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Unknown details of August war

By Messenger Staff
Monday, January 18
At first glance there is nothing new to be reported about the August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. Everything was covered in detail. Many human stories from those involved have also been told. However there is a feeling that some details are still missing.

This feeling has been heightened since the publication of Ronald D. Asmus's latest book “A Little War That Shook the World”. Asmus, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, now runs the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund. He reveals some details of what happened just before the Russian attack was launched and the steps the US took. Some comments in the book undermine the US's image locally. This of course does not make Russia a more attractive option but it diminishes the West's attraction as well.

Georgians did not generally like the so-called ‘balanced policy’ conducted by former President Shevardnadze, who always steered a course between Russia and the West. This was particularly criticised by the Rose Revolution ideologists, who thought that as soon as Tbilisi took a clear cut Western orientation this would immediately result in Georgia joining NATO and the EU. Moreover the revolutionaries even gave us a date in which these things would happen, 2008, but unfortunately that year will be remembered for quite different events, which shattered not only the illusion of swift NATO and EU integration but many other hopes and dreams as well.

Georgia’s Western orientation was given a very strict test in August 2008. Unfortunately Georgians think that the extent of Western support to Georgia did not come near to matching the level of Russia's aggression, which was provoked by Tbilisi's same Western orientation.

What did this Western orientation actually consist of? How should the West have understood it? As Asmus explains in Georgia 'Western orientation' meant more than anything becoming an ally of the USA and this created some irritation in Western Europe, where Saakashvili was seen as someone ruled by the USA creating problems in Europe. Asmus concludes that during the war, the decisive point in its modern history, Georgia did not receive the adequate assistance from the US it had expected. Asmus considers that Russia was encouraged to start a war by President Bush, in particular during the Sochi meeting in April 2008, when Putin threatened Georgia and the US President did not respond, thereby inadvertantly giving the green light to Russia’s aggression. (Moreover, NATO’s refusal to grant Georgia and Ukraine MAP during the Bucharest summit of April, 2008 was one of the major factors which indirectly encouraged Russian aggression - The Messenger).

Putin was sure that Americans would not lift a finger. Asmus quotes a conversation between Saakashvili and Putin in February 2008, in which Putin asked whether the Americans could be trusted and would rush to help Georgia, advising Saakashvili to trust only him (Putin) and no one else.

Asmus’s book does not comment further on this, but we can speculate here. Maybe Saakashvili did trust Putin? There are some arguments to support this. In April 2008 Russian newspaper Kommersant published a letter in which Georgia offered to divide up Abkhazia with The Kremlin into spheres of interest. Both sides refused to confirm that this letter had existed, however after the August war Saakashvili indirectly confirmed that the suggestion had been made and maybe this gave the Georgian leadership confidence that Russia would not oppose Georgia’s attempt to reestablish constitutional order in South Ossetia in return.

Many analysts in Georgia and the West have said that Georgia was trapped into the war, however nothing is ever said about what the cheese in the trap was. Asmus’s book states that during the Russian aggression White House officials seriously considered small scale involvement in the conflict, for instance the bombardment of the Roki tunnel, but President Bush halted this discussion a few days after the beginning of the military operations at a special meeting at the White House as it was decided that US involvement in any form would trigger a confrontation with Moscow. So Georgia's only hope of support was the EU, and a text compiled by France was very much adopted by Moscow. Asmus suggests that American officials were surprised at the vagueness of the text of the Sarkozy-brokered ceasefire agreement. He says that Sarkozy insisted on Saakashvili signing the document immediately and asked him where Bush was. He said that the Americans were not coming, nor the Europeans, so Saakashvili was alone. If he did not sign the document soon Russian tanks would be in Tbilisi, said Sarkozy.

We want to believe that Asmus's book is a product of fact and not fantasy. But innumerable facts have been repeated by Georgian analysts many times. The expectation of serious US and Western support in a critical situation proved unfounded. The Georgian public's confidence in the West and the US has correspondingly decreased. Pro-Russian political forces are now manipulating such sentiments and attempting to reorient the country to the north. Maybe these developments are the consequence of Georgia’s leadership underestimating how unreal the public's expectations of the West were. But whatever the reasons, the facts are here.