The long awaited European Union-commissioned report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia was published last week. Unsurprisingly, it largely corroborates Georgian accounts of Russia’s August 2008 invasion while blaming Georgia for sparking the conflict.
Although this report is fast receding into obscurity, we should consider it carefully as an illustration of western woolly mindedness about Russian aggression with practical consequences for the future.
The report’s more than 1,100 pages are mostly written in a soporific on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand style that evokes a sense of diligence, if not veracity.
“Months of exhaustive investigation,” writes Meghan Stack in the Los Angeles Times, “appear to have done little to change the generally understood chain of events.” Even in the 21st Century, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot cut through the fog of war. The report repeatedly says that the Mission was unable independently to verify this or that claim.
There are also positive aspects to the report. It is packed with information, well organized and well written, offering lucid summaries of relevant history and background.
The report notes that Russia’s war on Georgia did not begin in 2008, but stretches back perhaps as far as 1989. It says that Russia’s “passportization” in the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was illegal. It mostly blames Russia for heightening tension last spring and summer. It refutes Moscow’s claim of Georgian genocide in South Ossetia. It confirms that the assault on Upper Abkhazia was illegal use of force. It says that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have no legal right to secede from Georgia and that Russia’s recognition of these territories as independent countries is unlawful interference in Georgia’s internal affairs.
The Mission’s words on events immediately surrounding Russia’s August 2008 invasion bear repetition:
There are a number of reports and publications, including of Russian origin, indicating the provision by the Russian side of training and military equipment to South Ossetian and Abkhaz forces prior to the August 2008 conflict. Additionally there seems to have been an influx of volunteers or mercenaries from the territory of the Russian Federation to South Ossetia through the Roki Tunnel and over the Caucasus range in early August, as well as the presence of some Russian forces in South Ossetia, other than the Russian [peacekeeping] battalion, prior to 1430 hours on 8 August 2008. Also it seems that the Russian Air Force started its operations against Georgian targets, including those outside South Ossetian administrative boundaries, already in the morning of 8 August, i.e. prior to the time given in the Russian official information. The Russian Air Force reportedly started its attacks in central Georgia.
Despite all this, the Mission was “not in a position to consider as sufficiently substantiated the Georgian claim concerning a large-scale Russian military incursion into South Ossetia before 8 August 2008.”
Then the report leaps incongruously to “the question of whether the use of force by Georgia in South Ossetia, beginning with the shelling of Tskhinvali during the night of 7/8 August 2008 was justifiable under international law. It was not.”
Unable to ascertain the facts regarding the Russian invasion, the Mission arrogated to itself the decision on whether the invasion was sufficiently “large-scale” to warrant the Georgian military reaction!
The report continues, “It could also not be verified that Russia was on the verge of such a major attack.”
Maybe it was late and the Mission authors were tired when they wrote these passages, but a quick morning reread should have rubbished them. A foreign power training and equipping rebel forces, prepositioning military equipment and supplies, introducing regular and irregular forces and conducting air strikes is an invasion. Georgia has no obligation to establish that it was “large-scale,” although reasonable people would likely agree that airstrikes upon Georgian targets beyond South Ossetia indicate a “large-scale” attack.
Moreover, there is no doubt that Russia was on the verge of a major attack because that is precisely what ensued! Had there been a military logistician among the Mission experts, he or she would have explained that the Russian attack had been prepared for months.
The Mission report’s even-handedness obscures the truth: in August 2008, Russia launched a well and long prepared massive invasion of tiny Georgia. This woolly-minded approach is not only unfair to Georgia, but it also leads directly to adverse consequences for broader western security.
Reading the EU-commissioned report, Russia (and others) may perceive that the west will tolerate aggression so long as it can rationalize that an attack is not “large-scale.” This raises a challenge to NATO—will allies dither over the scale of an attack while, say, Estonia is overrun? And what hope is there for preventive diplomacy so long as we are unwilling to call an invasion an invasion?
David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington. This essay was previously published in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.