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A war report short on facts and weak on findings

Commentary, 5 October 2009
Law and Ethics, Europe
The long-awaited European Union investigation into last year's war between Russia and Georgia ignored the real context of the conflict - resulting in a banal and simplistic report that has failed to fulfil its intended purpose.

Russia Georgia War soldiers

The long-awaited European Union investigation into last year's war between Russia and Georgia ignored the real context of the conflict - resulting in a banal and simplistic report that has failed to fulfil its intended purpose.

By Jonathan Eyal, Director, International Security Studies, RUSI

No less that thirty experts, labouring intensely for nine months at a cost of millions of Euros, have finally produced what has been touted as the definitive inquiry of the short, nasty war between Georgia and Russia which erupted in August last year.

Heidi Tagliavini, the Swiss diplomat in charge of the "Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia" is evidently proud of her work. A door-stopper 1,000-page account released last week, the report analyses every tiny detail of that crisis. But Ms Tagliavani's conclusions are utterly banal: that both Georgia and Russia are responsible for that war, both violated international law, and that all protagonists now need to pay greater heed to humanitarian concerns.

Ms Tagliavini did not do herself any favours with her subsequent media comments. In an article for the New York Times on 1 October, she wrote that her report "shows that the forces of unilateralism and violence are still very much a part of Europe's political landscape. A stable European order has to be based on the rule of law and a genuine commitment to multilateralism".  Perhaps all of these things amount to a revelation for the residents of some serene Swiss Alpine resort but, among lesser humans, such conclusions have been self-evident for at least a few decades.

Few diplomats ever accepted at face value the explanation offered by Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, who claimed that he ordered his troops to shell the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on August 7-8 2008 in response to a Russian "invasion". Every government around the world knew from the start that there was no such Russian invasion, and that President Saakashvili had simply embarked on a military adventure to recapture the South Ossetian enclave; probably because he believed that he could get away with this, and that the Russians would not retaliate. It was, of course, a foolish decision, and Ms Tagliavini's report is correct in laying the blame for the start of the conflict on Georgia's "penchant for overplaying its hand and acting in the heat of the moment without careful consideration of the final outcome".

But that, in many respects, was the easy bit; the real task of the fact-finding mission was to consider the entire sequence of events which led to Georgia's disastrous decision. Here the Tagliavini mission failed, and lamentably.

Russian 'peacekeeping'

The report rejects the Georgian contention that Russian troops in South Ossetia were acting in "flagrant violation" of their peacekeeping duties. But, confusingly, the report also notes information indicating that Russia provided both training and military equipment to Abkhazian and South Ossetian separatists before the start of the war. The report also accepts that there were many instances of cross-border incursions from these separatist enclaves into Georgia.

This raises two possibilities: either Ms Tagliavini is blissfully unaware of what a true "peacekeeping" operation is, or she has a different definition of this concept. By any accepted standard of international practice, a peacekeeping force should enjoy the consent and trust of all the protagonists and, at the very least, should refrain from supplying weapons to either side. That, by the report's own admission, the Russian forces in the enclaves singularly failed to do. Indeed, Moscow went further than just military assistance to the rebels: it actually bestowed Russian passports on all the residents of the separatist enclaves. This was a prelude to the Russian claim that it was acting in defence of its own citizens. Ms Tagliavini's report duly criticises this practice but, somehow, fails to consider that such actions compromised Russia's peacekeeping role in the region.

In another curious twist, the report discounted allegations of a Russian military build-up in the months preceding the start of the war, apparently for want of evidence. But it is a well-known fact - admitted by Moscow itself - that the Russian response to the Georgian offensive was instant and massive. It included troops usually stationed in Russia's Leningrad military district on the Baltic Sea, thousands of miles away from the conflict. Large columns of battle tanks were seen streaming into Georgia on the first day of the war. The Russian Navy was also in close proximity to Georgia's shores.

Were all these military assets in the Caucasus by sheer chance? Not very likely: most of them were prepositioned on Georgia's borders well in advance. Ms Tagliavini fails to acknowledge what every Western government knows: that a short military campaign to "discipline" Georgia was precisely what Russia planned for, and that the Georgians simply walked into the trap. Ms Tagliavini and her co-workers seem to adhere to a rigid interpretation of international law, according to which the guilty party is the one who fires the first shot. But there are plenty of equally good international lawyers who would argue that the whole sequence of provocations should be taken into account. In short, the Tagliavini "fact-finding" report is short on facts and weak on findings.

A quasi-scientific exercise

And then, there are broader questions about the utility of the entire exercise. Ms Tagliavini, the consummate diplomat with a long previous experience in the region, tries to impart a quasi-scientific character to her enterprise: supposedly, her aim is simply to sift through facts, and draw conclusions which may be pertinent for avoiding or handling similar tragedies in the future. But the exercise is not about writing history, and the report has failed in all its other objectives.

It is now forgotten that the entire operation to investigate the origins of the Georgian war only came about at the insistence of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's outgoing Foreign Minister. Mr Steinmeier, who started his political career as a close associate of Gerhard Schroeder - the previous German Chancellor, and now full-time employee of Russian gas companies - has inherited from his former boss the idea that Russia must be embraced at all times, regardless of what it does. So, immediately after the Georgian war ended and when many EU member states wanted to downgrade relations with Russia, Mr Steinmeier demanded a commission of inquiry into the origins of the war, with the obvious hope that this would lay the blame on Georgia, and thereby absolve Europe of responsibility to take action.

But the report came too late for Mr Steinmeier: he recently led his German Socialist Party to its worst electoral defeat in modern history. So, the man who stood to benefit most from the exercise is now nowhere to be seen. Lithuanian foreign minister Vyguadas Usackas spoke for many EU member states in Eastern Europe when he remarked last week that the report was a "mistake" from beginning to end.

One could make a good case that this does not matter: ascertaining the facts is a worthy enterprise in itself, especially if it can promote a more measured debate between the protagonists in the conflict. But this is most certainly not the case. Both Georgia and Russia have used the report only to cherry-pick  the bits which suited their existing arguments. The Russians were elated with the finding that Georgia started the shooting, despite the fact that this was never in doubt. But the Georgians were also happy with the conclusions of the report which rejected Russia's indiscriminate bombing, its excessive use of force, or Moscow's claims that it acted in order to prevent "genocide". Far from promoting any accommodation or dialogue between enemies, the report simply scratched their old wounds.

The US connection

What about the long-term conclusions? Ms Tagliavini and her colleagues wax lyrical about the need for "more timely and more determined efforts to control an emerging crisis situation, and in such situations a more sustained engagement is needed from the international community and especially the UN Security Council, as well as by important regional and non-regional actors". All very true: Georgia's separatist enclaves disturbed regional peace for decades, but most governments simply ignored their condition, classifying the entire problem as a "frozen conflict".

However, apart from vague appeals for "sustained engagement", what is Ms Tagliavini proposing? How can the UN Security Council remain engaged if Russia never hesitates to use its veto precisely in order to prevent any engagement? And how can there be any meaningful engagement in a conflict in which Russia is both part of the problem and, supposedly, part of the solution, and where Russian troops act as both poachers and gamekeepers? If the report attempted to answer even one of these questions, it would have justified all its expense. Yet no answers are provided.

Furthermore, there is no discussion on another significant detail: what the US knew about the impending war, and how US policies may have contributed to the conflict. The Bush administration strenuously denied allegations that it may have given Georgian President Saakashvili the green light for the offensive, or that it even knew about it beforehand. This denial rings true: when the war started, Washington struggled to find an adequate response, as President Bush was in Beijing attending the Olympic Games.

Nevertheless, it is also a fact that Washington armed the Georgian forces for years, and that Bush pushed hard for Georgia's admission into NATO only a few months before, during NATO's 2008 Bucharest summit. There is no question that America's strident advocacy for Georgia - and President Bush's public failure to get Georgia admitted into NATO - were contributing factors to the war. Paradoxically, US behaviour encouraged the Georgians to push harder, but also emboldened Moscow to "discipline" the Georgians. One looks in vain for any serious analysis of this chain of events in the Tagliavini findings. Indeed, the section of the report which deals with the international repercussions of the conflict reads as though it was tagged on as just an afterthought. The report lacks critical analysis and fails to appreciate the wider context of the conflict.

All in all, a lot of money, a lot of effort, but a big wasted opportunity. The episode is just another reminder that politicians and diplomats should leave history to historians, and fact-finding to genuine forensic experts.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Photo credit: Flickr/Antoni SHEN. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Author

Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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