War of Words

The West must not be distracted by Russian—or Georgian—propaganda.

Mikhail Saakashvili 

The New York Times has now done it; so, recently, have European cease-fire monitors, the BBC, and NPR. These organizations, along with a whole host of other investigators, have looked once again into the events surrounding Georgia’s Aug. 7 incursion into South Ossetia, the event that led, in turn, to the massive Russian invasion of Georgia on Aug. 8.

Their most important conclusion? Georgia started it and killed civilians in the process. My conclusion? We knew that already. We also knew, and indeed have known for some time, that the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is susceptible to extreme bouts of criminal foolhardiness. A year ago this month, he attacked demonstrators in Tbilisi with riot police, arrested opposition leaders, and even smashed up a Rupert Murdoch-owned television station—possibly not, I wrote at the time, the best way to attract positive international media coverage. I’m told Saakashvili—who did indeed overthrow the corrupt Soviet nomenklatura that ran his country—has many virtues. But caution, cool-headedness, and respect for civilian lives and democratic norms are not among them.

We knew that about him—and so did the Russians. That was why they spent much of the previous year taunting and teasing the Georgians, shooting down their planes, firing on their policemen, and attacking their villages, all in an attempt to create a casus belli, either in South Ossetia or in Abkhazia, another Russian-dominated, semi-autonomous enclave inside the Georgian border. And when Saakashvili did what they’d been hoping he’d do, they were ready. As one Russian analyst pointed out, the Russian response was not an improvised reaction to an unexpected Georgian offensive: “The swiftness with which large Russian contingents were moved into Georgia, the rapid deployment of a Black Sea naval task force, the fact that large contingents of troops were sent to Abkhazia where there was no Georgian attack all seem to indicate a rigidly prepared battle plan.” There was, it seems, one minor miscalculation. As a very senior Russian official recently told a very senior European official, “We expected the Georgians to invade on Aug. 8, not Aug. 7.”

No matter. Once the well-planned invasion had been launched, the Russians rampaged across the countryside, systematically destroyed Georgia’s sea ports and factories, killed civilians, and rolled their tanks into the middle of the country, as if preparing to cut off Tbilisi. Though they didn’t invade the capital in the end, I have no doubt that their intention was to prove to the Georgians that they could have done so if they had wanted to—and that next time, they will. The operation succeeded: They went home, declared themselves the defenders of human rights in South Ossetia, exaggerated the number of Osettian civilian casualties by a factor of 20, and denounced Saakashvili as a “Soros paid, CIA/MI6 controlled puppet.”

This is all old news, of course, but I’m repeating it because it is important to focus, not just once but again and again, on the nuances, complications, and layers of this story, since it is one whose retelling has recently become an important propaganda tool in an ongoing trans-Atlantic war of words. It is very satisfying to describe Georgia as a tiny, brave, and innocent democracy, proudly standing up to the evil Russian bear, and, indeed, some did so at the time: “We are all Georgians,” said John McCain. It is also very satisfying, I have no doubt, to describe Georgia as a tin-pot dictatorship, an evil American-neocon lackey, and the personal fiefdom of a major war criminal—and some are doing so right now. Indeed, for those longing to go back to “business as usual” with Russia, I’m sure it is extremely satisfying to discover, suddenly, that it was all Georgia’s fault in the first place.

Unfortunately, neither cartoon version of events is accurate, and no new “investigations” or “revelations” about the August war will make them so. Saakashvili’s attack on South Ossetia was a disaster, made worse by the bizarrely boastful celebrations he conducted afterward. The outrageous Russian response was also horrific, both for the Georgians and for Russia, whose neighbors (and investors) now know exactly what to expect from the Medvedev-Putin regime.

The conclusions to be drawn from this unsatisfying, cloudy picture are not simple, either—but then, they never were. In the short term, the Georgians must ensure Saakashvili is not murdered or ousted in a Russian-backed coup. In the long term, the Georgians need to choose a leader who can promote true political and economic stability. Until then, Western leaders should support Georgian democracy—not particular Georgian democrats—and prepare a unified response to the Russian military escapades to come. And while the propaganda battle rages, they must stay on the sidelines.