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Story Publication logo August 10, 2008

Russia, Georgia, and the fog of war

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The war between Russia and Georgia caught most of the world by surprise but it is a conflict that...

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Multiple Authors

Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center

Three journalists supported by Pulitzer Center grants were in Georgia this past week as that ex-Soviet republic's long-simmering conflict with Russia over control of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia erupted into outright war. Videographers Jason Maloney and Kira Kay and print journalist Zygmunt Dzieciolowski are working on a larger project, the extent to which Russia's emergence as a global power is affected by conflicts within Russia itself and in neighboring countries like Georgia that were once an integral part of the former Soviet Union.


That these three journalists are in such a spot at such a time is a classic example of what the Pulitzer Center is about – bringing attention to crises that don't get the media coverage they merit. You'll be seeing their broadcast and print reporting over the next few weeks – and in the meantime I hope you'll follow the excellent field reports they're posting here on the Untold Stories blog.

For a primer of how Georgia and Russia came to war start with James Traub's article in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review, buttressed by his own reporting from the region earlier this summer. One key conclusion: that advisers to both John McCain and Barack Obama are part of an emerging American consensus that sees Russia locked in a cold-war mindset and determined to re-establish itself as the dominant power in Eurasia. The Washington Post's editorial page has already decided that in the current conflict Russia is to blame. That's pretty much the view as well of Post columnist Anne Applebaum, who in Saturday's column faults the U.S. and other western powers for not doing more, sooner, to fill the security power vacuum in the region but doesn't specify particular measures or what difference they would have made. For a taste of how sharp the argument about these issues is, read the long thread of comments responding to Applebaum's column.Ossetiabread_2

For a very different perspective check out the column in today's Guardian newspaper by Oxford historian Mark Almond. He faults Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili for leading his country into war, recklessly fanning nationalist flames to rally support at home and divert attention from his failures on the economic front and intolerance of political opposition. Almond also asks the important question of why the U.S. has demanded full independence for Kosovo and the other statelets of the former Yugoslavia while adamantly opposing comparable outcomes in places like South Ossetia.

Almond's analysis tracks my own findings two years ago, in an earlier Pulitzer Center Project on the "frozen conflicts" in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and also Nagorno Karabakh, the disputed territory that Armenia has occupied since wresting it from Azerbaijan after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

I described the dangers of uncritical U.S. support for Saakashvili in an on-line article for the journal Foreign Policy. What concerned me then was millions of dollars in U.S. military aid, aggressive support of Georgia's bid for NATO membership despite Russia's objection, and President George W. Bush's repeated lionization of Saakashvili as a beacon of democracy. I argued that such policies ignored the geopolitical realities of Georgia's location and its utter dependence on Russia and that they also exacerbated the worst tendencies of Saakashvili, a blustering politician whose repressive policies at home have been faulted repeatedly by international human rights organizations. The Foreign Policy piece, published in October 2006, closed with an observation that has continuing relevance today:

"If Saakashvili gets the war with Russia he has sometimes appeared to seek, it is the people of his country who will pay the price. But, far from the fighting, the United States will bear a large part of the blame."

On the 2006 trip I visited South Ossetia, interviewing officials of the rump government there and also residents in and around the "capital" city of Tskhinvali. What sticks in my mind were two old women making bread at their home in the hills above Tskhinvali, both declaring that they would never again trust Georgian rule of the territory and that the only real security, for them, would be through union with Russia. It was a view I encountered many times, and one that belies the easy talk now of the Russian bear running amuck.

Goristalin_2 You can see photos of the women and other scenes from South Ossetia, among them an ad hoc cemetery in a schoolyard in downtown Tshkinvali where many died, on the project page of our earlier Caucasus report. You'll also see photographs from elsewhere in Georgia, including the town of Gori that is just a few miles south of the border with South Ossetia and that was attacked Saturday by Russian jets. Russian officials said the target was a Georgian military base; Georgians reported civilian fatalities at an apartment building. No reports so far of damage to Gori's most memorable monument: a towering statue of Joseph Stalin, the hometown Georgia boy who became dictator of the entire Soviet Union.

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