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Who Really Started the Russian-Georgian Conflict?

Leaks from a report by a group investigating Moscow's aggression add fuel to a controversy.

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November 28, 2008 - 11:50 am
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At a time when its circulation and share price are in freefall, you know that if a New York Times editorial gives even a backhanded criticism of a news story the paper has reported, the story is highly dubious to say the least.

So when a recent Times editorial referred to as “not surprising” supposed revelations in a news story several days earlier providing updates on Russia’s August invasion of Georgia, attentive readers immediately understood what a tempest in a teapot the story really must have been.

The story’s big “scoop” (based on leaked documents from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is investigating the August war and has not yet issued any formal findings) was that war is hell. It was shocked to find that the Georgian artillery barrage fired in early August to silence the attacks of the Ossetian rebels against Georgian territory were not carried out with the same laser-guided precision as those the Americans saw their own military use during the assault on Baghdad.

“Not surprising” is a mighty understatement.

Tiny Georgia does not rank in the top 100 nations of the world for per capita GDP, and its desperate pleas for inclusion in the ranks of NATO have so far been cruelly rebuffed. Georgia doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing what weapons systems to employ in battle, especially not when it is being menaced by its gigantic neighbor to the north, KGB-ruled Russia. For the OSCE, which has totally failed to take any action to protect Georgian sovereignty or to stand against the obliteration of democracy in Russia as its mandate calls upon it to do, to expect Georgia to react with calm and precise deliberation as it sees Russia move to lop off huge swaths of its limited territory may be just a bit unrealistic.

To be sure, though, as a NATO pretender Georgia must be called to account if it acted with indifference to civilian lives, just as any civilized nation would be. But with all its technology America has accidentally killed many civilians in Iraq, and Georgia accidentally killed far fewer civilians (the Times report documents less than a dozen such cases) in Ossetia . Russian forces killed at least as many civilians, if not more, when they attacked. War is hell, and any war violates human rights. As the Times own editorial makes clear, this “doesn’t justify Moscow’s brutal invasion” of Georgia proper even if Russia sought to use civilian casualties as the pretext for that invasion, which it hasn’t  done. If Russia had acknowledged and supported Georgia’s right to quell the Ossetian rebels with military force (just as Russia did in Chechnya), and invaded only because it saw Georgia being reckless with its weaponry and refusing Russian demands to desist, the world might have approved Russia’s actions.

But that’s not what happened. Russia moved into Ossetia, after massing forces on Georgia’s border well in advance and repeatedly shooting down Georgian surveillance aircraft, all the while doing nothing as a so-called “peacekeeper” in the region to impel the Ossetian rebels to stand down. A new report from Amnesty International confirms that Russia did nothing to control the Ossetian attacks on Georgia, and condemns Russia’s partisanship in this regard. It also confirms Russia was guilty of at least as many human rights violations as were the Georgians. It invaded Georgia not to save a few Ossetian civilians but to drive Georgia out of Ossetia once and for all, and to seize that territory for itself. Simultaneously, Russia occupied the separate region of Abkhazia, into which Georgia had not set a single toe or fired a single bullet. On top of that, Russia invaded Georgia proper, including the seizure of a naval base on Georgia’s remote sea coast. In the process, Russia killed scores of Georgian civilians using cluster munitions, and has been condemned for doing so by Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch, to be sure, has also condemned Georgia — for using Grad rockets against Ossetia. HRW believes that Grad rockets are too inaccurate to be used in close proximity to civilian populations, and condemns their use for that reason alone. HRW doesn’t care whether Georgia has any alternatives in its arsenal to the Grad; if it lacks them, apparently, HRW would have Georgia submit to Russian aggression rather than defend itself, a rather harsh position indeed.

So even the Kremlin’s propagandists are ignoring the main thrust of the Times report, because they know full well that they are guilty of at least as much reckless disregard for civilian life as the Georgians. Indeed, Russian forces likely inflicted a great deal of the damage that was done in Ossetia as they used overwhelming firepower to drive the Georgian invaders out.

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