messy break-up, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, facing a resurgence of Georgian nationalism, defended their independence in separate year-long wars. Accusations of war crimes and ethnic cleansing abounded in both. Abkhazia’s ended with a ceasefire, only to have fighting erupt again in 1998 when Georgian rebels attempted to take control of what was now a de facto independent Abkhazian republic. Land-locked South Ossetia enjoyed 16 years of peace under the 1992 Sochi Agreement, a cease-fire brokered by Russia. The peacekeeping contingent was made up of Georgians, Russians and citizens of both North (Russian) and South (Georgian) Ossetia.

The Sochi Agreement had no withdrawal clause – peacekeepers were to stay in South Ossetia indefinitely, and the republic would never be recognised as independent. Officially calling it a “frozen conflict”, Russia felt no compulsion to tie up loose ends. Two things caused the ice to melt. The first was Kosovo’s independence from Serbia being recognised by a host of European countries and NATO members. Russia in February had warned it would open up old wounds. The second was the acceleration of Georgia’s accession to NATO. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in the bloodless Rose Revolution in 2003, ousting a liberal reformer who had failed to control rampant corruption. He pledged to bring the two republics back in from the cold. He might have simply reneged on his promise were it not for NATO members’ reluctance to admit a country with unresolved territorial disputes. In the early morning of the 8th of August, while the world’s attention was fixed on the opening of the Beijing Games, Georgian troops crossed into the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, in violation of the Sochi Agreement. Ten Russian peacekeepers were killed in the operation – by their Georgian colleagues, according to Russia. The deaths of Russian peacekeepers, and South Ossetia’s claims that Georgia had launched a “genocide” on the Ossetian people, were the reasons the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave for the Russian response.

To Western viewers, the story that Russia had invaded Georgia and not the other way around seemed more logical. Georgia, a “fledgling democracy”, was fighting “expansionist Russia” to regain control of its renegade province. Wilder analysts suggested “energy-hungry” Russia was trying to disrupt a strategic European oil corridor: running through Central Georgia, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline pumps a million barrels of oil daily through the politically troubled strip of land between the Caspian and Black Seas. Russia’s bullish tactics during recent diplomatic spats, and its widely assumed involvement in shooting down Georgian spy planes over Abkhazia, didn’t win any friends. With this in mind, the West decided that Russia began the conflict.

The Georgian president, soon after Russia sent its support to the breakaway republic, told the world that Russia was invading Georgia. Technically he was correct. On most maps South Ossetia is the same colour as Georgia. But the realities on the ground are quite different. Saakashvili considers South Ossetia a part of Georgia. But South Ossetians don’t.

Ignorance may explain the actions of a spooked American housewife, but to suppose that Western leaders and media simply mixed up their facts is hardly plausible. Relations between London and Moscow hadn’t improved since Russia was accused of poisoning a former KGB agent with radioactive Polonium-210 in the British capital. The United States continued championing Georgia’s cause in NATO negotiations and arming its military.

Officially calling South Ossetia a “frozen conflict”, Russia was perfectly happy with the situation, and felt no compulsion to tie up loose ends.”

The BBC’s website eagerly provided a fact-box comparing the relative strengths of the Georgian and Russian armies. Although Russia was never formally at war with Georgia, this fact was dismissed as immaterial, as the chance to headline with the words “war” and “Russia” beckoned. CNN has begun to change its tune, but still its official “explainer” on the conflict, though factually accurate, has an obviously anti-Russian slant. Consider the word order in this sentence: “Tensions came to a head after Russia responded militarily to a Georgian offensive”.

Georgia skilfully turned the South Ossetian conflict into an information war. Georgia’s choice of date for the invasion (they don’t come easier to remember than 8/8/08) and heavy use of highly marketable aerial attacks set the terms of engagement in stone from the outset. Western bias notwithstanding, Georgia’s terms put Russia at a disadvantage. The Russian information system is clunky, its structure little changed from Gorbachev’s days, and so it is ill-suited to a modern media war. Russia only allowed journalists to “embed” in peacekeeping units after dragging its heels for days. Liberal magazines in the past have taken advantage of quality-time with soldiers to expose corruption in the army.

Putting Russia’s outdated propaganda machine to shame, Georgia prepared for the conflict by hiring foreign public relations consultants who fanned the flames as the conflict progressed. Saakashvili himself gave numerous interviews to foreign television networks. He tried to take the spotlight off of South Ossetia where he knew he was fighting a losing battle and focus the world’s attention on a larger, fuzzier, conflict. “First, it was never about some region in Georgia. Russia made it very clear, they wanted regime change in Georgia,” he told CNN’s Larry King in a live interview.

On a practical level there were natural obstacles to Russia’s side of the story getting airtime. Getting a Russian visa is a battle in itself. The conflict began on a Friday, consulates don’t issue visas on weekends, and a processing period of several weeks normally applies. Getting to the scene of a 5-day conflict was a practical impossibility for any reporters without Kremlin connections. To that, add travel time from Moscow to the South Ossetian capital. A Canadian freelance journalist told me that when his colleagues heard a “Georgian breakaway republic” was under attack, they immediately booked the next flight to Tbilisi without thinking. Georgia has no visa requirements, and press attaches there were more than happy to receive them. But it’s not possible to access South Ossetia from the heavily militarised Georgian side. As a result most reporters ended up with literally one-sided coverage.

Eschewing media co-operation, or perhaps considering it a hopeless endeavour, Russia took a measured, diplomatic approach, and limited its statements to UN council meetings and daily press briefings. Russia’s finest asset was its talented UN Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, who regularly came out with gems such as, “The United States invented the term ‘regime change’, not Russia,” which he said in response to a question from the U.S. ambassador, looking him straight in the eye and insisting on speaking his own language through a translator though he has an impressive command of English. The Russian viewpoint is now gaining acceptance, but the world has split into two camps over the recognition of this year’s three new independent states. Forty-seven countries have so far recognised Kosovo, which declared its independence in February. Few of the forty-seven are likely to follow Nicaragua’s ambitious lead and recognise the Caucasian republics. In turn, whatever divers countries recognise their independence, they are unlikely to recognise Kosovo simultaneously.

One thing everyone is agreed on – from Russian diplomats to the residents of Atlanta, Georgia – is that no further “frozen conflicts” should be thawed out. An acquaintance in Moscow’s British Embassy has told me this is an eventuality they are anxiously preparing for. The stability of places like Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria – regions less likely to be mistaken for Bible Belt states – is on thin ice.

Aaron Mulvihill spent the past 13 months living in Moscow, working for a Russian news channel.