Though I originally meant to write my own analysis of what the Wikileaks cables have contributed to our understanding of the 2008 South Ossetia War, I realized that I would essentially be trying to duplicate the excellent efforts of Patrick Armstrong. (See also the New York Times article Embracing Georgia, U.S. Misread Signs of Rifts). Patrick’s article for Russia Other Points Of View is reprinted below:
I have been a diplomat: I have written reports like the ones leaked and I have read many. And my conclusion is that some report writers are better informed than others. So it is with a strange sense of déjà vu that I have read the Wikileaks on US reports.
My sources for the following are the reports presented at this Website (passed to me by Metin Sonmez – thank you): (Direct quotations are bolded; I will not give detailed references – search the site). The reports published there are a small sample of all the communications that would have passed from the posts to Washington in August 2008. They are, in fact, low-grade reporting tels with low security classifications and only a partial set at that. Nonetheless they give the flavour of what Washington was receiving from its missions abroad. (It is inconceivable that the US Embassy in Tbilisi was reporting everything Saakashvili told it without comment in one set of reports while another said that he was lying; that’s not how it works).
One of the jobs of embassies is to inform their headquarters; in many cases, this involves passing on what they are told without comment. But passive transmission does not justify the fabulous expense of an Embassy – official statements are easy to find on the Net – informed judgement is what you are paying for. We don’t see a lot of that in these reports. What struck me immediately upon reading the reports from Tbilisi was how reliant they were on Official Tbilisi. Had they never talked to Okruashvili, or Kitsmarishvili? They could have told them that the conquest of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was always on the agenda. They actually did speak to Kitsmarishvili: he says he met with Ambassador Tefft to ask whether Washington had given Tbilisi “U.S. support to carry out the military operation” as he said the Tbilisi leadership believed it had. He says Tefft “categorically denied that”. How about former close associates of Saakashvili like Burjanadze or Zurabishvili who could have told them how trustworthy he was? (The last’s French connections may have helped insulate Paris from swallowing Saakashvili’s version whole).
The first report from Tbilisi, on 6 August, deals with Georgian reports of fighting in South Ossetia. This doesn’t mean anything in particular – sporadic outbursts have been common on the border since the war ended in 1992 – they are generally a response to the other side’s activities. What’s important about this particular outburst is that it formed the base of Saakashvili’s Justification 1.0 for his attack. We now must remind readers of his initial statement to the Georgian people when he thought it was almost over: “Georgian government troops had gone ‘on the offensive’ after South Ossetian militias responded to his peace initiative on August 7 by shelling Georgian villages.” His justification changed as what he had to explain grew more catastrophic. The US Embassy in Tbilisi comments (ie not reporting what they were told:comments are the Embassy speaking) “From evidence available to us it appears the South Ossetians started today’s fighting. The Georgians are now reacting by calling up more forces and assessing their next move. It is unclear to the Georgians, and to us, what the Russian angle is and whether they are supporting the South Ossetians or actively trying to help control the situation”. The comment sets the stage: the Ossetians started it and Moscow may be involved. There appears to be no realisation that the Ossetians are responding to some Georgian activity (itself a reaction to an Ossetian activity and so on back to 1991, when the Georgians attacked). Shouldn’t Tefft have wondered at this point why Kitsmarishvili had asked him that question a few months earlier? (Parenthetically I might observe that there is never, in any of the reports that I have seen, any consideration, however fleeting, of the Ossetian point of view. But that is the Original Sin of all of this: Stalin’s borders are sacrosanct and Ossetians are nothing but Russian proxies).
On 8 August comes what is probably the most important message that the US Embassy in Tbilisi sent to its masters in Washington: “Saakashvili has said that Georgia had no intention of getting into this fight, but was provoked by the South Ossetians and had to respond to protect Georgian citizens and territory.” The comment is: “All the evidence available to the country team supports Saakashvili’s statement that this fight was not Georgia’s original intention. Key Georgian officials who would have had responsibility for an attack on South Ossetia have been on leave, and the Georgians only began mobilizing August 7 once the attack was well underway. As late as 2230 last night Georgian MOD and MFA officials were still hopeful that the unilateral cease-fire announced by President Saakashvili would hold. Only when the South Ossetians opened up with artillery on Georgian villages, did the offensive to take Tskhinvali begin. Post has eyes on the ground at the Ministry of Interior command post in Tbilisi and will continue to provide updates..,. If the Georgians are right, and the fighting is mainly over, the real unknown is what the Russian role will be and whether there is potential for the conflict to expand.” The Embassy also reported “We understand that at this point the Georgians control 75 percent of Tskhinvali and 11 villages around it. Journalists report that Georgian forces are moving toward the Roki tunnel”. How wrong can you be? The Georgians did not control 75% of Tskhinval and they were not approaching Roki; at this time their attack had already run out of steam, stopped by the Ossetian militia.
“Saakashvili and the Georgian leadership now believe that this entire Russian military operation is all part of a grand design by Putin to take Georgia and change the regime.” Already we see that Tbilisi is preparing the ground for Justification 2.0. I refer the reader to Saakashvili’s “victory speech” made on Day 1. As I have written elsewhere, when Saakashvili saw that his war was not turning out as he expected, he changed his story. The Embassy reports the beginnings of Justification 2.0 without comment: “Saakashvili, who told the Ambassador that he was in Gori when a Russian bomb fell in the city center, confirmed that the Georgians had not decided to move ahead until the shelling intensified and the Russians were seen to be amassing forces on the northern side of the Roki Tunnel.” From the US NATO delegation we get the final version of Justification 2.0: “Crucially, part of their calculus had been information that Russian forces were already moving through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia. Tkeshelashvili underlined that the Russian incursion could not have been a response to the Georgian thrust into South Ossetia because the Russians had begun their movements before the Georgians.” But, really – think about it – would Georgia have invaded in the hope that its forces could beat the Russians on a 60 kilometre road race into Tskhinval that the Russians had already started?
But at last we begin to see some scepticism: “It is increasingly difficult to get an accurate analysis of the military situation because of the fog of war and the fact that the Georgian command and control system has broken down.” By the 12th Georgian reports are accompanied by some caution: “Note: Post is attempting to obtain independent confirmation of these events. End note.” At last it is comparing the different stories: “Merabishvili said that 600 of his MOIA special forces, with their Kobra vehicles (armored Humvees with 40-mm guns), took Tskhinvali in six hours, against 2,000 defenders. He claimed that in the future they will use the attack to teach tactics. He returned again to the subject, noting that ‘we held Tskhinvali for four days despite the Russians’ bombing. Half of our men were wounded, but none died. These guys are heroes.’ (Comment: Post understands MOIA control of Tskhinvali was actually closer to 24 hours. End Comment.)”
Nonetheless the Embassy passively transmits: “bombed hospitals”; “Russian Cossacks are shooting local Georgians and raping women/girls”; “The Georgians suffered terrible losses (estimated in the thousands) overnight”; “Russian helicopters were dropping flares on the Borjomi national forest to start fires”; “Russia targeted civilians in Gori and Tskhinvali”; “the Backfires targeted 95 percent civilian targets”; “raping women and shooting resisters”; “stripped Georgian installations they have occupied of anything valuable, right down to the toilet seats”.
However, enough of this: it’s clear that the US Embassy in Tbilisi believed what it was told, had not in the past questioned what it was told and, for the most part, uncritically passed on what it had been told. The US Embassy reports shaped the narrative in key areas:
1. Ossetians (and maybe Moscow) started it;
2. The Russian forces were doing tremendous and indiscriminate damage;
3. Possibly the Russians wanted to take over Georgia altogether.
Many reports deal with attempts to produce a unified statement of condemnation from NATO and show differences among the members. On the one hand, “Latvia, echoed by Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland highlighted their Presidents’ joint statement on the crisis and invited Allies to support that declaration. Each of these Allies expressed that Russian violence should ‘not serve the aggressor’s purpose’ and that NATO should respond by suspending all NRC activity with the exception of any discussion aimed at bringing an end to the conflict. Bulgaria liked the idea immediately”. But not everyone bought into Washington’s contention that Ossetia or Moscow had started it: “Hungary and Slovakia called for NATO to take into account the role Georgia played at the beginning of this recent conflict, suggesting that Georgia invaded South Ossetia without provocation.” Germany is even described as “parroting Russian points on Georgian culpability for the crisis” and described as “the standard bearer for pro-Russia camp”. Would Berlin’s scepticism have any connection with the fact that Der Spiegel was the only Western media outlet that got it right: “Saakashvili lied 100 percent to all of us, the Europeans and the Americans.”? Eventually, after a lot of back and forth, there is agreement that Moscow’s response was “disproportionate”. (But how much was that judgement affected by Tbilisi’s hysterical reports of indiscriminate bombardment, casualties in the thousands and the exaggerated reports about the destruction of Gori? To say nothing of meretricious reporting by Western media.)
The Western media – with the exception of Der Spiegel – was no better. Perhaps the best example of its slanted and incompetent coverage was passing off pictures of Tskhinval as pictures from Gori: one newspaper even tried to pass off a Georgian soldier – wearing a visible Georgian flag patch – as a Russian in “blazing” Gori. It was months before the New York Times or the BBC, for example, began to climb off their Tbilisi-fed reporting.
During the war I was interviewed by Russia Today and I said that, sitting at my computer in my basement in Ottawa, far from the centre of the world, I had a better take on what was happening than Washington did. I see nothing in these reports to change my opinion. I also said that the war would be a reality check for the West when it was understood that Moscow’s version of events was a much better fit with reality than Tbilisi’s. And so it has proved to be.
Why did I do better? Assumptions. The American diplomats assumed that Tbilisi was telling the truth (despite the strong hint from Kitmarishvili). People in Warsaw, Riga and other places assumed that Russia wanted to conquer Georgia. On the other hand, my assumption was that Tbilisi hardly ever told the truth – I had followed all the back and forth about jihadists in Pankisi or Ruslan Gelayev’s attack on Abkhazia. I knew about Saakashvili’s takeover of Imedi TV. I knew that Ossetians had reasons to fear Tbilisi years ago and more recently. I knew that they were only in Georgia because Stalin-Jughashvili had put them there and that they wanted out. I remembered the Gamsakhurdia years when all this began. I was not pre-disposed to believe Tbilisi on this, or, truth to tell, anything else. Assumptions are everything and that is what we see in these reports. Russia is assumed to be evil, Georgia assumed to be good.
But, what a change in only two years: today NATO courts Russia and Saakashvili courts Iran.
Patrick Armstrong received a PhD from Kings College, University of London, England in 1976 and started working for the Canadian government as a defence scientist in 1977. He began a 22-year specialisation on the USSR and then Russia in 1984, and was Political Counsellor in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow from 1993 to 1996.