Assisted by a small army of experts, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini has spent close to a year investigating the origins of the war that initially shocked Europe but then was relatively quickly forgotten in the midst of the global economic crisis that succeeded it. As expected, both sides have claimed that the 40-page report—with a thousand pages of appendices—vindicates their version of events. Yet anyone who bothers to read the document will find that the Tagliavini Commission apportions the overwhelming part of the responsibility for the conflict on Moscow. In fact, it rejects practically every item in Russia’s version of what supposedly happened last year.
The press has so far focused on the commission’s conclusion that Georgia started the war. That should, however, not be confused with the question of responsibility: Firing the first shot does not necessarily mean being the aggressor. The report acknowledges this, concluding that, "there is no way to assign overall responsibility for the conflict to one side alone." The report details the extended series of Russian provocations, accelerating in the spring of 2008, that precipitated the war.
The report faults Georgia for lacking a legal basis for its attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, and for the use of indiscriminate force there. But on the crucial Georgian claim that it was responding to a Russian invasion, the report equivocates: The mission is "not in a position" to consider the Georgian claims "sufficiently substantiated." This is an exercise in semantics, since the next sentences acknowledge that Russia provided military training and equipment to the rebels, and that "volunteers and mercenaries" entered Georgian territory from Russia before the Georgian attack. One is left wondering what would be necessary for a spade to be called a spade.
But the report is far more devastating in its dismissal of Russia’s justification for its invasion—in fact surprisingly so for an EU product. As will be recalled, Russia variously claimed it was protecting its citizens; engaging in a humanitarian intervention; responding to a Georgian "genocide" of Ossetians; or responding to an attack on its peacekeepers. The EU report finds that because Russia’s distribution of passports to Abkhazians and Ossetians in the years prior to the war was illegal, its rationale of rescuing its "citizens" is invalid as they were not legally Russian. It also concludes that Moscow’s claim of humanitarian intervention cannot be recognized "at all," in particular given the Kremlin’s past opposition to the entire concept of humanitarian intervention.
The list goes on. The report finds Russian allegations of genocide founded in neither law nor evidence. In other words, they’re not true. And whereas the report does acknowledge a Russian right to protect its peacekeepers, it finds that Moscow’s response "cannot be regarded as even remotely commensurate with the threat to Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia." On the other hand, it faults Russia for failing to intervene against the ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetia and Abkhazia that took place during and after the war. Finally, it castigates Russia’s recognition of the independence of the two breakaway territories as illegal, and as a dangerous erosion of the principles of international law.
In sum, the official EU inquiry found that none of Russia’s various justifications for its invasion of Georgia hold water, and also faults Russia’s behavior following the conflict, as Moscow continues to be in material breach of the EU-negotiated cease-fire agreement. While the report will be of great use to historians, its main implications should concern the present, because just as the war did not begin in August 2008, the conflict between Russia and Georgia is not over. While the war’s military phase only lasted a few weeks, it continues in the diplomatic, political, and economic realms. Russia successfully evicted the international community from the conflict zones and expanded its military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, building large bases there. Its economic warfare against Georgia continues, as does its efforts at subversion inside the country. Most importantly, Russia’s stated objective of regime change and the effective termination of Georgia’s sovereignty goes on.
This conflict continues to destabilize a part of Europe to which the West has so far not paid sufficient attention. The EU, now engaged also on the ground in Georgia, must go beyond reluctantly accepting, as it has, that this conflict is a European problem. It needs to overcome its internal divisions and pursue a cohesive strategy toward Georgia—one that takes its basis in the country’s European identity and aspirations, as well as its right to sovereignty and security. As for the White House, it would ignore at its own peril one of the EU report’s final conclusions: "Notions such as privileged spheres of interest…are irreconcilable with international law. They are dangerous to international peace and stability. They should be rejected."
And doing so will take more than words and the scrapping of missile shields—it will take the type of serious engagement that neither the EU not the U.S. have so far been willing to pursue.
Mr. Svante E. Cornell is research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University-Sais and director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, and co-editor of "The Guns of August 2008: Russia’s War in Georgia" (M.E. Sharpe, 2009).
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