Saturday, August 27, 2016


Georgia War: Finding The Facts, Losing The Message

Burnt-out cars around Tskhinvali after last year's fighting (Photo: Tomas Polacek)
Burnt-out cars around Tskhinvali after last year's fighting (Photo: Tomas Polacek)
By Charli Carpenter
On 30 September, the European Union released its report on last year's August war in the Caucasus. The aim was to establish what happened, since as stated in the preamble, "there can be no peace in the South Caucasus as long as a common understanding of the facts is not achieved."

Since its release, however, these "facts" have been appropriated by both sides and misconstrued by the press. Russia -- and numerous reporters -- have spun the report as an indictment of Georgia for "starting" the war. Georgia claims a victory as well, since the report acknowledges the war's causes must be understood in historical perspective.

Whose interpretation is right? And why did the report fail at its task of creating a "common understanding of the facts" that would move forward the process of reconciliation?

To answer the first question, neither perspective is accurate. In fact, the report blames Russia for starting the war with Georgia. But it also blames Georgia for starting a civil war within its own borders, and no acknowledgements of the historical context lessen that blame. Perhaps more importantly, both parties violated the laws of war.

In a nutshell, two armed conflicts, not one, took place in the Caucasus in August 2008. And two relevant branches of international law -- on the use of force and on the conduct of force during and after hostilities -- governed the legality of these wars.

The first armed conflict was a civil war within the borders of the state of Georgia, between the Georgian military and militias associated with the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This war (or set of wars) began as a low intensity conflict. Georgia is to blame for escalating it to the level of a civil war through an attack on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, on August 7, 2008.

The report also found the attack on Tskhinvali violated the laws of war, which govern not whether armed conflict is legitimate, but how it may be carried out. The South Ossetian militias behaved badly too, the report finds, especially after the ceasefire -- looting, pillaging, raping, and burning villages -- but at least they were acting in self-defense at the start.

The second armed conflict was an international war between Georgia and Russia, which entered the conflict in support of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on August 8, 2008. Russia started this second, international war by sending troops across the Georgian border in violation of the territorial integrity norm set out in the UN Charter.

Illegal Wars

The report demonstrates that this was also an illegal war. In the absence of a UN Security Council resolution, such an act is permissible only in self-defense. The report found that Russia was not acting in self-defense because Georgia had not attacked Russia, only its own territory, and there was no evidence that Georgia had intentionally fired upon Russian peacekeeping troops in Tskhinvali. A moral case can sometimes be made for invasion to protect civilian populations from massive human rights abuses, as NATO claimed to have done in Kosovo in 1999. The EU report found no evidence that such a claim was valid in this case, as the civilian loss of life did not rise to such levels, much less to "genocide."

Not only was Russia's invasion of Georgia illegal, but like Georgia in its civil war, Russia also conducted its war illegally -- by using disproportionate force and by deploying cluster munitions in such a way as to cause civilian deaths.

Two illegal wars, each started by a different guilty party, both conducted illegally.  So why are both sides claiming victory here? And why have so many commentators claimed that the report in fact "proves Georgia started the war?" How did the EU lose control of the message?

The key problem is that the report is framed in such a way as to conflate the civil and interstate wars of which the "August war" was composed. The title of the report refers to "the Conflict in Georgia." It is not until page 36 that the 43-page summary of the report even acknowledges that there were two different components to the war, governed by separate international rules. Although the authors do in fact disaggregate these aspects to some extent in the actual report, the fact that they fail to do so in the summary muddles the legal analysis completely. No wonder both sides now claim the report exonerates them on the question of "who started it."

This is a shame, since the longest chapter of the report deals not with who might be blamed for starting the war, but with the way hostilities were conducted by all parties. Regardless of a war's legality, there are legal and illegal ways of fighting. Commentators desperate to focus on the blameworthiness of one party or the other for the war itself have diverted attention from the report's discussions of war crimes -- which were committed by all sides, especially by the one party (South Ossetia) least to blame for taking up arms in the first place.

Ultimately, those who read the entire report will find it is a masterpiece of legal and evidentiary analysis. The authors have painstakingly synthesized multiple branches of international law with scores of interviews, reams of source material, and numerous reports from NGOs. The report itself is nearly 500 pages of "applying principles to facts." Despite a few inconsistencies, it is generally fair-minded, objective and apolitical. It should have done the job.

But in putting together the detailed legal analysis, too little thought appears to have been given to the political impact, or how to frame the report so that its key findings are intelligible to a public and press corps not intimately familiar with the nuances of international law. By failing to deliver the key findings up front with savvy and punch, the EU Mission allowed the report to be hijacked by interested parties for a continuation of the very political argument it should have put to rest.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of international relations at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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Comments page of 2
by: Xiongnu
October 12, 2009 13:24
I have this question: When was the last time there was a 'legal war'?

by: Cleitus the Black
October 12, 2009 14:54
Dr. Carpenter; You write that - 'A moral case can sometimes be made for invasion to protect civilian populations from massive human rights abuses, as NATO claimed to have done in Kosovo in 1999. The EU report found no evidence that such a claim was valid in this case, as the civilian loss of life did not rise to such levels, much less to &quot;genocide.&quot; '<br /><br />So, I would raise the question: what is the international standard for an &quot;acceptable&quot; number of Russian (or American, etc) citizens living in a foreign country that may be killed before the parent state intervenes without a UN mandate?<br /><br />The EU report shows that &quot;only&quot; 850 people - Georgians, Russians, and Ossetians were killed in the course of the entire 5 day conflict... We may surmise that of that total, perhaps as few as a hundred were killed in Georgia's initial attack on the South Ossetian capital... <br /><br />But then again, in the first day of the Rwandan or Bosnian genocides (in the first day of ANY historical genocide, for that matter) how many people were killed? I am quite certain the answer is comparatively few, and the deaths are mainly among the fighters of the weaker group as the stronger group moves to assert control. The real killing begins once control of the target population has been gained. <br /><br />One has to look no farther back than a decade to see the results of one ethnic group in Georgia/Abkhazi/Ossetia gaining the upper hand over their neighbors results in - thousands dead, and tens of thousands homeless. <br /><br />Russia should be saluted for gaining the &quot;peaceful&quot; result that holds today (curiously, I don't hear much in the news about suicide bombings, mortar attacks, or airstrikes on civilians in the Caucuses, which are still daily events in Iraq and Afghanistan) by conducting a classic &quot;limited war&quot; (the U.S. could take notes) that restored order locally, chastened a local actor with aims of territorial aggrandizement (South Ossetia being a de-facto independent state) and did so with a loss of life under 1000 (it doesn't even qualify as a small war, technically) and the expenditure of some political capital. <br /><br />The report criticizes the Russians for the heavy-handed nature of their military response, but in fact, that's exactly what the military of a great power should do in such a case. Not trickle in light forces and create a prolonged shooting war, but use overwhelming superiority over short period of time to eliminate NOT the enemy's capability and will to RESIST (that's the mistake the U.S. has made in Iraq and Afghanistan) but its ability (and will) to continue an OFFENSIVE war or to launch another.<br /><br />My helmet's off to the Russians - well played, lads!<br /><br />

by: LS from: USA
October 12, 2009 20:37
Cletius - to accept you analysis we would have to:<br /><br />- ignore Russia's role in the ethnic cleansing of Georgians that took place, particulary in Abkhazia, during the conflict;<br /><br />- ignore the degree to which Abkhaz and South Ossetian &quot;independence&quot; masks de facto annexation by Russia;<br /><br />- ignore Russia's rather questionable success in bringing peace to the areas of the Caucases under its de jure control.

by: Mladen
October 12, 2009 21:36
To put it simple, Georgians tried to ethnically cleanse Ossetians Like Serbs on Kosovo. They failed, with similar consequences. Namely, there are hardly any Serbs left on Kosovo.<br /><br />As for Russians, having few soldiers killed in first attack, they had same justification to intervene as Israel in Lebanon. However, action was performed much better; relatively few civilian casualties and enemy completely disarmed.

by: Cleitus the Black
October 13, 2009 01:37
LS... to refute my analysis, I'd hope you'd offer one of your own, rather than tired anti-Russian jingoisms... I note that you fail to address the more cogent points of my note, ergo, how many of a country's citizens must die before their home state intervenes - we may reasonably deduce that a mere 3000 American casualties are sufficient for the U.S. to begin a pair of costly intra-state wars that have dragged on nearly a decade, and you would seem to infer that 850 is too paltry a number to justify limited Russian intervention that lasts 5 days... What reasonable figure of cold corpses would you be willing to grant Russia or any other state before they take action?<br /><br />Lastly, you make 3 egregious claims regarding my ignorance. Allow me to educate you:<br /><br />1. I am not ignoring Russia's role in ethnic cleansing of Georgians, I am unaware that it has been documented. If you can substantiate your claims, please provide useful citations, ie, publications, page number from the EU or other outside agency reporting, pictures, etc.<br /><br />2. Again, I am not ignorant, merely unaware that Abkhazia and Ossetia have bent the knee to the Russian Bear. Please substantiate your claims regarding Russian &quot;annexation&quot; of Abkhazi or South Ossetia... Statements by prominent politicians within either autonomous area, documents, etc - I trust none of these will be difficult to come by for a person of your apparent wit and wisdom?<br /><br />- Unlike you, I am far from ignorant as to the level of control which Russia has been able to exert over its Caucausian federal states ; however, the statistics speak for themselves. Do the math, or consult such extensive databases as have been compiled by the CIDCM - - you'll see that violence in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, while it exists, has been dwarfed by that experienced in Afghanistan, Iraq, and, more recently, Pakistan.

by: Ray from: Lawrence, KS
October 13, 2009 02:26
Would it be helpful if the EU were to drop copies of this report (still bundled) on Russian troop formations when they move to seize the Crimea? Or even better, why wait? Use this report to strike fear in the hearts of the Taliban and the growing discontented in the North Caucasus.

by: Martin Bright
October 13, 2009 04:14
LS<br />I understand Cleitus speak in comparative perspective. If one see the balkan wars, there were there much more loss of life and homelossness: up to now there are more than 200 k krajina serbs ethnic cleansed in Croatia and the world say nothing about. On the other hand, do you know how many Iraqi or Afghan civilians have been killed by mistaken American drone rockets? It is that an acceptable cost of war?<br />The Russians are not nice, but they are in their neighborhood, not killing people thousand of miles away home

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
October 13, 2009 05:51
Read Chronology of the August war on my site:<br /><br /><br /><br />The report above was generated by a group, created around the UN rules by Russian intrigans, as Russian retaliation against the truth:<br /><br />THEY ASKED HELP FROM THEIR BRITISH, SWEEDEN <br />(and some old partners of Russia from Sweetzerland) CONSPIRATORS THAT CONSPIRED IN 1954-56 TO DESTROY NON-RUSSIAN NATIONS AND RESURECT COLONIAL EMPIRES, TO FORGE A FAVORABLE TO RUSSIA REPORT, while already deviding Europe between Russia and Germano-Austrians fooling NATO and USA in places like former Ugoslavia!<br /><br />Read the real report in Chronology!<br />Russia and only Russia is totally guilty!<br />The were never South Osetian separatists - only forwarding Russian millitary intelligence, Spetcnaz, GRU and KGB since 1954-56 there!<br /><br />It was killed at least about 200-300 Georgians, civilians, police and Peacekeepers.<br />It was killed about 100-200 Russians, all military.<br />It was killed no more &quot;Osetins&quot; than Georgians - and all so called &quot;Osetins&quot; were Russian forwarding commandoes with inbedded among them children of once raped by Russian army and spies Osetin girls and women all over USSR, trained in Russia as slaves-spies, -translators and -guides...<br />It is what made Putin and Medvedev mad like hell:<br />&quot;They killed in combat some of our best invaders in fortresses arround Tchinvali!&quot;<br /><br />Konstantin.

by: LS
October 13, 2009 15:57
CTB - wow, you have quite a chip on your shoulder. I offer three reasons to question your analysis, none of which impugn your character in the slightest. Yet you seem barely able to make it through three sentences without launching an ad homenin attack on me. Moreover, you demand citations from me on various claims--such as the de facto Russian annexation of Abkhazia--yet offer exactly one reference (in addition to the EU report) in the entirety of your postings. <br /><br />You seem to assume, moreover, that I am defending the United States. I could care not one whit whether or not the Russian record on Georgia is superior to the US record in Iraq. I merely dispute that the Russians should be congratulated on bringing order to the region. <br /><br />Since we are both equally capable of using internet search engines, I won't bother to easily falsify your claim that no source exists to substantiate the de facto annexation of Abkhazia into the Russian Federation or the ethnic cleansing of Georgians from Abkhazia during the conflict. As for the former, I'll point out that this process has been obvious to western observers who have visited Abkhazia over the last few years.<br /><br />And while I agree with the thrust of MB's comment--that just beause the Russians aren't nice doesn't make them or their actions in the region evil--I hardly see why geopolitical proximity should impact our evaluation of the ethics of Russian actions.

by: Cleitus the Black
October 14, 2009 04:44
My dear LS, you continue to disappoint... Internet search engines? I'm afraid there is a great deal of material on the internet, and very little that would bear scrutiny as a legitimate scholastic reference.<br /><br />You forget that I've made no claim as to Russian involvement, or lack thereof in the ethnic cleansing of Georgians, in Abkhazia or elsewhere - I merely challenged you to substantiate YOUR claims to that effect, and -yawn- still not a shred of credible reporting have you cited to back up that statement... You say that a Russian annexation of Abkhazia is &quot;obvious to Western observers&quot; - do you speak from personal experience? Can you please name one of these &quot;observers&quot;, preferably with a link to an article they have published in a popular online journal, or book/magazine/newspaper citation so that I and other interested readers may educate ourselves?<br /><br />Finally, I would propose that my assertion that Russian intervention restored order to the region is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of empirical fact - since the end of hostilities between Russian and Georgian forces, I'm not aware of a single substantial incidence of violence within the disputed areas. This in comparison to numerous areas of the world within the same timeframe, including, beyond the obvious cases of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, several less publicized war-zones including Sudan, DRC, Mexico, Colombia, and Sri Lanka.
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