"I Should Have Shouted Louder" - Saakashvili on the August 2008 War, Part 1

Interview

Why has he become disillusioned with the West? Was he provoked into starting a war with Russia? Why did Georgia not have any defensive strategy whatsoever with an invasion from Russia impending? Where did he miscalculate Putin and how costly did that mistake prove to be? Why does he attribute part of the blame for not preventing (and then not stopping) the August War to the "German & French Game"? Did he really offer to abandon NATO aspirations to have a better relationship with Russia? The former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, laid all bare about the 2008 August War in a wide-ranging interview with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

“The thing is, the West is motivated by several instincts and one of the main instincts is appeasement. They always want to delay the problem, they always want to refer to the past, to the future, anything but the present. Nobody wants trouble and the [Western] politicians’ basic instinct is to keep trouble away, to ignore it or to pretend they don't see it and that it’s not real.”

Is there a sense of personal disillusionment? Have you become disappointed with the West over the years?

Yes and no. At the beginning I was very idealistic about the West and I thought that it was motivated by exactly the same values as I am, something special based on the rule of law, democracy of society. That’s not to say it’s completely gone - these are still the main principles. In the West, you can always appeal to consciousness, but they might not always hear you. Are they susceptible to manipulation or self-manipulation? Sure. But are they still the best ones available? Yes. That's how I look at it now, I look much more soberly. I think that they can be very hypocritical, they have double standards, they also have this attitude which I think might be a remnant of colonialism, but they genuinely think that the smaller newcomers at the table are not supposed to succeed. Henry Kissinger told Sarah Palin once in a private conversation that made its way to me, that ‘Saakashvili is like a small-time player that comes to a poker table of big players with no cards in his pocket to play.’

Would you say it’s quite an accurate take on what you were actually doing?

In a way, yes, but look, we had cards; the thing is they didn’t want to acknowledge the cards we had; we were the biggest soft power in this huge area of world: Eurasia. That's the point; that's what they never realized. Their take is that nobody's supposed to create standards in our part of the world, standards are only created in the West and if you create your own standards in this part of the world which are at all similar to Western standards, it won’t work. You can just take their franchise, you cannot create your own political McDonald's, McDonald's can only come from the West; that's the point. That's what I only realized through practice: that they want you to be successful, but they don't want you to be too successful. We, on the other hand, we’d go in and say, ‘Oh, by the way, we have the best business registration, fastest customs in the world, we are the safest country in Europe.’

Would you say you were considered cocky and impetuous because of that approach?

Yes. One Western ambassador when I was in Georgia said, ‘Saakashvili has the pharaonic projects of Batumi and the houses of justice: he wants to be a pharaoh, he just doesn't want to be a normal leader.’

Do you think that perception harmed just you? Or did it harm the country as well?

The country, for sure, but what can we do? We cannot just claim to be lucky dummies, being successful.

Does this also explain why your recent Foreign Policy article, where you argued that the next threat from Russia would target non-NATO member countries, was dismissed by many Western policy-makers? Why do you think you were labelled a doomsayer?

It’s because they never want to hear the uncomfortable truth. They did not want to hear uncomfortable truths about the possible invasion of Georgia and they did not want to hear about Crimea, Donbas; they don't want to hear the truth because if you hear the truth and then you seriously start to discuss it, then you have to act and they don’t want to act. The reason I said it about Scandinavia is that I know Putin; he is desperate now, he's looking for some kind of way out, to prolong his reign. He already tried everything else, and Putin is always increasing his red lines - he thinks, first we went to Georgia, an easy target, a small target, then we went to Ukraine, in parallel going into Syria. Russia goes to the places where the West wants to engage but not fully, and then they engage fully and that's how they outsmart the West every time. If Russia attacks non-NATO member Scandinavian countries, what will the West do? Not much. Not even attack back. They don’t want to attack because it’s risky. We are not talking about a full-blown invasion here. Will the population of Sweden really fight for some small island and risk thousands of lives for that small island? I don't think so. and will the West engage, will NATO come to their help if Russians just take like a small, mini-Faulklands somewhere in that area?

Do you really think seizing something in Scandinavia would be a bite Putin would be allowed to chew?

Well, it doesn’t fall under Article 5 and the population of a small Scandinavian country will not risk their livelihoods and future and everything for a small piece of land, and even if they do, they will be defeated. I remember the head of Sweden’s general staff saying they would be defeated by Russia within ten days. Having this in mind, to the pragmatic Swedes that’s really not much of a choice: are we willing to be defeated [with] 20,000 people killed or are we just going to go for diplomatic, legal means to solve this issue? I think it’s obvious what path they would choose.

Let’s go back to the chief topic of our conversation, the 2008 August War. An overwhelming consensus among Western scholars and politicians, not to mention the current Georgian government, is that you were provoked by Russia and fell for it, goaded into starting a war. Do you agree?

No, it’s not true. Crimea clearly proved there are two scenarios: either surrender fully or fight. There is no third scenario; when they're already in, who started the war? The [post 2008 war] Tagliavini report played on this in a very nasty way. They said Russian troops were already in but the conflict was started by Georgia; excuse me, what do you mean by troops were in? What the hell is that? Is that an acceptable thing? Well, troops were already in Crimea and conflict never started because the Ukrainians didn't fight, so does that make it an invasion or not? Shouldn’t you resist invasion? It's quite simple.

What I think they are referring to is that as bad as the situation might have been before, your decision to take control of Tskhinvali was what led to a full-scale war and invasion. And that was exactly what Russia wanted you to do.

Russia’s scenario was very clear. It was articulated, not speculated. [Eduard] ‘Kokoity [the then de facto president of South Ossetia] said, ‘We will clean our valleys of bandits’ - their scenario was a full-scale invasion but under the disguise of Ossetian forces fighting some locals, and if we at a certain moment started to resist, and it would be hard for us not to resist because there were pictures of people being killed and slaughtered and cleansed, that would trigger some kind of reaction and they would follow the victorious Kokoity all the way to Tbilisi to secure South Ossetia’s independence. Had we not done anything, ok, they could have stopped there, but it would damage us anyway, because a full-scale invasion was on the cards. There was no good scenario for us in this.

Was that a scenario when there was no other option but to fight? Could not responding perhaps have been the lesser of two evils?

From my perspective, if you don't fight, at least you try. And we made other mistakes. Another mistake was that we were not ready: our fear had become chronic and we were not ready for what happened.

Was that paranoia?

No… it was very tense; later, at a certain moment we started to tell ourselves it might be okay now, because in spring we were very close to war, then there was lots of mediation and then at a certain moment, we let ourselves think it was ok… you know, it's a small country, people have to take holidays, officers have to go on holiday, government has to rest. I myself was very close to taking over Tbilisi Airport that night, August 7. I went to the airport twice and I came back twice; I was supposed to be leaving for China. We were going to Beijing for the Olympics; the tension had become so chronic that there was shooting, subsiding, shooting, again subsiding and then we said ok, that's normal, nothing new there, I’d better go to Beijing and see the leaders. I’d better go and complain.

If the tension had become chronic, if you and the establishment began to cope with it, then what prompted the decision regarding Tskhinvali?

Because in the evening they started shooting en masse, that’s why I stayed. The plan before that was to put them on standby before trying to take anything back and for me to go to Beijing and say, look we have the situation - to Bush or somebody - we have this situation, please interfere. I tried to call everyone and nobody would pick up; only Jaap De Hoopscheffer, then-NATO Secretary General, who spoke to me on an open line and I couldn't say much on an open line. I just described the general situation. I tried to call Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then-German Minister of Foreign Affairs; he was on holiday. I tried to call someone in Washington and nobody was there. [Senior Official] Michael Carpenter was the only one who was on duty in the state department; then I managed to speak with Carl Bildt, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs and that was it. We weren’t really sure of anything.

One of the more severe accusations often aimed at you is that you bombed a sleeping Tskhinvali. Looking back, is there any other way you wish you had gone about that?

When you launch a military operation, it’s military protocol: you don’t make decisions on the political field. When you’re fighting an uphill battle, it’s the military that calls the shots. Certainly, they had been instructed to uphold humanitarian values. The Human Rights Watch report clearly says that when Georgians entered some Ossetian villages, they said, ‘Don’t worry, Misha [Saakashvili] told us not touch you.’ But that was the attitude, they knew that they had to uphold norms but otherwise it was up to them what firepower to use against targets, you cannot control it politically. The problem was we couldn't get to those valleys which were under attack any more – the road was blocked, so the solution was to clear a way to that road and if you go through mountains to do it, you are a clear target: GRU troops [Russian special forces] were on the main hill and could target that road easily.

Whatever the goal might have been, what happened in Tskhinvali was seen as a major Georgian offensive. Would you not think that launching a major offensive would be a tipping point?

No, because it had a clear target and furthermore it was in clear response to all their major offences because what they did was also major offensive; they attacked our troops, they attacked our villages with all the firepower that they could use against a peaceful population. What we did was an adequate response to their major offensive. Russian troops were attacking from several directions with massed firepower, GRU troops were coordinating with the so-called South Ossetia troops - it was already an offensive. The only way we could stop it, considering we didn't have much presence on the ground, was artillery. At least that's what the military decided.

And what was the expected result?

To move fast through the city and valleys and get to the area where we could lock the road and block their further advancement. The Roki tunnel was already teeming with Russian tanks, so we had to pass through Tskhinvali, but we were late: the Russians had already started what turned out to be an invasion. They were already in the tunnel and they were in village of Java waiting. So, if you want to talk about our mistakes, our mistake was to act too late and do too little. In the end, we did whatever we could, but we were stalled and we had just some pieces of the bigger picture, at that time all we had to act upon was merely pieces of information.

The late Robert Asmus’ excellent book about the 2008 war makes the striking point that Georgia and your government had no defense strategy in the case of war. If you had so little information, how Hard Might It Have Been To Envisage that some sort of defense strategy was needed?

Because, politically, our approach towards South Ossetia was very clear: soft power, we don't fight there, and we never thought the Russians would start fighting there. South Ossetia is like a chessboard: you have Georgian villages, Ossetian villages, and they are so intertwined that we though they wouldn’t really think about starting a big scale operation there, it made no sense. Abkhazia, on the other hand, was a clear-cut case, because it's an empty territory, they can go through. And that’s where I miscalculated over Putin because our thinking was that they would never go for Tbilisi, and we were also convinced by our Western friends about that.

Who were those Western friends?

Everyone. Everyone said the Russians would never invade us; Condi Rice always said that; she said I know the Russians, I skated in Russia as a young girl, I went to Moscow, MGIMO [the Moscow State Institute of International Relations]; I know them: they will provoke you but they will never do anything. The only guy who said otherwise was Steinmeier; Steinmeier put this to us very bluntly, now that I think of it. It was an assessment of German intelligence based on their internal sources in Moscow because Steinmeier came to Georgia in a very hasty way and he was nervous, you could see that, he just came because he thought an invasion would happen and he wanted to show that beforehand. At least they tried to do something and he told us, in the German way, that there would be an invasion.

When was that?

When he came for his shuttle mission; then he went to see [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov and then he came to see the Abkhazian town of Gali; he came again back to Batumi and told us that. We were sitting in a restaurant with several members of our government and one of them asked him a question, ‘Mr Minister, will you help us bring international peacekeepers into both our conflict zones?’ Steinmeier puts his fork down and says, ‘Guys, what peacekeepers are you talking about? You’ll soon have a large-scale war here.’ And we were, like, what? [Steinmeier said] ‘I'll tell you how it will happen there will be shooting between you and them all the time, in the past they've stopped but this time they will not: they will shoot back and they will shoot back more. And at a certain point you will have to go in and retaliate and then Russians will hit you with their full force and then there'll be full-scale war; the only thing we can do is to separate it.’ He described it in very precise terms. Then there was the Russian Ambassador in the EU, who was good friends with the member of the European Parliament Elmar Brok, and Brok told me at the Yalta Conference in July 2008 that he had mentioned to this Ambassador that he was planning to visit Georgia in September to try and solve the situation somehow. And the Ambassador up and tells him ‘Elmar, September is too late, if you want to go, go now.’ Elmar, being a smart guy, understood the clear hint given to him and asked me, ‘Are the Russians planning something or what?’

Yet you still thought that Russia would not go so far.

No, because many others told us no, no, no, don’t worry. But let us look at their timeline, what they did. They blocked us in NATO but then they said let it be decided in the December ministerial [meeting]; so they gave Russia this time framework, the Germans and French, to do something. And Russia had the motivation to act because there was a chance we could have gotten the MAP in December and basically the Germans gave them the greenlight by saying ‘okay, we are postponing till December.’

So, Russia got a window of opportunity?

Yeah, it was a kind of German-Russian game; I don't think Germans wanted war, of course, but they at least gave the Russians some leeway to do what they did.

See Part 2 in Monday’s GT Business newspaper.

By Vazha Tavberidze

08 August 2019 18:48