The E.U. Fact-Finding Mission's recently released report on the conlifct in Georgia poses a bit of a challenge. The Associated Press went with "EU report: Georgian attack started war with Russia," the New York Times was more evenhanded with "E.U. Report to Place Blame on Both Sides in Georgia War", the Wall Street Journal split the difference with "Tbilisi Started '08 War, but Moscow Also at Fault, EU Finds."
Having read the report's conclusions, these are all basically correct. The authors do state explicitly that "Operations started with a massive Georgian artillery attack" on the night of Aug. 7 and that this attack was not justifiable under international law. They also say that Georgian claims of a Russian military incursion prior to this attack are not "sufficiently substantiated." Point for the Kremlin, but from that point on the Russians don't look very good.
The report rejects Russian claims of genocide by Georgia against Russian civilians, accuses the Russian military of allowing human rights abuses, including widespread rape, by South Ossetian forces against Georgian civilians, states that Russian troops "continued their advances for some days after the August ceasefire was declared," and finds that while their initial military reponse was justified, they went "far beyond the reasonable limits of defence" by moving into Georigan territory. In an interesting passage, the authors write:
In a matter of a very few days, the pattern of legitimate and illegitimate military action had thus turned around betweeen the two main actors Georgia and Russia.
The report also describes provocative Russian acts in the lead-up to the war, including "the formalising of links with the breakaway territories, the granting of Russian passports to their populations, and declarations about using the Kosovo precedent as a basis for the recognition fo South Ossetia and Abkhazia".
Another important passage:
"This Report shows that any explanation of the origins of the conflict cannot focus soleley on the artillery attack on Tskhinvaliin the night of 7/8 August and on what then developed into the questionable Georgian offensive in South Ossetia and the Russian military action. ...It must also take into account years of provocations, mutual accusations, military and political threats and acts of violence both inside and outside the conflict zone. It has to conside, too, the impact of a great power's coercive politics and diplomacy against a small and insubordinate neighbour, together with the small neighbour's penchant for overplaying its had and acting in the heat of the moment without careful consideration fo the final outcome, not to mention its fear that it might permanently lose important parts of its territory through creeping annexation."
In retrospect Russia's excessive use of force during the conflict seems not just brutal but politically stupid. Through years of pressure, the Kremlin had goaded Saakashvili into an ill-advised attack that provided the Russian miltiary with cover to consolidate control over the breakaway regions. If they had stopped there, Russia could have (somewhat credibly) painted Georgia as the aggressor and (much less credibly) justified their incursion as a humanitarian intervention.
Thanks to their attacks on non-disputed Georgian territory, their complicity in human rights abuses by South Ossetian forces, and their violations of the ceasefire, it's hard to see Russia as anything but a bullying aggressor. And with Saakashvili still in power and the underlying political dynamics basically unchanged, it's hard to see what they gained from it.
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