Russia Invades Georgia, U.S. Issues Sharp Rebuke

Michael McFaul
Foreign Policy Expert, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Tuesday, August 12, 2008; 1:00 PM

Michael McFaul, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was online Tuesday, Aug. 12 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the Russian-Georgian conflict regarding South Ossetia, Russia's move to take control of western Georgia, and the U.S. response.

The Latest: Russian President Halts Military Action in Georgia ( Post, Aug. 12)

A transcript follows.


Houston: Have the Russian claims of Georgia's brutality been verified? Did the Georgian forces truly inflict severe civilian losses? I find it hard to believe Putin's claims, but I'm slowly learning to never say never...

Michael McFaul: They have not been verified, and most certainly not the claims of "genocide." Eventually, an international group will have to be engaged to sort this all out. We need to know the real facts on the ground


Paul: I know that in this day and age we are supposed to at least pay lip service to the idea that "there are two sides to every story," but there is something just so tendentious about the Russian version of events that it simply invites derision. I know that Saakashvili is a slippery character, but according to the Russians, in the span of a few hours Georgian forces carried out more civilian atrocities than Genghis Khan (I exaggerate to make a point).

We are then supposed to believe that solely in response to this, the Russians carried out a massive retaliation, the extent of which might lead skeptical minds to think it had been planned well in advance. My own cynical interpretation is that the Russians are trying to stage events very carefully to parallel the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia, to create a very cynical quid pro quo.

Michael McFaul: First, colleagues, let me apologize ahead of time. I am dyslexic and will make many typos, as I am responding quickly and without spell check.

Yes, two side to every story. Here, in rough form, is how I see it:

First, there were skirmishes between paramilitary and police groups of Ossetians and Georgians.

Second, Saakashvili eventually responded to these skirmishes by using ground forces and a bombing campaign against the South Ossetian capital. Innocent lives were lost in this campaign. I personally consider this to have been an inappropriate response to the situation at the time.

Third, Russia invaded Georgia. They did not try to simply restore the status quo in South Ossetia. This is a violation of international law. The scale of the offensive is especially disproportionate, as was the Russian rejection of cease-fire offers earlier on.

More generally, its clear that Russia has wanted this fight for a long time. The operation obviously was planned well in advance.


Washington DC: Why is there so much anti-Russian propaganda in the American media? Why is there so little mention of the fact that the Georgians started this, that they were the aggressors in this case? In fact, if you read the British press (such as The Times, The Guardian, etc.), you will find these facts mentioned and discussed a lot more than here in America. With the exception of the op-ed by Gorbachev in today's Post, I don't see a lot of objectivity in the American media regarding this situation, and even our closest allies (the British) are laying some of the blame on Saakashvili.

Michael McFaul: I can't judge objectivity, as I haven't had time to read most of the coverage. I would say this. We still don't know who started the initial fighting. Saakashvili escalated; the Russians then really escalated. I do think there is a difference, though, between exercising sovereignty over one's own territory (even if I personally think the way in which the Georgian government. exercised sovereignty was not justified) and invading another country. These two things cannot be equated.


Arlington, Va.: Much has been made lately of the fact that Russia has extended Russian citizenship to many of Southern Ossetia's citizens, which has served as one of the pretexts for their military intervention. Is this an accepted practice in international law, i.e. to grant citizenship en masse to residents of another state? I thought that Russia had a reputation for being rather stingy in extending citizenship to ethnic Russians in the "near abroad."

Michael McFaul: This policy was an obvious political move to lay the groundwork for "defending Russian citizens." By the way, many officials in the top positions in the so-called Ossetian government are Russians.


Austin, Texas: I just finished reading the Mikhail Gorbachev piece in The Washington Post, and I'm a bit flummoxed. Sunday and Monday most of what I read or saw on TV talked about a Russian invasion and really reminded me of the old scary days of the Cold War. World War III loomed between the lines of the columns for myself, who grew up during the Cold War. There were a couple of sentences occasionally that covered Georgia's military attack on Aug. 7 a bit, but I couldn't really figure it out. I have a hard time accepting anything whole-cloth, so let me ask: Is Gorbachev's piece largely correct, or is it just Russian propaganda?

If the former, then the American press has really done this story and myself a disservice. This is a huge, important and dangerous event in world history happening right now, and if Gorbachev's description of history is correct then his article should be one of the bold headlines in The Washington Post, not some minor side political comment. A Path to Peace in the Caucasus (Post, Aug. 12)

Michael McFaul: I don't have time to read piece right now. Will do so after answering more questions. But the real tragedy in this war is that it could have been prevented with greater attention from the international community, including the Bush administration and people like Gorbachev. There should have been a international negotiation set up months if not years ago to try to settle this dispute. There should have been international peacekeepers deployed (not just Russian peacekeepers). I absolutely am convinced that had such a process been initiated before, this war never would have started.


Midlothian, Va.: Is it just coincidence that Russia repaired some railroad spans recently that allow them to run freight trains with fuel and ammunition down to the front?

Michael McFaul: No, it's not a coincidence at all. Very good point.


Baltimore: Are there many Russian citizens in these independent regions -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia? After all this time, it seems to me that peacekeepers are occupiers. And if I read correctly in The Washington Post, etc., if they were peacekeepers, why did Russians allow the South Ossetians' cross-border skirmishes to taunt the Georgian prior to Aug. 7.

Michael McFaul: There's a lot of dual citizenship in both places


Washington: Anybody heard of this guy? "Joe Mestas, an American citizen living in South Ossetia who witnessed everything happening in the region, talked to RT and blamed U.S. and Georgian leaders for the outbreak of violence." Video Interview (Russia Today, Aug. 10)

Michael McFaul: No. Russia Today is a government run television network.


Arlington, Va.: What has been the state of negotiations over Abkhazia, Southern Ossetia, the Transdniester "Republic" and other disputed territories in the former USSR? It has been my impression, perhaps incorrect, that the Russians have stalled any meaningful negotiations by insisting on their right to intervene in these areas.

Michael McFaul: As I said before, they have been stalled for some time.


Wheaton, Md.: Do you think Russia's strong action may be to counter their "backing down" in the Serbia-Kosovo conflict?

Michael McFaul: Yes. In their view (not mine) this situation is exactly the same. That's why they emphasize that they are attacking Georgia to stop alleged ethnic cleansing in Ossetia. The Russian position, however, is very contradictory. In Chechnya, they said it was their right to restore their territorial integrity. It seems big powers get to assert their sovereignty by any mean necessary; little countries do not. (And, to be clear, I am fully aware that this U.S. also plays this double-standards game as well).


Paris: I heard on Echo of Moscow, the independent radio station in Russia, that Medvedev (or rather, Putin) had decided to leave the job half-done and refrain from attacking Tbilisi, much like Bush I had stopped short of attacking Baghdad in 1991. Do you think the cease-fire responds to pressure from abroad, or is it just another tool for the Kremlin's gestural politics?

Michael McFaul: I hope its real. I hope there was this split in Russian government. I skeptical though. For the whole war, Putin has been running the show.


Alexandria, Va.: I think we have reason to question the mission of the Russian "peacekeepers" who had been stationed in South Ossetia. Were (are) there any neutral peacekeepers on the ground?

Michael McFaul: No. These "peacekeepers" need to be replaced by new forces.


Arlington, Va.: I'm surprised I hear nothing in the news comparing Russia's stance in Georgia with its own internal politics. I don't have a side in this conflict, but it sure seems like Russia is in favor of ethnic autonomy or even independence, provided those ethnic peoples are located in neighboring sovereign states. But how do they now present their own policy in Chechnya, or say Ingushetia, after their very public justifications of this invasion?

Michael McFaul: Exactly. Double standards.


Reston, Va.: I admit that my modern history is somewhat lacking, but it makes no sense to me that a territory of Russia for centuries would be autonomous. Stalin himself was from Georgia. However, Georgia is independent.

But doesn't Russia have a responsibility to protect their citizens? And is this really any of the U.S.'s business?

Michael McFaul: It's the U.S business because the US has a national interest in preserving international order. We cant just stand by ideally when one country invade another. Where does it stop? I know the Ukrainian government is extremely worried about their security right now.

The Bush Administration, however, is very constrained right now concerning these moral arguments because of our invasion of Iraq.


Silver Spring, Md.: Given a free choice, what would the South Ossetians choose for themselves? Being an independent country? Being a part of Russia? Also, is this fight really about South Ossetia? In other words, does this region have any sort of priceless resources or strategic importance that would justify a large-scale battle to claim it? This whole thing seems to have sprung up out of nowhere.

Michael McFaul: We don't have good data on this. S. Ossetia is a very small place -- 50,000-70,000 people. Its been a haven for criminals -- drug dealers, arms smugglers, etc.

We do have data on Russians. The Levada Canter just released a survey which showed that a majority of Russians do not want these 2 territories to become part of Russia.


Columbia, S.C.: Has any humanitarian aid been dispatched to the civilians in Georgia? It is heart-breaking to see the displaced and wounded elderly and children.

Michael McFaul: Not to my knowledge. It should be ASAP, mike


Bethesda, Md.: Didn't Ossetia fight and win a civil war with Georgia in 1991? My understanding is that it declared independence but no other country recognized it (except Russia). It seems that, given the length of time that Ossetia has maintained de facto independence, it clearly was a violation of its territory when Georgia attacked. It would seem there is some leeway for the West to admonish Georgia for its action and maybe gain some credibility with the Russians in brokering a deal.

Michael McFaul: No other country in the world, including Russia, had recognized South Ossetia as a country.


Freising, Germany: If both Abkhazia and South Ossetia fall under Russian jurisdiction, would Georgia, with it's borders stable and well-defined, actually become more eligible for NATO and EU memberships? Theoretically at least, the conflict with Russia would be over, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline has to be protected by someone.

Michael McFaul: Maybe. I just don't see Georgia going along with this.


Washington: Just out of curiosity, does Turkey play a role in this sort of issue, given their similarly long history with Russia? Do they get antsy when Russian troops head south, notwithstanding U.S. air bases in the country or its membership in NATO?

Michael McFaul: Yes. They are nervous.


Baltimore: Regarding the timing of Georgia's action, as I understand it, South Ossetia had broken away from Georgia some time ago. What was the calculation on the Georgian government's part that now was the right time to assert its sovereignty over the region? And how could they have so woefully miscalculated what the Russian reaction would be? Thanks.

Michael McFaul: They did miscalculate. Why they did, I do not know -- very important question.


Salinas, Calif.: Can you explain to me why the neocon establishment in Washington is critical of Russia's actions in South Ossetia, but was condoning Israel's bombing of South Lebanon a few years ago? Do these people have a yardstick to justify what events constitute reason for legitimate military action, or do they just pick sides based on whom they consider their allies/enemies?

Michael McFaul: I cannot,


New York: Perhaps I am the only one who believes this, but didn't Georgia provoke this conflict? Granted, they are a democracy and pro-Western, and this is their territory, but they had to know what would happen if they took control of South Ossetia...

Michael McFaul: I already have given my best answer on this


Arlington, Va.: Bush's invasion of Iraq was no more justifiable than Russia's invasion of Georgia, so how can Bush complain about it?

Michael McFaul: Agree.


Los Angeles: If the Kosovars have a right to self-determination why don't the Ossetians?

Michael McFaul: Georgia did not commit genocide against Ossetians.


Michael McFaul: Looks like I'm out of questions, so Ill sign off. Thanks for the very lively discussion!


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