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Senior U.S. Official Calls Russian Actions 'Ill-Advised And Simply Stupid'

Bryza during a visit to Tbliisi in May
Bryza during a visit to Tbliisi in May
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza tells RFE/RL Tbilisi bureau chief Marina Vashakmadze in a face-to-face interview that Washington is committed to maintaining a partnership with both sides to the conflict. But he has harsh words for the Kremlin's military campaign in Georgia, and says Moscow faces considerable work in repairing its reputation in the eyes of the world.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has suggested that, in his view, the current crisis will force the countries of the world to choose between friendship with Russia and support for Georgia. What do you think led Lavrov to believe that Russia is in a position where it can blackmail the world community?

Matthew Bryza: Well, I don't know if he thought he was blackmailing the world community, but it certainly seemed he wanted to compel us to make a choice. And we do make a choice: to try and have partnerships with both countries. If Russia decides that it defines 'terms of partnership' to mean that we can't have partnerships with both countries, then that's Russia's choice. But we are committed to the freedom, the prosperity, and the peace of a unified Georgia, and we will continue to pursue that objective no matter what anyone says.

RFE/RL: Russia has stated it is not its goal to annex further territory in Georgia. But its actions cast doubt on this. Russia could clear itself of such doubt by removing Russian peacekeepers and allowing the international community to assume responsibility for the security of ethnic minorities in the breakaway regions. Do you think Russia understands that replacing the peacekeepers is in its interests if it wants to keep its global reputation clean?

Bryza: I hope so. Russia's reputation right now is not particularly clean worldwide, and it has inflicted tremendous damage on its own image in the international community. It has a chance to restore that image if it abides by its commitments to maintain a cease-fire and to withdraw its troops back into the zone of conflict, and if it makes sure that the North Caucasus irregular forces that the Russian military inexplicably encouraged to enter South Ossetia to murder, rape, and steal -- if it can control those people, and get them out, send them back to the Russian Federation, which is their home, and then if Russia behaves like a responsible country and no longer violates international law as it has done so blatantly in Georgia, as it is doing so blatantly in Abkhazia, where, despite its facade of being a mediator of a UN process, it attacks Georgians. If it can reverse all of that, then it can reverse its reputation. I don't know that Russia is capable of doing that right now. I sure hope so! We want a partnership with Russia, but Russia has to play by the rules of partnership, which are established not by America, but by the international community.

In a separate interview, also in Tbilisi, Bryza directed further U.S. ire at Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. (Reuters video)

RFE/RL: On August 13, Russia promised the international community they would leave the Georgian city of Gori. [On August 14], they changed their mind. What is going on here? Are the Russians trying to show that they can do whatever they want, and withdraw whenever they want? And if so, who is the message meant for? Some experts believe it's directed toward the Caspian countries, to chill any hope they would be able to trade with the European Union directly.

Bryza: I think the Caspian countries received a very clear message regarding any fears that they may have had, which was that when President [George W. Bush] spoke -- and he spoke in unison with European leaders, with French President [Nicolas] Sarkozy, with Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, with French Foreign Minister [Bernard] Kouchner, with the Polish Foreign Minister [Radek Sikorski], and the heads of state from the Baltic countries. Our words turned around the Russian tanks, turned around the armored vehicles, sent them back to where they are supposed to go. That is a very clear message to the countries of the Caspian region. The international community was there, and we succeeded in stopping an invasion.

Russian soldiers take positions to block the way of a convoy of Georgian soldiers to the Georgian town of Gori on August 14.
Why are the Russian forces doing what they're doing in Gori? We're not sure. It could be that they are trying to bring under control the criminals that they have living among themselves in the North Caucasus, and encourage them to pass through the Roki Tunnel, which we have said for years the Russians should not control because we feared they would do something like this. So perhaps humanity is returning to the Russian military -- and, by the way, there are wonderfully professional soldiers throughout the Russian military, people who don't want to see the rape and the atrocities and all these terrible things happening -- and they are beginning to work with the Georgian police to restore order, as we have heard.

While I mention atrocities, I would like to mention one more point, too. There have been crazy statements coming from the senior Russian leadership about "genocide" in Tskhinvali, and 2,000 deaths. Today, we know from Human Rights Watch -- one of the most respected human rights organizations in the world -- that those numbers are exaggerated and suspicious because of the roundness of the number. I know, from talking to a number of Georgian officials, from reports by journalists, and figures presented by Human Rights Watch, that only 40 corpses have been identified in Tskhinvali. That is a long way from 2,000; so I wonder what the mission is of those people who talk about genocide, talk about a war crimes tribunal, and come up with 2,000, which is a conveniently round number. Finally, those claims of genocide [made] by Russian officials are perilous for Russian officials, because we know that Russian aircraft bombed Tskhinvali for three days, and there were plenty of civilians still there. So if there's a charge of genocide, people need to really investigate who committed that genocide. But it wasn't genocide.

Those claims of genocide [made] by Russian officials are perilous for Russian officials, because we know that Russian aircraft bombed Tskhinvali for three days, and there were plenty of civilians still there.
RFE/RL: Some experts believe that the West does not realize that if Georgia came under Russian control, it would allow Russia to create a wider common strategic space that would unite Russia and Iran, and end in the Gulf. So in a way, the recent actions are an encouragement for Iran to pursue similar prospects. Can any connection be drawn between the recent events in the Caucasus and Russia's poor cooperation with efforts to resolve the Iranian problem?

Bryza: I don't know. I think this decision to invade Georgia and try to overthrow its democratically elected leadership was one of the most ill-advised and simply stupid decisions in my career in foreign policy, and it is a mistake that is probably as devastating to Moscow's reputation as the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan. There must have been a number of motivations floating around in an uncoordinated way for a decision to be made that was this bad, this poorly thought out, and this damaging to Russia. So I don't know what role Iran played in this.

I know that in the past, and especially in the energy sector, Russia has openly talked about plans to establish a gas cartel with Iran. And I know that for years Russia has tried to buy the North-South pipeline that is here in Georgia. We worked very hard for this purchase not to happen, because clearly Russia was trying to link up its gas system through Armenia -- where there is a pipeline link to Iran -- to Iran, where Gazprom has an investment which has failed to produce much gas. So it's obvious what Russia was trying to do with pipelines: it was trying to establish a gas cartel, and move gas from South Pars, in a country that is trying to develop nuclear weapons, through Armenia, through Georgia, into Russia, and deepen its monopoly over the European gas market. That, in my mind, is a fact. But I don't think that that was the consideration motivating this strategic blunder.

RFE/RL: The recent cooperation between the United States and the EU on the crisis appears to be delivering results.

Bryza: This is a wonderful example of how strong diplomacy can be. I've heard so often -- from people all over the place, not just Georgian officials or Georgian public people, but in America, too -- the question: what good is diplomacy if Russia decides to use force? And, to be honest, if a country is 30 times as big as Georgia, and is its neighbor, and is one of the larger military powers in this part of the world, and decides to invade, there's not much we can do from one day to the next to stop that. If people decide to make a bad decision, we can't compel them not to do it.

But what we can do is turn around the invasion by maintaining solidarity among foreign ministers, journalists, and representatives of civilized society -- who have done this over the last few days here in Georgia, leaders from Georgia, with some help from President Bush and Secretary Rice, of course, in support of the French effort to negotiate, to get a cease-fire, which President Bush said we totally support. And then the reality of the U.S. military not dropping bombs on this country but bringing humanitarian supplies to keep alive the internally displaced persons, who have lost their houses thanks to Russian bombs. What a contrast! And how powerful that was in that it turned around the Russian invasion. So diplomacy worked, and it was U.S.-EU cooperation that made it happen.

RFE/RL: What about in the longer term?

Bryza: Well, I think we have some priority tasks that we want to work on here in the short term with the Georgian government. We need to make sure the cease-fire holds. We need to make sure that [Russian] soldiers leave the part of Georgia where they currently are, and go to where they have agreed to go, to the zone of conflict. We need to make sure the port of Poti remains open, that the east-west highway remains open, that the IDPs, of course, are first and foremost taken care of. It's not a crisis, because the Georgian government has plenty of supplies available, but with the Russian soldiers and these criminals from the North Caucasus floating around it is hard for the Georgian government to distribute the assistance. So these are the hot priorities now.

I think this decision to invade Georgia and try to overthrow its democratically elected leadership was one of the most ill-advised and simply stupid decisions in my career in foreign policy.
After that, there are questions of damages for what was inflicted on Georgia, the question of criminal trials for those who led these military operations and these criminal operations, and those who allowed South Ossetians and other North Caucasians to murder Georgians. There are deep questions of how we move forward on the conflicts in a moment where Russia has destroyed every structure we had of managing the conflict. I am a loyal member of the UN Friends Group (grouping Germany, France, the Russian Federation, United Kingdom, and the United States), I am its U.S. representative, and I cannot imagine how we can come back and gather at the table, because Russia is a party to the conflict. Russia attacked the Kodori Gorge.

We in the Friends Group are committed to resolving the conflict peacefully, and Russia launched war on Georgia in Abkhazia. The Russian peacekeepers are not peacekeepers -- they are warriors. The Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia are warriors, and they have failed to prevent a humanitarian crisis of atrocities throughout South Ossetia, and you don't have to believe me when I say this. You can go out into the lobby of this hotel, and talk to dozens of journalists, who have seen this with their own eyes.

This is deeply shameful, and for Russia the long-term or mid-term challenges are to restore its reputation. For us all, we need to find a way for Russia to reenter the international community with respect, and in a way that will get the processes to regulate and mediate the [question of Abkhazia and South Ossetia] back on track. And I can tell you our government would like to be able to help Russia do that -- but it depends on Russia's behavior.

Crisis In Georgia

Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.