Barack Obama’s stand on the South Ossetia conflict would be a litmus test of his promise of change.
The global financial crisis and the Mumbai terrorist attacks have pushed the August war between Russia and Georgia over the latter’s separatist region of South Ossetia to the fringes of the public interest. But it remains a key irritant in Russian-U.S. relations. Once Barack Obama settles down in the White House, he will have to revisit the conflict if he wants to build a constructive partnership with Moscow.
In the wake of the war, Mr. Obama, as Democratic candidate, called for “supporting the people of Georgia and standing up to Russia’s aggression.” His position echoed the dominant view on the conflict that the western media put across: “Revanchist Russia unleashed an unprovoked war against the young Georgian democracy.”
However, three months later, this view lies shattered. First the BBC, then The New York Times and others admitted that their initial reports were blatantly biased towards Georgia and based on wrong assumptions. It turned out that Georgia’s leader Mikheil Saakashvili lied when he told gullible western journalists that he sent his army to South Ossetia only after “hundreds of Russian tanks rolled into Georgian territory.”
Monitors from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said Russian forces entered South Ossetia eight or 10 hours after Georgia had attacked the positions of Russian peacekeepers. “Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the long-standing Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression,” The New York Times admitted.
International monitors said they found no evidence to support Georgia’s claim that its villages were under attack. Instead, they accused Georgia of a “completely indiscriminate and disproportionate attack,” characterised by intensive shell and rocket fire against civilian targets. Eyewitnesses told the BBC that Georgian tanks and artillery had deliberately fired on civilian apartments, and attacked refugees attempting to flee the conflict. “The inescapable conclusion is that Saakashvili started the war and lied about it,” the International Herald Tribune concluded.
Moscow can feel vindicated. A day after he sent the Russian forces into South Ossetia to repel the Georgian army, President Dmitry Medvedev, responding to mounting western criticism, said the truth was on Russia’s side and that, eventually, it would become apparent to the whole world.
Truth has now finally trickled through an avalanche of lies that the western media poured on readers and viewers at the time of the conflict. In the face of media revelations, Washington has pulled out of its support for Georgia’s Membership Action Plan in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But investigative reports have so far revealed only the tip of the iceberg. “Hopefully the U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will also pay careful attention to the true facts and draw appropriate lessons, as he ponders the future of U.S. relations with both Russia and Georgia,” the Business Week wrote.
What Mr. Obama should do after taking office is support an impartial and thorough investigation into the war. His former Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, who will head the State Department in the new administration, actually called for a commission to investigate the conflict at Congress hearings in September. The European Union has already launched an inquiry headed by a Swiss diplomat. However, Russia has urged a more comprehensive international probe under a United Nations mandate whose findings will be final and indisputable.
The U.S. could play a crucial role in establishing the truth. Mr. Obama should direct the military to release satellite images of the conflict zone at the time of the hostilities. Immediately after the conflict, Moscow called on Washington to provide the pictures but the request went unheeded.
There is no doubt the Pentagon tracked the conflict from beginning to end. When a Russian aircraft was blown up in 2001 over the Black Sea just hundreds of kilometres from Georgia, U.S. intelligence officials, citing satellite data, promptly confirmed that the plane was shot down by a Ukrainian missile fired during a military exercise even as Ukraine denied that its missiles had the range to hit the airliner. “The United States monitors military exercises worldwide as a means to view foreign military capabilities and training,” the Associated Press explained at the time.
Of course, that was before the U.S.-engineered “coloured revolutions” brought pro-western governments to power in Ukraine and Georgia. Washington’s reluctance to release intelligence information on the South Ossetia conflict prompts parallels with its efforts to conceal and twist intelligence evidence that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, which would have robbed the U.S. of a pretext to invade Iraq.
If Mr. Obama really wants to break with the Bush legacy as he declared during the election campaign, he should venture to find out not only who started the South Ossetia war but also what role some U.S. officials and politicians played in instigating the conflict.
The new U.S. President should look into the allegation that the White House had sanctioned Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia. “The U.S. leadership gave Georgia the green light for a military operation in South Ossetia,” Georgia’s former envoy to Russia, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, said in a devastating testimony before a Georgian parliamentary commission. Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin is convinced that Georgia would not have attacked South Ossetia without Washington’s approval. A Russian parliamentarian pointed his finger at Vice-President Dick Cheney as the man who had personally approved the attack in order to help Republican candidate John McCain score points over Mr. Obama.
The Georgia crisis did help Mr. McCain take a lead in the presidential race by adopting a hard line on the “Russian aggression” against a “brave little nation.” It could well have propelled him to victory had it not been for the financial crisis that broke out towards the end of the campaign. Mr. Obama might also want to know why the Bush administration chose to side with Georgia even when it had accurate information that it was the aggressor.
In its revealing report, the BBC quoted a senior OSCE official, who has since resigned, as saying he had “warned of Georgia’s military activity before its move into the South Ossetia region,” but western leaders failed to act on it. “What has now transpired, however, is that the U.S. and Britain had no excuse for not knowing how the war began,” the Independent stated. “They were briefed by the OSCE monitors at a very early stage, and those monitors included two highly experienced former British Army officers.” Despite available evidence to the contrary, U.S. officials continued to claim that Georgia was a victim of aggression. “Russia’s actions are an affront to civilised standards and are completely unacceptable,” Vice-President Cheney said. He called on “the free world to rally to the side of Georgia” as it grappled with “an invasion” and “an illegitimate, unilateral attempt to change [its] borders by force.”
However, Mr. Saakashvili has now been exposed as an aggressor and reckless gambler, who tried to set his western allies up for a confrontation with Russia. An international probe into the conflict may also throw more light on the role the U.S. military aid to Georgia played in encouraging it to try and retake its breakaway territory by force.
Apart from providing training to the Georgian army, the U.S. coordinated massive deliveries of tanks, warplanes, artillery, gunboats and anti-aircraft weapons to Georgia by NATO and other allied nations. A parliamentary enquiry in Ukraine found that the U.S. officers had been rummaging through the Ukrainian arsenal, selecting weapons to be sent to Georgia in the run-up to and during the conflict.
Russia views the war with Georgia as a turning point in its relations with the West. President Dmitry Medvedev compared the conflict in the Caucasus to America’s 9/11. While Americans saw the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as a declaration of war on their country by global terrorism, Russians took the Georgian attack on South Ossetia as a declaration of war on them by the U.S. In Russia’s view, it was the ultimate manifestation of the U.S. policy of encircling and weakening Russia. Washington has set up military bases in Eastern Europe, pushed for NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union, and has drawn up plans to deploy missile interceptors right on Russia’s doorstep.
If Mr. Obama wants to build a constructive relationship with Russia, he should begin by ordering a probe into the U.S. involvement in the South Ossetia conflict. This will demonstrate that he is not going to formulate his policy on Russia based on prejudiced reporting in the U.S. media. Mr. Obama’s stand on the South Ossetia conflict would be a litmus test of his election promise of change.