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Who Started the War in Georgia?

6 minute read
Andrew Purvis / Berlin

Nothing spawns conspiracy theories like war in a remote place. The latest one comes from a singularly well-placed source. In an interview with CNN last week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of orchestrating the war in Georgia in order to benefit the candidacy of John McCain. He claimed that “U.S. citizens were indeed in the area of conflict” and that “the only one who can give such orders is their leader.” Without endorsing Putin’s claim, many European officials reportedly harbor suspicions that there was more American involvement in the crisis than previously reported. That may be one reason, some European political analysts say, why European Union leaders this week failed to impose concrete sanctions on Moscow for its Georgian adventure.

Moscow’s recriminations, amplified in the echo chamber of bloggers with a Manichaean view of world politics, are sure to boom further with the arrival tomorrow in Tbilisi of Vice President Dick Cheney. A frequent advocate of robust U.S. intervention, Cheney is expected to highlight Georgia’s role as a standard bearer for the free world while announcing a new $1 billion U.S. aid package to help rebuild the war-damaged country. His presence is almost certain to be linked to that of U.S. warships in the Black Sea, to which Putin has already promised a “calm” response.

Yet while many questions remain unanswered about why Georgia embarked on such a suicidal war, the American role in particular seems in danger of being exaggerated. No evidence has yet been uncovered, by Putin or anyone else, that the U.S. or its advisers triggered the conflict.

That is not to say, however, that Washington is a disinterested party, since it has maintained especially close relations with the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili graduated from Columbia University School of Law and worked briefly for a New York City law firm before taking up opposition politics back home in the 1990s. As has been widely reported, some of the groups that helped organize the 2003 Rose Revolution that ousted his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, received funding from the U.S. government. Since Saakashvili took office in 2004, his government has continued to receive strong U.S. funding, and the Georgian military was rebuilt with the help of U.S. defense aid and training from American military advisers. (Georgia also sent 2,000 men to fight alongside the U.S. in Iraq.) Several U.S. citizens, including Daniel Kunin, the son of former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin, have worked as senior aides to Saakashvili’s administration. Randy Scheunemann, a senior adviser to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, was a lobbyist for Georgia until earlier this year. And the Georgian President has friends in high circles in the U.S., including Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden and McCain himself.

Statements from President George W. Bush and others may have emboldened Saakashvili to expect U.S. assistance that in the end wasn’t forthcoming, but that’s a far cry from an active role in launching military action. The truth is that both Russia and Georgia had plenty of reasons of their own to start a war. Putin, who resents Saakashvili for his brazen defiance of Moscow and close ties to the West, had ample grounds to try to invade Georgia and oust him. Saakashvili, for his part, had staked his presidency on “reintegrating” Georgia’s two breakaway territories into Georgia proper.

What remains unclear is which one of them moved first. Russia contends that on the night the war began, Aug. 7, they were simply responding to a Georgian attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and the threat to the lives of Russian and Ossetian civilians there. But that scenario does not explain the widely documented buildup since the spring of Russian forces just across the border from South Ossetia, which made it possible for up to 150 tanks to cross into South Ossetia within hours of the Russian order to attack.

Russian officials initially claimed that up to 2,000 civilians died in South Ossetia on Aug. 7 before Russian troops arrived on the scene. That estimate has since been reduced — by Russia — to 133, which is well short of anyone’s definition of a “genocide” that would justify a rapid foreign intervention. Representatives of Human Rights Watch, who visited all four hospitals in the region shortly after the battle, say the organization has proof of only 44 deaths that night.

Yet Georgia’s claim that Russia started the war is not completely convincing either. In an interview with TIME, Saakashvili said he ordered his troops to attack the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali only after Russia launched its invasion into Georgian territory; his professed aim was to slow Russia’s advance by 48 hours in order to give the international community time to act. But on the night of Aug. 7, and for three to four days afterward, Georgian officials did not say that Russia had launched its invasion first but only that their forces were responding to stepped-up attacks by 120-mm mortars from Russian-backed South Ossetian forces on Georgian positions.

There may be a kernel of truth to both sides. Saakashvili may have thought that his forces could stamp out the South Ossetian defense force in one swift strike without provoking a Russian response; indeed, a mistaken belief that Western allies could intervene diplomatically to restrain Russia might have encouraged him in that calculation. For its part, Russia could well have sought to provoke Georgia into such a response (by urging the South Ossetians to step up attacks on Georgian positions) in order to provide them with a pretext to invade.

“Georgia miscalculated, but so did we all,” one Western diplomat in the region said. None of this speaks to the overwhelming force that Russia used after it launched its invasion and the deliberate flouting of international opinion that Moscow has displayed since. The conflict is not over yet, and there is plenty of blame to go around. But when it comes to assigning responsibility, there’s no strong case for the U.S. being the first address.

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