Europe's Verdict on the Georgia War

Saturday, October 3, 2009

EVEN BEFORE the shooting ended, Russia's invasion of Georgia last year prompted an international debate about who bore responsibility for the conflict. For many in the United States, the answer was fairly obvious: Russia, after all, had been overtly preparing for war for months before its troops began their rampage, and Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin made clear from the outset that his goal was to overthrow the pro-American government of Mikheil Saakashvili. But many Europeans were reluctant to allow their relations with Russia to be soured by a small country in the Caucuses. So at the impetus of Germany, an independent "fact-finding mission" was established.

The results, released Wednesday in a lengthy report, won't please the hard-core partisans of either side. But they ought to be particularly disappointing to Mr. Putin and his apologists. Written by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, the report rejects Russia's main claims about the conflict, finds it guilty of sponsoring or tolerating human rights crimes, and asserts that any country that follows Moscow's lead in recognizing two provinces of Georgia as independent nations will itself be violating international law.

The report finds that "open hostilities" began with a Georgian attack on the capital of the rebel province of South Ossetia on the night of Aug. 7, 2008 -- an act that the United States rightly condemned at the time. But the mission also documented a long lead-up of provocative acts by Russia and its local allies in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow's claim that Georgia committed "genocide" and thus justified its invasion, the report says, was false; moreover, "much of the Russian military action went far beyond the reasonable limits of defense." The mission also confirmed that "irregular armed groups on the South Ossetian side that would not or could not be adequately controlled by regular Russian armed forces" committed violations of human rights law and possibly war crimes, including the ethnic cleansing of Georgians.

A year later, Mr. Putin's attempt to subjugate Georgia looks like one of his worse blunders. Only two other countries -- Nicaragua and Venezuela -- have recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Mr. Saakashvili remains in office, and relations between Russia and all of its other neighbors have deteriorated. Now even Mr. Putin's European Union advocates will be hard-pressed to defend his actions.

That doesn't mean the danger of further Russian aggression is over. Mr. Putin still claims the right to a 19th-century-style sphere of influence extending to Georgia, Ukraine and other nations of the former Soviet Union. If U.S. support for those countries is seen by Moscow to slacken, another war will soon follow.

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