Georgia: Did Saakashvili miscalculate?


Tbilisi admits it miscalculated Russian reaction was the title of an article in the Financial Times on 22 August 2008.  It began:


Georgia did not believe Russia would respond to its offensive in South Ossetia and was completely unprepared for the counter-attack, the deputy defence minister has admitted.


“Batu Kutelia told the Financial Times that Georgia had made the decision to seize the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali despite the fact that its forces did not have enough anti-tank and air defences to protect themselves against the possibility of serious resistance.” [1]


In view of these remarks by the Georgian Deputy Defence Minister, there is no doubt that the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, did launch an offensive against the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on 7 August 2008 – and that, without this offensive, there would have been no Russian counter-offensive.


There has been a concerted attempt by Western governments, particularly those in Washington and London, to question whether a Georgian offensive took place at all, or to minimise its seriousness.  Their purpose in doing so has been to minimise the justification for the Russian response.  But it is clear from the above that a serious Georgian offensive did take place, to which Russia responded.


Here’s a description of the initial Georgian artillery barrage from the Georgian weekly paper, Kviris Palitra, on 25 August 2008 (translated by BBC monitoring):


“Georgian artillery opened fire on 7 August after the enemy shelled the Georgian-controlled villages near Tskhinvali and attempted to launch an offensive.  At least 300 gun barrels of Georgian artillery were firing at the enemy simultaneously! These included the 203-mm Pion systems, the 160-mm Israeli-made GRADLAR multiple rocket launchers, the 152-mm Akatsiya, Giatsint and Dana self-propelled guns, the 122-mm Grad and RM-70 multiple rocket launchers, as well as the D-30 and Msta howitzers of the infantry brigades.” [2]


Did the US approve?

It is impossible to believe that the US administration gave its approval in advance to the Georgian offensive.  A Russian military response was almost certain and would inevitably overwhelm Georgian forces – and the US would not be in a position to do anything about it.  The US did not sanction a Georgian offensive which would almost certainly end up with it looking impotent in the face of the Russian response.


Georgia is one of the US’s closest allies, so close that President Bush has had a boulevard in the centre of its capital renamed in his honour (which probably hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world).  Yet, the US couldn’t defend it.  This is an unwelcome state of affairs for a great power to find itself it in, particularly when its power is slipping.  If a great power cannot defend its friends, then it will have fewer friends.


Saakashvili out of control

Privately, the US administration must be very displeased at President Saakashvili for launching this offensive (almost as displeased as the Russians).  But it cannot criticise him in public: it cannot say that this man, upon whom it has lavished praise, and military assistance, since he came to power, is a reckless fool who has brought about the present crisis upon himself – and in the process made the US look stupid for (a) supporting him and (b) failing to control him.


It appears that Saakashvili launched the offensive despite being warned by the US not to do so.  The US administration is telling the media off the record that he and other Georgian officials were repeatedly warned not to attempt a military takeover of South Ossetia, since it would inevitably meet with a Russian response that Georgia would be unable to withstand.


See, for example, a New York Times’ story, U.S. Watched as a Squabble Turned Into a Showdown, on 18 August 2008, which says:


“While the public line from the Bush administration has been that Russia and Mr. Putin are largely to blame, some administration officials said the Georgian military had drawn up a ‘concept of operations’ for crisis in South Ossetia that called for its army units to sweep across the region and rapidly establish such firm control that a Russian response could be pre-empted.


“They note that in January, the Georgian Ministry of Defense released a ‘strategic defense review’ that laid out its broad military planning for the breakaway regions. … American officials said that they had clearly told their Georgian counterparts that the plan had little chance of success, given Kremlin statements promising to protect the local population from Georgian ‘aggression’ – and the fact of overwhelming Russian military force along the border.” [3]


This New York Times’ story also says that Condoleezza Rice specifically warned Saakashvili “not to let Russia provoke him into a fight he could not win” on her visit to Tbilisi on 10 July 2008.


As US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Daniel Fried had day to day responsibility for US relations with Georgia and he must feel personally aggrieved at Saakashvili’s failure to take advice from Washington.  Fried gave an interview to Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, who reported as follows on 28 August 2008:


“In the interview, Fried did not excuse Georgia’s initial actions, saying U.S. officials told Georgian officials they could not win a war with Russia. ‘Georgia is a flawed democracy, a democracy in construction. You don’t help them by whitewashing their problems or defending a bad decision. But you don’t want it crushed’, he said.”


That is the nearest thing to on the record criticism of Saakashvili by the US administration that I have seen.  And it acknowledges that the US has no option but to continue to support him – at least until a more reliable successor can be identified and installed.


Did Saakashvili miscalculate?

Did President Saakashvili really miscalculate the Russian reaction to his offensive, as his Deputy Defence Minister said?  That is very difficult to believe.  Russia has acted as a guarantor against South Ossetia’s forcible incorporation into Georgia for many years and Russian military personnel were on the ground in South Ossetia as peacekeepers (by international agreement).  In view of that, it was very foolish to expect that Russia would not respond militarily to a Georgian offensive, particularly when some of its peacekeepers were killed (deliberately, if one believes Russia).


There is an alternative explanation.  It is that Saakashvili launched his offensive in order to provoke a Russian response, with the objective of dragging the US, and the West in general, into his quarrel against Russia – and of expediting Georgia’s membership of NATO.


Did McCain encourage?

Vladimir Putin suggested that the Georgian offensive was cooked up in Washington to create a neo-cold war climate that would strengthen Republican candidate John McCain’s bid for the White House (see, for example, The Washington Post, 29 August 2008 [4]).


Maybe, there’s a grain of truth in this.  The McCain campaign certainly had a hot line to Saakashvili.  His foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, was until recently a lobbyist in Washington for Georgia, tasked with getting Georgia into NATO, having successfully lobbied for Romania and Latvia in this regard.  His two-man lobbying firm, Orion Strategies, received US$730,000 since 2001 from Georgia.  McCain himself has been to Tbilisi several times and is a fervent supporter of Georgia’s membership of NATO.


There is polling evidence to suggest that in a “crisis” the US electorate prefers a candidate like McCain, who is said to have “experience” in foreign affairs, rather than a candidate like Obama, who is said to have none.  This advantage for “experience” is not necessarily related to what the candidate proposes to deal with the “crisis” – the fact that s/he is “experienced” seems to be sufficient to give her/him an advantage.


So, perhaps, somebody on the McCain campaign encouraged Saakashvili to bring about a “crisis” that would last to November and help McCain into the White House – thereby earning Saakashvili the new president’s eternal gratitude.


Will NATO membership be expedited?

Will conflict between Georgia and Russia expedite Georgia’s membership of NATO?


At a summit meeting in Bucharest in April 2008, NATO decided in principle that Georgia and Ukraine should be allowed to become full members.  Had Britain and the US got their way on that occasion, NATO would have gone further and given them a clear pathway to membership by allowing them to have Membership Action Plans (MAPs).  That didn’t happen because of opposition by Germany, France and other states, but the matter comes up again at a NATO foreign ministers meeting in December 2008.  This has the authority to decide to give them MAPs, making their membership almost inevitable a few years down the line.


If Georgia is allowed to become a member, then other members are obliged by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to regard an armed attack on Georgia as an armed attack on them and render armed assistance.  Article 5 states:


“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them … will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”  [5]


Article 5 doesn’t make any exception for an armed attack against a member provoked by that member’s reckless action, like Saakashvili’s offensive on South Ossetia on 7 August.  Had Georgia been a member of NATO, an all-out war with Russia would have been a possibility, but it is up to the NATO Council to decide whether or not to invoke Article 5 in each instance.  Up to now, it has only invoked Article 5 once – in response to the events of 9/11, when the US was offered assistance by NATO.


If Georgia is allowed to become a member, then all-out war with Russia would be a possibility, if the events in South Ossetia in early August recurred.  Of course, the NATO Council might find a reason not to invoke Article 5, in view of the awful consequences of so doing – in which case NATO’s credibility as an alliance for mutual defence would be damaged.


The lesson from the events of 7 August 2008 is that, admitting Georgia into NATO, is a reckless step that could lead us into all-out war with Russia as a consequence of actions by Georgian leaders over whom even the US has no control.


Yet there is no sign that the British Government is having second thoughts.  On the contrary, Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, is intent on expediting the matter, if he can.  Formally, the special NATO foreign ministers meeting on 19 August 2008 neither accelerated, nor decelerated, Georgia’s progress towards NATO membership [6].  Yet, when he went to Tbilisi next day, Milband delighted his hosts by telling them that Georgia had been launched on the path to membership by the setting up of a NATO-Georgia Commission at the foreign ministers meeting.  This view is at variance with that of the NATO Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who had said after the meeting that the Commission had “no direct relationship” with a MAP for Georgia [7].


Miliband seems to believe that, if Georgia were a member of NATO, Russia would be deterred from responding as it did in early August.  Here’s what he told John Humphries on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 28 August 2008:


“… embedding these countries in European institutions, giving them the strength of European security is actually the way to prevent hot conflict.  It’s actually the way to ensure that peaceful relations are established on a basis that isn’t an imbalance of power.”


At this point, John Humphries intervened to ask:


“And if that premise fails, then we are prepared to defend them at the point of a gun?”


to which Miliband reluctantly replied:


“Well, the NATO commitments are to do that.  That’s written into the NATO Charter.”


One can but hope that Germany, France and others in NATO have the good sense to maintain their opposition Georgia membership so that this possibility never arises.


The 6-point ceasefire agreement

The West has been complaining constantly about Russia’s breaches of the ceasefire agreement with Georgia, brokered by French EU President, Nicholas Sarkozy, and signed on 13 August 2008.  In fact, it’s by no means obvious that Russia is breaking any of the 6 points on the agreement.  These are as follows:


1. No recourse to use violence between the protagonists. Sarkozy: This applies to everyone: Ossetians, Abkhazians, Georgia in its entirety and Russians.


2. The cessation of hostilities.


3. The granting of access to humanitarian aid.


4. The return of Georgian armed forces to their usual quarters.


5. Russian armed forces to withdraw to the positions held before hostilities began in South Ossetia. Russian peacekeepers to implement additional security measures until an international monitoring mechanism is in place. Sarkozy: These measures affect only the immediate vicinity of South Ossetia and in no instance the entire territory of Georgia.


6. The opening of international discussions on the modalities of security and stability of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.


This is taken from a background document by Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) entitled Six-point peace plan for the Georgia-Russia conflict, see, for example [8].


This 6-point ceasefire agreement started life as a 4-point agreement between the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, and President Saakaskvili – no use of force; cease hostilities; open humanitarian corridors in the conflict areas; and Georgian and Russian troops withdraw to their pre-war positions.  However, at Russia’s insistence, the 6-point agreement that was eventually signed by Russia and Georgia is significantly different.


Complaints that Russia is breaking the agreement by keeping troops inside Georgia proper are misplaced, because Point 5 clearly allows them to do so, albeit “only in the immediate vicinity of South Ossetia and in no instance the entire territory of Georgia”.  And there is no timetable for their withdrawal – Georgia requested one but Russia refused.  They can stay there “until an international monitoring mechanism is in place” and you can be sure that Russia will decide when it is in place to its satisfaction.  Russia is clearly determined that Georgian artillery based in Georgia proper will not fire in South Ossetia as it did on 7 August 2008.


The other complaint that one hears from the West is that by recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, Russia bypassed the “international negotiations” it agreed to in Point 6.  That’s a moot point.  According to the DPA background document:


“The sixth point was added at the Georgian leader’s request. Saakashvili had originally referred to discussions on the ‘future status’ of its breakaway provinces, stressing these words. Medvedev agreed via telephone, but Saakashvili later struck these out. Moscow said this would ultimately be up to ‘the people’ to decide.”


So, it’s not clear if Russia has breached Point 6 by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.  Had Saakashvili left in the phrase “future status”, then it would be a different matter.


Of course, with their tanks a mere 40 kilometers from Tbilisi, Russia was in a position to dictate terms.  And it did, and there was nothing that Saakashvili or Sarkozy could do about it.  The final agreement falls far short of the initial EU presidency draft, which called for the “full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia” and the deployment of an EU or UN peacekeeping force.


The Kosovo precedent

An article under the name of President Medvedev, entitled Why I had to recognise Georgia’s breakaway regions, was published in the Financial Times on 27 August 2008 [9].  It deserves to be widely read – it makes a reasonable case for Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, but a case that would have equally justified an independent Chechnya.


The West have been quick to point out that this decision runs counter to several Security Council resolutions backing the territorial integrity of Georgia, all of them supported by Russia.  This is true.  As recently as 15 April 2008, Russia voted for Security Council resolution 1808, which reaffirmed “the commitment of all [UN] Member States to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders” [10].


The West should recall Security Council resolution 1244 passed on 10 June 1999, which reaffirmed “the commitment of all [UN] Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” [11].  This resolution gave the Security Council’s blessing to the agreement, which brought the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia to an end.


That agreement was founded on the principle that the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia would be preserved, in other words, that the final settlement would not include an independent Kosovo.  Under the agreement, there was supposed to be (see Annex 1 of resolution 1244):


“A political process towards the establishment of an interim political framework agreement providing for a substantial self-government for Kosovo, taking full account of the Rambouillet accords and the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the other countries of the region, and the demilitarization of the KLA;”


By recognising Kosovo as an independent state earlier this year, the US/UK and others have abrogated the principle on which the agreement was founded.  And Russia has good grounds for feeling aggrieved since it played a major role in persuading Yugoslavia to accept the agreement based on that principle, without which there wouldn’t have been an agreement.


When the US/UK criticise Russia recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states thereby infringing the territorial integrity of Georgia, it’s a matter of the pot calling the kettle black.


As former British Ambassador, Sir Ivor Roberts, wrote in the Irish Sunday Independent on 31 August 2008:


“Western politicians maintain that Russia’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia violates the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia and is contrary to UN Security Council Resolutions. Quite.


“Now substitute the West for Russia and Kosovo for South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the inconsistency and double standards of the West's position are clear.


“How can the West talk of the need to maintain an independent state’s territorial integrity and to refuse to countenance forcible changes of borders when that is exactly what the US and most of the EU countries condoned in recognising Kosovo – against Serbia’s will, and in the absence of any Security Council Resolution allowing it? To argue that Kosovo is unique is facile. Each potential secession is special, with its own often violent history.” [12]


US/UK effrontery

It cannot be denied that Russia has breached Security Council resolution 1808 by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.  A case can also be made for saying that Russia did not abide by the UN Charter’s injunction to avoid the use of force in sorting out disputes, though it would say that it was acting in defence of the South Ossetians and its own peacekeepers.  This is a grey area.


But the effrontery of the US and the UK in lecturing Russia about breaching the UN Charter and Security Council resolutions and occupying Georgia militarily is mind boggling.  Have they forgotten that they bombed Yugoslavia for 10 weeks in 1999 without Security Council authority?  Have they forgotten that they went half way round the world to invade Iraq in 2003 without Security Council authority and five years later they have still got considerable forces there?


Yet the US President had the brass neck to lecture Russians that “bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century” [13].  And his would be Republican successor, John McCain, told them that “in the 21st century nations don’t invade other nations” (and there is video to prove his face was straight [14]). 


Have they forgotten that Israel is in breach of 30+ Security Council resolutions, has occupied and colonised territory not its own for some 40 years and annexed parts of that territory, yet the US/EU have extremely close relations with it?  Russia has a long way to go to live up to Israel’s unique record of breaching the UN Charter and Security Council resolutions.


On restoring the status quo ante

When the armed conflict broke out, the US/UK led the calls for an immediate ceasefire and for the restoration of the status quo ante.


This was in striking contrast to their attitude in July 2006, when Israel attacked Lebanon, following Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, in which three other Israeli soldiers were killed.  Then, the US/UK refused to call for a ceasefire and stopped the UN Security Council calling for a ceasefire because they wished to give Israel time to destroy Hezbollah’s military capacity.  Israel failed to do so, but in the process over 1,000 people had been killed, and thousands injured, in Lebanon and Israel, and billions of dollars worth of damage had been done to civilian infrastructure in Lebanon.


While it was happening, US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, famously described this carnage as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East”, saying:


“I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante. I think it would be a mistake.  What we’re seeing here, in a sense, is … the birth pangs of a new Middle East and whatever we do we have to be certain that we're pushing forward to the new Middle East not going back to the old one.” [15]


And the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, famously refused to describe Israel’s action as “disproportionate”.


What has the West done?

In the month since the conflict in Georgia began, the US and Europe have huffed and puffed about Russia’s actions in Georgia, but done nothing – because, having ruled out military action, there is very little they can do, either to punish Russia for what it has done or make it to undo what it has done.


Since Russia is a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, the Council hasn’t managed to agree a statement, let alone propose any action.


The special NATO foreign ministers meeting on 19 August 2008 concluded:


“In 2002, we established the NATO-Russia Council, a framework for discussions with Russia, including on issues that divide the Alliance and Russia.  We have determined that we cannot continue with business as usual.” [6]


But, a fortnight later, the practical effect of this is still under consideration: according to the NATO website:


“Following Russia’s disproportionate military action in Georgia in early August 2008, the Alliance is considering seriously the implications of Russia’s actions for the NATO-Russia relationship.” [16]


An extraordinary EU Council meeting was held on 1 September 2008 to consider the conflict in Georgia.  Prior to the meeting, the French EU presidency indicated that some states wanted to impose economic sanctions on Russia.  Since Russia supplies around 40% of the EU’s gas and about 30% of its oil (and a much higher proportion for some states), that was never a runner.


The only “punishment” meted out to Russia by the EU was to postpone negotiations about a new partnership agreement “until troops have withdrawn to the positions held prior to 7 August” [17].  In other words, until Russian troops are no longer present in Georgia outside South Ossetia,  the “additional security measures” envisaged in Point 5 of the ceasefire agreement (see above) having been replaced by “an international monitoring mechanism”.


(Russia has grounds for complaint that the EU is laying down a very different standard for negotiating with it compared with Israel.  The latter has had a partnership agreement with EU since 1995, which amongst other things gives it privileged access to the EU market, despite its military occupation of vast swathes of territory not its own, occupation that has continued for rather longer than a month.)


The Guardian report of the EU Council meeting was headed EU leaders act against Russia with freeze on strategic pact talks [18].  The report ended by putting this “strategic pact” in context:


“The move could … be seen as counter-productive since the EU is keener than Russia on the new pact. The negotiations had been frozen for almost two years on the European side until July, with Poland and Lithuania vetoing talks.”


Another “punishment” that has been mooted is blocking Russia’s application for membership of the WTO.  The Guardian quoted an EU official about this on 28 August 2008:


“Threats to block Russian membership of the World Trade Organisation were meaningless. The push for Russian admission to the WTO was being driven not by Moscow but by western business interests keen to tap the large Russian market.” [19]


So, at the time of writing, the only “punishment” meted out to Russia is the EU’s postponement of negotiations about a new partnership agreement, which Russia isn’t particularly bothered about.


EU and US diverge?

EU foreign ministers held an informal meeting in Avignon on 5/6 September 2008, at which they called for “an international inquiry into who started the war”.  Perhaps, they should interview the Georgian Deputy Defence Minister, who seems to know.


The press conference afterwards was notable for remarks by French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, which implied a divergence of view between the EU and the US on the issue.  The New York Times quoted him saying that “it was vital to coordinate policy with the United States but that Europe saw its relationship with Russia, a large and close neighbor, differently from the way Washington did” [20].


An story on Bloomberg News entitled Kouchner Challenges Cheney, U.S. Tactics in Georgia said Kouchner “questioned US tactics in resolving the crisis in Georgia, saying the use of warships to deliver humanitarian aid risks inflaming tensions with Russia” and said that “the crisis can only be solved politically and not with warships” [21].  He also “cast doubt on the practical value of US Vice President Dick Cheney’s trip to Georgia and neighboring ex-Soviet republics” saying “I’m happy for him, but what did it change?”.


Ukrainian Government collapses

Cheney arrived in the Ukraine at an unfortunate moment.  Two days earlier on 3 September 2008, the Ukrainian government collapsed after serious political disagreement between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who were victorious allies in the so-called Orange Revolution in November 2004, and up to recently both firm friends of the West [22].


Their parties had been in an uneasy coalition government for nine months, but with a wafer thin majority in parliament over the opposition Party of the Regions, led by former President Viktor Yanukovich, whose re-election was overturned by the Orange Revolution.  There were two immediate causes for the collapse: firstly, Tymoshenko’s party blocked a motion condemning Russia’s recent actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia (as she has consistently refused to do since 7 August 2008) and, secondly, her party sided with the opposition in a vote to decrease the powers of the president and increase her own as prime minister.  At that point, the President’s Our Ukraine party quit the coalition.


This event could mark the beginning of Ukraine seeking a modus vivendi with Russia, instead of acting as a poodle of the West.  Popular opinion in the Ukraine is opposed to it joining NATO, by a ratio of around 2 to 1, according to a poll taken in February 2008 [23].  So, a more balanced approach towards Russia would likely find favour with the electorate, a sizeable proportion of whom are ethnic Russians. 


Tymoshenko is probably positioning herself to stand for president in 2010 and reckons she can’t win on an anti-Russian ticket.  President Yushchenko is very unpopular, an opinion poll in July 2008 suggesting that he would now get a mere 7.3% of the vote in a presidential election, compared with 23.7% for Tymoshenko and 20.5% for former president Yanukovych [24].



David Morrison

6 September 2008