Putin's revelations on the 2008 war finalize the picture of Saakashvili's aggression

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Published 12-08-2012, 04:03

Dmitry Babich

political analyst for the Voice of Russia radio station
President Vladimir Putin chose the fourth anniversary of the brief Russo-Georgian spat in South Ossetia to disclose some intriguing details of the 2008 conflict which left several hundred people dead and led to the most painful crisis in US-Russia relations in the post-Cold war period.

"There was a plan, and the Russian side acted in the framework of this plan," Putin said. "This plan had been agreed with me and I approved it." According to Putin, the plan had been finalized by the Russian General Staff in the end of 2006-beginning of 2007. It was set in motion in early August 2008, when the Georgian army bombarded Tskhinval ­ the capital of South Ossetia. The mombardment, which started in the evening of August 7, was followed by a Georgian attack and the occupation of about 70 percent of South Ossetia's territory. The Russian army retaliated the next day, starting a three days long operation that saw the Georgian troops evicted from South Ossetia and their barracks next to Ossetian border destroyed.

There is little doubt that Georgian propaganda, as well as part of the Western mass media, will interpret this statement by the Russian president as an endorsement of the anti-Russian version of events, aggressively "sold" to the international community by the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. According to this version, the spat was initiated by the Russian side and the Georgian attack against Tskhinval was meant to preempt an imminent strike by the Russian forces.

However, numerous facts, including the upbeat comments of the Georgian officials on the morning of August 8, 2008, speak for the version advocated by Russia and, in its main points, confirmed by the EU's fact finding mission, headed by a Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini. That version states that the bombardment of Tskhinval was a start of a Georgian operation aimed at "reintegrating" South Ossetia, lost in 1992, into the Georgian territory. "The conflict started "with a massive Georgian artillery attack... against the town of Tskhinvali and the surrounding areas, launched in the night of 7 to 8 August 2008", said the report of Tagliavini's commission.

Why were the Georgian officials jubilant in the morning of August 8, 2008? Because the Russian troops by that moment had not yet entered the tunnel separating South Ossetia with Russian territory to the north of the Caucuses Ridge, and the "reestablishment of constitutional order" in South Ossetia seemed to be on the right track. Now, thanks to Putin's revelation, we know that Russia had a plan ready, which set its troops in motion in case of a Georgian attack. Putin said he was informed about the hostilities which actually started on August 6. Until now, the generally accepted version of events was that the Georgian attack started on August 7 after several days of a conscious build-up of tensions by both Georgians and South Ossetians.

The big question which remains unanswered ­ why did Saakashvili decide to attack and did he, by choosing this option, break the instructions given by Washington? This is a tricky question which requires the situation to be put in a wider context.

In fact, Saakashvili's first attack against Tskhinval took place back in 2004, soon after the coup that brought Saakashvili to power in Tbilisi in 2003. During that aborted attack in 2004 one person was killed.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, formerly the Georgian ambassador to Russia in 2008 and now the leader of the opposition Georgian Party, testified about these events before a Georgian parliamentary commission in autumn 2008. Here is how a pro-Saakashvili site www.civil.ge described his testimony about the 2004 crisis and the events that led to it (months after Saakashvili's coming to power!) Sorry if this excerpt appears too long ­ every detail here provides fascinating reading despite some inaccuracies in English grammar and lexical mistakes of my Georgian colleagues. In fact, Kitsmarishvili's testimony shows that Russia (and then president Putin in the first place) was not against Georgia's territorial integrity and, obviously, wanted to improve Russo-Georgian ties, badly damaged by the former president Eduard Shevardnadze:

"In February 2004 in a capacity of the Georgian President's special envoy I was sent to Moscow to organize the first meeting between president Saakashvili and the then Russian president Vladimir Putin... During the meeting between Putin and Saakashvili in Moscow in February, 2004 ­ and I know it based on accounts by Saakashvili himself, as well as by Irakli Okruashvili [then Prosecutor General of Georgia] who also attended that meeting ­ Putin said that he was not ready for talks on the Abkhaz issues, but he was ready to launch talks over resolution of the South Ossetian problem..."

According to Kitsmarishvili's account, the possible agreement was aborted in 2004 by Saakashvili who opted for the idea of launching a military operation instead of waiting for negotiated settlement with Moscow and Tskhinval. Here is Kitsmarishvili's testimony again:

"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...Prime minister Zurab Zhvania was against... After [Saakashvili's] phone conversation with one of the foreign capitals ­ who warned against of any military operation ­ a decision was made against this military operation and the war was averted."

So, according to Kitsmarishvili, in 2004 the war was averted THANKS to the fact that Western governments (obviously, Washington in the first place) disapproved of Saakashvili's adventurism. In 2008 Washington's attitude changed and Condoleezza Rice gave Saakashvili what he perceived to be a green light for military operation in July 2008. Let us listen to Erosi Kitsmarishvili's presentation again. Here he is speaking about the visit by the head of the Russian presidential administration Sergei Naryshkin to Georgia, several weeks before the conflict:

"On July 10 2008 President Saakashvili calls me ­ I want to stress that this phone call was not made on a secured line ­ and tells me: 'Is that someone ­ [head of Russia's presidential administration] Naryshkin ­ really coming to Tbilisi?' I replied that yes he plans; Saakashvili then told me: 'OK, let him come, but tell Naryshkin that we have just met with Condoleezza Rice [in Tbilisi on July 10] and we are in a good situation now.' That is what he told me on a phone and it was not a secured line..."

So, the fatal choice was made by Saakashvili at Rice's behest. Naryshkin's peace mission was thwarted and Georgia started its descent towards the war. The rest is history now.


The Voice of Russia 

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