AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 38/2008

Did Saakashvili Lie? The West Begins to Doubt Georgian Leader

By SPIEGEL Staff

Five weeks after the war in the Caucasus the mood is shifting against Georgian President Saakashvili. Some Western intelligence reports have undermined Tbilisi's version of events, and there are now calls on both sides of the Atlantic for an independent investigation.

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili visits Gori last week.
AP

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili visits Gori last week.

Hillary Clinton looks tired. It is Tuesday of last week as she sits, exhausted, in the United States Senate. Even her outfit, a beige blazer over a black T-shirt, looks washed out.

Gone is the glamour of the Democratic Convention in Denver, where the party nominated Barack Obama as its presidential candidate, and gone is the dream of her own presidential candidacy in 2008. Instead, it's back to business as usual for Clinton. The Senate Armed Service Committee is in session, discussing the conflict between Russia and its tiny neighbor, Georgia.

Clinton speaks late in the debate. Even her voice sounds tired. But politically she is still her old self, and she cuts right to the chase.

"Did we embolden the Georgians in any way" to use military force? she asks the members of the committee. Did the Bush administration really warn Moscow and Georgia sufficiently about the consequences of a war? And how could it be that the United States was so taken by surprise by this outbreak of hostilities? These questions, says Clinton, should be examined by a US commission, which should "in the first place determine the actual facts."

Although Clinton speaks for only a few minutes, her words show that the mood toward Georgia is shifting in the United States.

For Americans, wasn't this war in the faraway Caucasus -- over there in the Old World -- nothing but a struggle between a giant, expansionist country and a small, democratic nation it was seeking to subjugate? And wasn't Georgia attacked merely "because we want to be free," as President Mikhail Saakashvili was saying in front of CNN's cameras almost hourly?

"Today, we are all Georgians," Republican presidential candidate John McCain declared. The neoconservative commentator Robert Kagan compared the Russian action with the Nazis' 1938 invasion of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. And in a meeting with US Vice President Richard Cheney, Saakashvili was assured of Washington's support for his most fervent wish: admission to NATO.

But now, five weeks after the end of the war in the Caucasus, the winds have shifted in America. Even Washington is beginning to suspect that Saakashvili, a friend and ally, could in fact be a gambler -- someone who triggered the bloody five-day war and then told the West bold-faced lies. "The concerns about Russia have remained," says Paul Sanders, an expert on Russia and the director of the conservative Nixon Center in Washington. His words reflect the continuing Western assessment that Russia's military act of revenge against the tiny Caucasus nation Georgia was disproportionate, that Moscow violated international law by recognizing the separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and, finally, that it used Georgia as a vehicle to showcase its imperial renaissance.

But then Saunders qualifies his statement: "More and more people are realizing that there are two sides in this conflict, and that Georgia was not as much a victim as a willing participant." Members of US President George W. Bush's administration, too, are reconsidering their position. Georgia "marched into the South Ossetian capital" after a series of provocations, says Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried.

Does this suggest that America's pronouncements of solidarity with Saakashvili were just as premature as those of the Europeans? British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had called for a "radical" review of relations with Moscow, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt decried what he called a violation of international law, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised Georgia that, at some point, it would "become a member of NATO, if it so wishes."

But now the volume is being turned down on the anti-Moscow rhetoric. Last week German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier publicly called for clarification on the question of who is to blame for the Caucasus war. "We do need to know more about who bears what portion of the responsibility for the military escalation and to what extent," Steinmeier told a meeting of Germany's more than 200 ambassadors in Berlin. The European Union, he said, must now "define our relations with the parties to the conflict for the medium and long term," and that the time has come to have concrete information.

Which Side Launched the First Strikes?

Much depends on the clarification of this question of blame. After this war, the West must ask itself whether it truly wants to accept a country like Georgia into NATO, especially if this means having to intervene militarily in the Caucasus if a similar conflict arises. And what sort of partnership should it seek in the future with Russia, which, for the first time, has now become as insistent as the United States on protecting its spheres of influence?

The attempt to reconstruct the five-day war in August continues to revolve around one key question: Which side was the first to launch military strikes? Information coming from NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) now paints a different picture than the one that prevailed during the first days of the battle for the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali -- and is fueling the doubts of Western politicians.

Georgian troops fire rockets at South Ossetian separatist troops on Aug. 8.
AFP

Georgian troops fire rockets at South Ossetian separatist troops on Aug. 8.

The Georgian government continues to maintain that the war began on Thursday, Aug. 7, at 11:30 p.m. According to its account, it was at this time that it received several intelligence reports that approximately 150 Russian army vehicles had entered Georgian territory, in the separatist republic of South Ossetia, through the Roki Tunnel, which passes under the main Caucasus ridge. Their objective, say the Georgians, was Tskhinvali, and additional military columns followed beginning at 3 a.m.

"We wanted to stop the Russian troops before they could reach Georgian villages," Saakashvili told SPIEGEL recently, explaining the marching orders that were given to his army. "When our tanks moved toward Tskhinvali, the Russians bombed the city. They were the ones -- not us -- who reduced Tskhinvali to rubble." But reports by the OSCE describe a different situation in those critical hours.

The OSCE maintains a mission in South Ossetia, which was caught between the fronts when the war erupted. According to a so-called spot report that OSCE officials wrote at 11 a.m. Georgian time on Aug. 8: "Shortly before midnight, central Tskhinvali came under heavy fire and shelling, with some of it presumably coming from launching pads and artillery stationed outside the conflict zone. The Tskhinvali office of the mission was hit, and the three remaining international employees sought shelter in the basement."

Spot reports are sent regularly to the Vienna offices of the 56 OSCE member states. The Aug. 8 report is kept neutral, a reflection of the fact that both Georgia and Russia are members of the organization, so that the information it contains is initially absent of any value judgments. Instead, it merely identifies where the Russians violated Georgian airspace or where the Georgians occupied South Ossetian villages, for example.

As SPIEGEL has learned, NATO had already hazarded a far more definitive conclusion at the time. Its International Military Staff (IMS), which does the preparatory work for the Military Committee, the highest-ranking military body in the alliance, quickly evaluated the existing material. The Military Committee includes officers from all 26 member states.

At noon on Aug. 8, the NATO experts could not have deduced the full scope of the Russian advance, which Saakashvili later described as an attack, while Moscow called it an operation to "secure the peace." Nevertheless, they were already issuing internal warnings that, in light of initial Russian attacks with warplanes and short-range missiles, Moscow was not expected to remain passive.

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DER SPIEGEL 38/2008
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