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Medvedev Gets Caught Telling The Truth


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

In a rare instance of truth telling, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to reveal on Monday the real reason Moscow went to war with Georgia in August 2008.

Speaking to officers of the Southern Military District in Vladikavkaz, Medvedev seemed to suggest that the goal was preventing Georgia from joining NATO (h/t to Civil Georgia for flagging this story):

Time goes by fast – more than three years have already passed, but what is the most important our approaches towards and our assessments of those events have not changed. We of course consider that it was absolutely necessary action by our army to save large number of our citizens and, if not to remove totally, to curb the threat which was coming at the time from the territory of Georgia.

If we had faltered in 2008, geopolitical arrangement would be different now and number of countries in respect of which attempts were made to artificially drag them into the North Atlantic Alliance, would have probably been [in NATO] now.

And just in case anybody didn't get the message, Medvedev repeated it later in the day, in remarks to reporters in Rostov-na-Donu:

Today I already spoke with the army officers and I will tell it to you too, that it was of course a very difficult page in our recent history, but, unfortunately, it was absolutely necessary [decision]. And the fact that Russia's actions at the time were so tough has eventually secured a situation for us, which, despite of all the difficulties, is now quieter than it was.

We have simply calmed some of our neighbors down by showing them that they should behave correctly in respect of Russia and in respect of neighboring small states. And for some of our partners, including for the North Atlantic Alliance, it was a signal that before taking a decision about expansion of the Alliance, one should at first think about the geopolitical stability. I deem these [issues] to be the major lessons of those developments in 2008.

This is a remarkable admission. In the past, Kremlin officials have said they reluctantly went to war with Georgia to stop Tbilisi's "aggression" and "genocide" in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. But here, Medvedev suggests that the campaign was -- at least in part -- an effort to stifle Georgia's NATO bid (which looked a lot more realistic in the summer of 2008 than it does today).

It also fits with the circumstances surrounding the August 2008 war, which came just months after Georgia was denied a formal Membership Action Plan -- but was promised eventual membership in NATO -- at the alliances summit in Bucharest in April 2008.

In an article in August 2008, I outlined a series of steps Russia took with regard to Georgia in the months following the summit -- and preceding the war:

Russia's provocations became more pronounced after the NATO summit, with Putin -- in the last month of his presidency -- signing on April 16 a decree authorizing the Russian government to strengthen diplomatic and aid links with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's pro-Moscow separatist provinces.

Later that month, Russia deployed 1,500 additional troops, some heavily armed, to its "peacekeeping" contingent in Abkhazia without Georgia's consent. The move was an express violation of a 1994 cease-fire agreement ending a brief but grievous civil war between Abkhaz and Georgian fighters.

In the weeks that followed, Georgia accused Russia of shooting down unmanned drone aircraft conducting reconnaissance flights over Abkhazia. Russian military aircraft were also detected violating Georgian airspace near the separatist territory.

In June, Russia stoked tensions yet again by deploying unarmed troops to Abkhazia to rebuild a rail link between the cities of Sukhumi and Ochamchira. Moscow argued the move was a humanitarian gesture meant to improve the territory's decrepit transportation infrastructure.

Then, in July 2008, Russia began massive military exercises near the Georgian border:

Less than one month before Russia's armed forces entered Georgia on August 8, they held massive military training exercises in the North Caucasus involving 8,000 servicemen and 700 pieces of military hardware.

At center stage in those maneuvers -- which took place in the second half of July, not far from Georgia's border -- was Russia's 58th Army, the very unit that would later play a key role in the incursion.

Those exercises are just one link in a chain of incidents suggesting that Russia's military action in Georgia was planned months in advance, awaiting only an appropriate pretext to act.

Would Georgia be in NATO today if the war had not happen? I doubt it. I covered the Bucharest summit in the spring of 2008 and the opposition from France, Germany, and Italy was fierce indeed. Moreover, Georgia's recent backsliding on democracy is giving even its strongest supporters in the alliance pause.

But nevertheless, Medvedev's bout of truth telling on Monday was revealing indeed.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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