||Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe|
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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, OCTOBER 1, 2009
By SVANTE E. CORNELL
This week's much-anticipated European Union-commissioned report into the
causes of the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 predictably spread the
blame for the conflict around. While Georgia was also censured, the text is
devastating to Russia's narrative of the conflict.
Assisted by a small army of experts, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini has
spent close to a year investigating the origins of the war that initially
shocked Europe but then was relatively quickly forgotten in the midst of
the global economic crisis that succeeded it. As expected, both sides have
claimed that the 40-page report—with a thousand pages of
appendices—vindicates their version of events. Yet anyone who bothers to
read the document will find that the Tagliavini Commission apportions the
overwhelming part of the responsibility for the conflict on Moscow. In
fact, it rejects practically every item in Russia's version of what
supposedly happened last year.
The press has so far focused on the commission's conclusion that Georgia
started the war. That should, however, not be confused with the question of
responsibility: Firing the first shot does not necessarily mean being the
aggressor. The report acknowledges this, concluding that, "there is no way
to assign overall responsibility for the conflict to one side alone." The
report details the extended series of Russian provocations, accelerating in
the spring of 2008, that precipitated the war.
The report faults Georgia for lacking a legal basis for its attack on the
South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, and for the use of indiscriminate
force there. But on the crucial Georgian claim that it was responding to a
Russian invasion, the report equivocates: The mission is "not in a
position" to consider the Georgian claims "sufficiently substantiated."
This is an exercise in semantics, since the next sentences acknowledge that
Russia provided military training and equipment to the rebels, and that
"volunteers and mercenaries" entered Georgian territory from Russia before
the Georgian attack. One is left wondering what would be necessary for a
spade to be called a spade.
But the report is far more devastating in its dismissal of Russia's
justification for its invasion—in fact surprisingly so for an EU product.
As will be recalled, Russia variously claimed it was protecting its
citizens; engaging in a humanitarian intervention; responding to a Georgian
"genocide" of Ossetians; or responding to an attack on its peacekeepers.
The EU report finds that because Russia's distribution of passports to
Abkhazians and Ossetians in the years prior to the war was illegal, its
rationale of rescuing its "citizens" is invalid as they were not legally
Russian. It also concludes that Moscow's claim of humanitarian intervention
cannot be recognized "at all," in particular given the Kremlin's past
opposition to the entire concept of humanitarian intervention.
The list goes on. The report finds Russian allegations of genocide founded
in neither law nor evidence. In other words, they're not true. And whereas
the report does acknowledge a Russian right to protect its peacekeepers, it
finds that Moscow's response "cannot be regarded as even remotely
commensurate with the threat to Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia." On
the other hand, it faults Russia for failing to intervene against the
ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetia and Abkhazia that took
place during and after the war. Finally, it castigates Russia's recognition
of the independence of the two breakaway territories as illegal, and as a
dangerous erosion of the principles of international law.
In sum, the official EU inquiry found that none of Russia's various
justifications for its invasion of Georgia hold water, and also faults
Russia's behavior following the conflict, as Moscow continues to be in
material breach of the EU-negotiated cease-fire agreement. While the report
will be of great use to historians, its main implications should concern
the present, because just as the war did not begin in August 2008, the
conflict between Russia and Georgia is not over. While the war's military
phase only lasted a few weeks, it continues in the diplomatic, political,
and economic realms. Russia successfully evicted the international
community from the conflict zones and expanded its military presence in
Abkhazia and South Ossetia, building large bases there. Its economic
warfare against Georgia continues, as does its efforts at subversion inside
the country. Most importantly, Russia's stated objective of regime change
and the effective termination of Georgia's sovereignty goes on.
This conflict continues to destabilize a part of Europe to which the West
has so far not paid sufficient attention. The EU, now engaged also on the
ground in Georgia, must go beyond reluctantly accepting, as it has, that
this conflict is a European problem. It needs to overcome its internal
divisions and pursue a cohesive strategy toward Georgia—one that takes its
basis in the country's European identity and aspirations, as well as its
right to sovereignty and security. As for the White House, it would ignore
at its own peril one of the EU report's final conclusions: "Notions such as
privileged spheres of interest...are irreconcilable with international law.
They are dangerous to international peace and stability. They should be
And doing so will take more than words and the scrapping of missile
shields—it will take the type of serious engagement that neither the EU not
the U.S. have so far been willing to pursue.
Mr. Svante E. Cornell is research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus
Institute at Johns Hopkins University-Sais and director of the Institute
for Security and Development Policy, and co-editor of "The Guns of August
2008: Russia's War in Georgia" (M.E. Sharpe, 2009).
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