Misreading Ossetia -- Chronology Matters
Georgian army rocket batteries firing on Ossetian cities and villages Friday, August 8. As the result of this bombardment, 1,400 civilians, including women and children, and 10 Russian peacekeepers died the first night of the Georgian attack. Hours later, Russian troops responded to protect Russian citizens and soldiers in the region.
"In addition to promoting the anti-science hoax of 'intelligent design,' the Discovery Institute runs a pro-Russian site called 'Russia Blog,' and today they come out in favour of Russia's brutal assault on the breakaway republic of South Ossetia".
As a contributor to this blog, I want to answer Mr. Johnson's guilt-by-association allegation. I personally have no use for "intelligent design" or other claims against evolution, but one would search Russia Blog's website in vain for any mention of this topic. And Mr. Johnson's characterization of "Russia's brutal assault on the breakaway republic of South Ossetia" gets it exactly backwards. Chronology is the key: it tells you here, as it so often does (in evolution as well) what is actually happening.
South Ossetian refugees boarding buses for Russia last week
(Photo by: Russia's NTV network)
As to the long lead up to this latest attack by Georgia on an area it considers part of its territory, I refer you to this from the Times of London. While it misses out the second invasion by Georgia of South Ossetia in 2006 (small and very short-lived but remembered there) and the first independence referendum of 1992, it is reasonably fair.
As to the most recent events, here is the actual chronology.
On Thursday August 7, 2008, President Saakashvili of Georgia went on TV and addressed his country. There had been outbreaks of shooting in South Ossetia for some weeks. Who started it this time? Who knows? Each side always points to something earlier and it all goes back to the early 1990s. Saakashvili declared a ceasefire, announced that he was sending someone to negotiate and then said this about Russia: "I have been proposing and I am proposing Russia act as a guarantor of South Ossetian autonomy within Georgia." And "Georgia is a natural ally of Russia". Saakashvili expressed his "love" for Ossetians. (here is a Georgian source for the text.)
On Friday, about 24 hours later, Saakashvili announced that Georgian forces controlled most of South Ossetia and had "liberated" most of the capital Tskhinvali. (And here is a Georgian source for that). As justification for this sudden change, Saakashvili claimed the ceasefire had not held and that Russian aircraft had attacked Georgian troops. But, obviously, the Georgian invasion had been long prepared -- and was probably underway while he was making the first speech.
Two rather different statements in a mere 24 hours. This is what happened in the meantime: at about midnight Thursday/Friday local time Georgian forces opened fire, See this BBC film. In case you don't know what you are watching, they are multiple-launch rocket systems, most likely what NATO designated BM-21s. They are extremely inaccurate and, by all reports, were fired into the town of Tskhinvali. According to the South Ossetia authorities, nearly one and a half thousand people, mostly civilians, have been killed. A strange way for Saakashvili to embody this moving thought from his first speech:
"I love Ossetians as a President and as a ordinary citizen of this country. I admire and respect Ossetian history and culture. Every ethnic Ossetian has been an inseparable part of Georgian history for centuries. We are proud of you and our unity. Georgia is strong for its diversity. Georgia has never been and will never be a mono-ethnic country. Georgia belongs to all of us regardless of our ethnicity. Let's take care of our country together. Let's together avoid the violence. Let's work together for a better future. Let's forget everything negative that has happened in the past and let's together think about our common future."
Among those killed in the initial assault were Russian peacekeeping troops who were there as part of an agreement Tbilisi signed after the first war in the 1990s and recognized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), by the way. (Here is a background essay on the OSCE deployment from the U.S. State Department). Then Russian reinforcements entered South Ossetia -- to, it should be clear, the great relief and jubiliation of the population, several thousand of whom have fled across the Russian border into neighboring North Ossetia.
Moscow has three motives for striking back hard: the last time Georgia went adventuring into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a lot of people from the Russian Caucasus went down there to fight, including Shamil Basayev, who led a group of Chechens. Basayev later came back to Russia to start trouble and the first Chechen War began. Mr Johnson knows who Shamil Basayev was. Next, Russia is legally obligated to try and keep the peace in South Ossetia. Finally, a number of Russian soldiers were killed - according to Moscow, directly targeted by the Georgians who were serving alongside them in the South Ossetia peacekeeping force. Whether or not that proves to be true, there is no doubt that several Russian peacekeeping troops were killed by Georgian artillery fire.
Russian forces began entering South Ossetia on Friday evening and here we are today.
Here, by the way, is the official Russian mission statement from the Interfax News service:
MOSCOW. Aug 8 (Interfax) - Formations of the 58th army in the outskirts of Tskhinvali have suppressed the Georgian firing positions that shelled the city and the positions of Russian peacekeepers, assistant to the commander of the Russian Ground Forces Col. Igor Konashenkov said to Interfax-AVN on Friday. "The firing positions of Georgian troops that had shelled the city of Tskhinvali and the positions of peacekeeping forces were suppressed by the ordnance and tanks of formations of the 58th army stationed in the outskirts of the South Ossetian capital," he said. He said the Georgian side had used guns of the 122-mm and 155-mm calibers. "The Georgian troops that entered South Ossetia are within the range of the firepower of the 58th army units. In the future any shooting in the responsibility zone of Russian peacekeepers will be stifled," Konashenkov said.
Two easy observations give the lie to Saakashvili's second speech. He claimed that Russian aircraft were attacking Georgian soldiers on Thursday -- why then did the Georgian forces not space themselves out? That is the first thing soldiers do in such circumstances: they maintain a 50 meter spacing so that one bomb is not likely to take out more than one vehicle. The second easily observed fact is that the Russians had to move reinforcements into South Ossetia: if, as Saakashvili claimed, they started it, why weren't they there already?
The chronology makes what happened very clear: very shortly after President Saakashvili appealed for peace, Georgian forces opened indiscriminate fire on people he regards as Georgia's citizens. The Russian reinforcements entered nearly 24 hours later. Now Georgia is declaring that it is pulling out: the question is what on earth did Saakashvili think he was doing or would accomplish?
There is a certain resemblance to Kosovo here but Russia is not cast in the role of Serbia.
The truth is that the U.S. mainstream media is no better at covering Russia than it is at covering the war in Iraq, Israel-Palestine, President George W. Bush, or faked Texas Air National Guard memos. The same lazy imitation of existing memes operates here too, and Mr. Johnson should know better from his experience than to fall for them.
Patrick Armstrong received a PhD from Kings College, University of London, England in 1976 and retired in 2008 after 30 years as an analyst for the Canadian government. He was Political Counsellor for the Canadian Embassy in Moscow from 1993 to 1996. He has been a frequent speaker at the Wilton Park conferences in the UK.