Missiles Over Tskhinvali

Missiles Over Tskhinvali

Mini Teaser: Last summer, Russia and Georgia came to blows. Tbilisi’s pro-American president believed NATO would protect him in a fight with the big, bad bear.

by Author(s): Thomas de Waal

Ronald D. Asmus, A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 272 pp., $27.00.


[amazon 0230617735 full] AT 8 PM on March 13, a leading television channel in Georgia sent the country back to war. The half-hour broadcast on pro-government Imedi TV unveiled a terrifying scenario for its viewers: Russian tanks were rolling toward the capital, Tbilisi, aiming to complete the unfinished business of August 2008, when Moscow brought Georgia to its knees in a conflict over the breakaway province of South Ossetia; President Mikheil Saakashvili had either fled or been killed; a "people's government" loyal to Moscow was now in charge, led by two former Georgian officials who had recently crossed over to the opposition; and three army battalions had joined the Russians.

This was all a virtual reality. Soon thereafter, an anchor stepped out into the studio audience and announced that the entire episode had been a hoax designed to remind everyone of just what their future might hold. The supposedly live images, including a vindictive President Medvedev, President Obama apparently expressing alarm, and statements from the British and French ambassadors in Tbilisi, had all been recut from footage of the earlier conflict. But thousands of ordinary people, especially outside of the capital where there are few alternative news sources, genuinely believed their country was at war once again; there were reports of panic and overloaded mobile-telephone networks. A friend of a friend went into premature labor. Crowds gathered to protest the program outside Imedi's headquarters.

The next day, speaking to residents in a small town near the capital, President Saakashvili distanced himself from the mock-up war, arguing that Imedi should have screened a caption warning viewers it was only a hoax. But he quickly backtracked, supporting the stunt by saying, "The major unpleasant thing about yesterday's report-and I want people to understand this well-was that it's extremely close to what could really happen, and to what Georgia's enemy keeps in mind."

The plot thickened further when a recording of a tapped telephone conversation, apparently between Imedi head Giorgi Arveladze and his deputy, was posted on the Web site www.copoka.net with a Russian transcript. Arveladze, who used to be a close aide of Saakashvili, was heard to say that the president had approved the broadcast and indeed had opposed a disclaimer caption being screened, because "If we do so, then it will lose all its flavor." The two executives denied that they had this conversation, and Georgian officials alleged the tape was a fabrication by the Russian security services.

During these three days, the collective blood pressure of the Georgian nation, already high, shot up even further. It is unlikely to subside anytime soon. Whether or not Saakashvili directly approved the fake broadcast-given his closeness to Arveladze, it is hard to believe he did not sanction it-the Georgian leader has made the "Russia threat" the defining theme of his remaining three years as president. He routinely warns Georgians that they are facing the danger of a repeat of 1921, when the Bolsheviks reconquered Georgia and crushed its first attempt at independence. His rhetoric has only escalated since the two former officials portrayed as quislings in the fake broadcast, ex-Speaker Nino Burjanadze and ex-Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, broke the taboo of talking directly to the Russians and met Saakashvili's nemesis Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister. The Georgian leader's hackles couldn't be more raised, and the two sides now routinely trade insults, calling one another traitors and enemies of Georgia in language that creepily harks back to the nationalist fury of 1991 and the Stalinist denunciations of the 1930s.


TO TRULY decode the "Russia threat," we must inevitably return to the events of the five-day war of August 2008 and the age-old question: "Who is to blame?" Ronald Asmus, executive director of the Transatlantic Center at the German Marshall Fund, has his answer, in book-long form. For him, the 2008 war was a preplanned Russian military intervention in Georgia, designed to halt Saakashvili's choice to "go West." Russia was punishing a small neighbor that dared to defy it by choosing a Western model of democratic development: "The more successful Tbilisi was, the more hostile and worried Moscow became." He goes even further, in language that reminds one of the Cold War:

The Bush Administration had made the building of a Europe that was whole and free from the Baltic to the Black Sea a central part of its legacy. Regardless of what mistakes Tbilisi had made, Moscow had violated that basic concept and broken some of the cardinal principles upon which European security was supposed to be based.

In other words, for Asmus, NATO, not the EU, is the key European institution and the United States has a duty to be a guarantor of the security of small nations against a resurgent Russia. And the test of that strategy came with Georgia, for it presented a brave challenge to Moscow's revisionist doctrine. This is a risky thesis, for it commits NATO to supporting leaders who proclaim pro-Western values but have their own local agendas with Russia. And it asks us to do so without examining the fine detail of what their quarrels with Moscow are all about.

Certainly, in August 2008 Moscow ruthlessly exploited Tbilisi's long-running territorial disputes over the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia's rule in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union fell apart. The Russians first executed a military defeat of Saakashvili's country and then recognized the independence of the two territories, pulling them closer into Moscow's orbit.

Russian officials also miss no opportunity to disparage Saakashvili. President Dmitri Medvedev recently called him a "persona non grata" and said relations with Georgia would only get back to normal once Saakashvili had left office. During the war, Vladimir Putin famously told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he wanted to hang Saakashvili "by the balls." That continues to feed Georgian fears about Moscow's intentions; Russian troops are still deployed only thirty miles from Tbilisi. But might it be that the Russians are content to have a crippled Georgian president mired in his own domestic squabbles, unable to pursue a pro-Western agenda? For this allows Moscow the space to consolidate the status quo won on the ground, while focusing on other issues, such as the "reset" with the United States.

If only Georgia were simple. The trouble with A Little War that Shook the World is that it is does not deal with local reality in the Caucasus. Asmus has talked to senior officials in the Bush administration, NATO and the EU-but not to Russians or Ossetians, and to few ordinary Georgians not in government. This is the region as seen from a satellite photograph.

Georgia has long been the most attractive of the former Soviet republics. In 1924, the writer Odette Keun compared the country to "a racehorse-palpitating, furious, rushing forward blindly it knows not where; rearing at the least check, not having yet learnt what is required of it, or what it can do." I too plead guilty to the Georgia bug, but Caucasian dash can take you to dangerous places. Georgian brio inspired the street protests of the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought the charismatic young Mikheil Saakashvili to power, but other, duller qualities were required to tackle the country's longer-term problems. After 2004, there began to be two Georgias. There was the Georgia that President Saakashvili sold abroad with remarkable success, marketing the Rose Revolution as a brand for a successful model of post-Soviet pro-Western transformation; and there was the Georgia that persistently stayed stuck in local realities, still trapped in nationalism, factionalism, and politics as plot and brawl.


ASMUS HAS bought the foreign brand without inspecting the local product very closely, and his idealized account ultimately does the real Georgia no favors. Critically, Asmus gives a version of events of the war of 2008 that completely exempts the Georgian leadership of blame:

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili put down the phone. It was 2335 the night of August 7 in Tbilisi. He had just given the order for his armed forces to attack what his intelligence had reported to be a column of Russian forces moving from the small South Ossetian town of Java just south of the Russian-Georgian border toward the city of Tskhinvali, the capital of the small separatist enclave, as well as Russian forces coming through the Roki Tunnel on the Russian-Georgian border into Georgia. He had also ordered his armed forces to suppress the shelling by South Ossetian militia of Georgian villages in that province that were under the control of Georgian peacekeepers and police. That shelling had been taking place on and off for the previous week, but it had resumed and escalated that evening in spite of a unilateral ceasefire he had ordered. Georgian civilians and peacekeepers had been wounded and killed. He paused, picked up the phone again, and gave a third command: "Minimize civilian casualties."
Essay Types: Book Review