A View from Russia: After Georgia

The violence in South Ossetia is a tragedy in itself. Yet its implications for U.S.-Russia relations—and issues like curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and nonproliferation—could prove even worse.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has ordered a halt to Russian military operations in Georgia. The decision came on Tuesday, just a few hours after another harsh warning by Washington for Moscow to pull its troops from Joseph Stalin's native land. Urgent calls to the Kremlin from numerous officials inside the Bush administration have been sent on a number of occasions since last weekend. Still Moscow seemed to be ignoring them. Yesterday Mr. Medvedev again maintained that he had made his decision on its merits and halted the operation because "the aggressor had been punished and had incurred very significant losses. Its armed forces were disorganized." In sharp contrast to most Western media outlets, most Russians see Georgia as the aggressor.

Diplomatic clashes between the West and Russia over what actually happened in the tiny breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia are doomed to go on, despite the much-needed halt to hostilities on the ground. The international community deserves to know who ordered a full-scale assault with multiple-rocket systems on residential quarters in Tskhinvali-the administrative center of South Ossetia-and why it was launched. The immediate civilian toll (according to initial Russian estimates approximately two thousand people died in Tskhinvali as a result of Georgian troops' actions) makes it both a moral and a legal obligation to make an international investigation to prove Moscow's claims that what happened in South Ossetia was genocide. Certainly it will take time to get evidence and make it available to international opinion. Meanwhile many in Russia are raising questions about a potential American role in the current crises in the Caucasus.

One can only wonder whether Washington was unaware of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's plan to subdue separatists in Tskhinvali by force. Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the UN, claimed that there were 127 Pentagon advisors working in Georgia and on August 7, just hours before Georgia attacked Tskhinvali, U.S. and Georgian forces had finished large military exercises, dubbed "Immediate Response." Moscow maintains that Americans trained and gave weapons to their Georgian ally. In an interview with the Moscow-based Nezavisimaya Gazeta that is to come out in Wednesday's issue, Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, said that an American representative blocked an emergency meeting of the Russia-NATO Council on Tuesday. Mr. Rogozin said he believed that the Americans simply didn't want him to ask tough questions about Washington's involvement in current developments in Georgia in the presence of European allies. The diplomat said the meeting would be held behind closed doors instead because Russia didn't want this information to become public. Rogozin claimed that sooner or later the NATO-Russia Council would stage such a meeting on South Ossetia.

Indeed, Russia seems to be losing patience with American diplomatic dance. Last Sunday U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad made public details of confidential diplomatic talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Mr. Khalilzad asked his Russian counterpart, Mr. Churkin, to comment on Mr. Lavrov's alleged statement that President Saakashvili "must go." Yesterday Lavrov fired back by revealing in a press conference that Dr. Rice "had tried to persuade" him "to avoid the words like ‘genocide' and ‘ethnic cleansing' in public comments by Russia about Saakashvili's actions in South Ossetia." She allegedly couldn't answer Lavrov's question of why Moscow should not do so if this very assessment of Tbilisi's record in South Ossetia was backed by witness accounts, including those from reporters.

Washington and Moscow have never enjoyed a deep mutual trust. Still this "leak" of confidential information by both sides shows that things could get even worse. Such a lack of trust between Moscow and Washington might have negative bilateral-if not global-implications at a time when both powers need to curb Iran's alleged aspirations in the nuclear sphere and to maintain strategic stability with the START agreement to expire next year.

Under these circumstances Moscow and Washington could take some confidence-building measures. Though it's clear that Russia is not happy with President Saakashvili it doesn't seem eager to topple the Georgian government-which if undertaken, would bring unprecedented complications to Russia's already-strained relations with the West. It is certainly up to the Georgians to decide who should govern them.

Russia is not blameless either, but at the very least Washington could give an objective public assessment of the tragedy in Tskhinvali. Such an assessment could be reflected in a future UN draft resolution on South Ossetia.

 

Andrey Terekhov is correspondent of the Moscow-based Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Daily, Moscow).