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South Ossetia Sinks Into The Spin Zone

A battle of perceptions
A battle of perceptions
In the modern world, wars are won and lost as much in the minds of global public opinion as on the battlefield. Even as the fighting between Russia and Georgia has raged in South Ossetia and other parts of Georgia, a fierce -- if uneven -- media battle has also unfolded. Each side is eager to establish its narrative of the situation and unfolding events.

As on the battlefield, Russia enjoys vast material superiority in the information sphere. Its 24-hour English-language news channel, Russia Today, has covered the story relentlessly since the fighting erupted on the night of August 7-8. Over footage of dead soldiers and civilians, moderators have emphasized the growing humanitarian crisis in the region, claiming that Georgia has refused to allow wounded refugees to travel to Russia. On August 8, the channel passed along unconfirmed reports that Georgian troops had executed wounded and captured "peacekeepers and civilians."

Since access to the region has been cut off from the Georgian side for many months, the only journalists able to report live from South Ossetia have passed through the Russian side. Independent journalists have been denied visas, meaning that media reports from the ground have come largely from Russian state-media journalists, including reporters from Russia Today and the Russian state military channel Zvezda.

Russia Today has reported a steady string of Russian government statements, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's assertion that he has received reports of "ethnic cleansing" by Georgian troops in South Ossetia. On August 9, Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, bolstering Russia Today's narrative that the Russian incursion is a "peacekeeping operation" intended to restore order and provide humanitarian relief.

The news coverage was augmented by near-continuous commentary by Russia Today political analyst Peter Lavelle, who argued that following the failure of the UN to adopt a resolution on the conflict, Russia was obligated to intervene unilaterally to minimize the humanitarian crisis. Lavelle lamented the "lack of international understanding" about the situation, which he said is "very vexing" for Moscow. Another analyst accused Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili of launching a "blitzkrieg" and seeking a "short and victorious war," while a third blamed the United States and the West for fomenting instability in the region in their bid to control the energy resources of Central Asia and the Middle East. In short, Russian analysts have sought to forestall action on the crisis by Western states with a preemptive strike on their possible motivations for doing so.

Despite the imperatives of breaking news in a fluid situation, Russia Today on both August 8 and 9 found time to run a half-hour report called "The Fragile State" on the political situation in Georgia in general, emphasizing the country's political crisis last winter. During that time, the government cracked down harshly on opposition rallies and briefly shut down all nonstate broadcasters. The tone of the Russia Today report was both that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is willing to do anything to maintain an increasingly tenuous hold on power and that the 1994 Rose Revolution is a failure, with Georgians in general pining for the prerevolutionary period and, in some cases, even Soviet times. The channel scheduled "The Fragile State" for broadcast six times on August 9.

Georgia Reaches Out To The West

Tbilisi has had a much harder time spinning its version of events, having to rely on exposure in the Western media in competition with coverage of the Olympics in Beijing, the U.S. mortgage crisis, and numerous other stories. Georgia has also had to explain its decision to launch a heightened military action in South Ossetia. "The New York Times" reported on August 9 that Georgian government websites have been the targets of cyberattacks and have been intermittently inaccessible.

However, Saakashvili and other Georgian officials have been widely available to Western media and Western journalists are able to report freely from the Georgian side of the conflict zone. When Russian attacks spread outside of South Ossetia on August 9 to Poti and Gori, Western cameras were on hand, even as Russia Today was denying that any such actions had occurred.

Georgian officials have stressed their claims that Russia launched a massive and well-planned incursion into Georgian territory, in violation of the country's sovereignty. On August 8, Saakashvili appeared on CNN from his office, with a Georgian flag and an EU flag behind him. Their appeals to the West are reminiscent of similar appeals that were issued from Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. "Georgia is a peace-loving nation, but today we are being attacked north to south, east to west," Saakashvili said on August 9.

Georgian Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania the same day pushed a similar theme. "[For us] it is very difficult to observe the absence of swift and appropriate response from the international community," he said. "However, I would like to remind you once again that the Russian Federation -- which represents a side and now, in fact, is the aggressor -- is a permanent member of the Security Council, with veto power. This, of course, complicates taking any concrete, tangible decisions within the council."

These two narratives -- Russia's tale of a humanitarian intervention along the lines of NATO's actions in Kosovo in the 1990s and Georgia's account of a small nation being dismembered by its giant neighbor -- would logically seem to compel Russia to restrain itself and limit its military actions to the territory of South Ossetia. Actions in other parts of Georgia are already showing signs of eroding the official Russian rationale for its presence and further action, particularly on the ground, would give strong visual support to Georgia's claims.