EU INQUIRY REJECTS RUSSIA’S JUSTIFICATIONS FOR GEORGIA WAR
The release of a much anticipated EU-commissioned report into the causes of the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 predictably spread the blame for the conflict around. Georgia got its share of the blame, but the text of the report is devastating to Russia’s narrative of the conflict. The Report faulted Georgia for its attack on Tskhinvali; but summarily and bluntly dismisses the entire Russian justification for its subsequent invasion, as well as its recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Importantly, the report also warns against the dangers of the accepting rhetoric of ‘spheres of influence’. Whether this will result in any tangible implications remains more doubtful.
BACKGROUND: Assisted by a small army of experts, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini has spent close to a year investigating the origins and course of the Russian-Georgian war. Tagliavini’s report itself is moderate in size, consisting of 40 pages, but it is supplemented by a 450-page addendum of historical, humanitarian, legal and political analyses by members of her group, as well as a further 600 pages of appendices (mainly documents provided by the conflicting parties). Given its size and the subject matter, the report will undoubtedly be the subject of great debate and controversy.
Predictably, both sides have claimed that it vindicates their version of events. Russian officials and media draw attention to the report’s conclusion that Georgia’s attack on Tskhinvali ‘started’ the war; while Georgian officials have pointed to the considerable attention given to Russia’s preparations for the war, going so far as to state that “almost all of the facts in the report confirm the Georgian version of events.”
The immediate media coverage centered on the seeming confirmation of a familiar narrative: Georgia started the war, but Russia provoked it. But in fact, sound bites aside, the text of the report makes interesting reading. It is not uncontroversial, as certain omissions and nuances appear tailored to political correctness. Nevertheless, on the whole, any reader of the report will find that the Commission apportions an overwhelming part of the responsibility of the conflict to the Russian government. In fact, it practically rejects every item in the Russian narrative of the conflict in language that is surprisingly blunt.
Tagliavini’s report does state that Georgia started the war. That should not be confused with the question of responsibility. Indeed, the report acknowledges that firing the first shot does not necessarily mean bearing responsibility for the conflict, as it concluded that “there is no way to assign overall responsibility for the conflict to one side alone.” (Para. 36) Indeed, the report details at length the extended series of Russian provocations, accelerating in the spring of 2008, that precipitated the war.
The report faults Georgia for the weakness of the legal basis of its attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on the night of August 7-8, and for the use of what it terms indiscriminate force there. The legal argument nevertheless requires closer scrutiny: the mission argues that Georgia was bound by agreements not to use force, but fails to discuss their validity if broken by either the South Ossetian side or by Russia. More poignantly, Tagliavini argues that any Georgian “armed response to … South Ossetian attacks against Georgian populated villages … would have to be both necessary and proportional,” concluding that the massive magnitude of the military action makes that argument untenable. This argument is powerful, and suffers only from one weakness: it fails to consider the far-going unification, in practice and in theory, of South Ossetian and Russian military forces. Indeed, for several years prior to the war, South Ossetia’s Defense Minister had been Russian General Vasily Lunev, a career Russian military officer with no ties whatsoever to South Ossetia. A glaring omission in the report is its failure to discuss the Russian staffing of high government posts in the breakaway republics, and its international legal implications. The fact that this is largely uncharted legal territory possibly deterred the mission from discussing the issue.
A crucial question, of course, is the report’s take on Georgia’s claim that it was responding to a Russian invasion. On this point, Tagliavini equivocates: the mission is “not in a position” to consider the Georgian claims “sufficiently substantiated,” it says in para. 16. This is clearly an exercise in semantics, since the next sentences acknowledge Russian provision of 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. In this context, Tagliavini appears to have failed to take account of the considerable body of evidence accumulated by scholars such as Andrei Illarionov.
IMPLICATIONS: The main thrust of the report is 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 mission roundly dismisses all of these claims.
The EU report finds that Russia’s distribution of passports to Abkhazians and Ossetians in the years prior to the war was illegal. Specifically, para. 12 states that “the vast majority of purportedly naturalised persons from South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not Russian nationals in terms of international law. Neither Georgia nor any third country need acknowledge such Russian nationality”, adding that “the mass conferral of Russian citizenship to Georgian nationals … constitutes an open challenge to Georgian sovereignty and an interference in the internal affairs of Georgia.” Consequently, the report finds that Russia’s rationale of rescuing its citizens is invalid, since they simply were not legally Russian citizens.
The report also rejects Russia’s claim of having undertaken an humanitarian intervention. Taking note of the extremely limited circumstances under which such interventions may be legally acceptable, it recalls Russia’s consistent opposition to the entire concept of humanitarian intervention, and reaches a blunt conclusion: “In such a constellation, a humanitarian intervention is not recognised at all.” (para. 22)
The list goes on. The reports summarily dismisses Russian allegations of genocide, noting that these were “neither founded in law nor substantiated by factual evidence.” 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.
The report does acknowledge a Russian right to protect its peacekeepers in South Ossetia, a conclusion that could be questioned given the established presence of other Russian-controlled armed forces on Georgian territory at the time. Of course, had Georgia not bent to pressure from its Western allies and followed through on its intention to declare the peacekeeping forces illegal in June 2008, this argument would have been moot. Nevertheless, the mission concludes that “much of the Russian military action went far beyond the reasonable limits of defence.” (para. 21) in particular, the report notes the unprovoked opening of a second front in Abkhazia, terming it “an armed attack against Georgia in the sense of Article 51 of the UN Charter.” However, the report fails to discuss whether this attack was premeditated, as is widely assumed given the speed with which it occurred, or constituted a reaction to the events in South Ossetia. Nevertheless, Tagliavini again uses blunt terms: Russia’s response “cannot be regarded as even remotely commensurate with the threat to Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.”
Finally, the mission considered the question of Russia’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and its conclusion is worth quoting in full: “South Ossetia did not have a right to secede from Georgia, and the same holds true for Abkhazia for much of the same reasons. Recognition of breakaway entities such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia by a third country is consequently contrary to international law in terms of an unlawful interference in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the affected country.”
Another important aspect of the Missions is that it did not refrain from taking stock of the failure of the international community’s efforts to address the crisis: “there had been no adequate reaction by the international community which would have been both timely and vigorous enough to contain the continuing build-up of tensions and the increasing threat of armed conflict.” (Observations, para. 2) Indeed, this constitutes one of the international community’s first acknowledgments of its failures in conflict resolution in the South Caucasus and the tragic consequences of this failure.
CONCLUSIONS: While elements of the official EU inquiry into the war in Georgia could be the subject of criticism, on the whole it must be commended as a work undertaken with considerable integrity. The report clearly provides uncomfortable conclusions for all parties – Russia, Georgia, the two breakaway republics, and the West. Nevertheless, it is equally apparent that its most scathing criticism is reserved for Russia’s role in the conflict. Significantly, the report found that Russia had long been purposefully engaging in provocations against Georgia and unlawful intervention in its internal affairs, and that none of Moscow’s various justifications for its invasion of Georgia hold water. Moreover, the report goes on to fault Russia’s behavior following the conflict, as it continues to be in material breach of the EU-negotiated cease-fire agreement.
While the EU report will be of great use to historians, its main implications should concern the present. This is the case because the conflict between Russia and Georgia is not over. While its overt military phase only lasted a few weeks, it continues in the diplomatic, political and economic realms. It is destabilizing a part of Europe that the both the EU and the Obama administration have so far failed to pay sufficient attention to. They will ignore only at their own peril one of the 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 rejected”. And doing so will take more than either the United States or the European Union presently appear prepared to do. It is to be hoped that this report will change that; nevertheless, it is equally likely that the West will shrug it off and move on.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Svante E. Cornell is Editor of the CACI Analyst, and Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. He is co-editor of the recently released The Guns of August 2009: Russia’s War in Georgia, published by M.E. Sharpe.