"I Should Have Shouted Louder" - Saakashvili on the 2008 War, Part 3

The former President of Georgia laid it all bare about the 2008 August War in a wide-ranging interview with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

One of the more peculiar things we had read about the war is that Mikheil Saakashvili spoke to Putin offering to abandon NATO membership ambitions in exchange for solving the conflict issue. We asked him about it.

“No, it was pure rhetoric. I asked him at the very first meeting ‘So what's your main issue with Georgia? Is it NATO, the US, is it the presence of your troops in Georgia?’ Every time he would say, ‘America? We are friends with America too, what's the problem? NATO, look at what is NATO, should we be scared of the three planes they have in the Baltics, what's the issue? No issue. Our troops? Our own generals are saying they're useless; we have just old tanks; so there’s no point in discussing this.’

“Later, when he started to openly threaten us he said, ‘Ok, you're part of the West, so the West is doing this thing with Kosovo now and we have to do something against you; to which my response was, ‘If it's like that, then ok, maybe we will not be part of the West. Will that stop you doing these things to us and will you leave us alone?’ To which his response was very cynical. ‘I don’t exchange your territories for your geopolitical orientation.’ I didn't expect such a blunt, cynical answer but it was obvious what his position was.”

Had there been a serious offer, would you have considered that scenario?

I don't know. For my country, I would consider just about anything but at that moment it was just pure rhetoric… Well, at least I can say now that every option was on the table and they refused to take any.

Do you think that looks good for your Western-Atlantist image?

We were under threat of full annihilation. There was this moment when Condi Rice reached Lavrov on the third day of the war. She asked him what's Russia’s goal was in Georgia, the answer was ‘full annihilation.’ What do you do when you hear that? You have to at least rhetorically try every option. Was it ever doable? No, even if Russians were to agree. We were very vulnerable, we needed time. Russia, on the other hand, chose their timing really well. They were telling the Westerners about it; Deputy Defense Minister [Yuri] Baluevski met NATO ambassadors in Brussels during the NATO Council in March and he told them straight to their faces Russia would start a war in Georgia. The same thing happened with Bush when he met Putin in Sochi in May 2008. I remember, I think it was [former US diplomat] Matthew Bryza who was present at the talks, who told me what happened there, that Putin started screaming that there’d be war in Georgia. I remember I was startled and I asked, ‘Well, what did you say, what did Bush say?’ ‘Nothing,’ was the answer. Why? Because they already knew our position. That was seen by Putin as a major sign of weakness and some kind of semi-green light, Bush’s silence. He had to look straight into Putin’s eyes and say, ‘Stop, don’t you dare do it.’ By the way, Bryza had the clearest picture of what happened in 2008. There was the moment I was begging Bush to appoint him a US Ambassador to Georgia and he almost agreed, but Condi was against it.

That makes it five major political figures you just listed saying that Russia was going to invade, and yet you still chose not to believe they would?

Part of me believed and part of me did not, because it had never happened before- ‘these Western guys are competent, maybe they know something I don't know and maybe they have more leverage which I don't know about,’ I thought.

Let’s go back to Tskhinvali. Another argument often leveled against you is that if you were planning a major offensive, why not evacuate people from the valleys?

Because we didn't plan it, because we were too late: they were much faster, they evacuated Tskhinvali not because they were afraid that people would die, they would be happy for them to die. We’d had clashes in Kodori gorge and thought evacuating would be seen as another provocation. They evacuate, we evacuate; that’s declaring a war zone and we start… war, or what? Because war was the last thing we wanted. Nobody was actually prepared for mass operations in Tskhinvali from the start. It was a response to what the Russians were doing. It was never even discussed, because everybody's assessment, including Western military experts who were in Georgia, was that whatever happens will take place only on the autonomous territory.

If you knew from March that there was a threat of Russian invasion, nobody ever thought of creating a defense strategy?

We had the Kosovo example. And because Putin wanted to mirror Kosovo, we thought he’d settle for these territories. We thought the worst would be a small-scale engagement in those territories, he wouldn’t go further. We never discussed the option they’d invade Tbilisi.

So we were improvising our defensive strategy on the run?

There was certainly a conservative defensive strategy prepared for some kind of local conflict, but it was not for a full-blown Russian invasion that goes to Tbilisi. No Western or Georgian expert ever advised this, and of course this was because if it ever happened, the defense would only be diplomatic and political; there is no way you can envisage a full-blown Russian attack on your capital and be ready for it. We had plans about Abkhazia, because we thought they would go there, so we had plans how to contain them there: to create defensive lines maybe at Kodori or the last line at the Enguri river. When it came to South Ossetia, we miscalculated.

Another controversy came with the cluster bombs the Georgian side used and the civilian casualties.

We had things that were bought by many countries to this region; the Grad missiles, for example, bought by Azerbaijan, Central Asian and Eastern European countries. I’m sorry, but that’s what was on the market and I never went to inquire what they were buying. But whatever they were buying was meant for artillery. There were no civilian targets and we had given very clear instructions about that. If you look very carefully at what was hit in Tskhinvali, their government building and their own fire points were the targets that were fired at.

The Tagliavni Commission report said bullets were shot at Russian peacekeepers, one of the more damning points for the Georgian side. Was enough effort made to revoke their peacekeeper status?

No, because had we started to revoke peacekeeper status it would have been seen by Westerners as provocation, prompting a war because we were arguing we wanted them to be replaced by international peacekeepers. If you just remove them without any replacement that would be provocation - and so we would argue at every international meeting. It was part of our narrative everywhere for many years – please, replace them with international peacekeepers. It never came to that, sadly.

How would you rate the work of the Tagliavini commission?

It was a politicized commission. It was quite bad because the whole idea behind the commission was to get the responsibility off Russia, to share the blame. But we didn't have any choice, unless we wanted to openly go against the EU. The Americans were categorically against it. The Europeans would do it with or without our consent. Condi Rice, when I met her in New York, said, ‘The idea of the commission is crazy; it's total bullshit.’ And impartiality- there was a German legal expert [in the commission] who after the commission report was issued gave an interview to a German outlet saying the West should recognize Abkhazia. Tagliavini herself was very pro-separatist when she was in Georgia. I tried to talk to Bush in September [about her] and he told me, ‘Look, Misha, we have a world economic crisis right now, we don't have time for you.’ And when the American President tells you he does not have time for you, that has to mean something. We had no allies left. We had to contain further Russian intrusion in the rest of Georgia. From Putin’s point of view, he had this moment where he thought he fell somewhat short, he didn't get me, he didn't get Tbilisi. So when the situation is so dire, would you also turn against the European Union? They weren't perfect allies, but we had no choice.

Did the commission’s conclusions largely affect how the West perceived the conflict?

If you read the report, the facts are mostly reported accurately. But they say South Ossetia had the right to self-defense. It’s absurd. And they say troops were already in, but that was before the start of the conflict. So foreign troops invade, these ‘peacekeepers’ were in the middle of everything and there are telephone intercepts when they say, let us destroy this village, that village - peacekeepers are not supposed to destroy villages. The thing is, it was all about headlines: it was a Steinmeier game backed by Merkel to dilute Russia's blame because there was a world economic crisis and the last thing the West needed was to help Georgia against Russia, as simple as that. The Americans didn't play that game but they didn't object too much to it either, unfortunately.

How successful do you think the ceasefire plan negotiated by then-French President Sarkozy was?

It was an obvious disaster. But the plan French [Foreign Minister Bernard] Couchner proposed was quite good: a ceasefire, the full withdrawal of the Russians and the full respect of Georgian territorial integrity. Then Sarkozy comes back from Moscow with a plan which has two more points: security zones and that the status of the territory should later be the subject of international discussions. I said that it's not acceptable, and in the end it was dropped by the Russians themselves, the seventh point.

How would you rate the job Sarkozy did?

Very bad. But Sarkozy really behaved like a clown, he was so incompetent… Sarkozy’s resentment towards America, toward Eastern Europeans meant he basically sidelined the Americans. The Americans did not want him on this mission. The positive part was that the Russians were to withdraw, but on the other hand there were so many bad things: sidelining the Americans, giving Russia security zones, giving them some kind of legitimate role and then the worst part of Sarkozy’s behaviour was that he forgot about this agreement within a couple of months. He basically sold it for Mistrals.

Why didn’t you say anything about it back in 2009, 2010, 2011? Every time Sarkozy arrived, you treated him as a close personal friend.

He was still President of France and he had lots of things to decide and I mean he tried to be nice to us on a personal level. They gave us money for ski resorts at a very good rate. They gave us money for helicopters. They helped us in the international arena where they could not alienate the Russians. You couldn't call it broken relations, but whenever it concerned Russia, it was impenetrable.

The six-point ceasefire agreement has no means to ensure that whatever it demands from the parties is fulfilled. How can you trust an international agreement that does not give you a safeguard mechanism?

That's the main problem; it made the good point that they had to withdraw but I stated from the start that the whole thing would go wrong. The Russians violated it right away because they got into the settlement of Akhalgori after that agreement. According to the agreement, we had to withdraw, and we did, and then the Russians just went in behind us. So, the agreement helped them.

There is a story that during the war, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Moscow to negotiate with Putin over the fate of Batumi if a full Russian invasion was on cards.

All I can say is that no one really knew what Turkey would do, what Erdogan's goal was, but Turkish troops were mobilized [near the border] and that is why the Russians did not try to take Batumi.

Were you disappointed with how the US responded to the conflict?

I think America responded a little bit late but when it did, it was quite proper. The only thing which was disappointing was Defense Secretary Robert Gates basically saying we won't use military force, and that's when the Russians took Akhalgori. Gates was disgustingly cynical and against our integration into NATO: he sabotaged our military training, was one of the initiators of the military embargo and so on. He told me when I met him at the Munich Security Conference, ‘Well I really don't think getting you into NATO is a good idea but our president wants it so what can I do?’ Then later there was a CIA meeting when Bush was telling us our military options and Cheney said, ‘Let’s employ cruise missiles’ and Gates said, ‘No way.’ If it had not been Gates but Rumsfeld, I think they would have used that option.

What do you think your biggest mistake was?

I should have shouted more. When I look back… I thought Crimea would make the world realize what happened in 2008. I had a conversation with John McCain- we gave our intercepts exclusively to the New York Times and they published a front-page article about the Russians invading prior to seventh -and I said, ‘John, it’s solid proof we didn't start the war.’ And he said, ‘Look Misha, I'm a military pilot, you don't need to tell me that; I know that tanks generally don't fly, especially Russian ones.’

That doesn't sound like a mistake, more a regret.

We defied the existing world order in our part of the world. We were, well, maybe it's about me, I should have not put so much trust in the West, but it was our value-based approach. I was quite naïve about the West - I thought they always practice what they preach, that they believe in their own principles.

What is your and your government's legacy when it comes to the 2008 war?

We stood up to the Russians, the state did not collapse, we held up four years under the tremendous pressure of various much bigger powers than we even imagined back then. When you look back at what kind of resources were involved, what kind of front was running against us, we in fact held up very well.

By Vazha Tavberidze

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22 August 2019 16:56