Who Really Started the Russian-Georgian Conflict?

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.

The Kremlin has tried to focus on a minor aspect of the story, which it finds extremely convenient for propaganda purposes; namely, indications in the leaked documents from OSCE that its investigators have no independent verification that Ossetian guns were inflicting "heavy" bombardment on Georgian territory in the hours before Georgia invaded. Russians are claiming this "proves" Georgia acted without sufficient provocation. That's simply false.

Ace journalist Michael Totten, reporting from ground zero in Georgia, has documented the Ossetian initial attack in detail. The Moscow Times reported Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, who chairs the OSCE, complaining that "the organization had only three observers in South Ossetia when the war erupted in August" and stating: "It's not my job to make the judgment on who started the war, or how it actually started. The OSCE isn't an intelligence service. Our instruments are, unfortunately, very limited." So much for the relying on the OSCE.

Even the Times report admits that the OSCE leaks are "neither fully conclusive nor broad enough to settle the many lingering disputes over blame in a war" because "monitoring activities in certain areas at certain times cannot be taken in isolation to provide a comprehensive account." And regardless of what was happening on the ground in the hours before Georgia moved in, nobody -- not even the Kremlin itself -- can or does deny that Ossetian rebels had been repeatedly shelling Georgian territory. Indeed, on several occasions Russian "peacekeepers" -- who are in fact cleary partisans of the Ossetians -- attacked Georgian surveillance aircraft, resulting in a formal censure from the United Nations. Georgia has no obligation to submit the case of Ossetian shelling to outside arbiters in order to determine whether the bombardment was "heavy" or "light" and whether it justified action to defend Georgia's basic national security within its own territory. Russia's own actions in Chechnya clearly establish that precedent.

But little things like facts have never been seen as insurmountable obstacles in KGB-run Russia, and the Kremlin's friends and appeasers unsurprisingly rushed to make hay out of the reports. Back in September (Part I, Part II), I criticized some reporting from Wired magazine's "war correspondent" David Axe which used the bogus and unsupported statements of an undisclosed Kremlin shill to impugn Georgia's actions in the war. No sooner had the Times story emerged than Wired was trying to use it to cover its tracks since Mr. Axe proved totally unable to refute the substance of my criticism. In doing so, Wired wildly mischaracterizes both the claims Axe made and the criticism I made of those claims -- eerily, in the manner of Soviet propaganda.

Now, Wired's Noah Shachtman, citing the Times report, states: "Our own David Axe was called a 'Kremlin dupe' for daring to suggest in September that the narrative of the Russia-Georgia war was more complicated than it at first appeared. Now, it's starting to look like his accusers were the ones who were duped." Shachtman has totally mischaracterized both Axe's reporting and my own. Axe didn't say that Georgia was "more complicated" that it appeared. If that's all he said, I wouldn't have cared. He said that the mere fact that Georgians used artillery proved Georgia had prepared for and provoked the war and proved Russia was correct to intervene. (Axe later cited Vladimir Putin's response to Western criticism with approval.)

He cited nobody with military credentials in support of his claim. Rather, he cited a known Russophile without disclosing that fact to his readers -- a shill whose report was riddled with factual errors and obvious inconsistencies that Axe chose to ignore. That's what I criticized Axe for, and even Axe himself has not attempted to refute those points. Instead of apologizing and correcting the record, however, Wired is now trying to change the subject and rewrite its own history, using equally bogus claims to do so. Shachtman reported on the UN's findings condemning Russian aggression, and that action alone is an act of war to which Georgia had every right to respond. Apparently, Shachtman's memory isn't long enough to recall that.

Another similar effort to propagandize in Russia's favor was made by radical left-wing journalist Seamus Milne based on a BBC report that mirrored the OSCE information. We've dealt with Milne's misstatements in detail over at my Russia blog La Russophobe. In short, Milne mischaracterizes a reporting by BBC journalist Tim Whewell, ignoring a litany of outrages committed by Russia and focusing on the same narrow issue of stray artillery shots. Here's what Whewell wrote more recently, in a piece for the New Statesman:

Reach Tskhinvali and you find a place that, for all the gaping holes in walls and roofs, is still largely standing and working. On a first visit, it is hard not to be more shocked by what has happened to the ethnic Georgian villages on the edge of the town. After revenge attacks by Ossetian militias since the war, they are collections of burnt-out shells, some houses apparently even bulldozed by the authorities.The true extent of Ossetian suffering has been much harder to fathom. Even the territory's main independent human rights group has been surprisingly slow to document civilian deaths during the fighting. The local prosecutor's office puts the number at about 150.

The Kremlin, you will remember, claimed Tskhinvali was leveled and that 2,000 Ossitians were killed. It was, quite simply, lying.

If Georgia was careless in its attack on Ossetia, it should be sanctioned by the international community right along with Russia on that charge. But anyone who attempts to use that claim to shield Russia from blame for a much larger atrocity -- invading Georgia proper and annexing both Ossetia and Abkhazia -- is doing nothing less than acting as a de facto Russian spy. As the new cold war expands apace, with Russia threatening to install offensive nuclear missiles in the enclave of Kaliningrad, annexed by the Soviet army in much the same way Russia annexed Ossetia, our vigilance against this menace must also expand to meet the challenge.

Russia's lies about what happened on the ground during the war give its game away, and its behavior after the war ended put the final nails in its coffin of deceit. When, for instance, a leading Russian professor of history published a newspaper article questioning whether the Kremlin provoked the Georgia war as part of an imperialistic design, not only the professor but the editor of the paper were both fired -- and then the professor, Boris Sokolov, lost his teaching job as well. This has been Russia's response to the war from the beginning; crackdown and cover-up. And it's not the response of a nation that stands on the moral high ground. Meanwhile, the Kremlin's friends and appeasers are rushing to give the KGB regime cover.

"Not surprising" indeed.