Who started it?

It seems to be this has been the biggest question of the war. In general, Western media have attributed blame to Saakashvili for starting an assault on Tshinvali. They then conclude that this was a massive miscalculation on his part. But we have no evidence either way of who fired first, or whether Georgia was essentially provoked.

In this week’s edition, The Economist makes a stab at trying to say who did start it.

In early August Georgian and South Ossetian separatists exchanged fire and explosive attacks. South Ossetia blew up a truck carrying Georgian policemen and attacked Georgian villages; Georgia fired back at the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali. On August 7th Georgian and South Ossetian officials were due to have direct talks facilitated by a Russian diplomat. But according to Temur Iakobashvili, a Georgian minister, the Russian diplomat never turned up.

What happened next is less clear. Russia claims that Mr Saakashvili treacherously broke a unilateral ceasefire he had just announced, ordering a massive offensive on Tskhinvali, ethnically cleansing South Ossetian villages and killing as many as 2,000 people. According to the Georgians, the ceasefire was broken from the South Ossetian side. However, what triggered the Georgian response, says Mr Saakashvili, was the movement of Russian troops through the Roki tunnel that connects South Ossetia to Russia. Matthew Bryza, an official at the State Department, says he was woken at 2am on August 7th to be told that the Georgians were lifting the ceasefire. “I tried to persuade them not to do it,” he says.

That same night, Georgia started to shell and invade Tskhinvali. Then the Russian army moved in—the same troops that had taken part in the military exercise a month earlier. The picture Russia presented to the world seemed clear: Georgia was a reckless and dangerous aggressor and Russia had an obligation, as a peacekeeper in the region, to protect the victims.

Russia’s response was predictable. One thing which almost all observers agree on is that Mr Saakashvili made a catastrophic mistake by walking into the Russian trap. As Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, puts it: “When you have a choice between doing nothing and doing a stupid thing, it is better to do nothing.” But Mr Saakashvili, a compulsive risk-taker, did the second. Even now he is defiant: if the clock were turned back, he says his response would be the same. “Any Georgian government that would have done differently would have fallen immediately,” he says.

3 thoughts on “Who started it?”

  1. Hi Gavin,

    This is the question that has been exercising me since this started. I have thought it remarkably poor of many commentators to casually dismiss the orders given by Saakashvili as the actions of a fool, etc. and move on to the rest of the story.

    Perhaps he is a fool, but the hard evidence to show why is not available and the whole explanation seems way too trite. Indeed, a cursory look-back through news reports from the region over the last twelve months shows any number of incidents, accusations, counter-accusations, etc.

    A few examples –

    1. This time last year, the Georgians claimed that the Russians invaded their airspace twice in a matter of days, dropping a missile on a radar station they have stationned near Gori (it missed). The Russians denied this of course.

    2. Last month, the Russians had several thousand men carrying out military exercises in North Ossetia. Not something designed to keep tensions from escalating.

    3. The NY Times has been reporting on how specialsits in the USA were observing massive cyber attacks being launched from within Russia earlier this month on Georgian websites. The culprits have not been identified.

    Therefore, I am glad to see a more considered magazine like The Economist trying to paint a bigger picture. It has been sorely missing in the fog of disappointingly thin analysis to date.

    Anyway, hope this is not too long a rant for a debut comment here. Have been reading your work for a while and I like the variety of topics that you cover.



  2. Thanks Longman. The situation is certainly not as straight forward as has been portrayed by the media. Rather than asking Saakasvhili if he miscalculated, it might have better to ask whether or not he was the first to fire.

    And comments are always welcome, and youre on the blogroll.

  3. Man, so, Saakashvili has ordered the bombing of Osetia once he learned that Russian troops were moving in through the tunnel?

    Am I reading your correctly.

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