By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 1, 2009
MOSCOW, Sept. 30 -- An independent inquiry ordered by the European Union has concluded that Georgia violated international law and triggered last year's war with Russia by attacking the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
In a report released Wednesday that could redefine public views of the five-day war, the European mission also found that Russia's invasion of Georgia after the attack was illegal and unjustified and that Russian-backed Ossetian militias conducted ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages.
"There is no way to assign overall responsibility for the conflict to one side alone," the report concluded. "They all have failed, and it should be their responsibility to make good for it."
The probe into the causes of the August 2008 war was intended to establish an internationally accepted set of facts that might move Russia and Georgia toward a lasting settlement of their differences. But both countries seized on the report to justify their long-standing positions while rejecting those portions that undermined their arguments.
In the most significant finding, the report said Georgia ignited the war after a long period of mounting tensions by shelling the separatist enclave of South Ossetia. The report acknowledged that Russian forces appeared to have entered Georgia before the attack but rejected the Georgian government's claim that a large-scale invasion had necessitated a military response.
"None of the explanations given by the Georgian authorities in order to provide some form of legal justification for the attack" are valid, Heidi Tagliavini, the Swiss diplomat assigned to lead the investigation, said in a statement accompanying the 1,000-page report. "In particular, there was no massive Russian military invasion underway, which had to be stopped by Georgian military forces shelling Tskhinvali," the capital of South Ossetia.
But Tagliavini cautioned that an analysis of the causes of the war should not focus simply on who fired the first shot, noting that Russia escalated tensions and violated international law by giving citizenship to most residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia. Any evaluation, she wrote, "has to consider, too, the impact of a great power's coercive politics and diplomacy against a small and insubordinate neighbor," as well as the neighbor's "fear that it might permanently lose important parts of its territory through creeping annexation."
The report is likely to prove damaging to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has repeatedly asserted that he mobilized troops in response to a Russian invasion and whom critics portray as an autocrat who blundered into a war that could not be won. A favorite of the Bush administration, Saakashvili has been trying to persuade a reluctant Obama administration to provide his nation with defensive arms. Georgia receives more U.S. aid per capita than almost any other country.
Eka Tkeshelashvili, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, said Tagliavini did a fair job of laying out facts but drew the wrong conclusions. She noted a section of the report that confirms "an influx of volunteers or mercenaries from the territory of the Russian Federation" as well as "the presence of some Russian forces in South Ossetia" before the Georgian attack. The report also said Ossetian militias had attacked Georgian villages.
"Foreign military forces are entering and already present on your territory, and your citizens, thousands of them, are facing death and isolated by heavy bombardment," she said in an interview. "What would any responsible democratic government facing this type of situation do?"
Tagliavini declined interview requests, and it was unclear how she had reached her conclusion that there was no Russian attack. The report said investigators had no access to intelligence reports or satellite imagery from intelligence agencies. The report also includes no discussion of materials that Georgia says prove its case, including intercepts of phone calls between Russian soldiers describing a backup of military vehicles in the key tunnel between Russia and South Ossetia on the night in question.
Instead, it relies heavily on a legal analysis that says Georgia's attack on Tskhinvali could not be considered self-defense because bombarding the capital would not have stopped the Ossetian assault on Georgian villages.
The report also said investigators could not determine whether Georgian troops deliberately attacked and killed Russian peacekeeping forces in Tskhinvali, or whether the Russians fired first and led the Georgians to return fire. But even if Russian peacekeepers were attacked, the report said, that would not have justified the large-scale invasion of Georgia that followed.
Russia rejected that finding but hailed the report as a vindication. "It provides an unequivocal answer to the main question of 'Who started the war?' " Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the European Union, told reporters in Brussels. "The report is mostly objective, and it makes the conclusion that the conflict began with Georgia's aggression."
Eduard Kokoity, the president of South Ossetia, issued a statement that condemned Saakashvili but said nothing to rebut the report's conclusion that Ossetian militias engaged in "systematic looting and destruction of ethnic Georgian villages." The report accused Russia of failing to stop and prevent the actions.