Strangely preoccupied with undercutting the pro-Georgia attitudes prevalent in the American national security establishment’s position on the sometimes-violent Russia-Georgia conflict, leftist writers have sought—unconvincingly—to portray Georgia as the aggressor in the two countries’ August 2008 war.
The latest such effort comes from Joshua Kucera over at the Atlantic. The headline and subheadline are both wildly off the mark—and telling. The article is titled, “Condoleezza Rice Blames Georgian Leader for War With Russia,” a claim based on Rice’s newly released memoirs, and is echoed by Kucera in his first paragraph, where he writes that Rice accuses Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili of letting Russia provoke him into “starting a war over South Ossetia.” The second headline–written by the Atlantic’s editors–is even more revealing: “The former secretary of state contradicts the view, held by many U.S. Republicans, that Russia began the 2008 war.” Let’s start with the latter claim.
It is fashionable to assert that it’s just some “Republicans” who refuse to give Russia a fair shake. But during that 2008 war, here is how Barack Obama, then a candidate for president, described the start of the war: “What is clear is that Russia has invaded Georgia’s sovereign — has encroached on Georgia’s sovereignty.” I don’t think President Obama considers himself a Republican. The Washington Post editorial board, no mouthpiece for the Republican party, calls Georgia “a U.S. ally subjected to a Russian invasion in 2008.”
Kucera also mentions Ronald Asmus to bolster the claim the U.S. briefly considered helping Georgia militarily. He could also have quoted Asmus—an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration—that the size of Russia’s immediate military deployment made it clear Russia had planned this war in advance. Here is Asmus’s account:
It was not only the scope and size of that deployment that points to many months of preparation. Everything, from the modernization of military bases and railroad infrastructure, to the increased deliveries of advanced weapons systems and matériel to both Russian and separatist forces in the months prior to the invasion, as well as the prepositioning of key elements of the Black Sea fleet, suggests a major undertaking planned well in advance.
So, far from being some kind of Republican conspiracy theory, the evidence clearly points the finger at Russia. Partisans of both parties have followed that evidence. With regard to Kucera’s claim that Rice blames Saakashvili, Kucera gets the quotes right but the analysis wrong.
It’s true, as Kucera writes, Rice warned Saakashvili not to let the Russians provoke him, and Saakashvili refused to sign a non-use-of-force agreement before full-scale war broke out. But he also quotes this line from Rice as confirmation of his theory: “Despite Georgia’s unilateral ceasefire earlier in the day, South Ossetian rebel forces continued shelling ethnic Georgian villages in and around the capital, Tskhinvali. In response, the Georgian military commenced a heavy military offensive against the rebels…”
Here’s the next sentence, however, in Rice’s memoir, which Kucera should have included as well: “Only thirty minutes after Georgia began its offensive, Russia came to the aid of the South Ossetian rebels, moving its 58th Army tanks through the Roki Tunnel into Georgian territory.” So what we have is a unilateral ceasefire from Georgia before Russia’s involvement in the hostilities. When rebels continued shelling sovereign Georgian territory, Saakashvili decided he had to defend his citizens. And that’s when Russia—who everyone agrees was not attacked—enacted their pre-planned assault by moving their forces in to fight the Georgian army.
It should also be noted that Russia’s terms for ending hostilities included the demand that Saakashvili be removed from power in Georgia. Rice writes that she was so infuriated by the suggestion she immediately called European leaders and told them the outrageous suggestion from the Russian government. She writes: “The whole thing had an air of the Soviet period, when Moscow had controlled the fate of leaders throughout Eastern Europe. I was certainly not going to be party to a return to those days.”
Not only had Russia planned the war in advance, but the Kremlin had done so in order to overthrow the elected president of a post-Soviet country. Kucera gets it backwards; Rice’s account—when read and quoted in full—confirms the bipartisan consensus that Russia deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the war.
UPDATE: The post has been updated to reflect the fact that framing the article as a partisan attack on Republicans was the Atlantic’s editorial decision, not Kucera’s.