The release of a much anticipated EU-commissioned report into the causes of the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 predictably spread the blame for the conflict around. Georgia got its share of the blame, but the text of the report is devastating to Russia’s narrative of the conflict.
Assisted by a small army of experts, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini has spent close to a year investigating the origins of a small war that shocked Europe, but that was largely forgotten in the midst of the global economic crisis that succeeded it. The 40-page report – with a thousand pages of appendices – will certainly be the subject of great debate and controversy. Predictably, both sides have claimed that it vindicates their version of events. Yet anyone who bothers to read of the text of the report will find that the commission apportions an overwhelming part of the responsibility of the conflict on the Russian government. In fact, it rejects practically every item in the Russian narrative of the conflict.
The press has so far mainly reported the commission’s conclusion that Georgia started the war. That should not be confused with the question of responsibility: firing the first shot does not necessarily mean bearing responsibility for the conflict. The report acknowledges this, concluding that, “there is no way to assign overall responsibility for the conflict to one side alone”. Indeed, the report details the extended series of Russian provocations, accelerating in the spring of 2008, that precipitated the war.
The report faults Georgia for the legal basis of its attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, and for the use of indiscriminate force there. But on the crucial Georgian claim that it was responding to a Russian invasion, Tagliavini equivocates: the mission is “not in a position” to consider the Georgian claims “sufficiently substantiated”. This is an exercise in semantics, since the next sentences acknowledge Russian provision of military training and equipment to the rebels, and that “volunteers and mercenaries” entered Georgian territory from Russia before the Georgian attack. One is left wondering what would be necessary for a spade to be called a spade.
But the report is far more devastating in its dismissal of Russia’s justification for its invasion – in fact surprisingly so for an EU product. As will be recalled, Russia variously claimed it was protecting its citizens; engaging in a humanitarian intervention; responding to a Georgian “genocide” of Ossetians; or responding to an attack on its peacekeepers. The EU report finds that because Russia’s distribution of passports to Abkhazians and Ossetians in the years prior to the war was illegal, its rationale of rescuing its citizens is invalid as they simply were not legally Russian citizens. It also concludes that Russia’s claim of humanitarian intervention cannot be recognised “at all”, in particular given Russia’s past opposition to the entire concept of humanitarian intervention.
The list goes on. The report finds Russian allegations of genocide founded in neither law nor evidence. In other words, they’re not true. And whereas the report does acknowledge a Russian right to protect its peacekeepers, it finds that Russia’s response “cannot be regarded as even remotely commensurate with the threat to Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia”. On the other hand, it faults Russia for failing to intervene in the ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetia and Abkhazia that took place during and after the war. Finally, it castigates Russia’s recognition of the independence of the two breakaway territories as illegal, and as a dangerous erosion of the principles of international law.
In sum, the official EU inquiry found that none of Russia’s various justifications for its invasion of Georgia held water, and faults Russia’s behaviour following the conflict, as it continues to be in material breach of the EU-negotiated ceasefire agreement.
While the EU report will be of great use to historians, its main implications should concern the present. This is the case because the conflict between Russia and Georgia is not over. While its military phase only lasted a few weeks, it continues in the diplomatic, political, and economic realms. It is destabilising a part of Europe in which the European Union needs to invest more. The EU can ignore only at its own peril one of the report’s final conclusions:
Notions such as privileged spheres of interest … are irreconcilable with international law. They are dangerous to international peace and stability. They should be rejected.
And doing so will take more than words and the scrapping of missile shields.
Svante Cornell, a research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road studies programme.