From the New York Times oped page:
For Putin, Disinformation Is Power
By ARKADY OSTROVSKY AUG. 5, 2016
… Today, Mr. Putin presents Russia’s actions as responsive, not aggressive. Every time Russia attacks a former Soviet republic, the confrontation is portrayed as a proxy war started by America against Russia. When Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, the United States was in the midst of a presidential election that the incumbent Republican Party would soon lose, so the war was followed the next year not by tough sanctions against Russia but with a “reset” initiated by the new Democratic president, Barack Obama, and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
Speaking of “disinformation,” the August 7, 2008 Georgian tank invasion of Russia-protected South Ossetia during the Beijing Olympics should have been one of the more instructive events of recent times. But it’s unclear how many Americans ever understood what really happened the night before the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony, and a large fraction of those who did know have now forgotten.
It was reported in the press in roughly four waves:
1. Immediately: Stringers reported that, after long-running cross-border provocations by both sides, Georgian tanks were rolling past the international observers who demarcate the de facto border between Georgia and South Ossetia.
2. The next few days: American media bigfoots reported that Russian tanks had started the war by invading Georgia — I mean, it wouldn’t make any sense, would it, for tiny Georgia to attack giant Russia?
3. The next several months: Careful retrospective analyses in the Western press determined that the full story was quite complex, but when it came to the central question of whose tanks invaded whom, the stringers had been right and the bigfoots wrong.
4. The years since: Opinion journalists forget Stage 3 and go back to assuming the Stage 2 bigfoots were right.
I found this interesting interview with Putin in The Guardian of September 11, 2008. I had never heard before that Putin and Bush, who were both spectators at the Beijing Olympics, held an emergency meeting over the war (although it was briefly reported at the time).
Bush failed to halt Georgia war, says Putin
· Russian PM defends use of force to aid South Ossetia
· Britain condemned for hosting exile leaders
Jonathan Steele in Sochi
Thursday 11 September 2008 19.01 EDT
Russia only sent troops and tanks to drive Georgian forces out of South Ossetia after President George Bush failed to put pressure on Georgia’s president to stop his attacks on the breakaway territory, Vladimir Putin said yesterday. The Russian prime minister told a group of western journalists and experts on Russia that he held two meetings with the US leader during the Beijing Olympics as the crisis began to unfold, but received insufficient assurances from him.
“They [Georgian military forces] launched their attacks at 23:30 [on August 7]. I learned about it the following morning. I spoke to Bush. He said ‘No one wants war.’ We expected something would happen,” Putin said, suggesting that he expected the US to rein in its regional ally in Tbilisi.
“I met him again at the stadium. I can’t tell you in detail the content of the conversation, but I had the feeling that his administration wouldn’t do anything about stopping the conflict,” Putin said. Russian tanks were then ordered to move on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.
It is the first time that Putin has blamed the US for allowing the crisis to erupt. He was polite about Bush, saying he respected his integrity, but he suggested that the president’s advisers had taken the key decisions. “It’s a court which makes a king. Maybe the court thought the king shouldn’t intervene,” he said. …
Despite his tough language over the South Ossetia conflict, Putin refused to issue threats against the west for supporting Georgia. He accused the US of training the Georgian army before its attack on Tskhinvali last month. “They sent instructors who helped to mobilise the Georgian forces. Of course we had to respond.”
The U.S. had sent 1,000 American troops to Georgia on July 15, 2008 to conduct a joint war game, Operation Immediate Response 2008, for a couple of weeks. The U.S. troops went home and the end of July, but the mobilized Georgians went on to invade South Ossetia. (War games are how you disguise mobilizing for war.)
Throughout yesterday’s three-hour meeting, he blamed the west for being stuck in cold war “anti-Russian phobia”, and the American presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, for “playing the Russian card”. This was “only a sign of the candidates’ weakness”, he said.
Making it clear that any expansion of Nato to Georgia or Ukraine would be unwelcome to Moscow, Putin said it was time to create a security architecture for Europe which reflected the new realities in the continent.
In the spring of 2008, the U.S. had tried to get NATO to put Georgia and Ukraine on the path to NATO membership, but the Western European powers had been unenthusiastic.
A few general lessons I would take away from the 2008 fiasco are:
- It’s hard to remember events that don’t fit into your worldview. As Putin as ascended into Public Enemy #1, the events of August 2008 have becoming hard and harder for American elites to remembe
- Militaries on all sides routinely put a lot of effort into probing and possibly provoking potential enemies, so it can be complicated to figure out the past and it can be complicated to keep track of what your military is up to, much less allies. This near-war between America and Russia was put into motion by a lot of provocations launched at each other by hotheaded Georgians and South Ossetians. But the militaries of the great powers also have an interest in getting their local pals to provoke the other side enough to get the defenses of the great power to light up, which can make for very useful military intelligence. So, while national leaders might be off watching the Olympics, all sorts of stuff can be happening that might lead to a crisis.
- Post-Cold War muscle-flexing by the Americans and their allies against the Russian and their allies (e.g., Croatia’s American-guided Operation Storm against the Serbs in August 1995) are a real mental black hole for American media.