MOSCOW — Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had no justification under international law when he ordered a military incursion into the breakaway South Ossetia region last year that included missile barrages on civilian areas, according to a European Union-commissioned report released Wednesday.
Russia, however, used false claims that the Georgian military killed 2,000 civilians in its initial assault to set up a later invasion that allowed South Ossetian militias to torture and execute Georgian prisoners during an ethnic cleansing campaign, according to facts put forth in the report.
Those conclusions in the long-anticipated report may shift the debate about who started the war that pitted U.S-allied Georgia in a losing fight with Russia in August 2008. The document’s 1,000 pages, though, make it clear that all involved ran afoul of international law.
As has been the case since the fighting ended in August 2008, Russia and Georgia seized Wednesday on the parts of the narrative that best made their arguments.
Russian officials pointed to the report's finding that the war started with Georgia’s offensive to capture South Ossetia. The report gives an “unequivocal answer" to the question of who began the fighting, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told journalists in Brussels.
Georgia’s representatives, meanwhile, highlighted the report’s damning take on Russia’s subsequent push deep into Georgia and support for a second rebel area, Abkhazia, to capture more Georgian land.
“The allegations of my country have been proven,” said Georgia’s ambassador to the EU, Salome Samadashvili. “It was Georgia which came under invasion from another country, in violation of international law.”
Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia's minister for reintegration, noted in a phone interview that the report lays out a long series of Russian provocations that predated the war's beginning on Aug. 7, 2008. Among them was a campaign to hand out tens of thousands of Russian passports to Abkhaz and South Ossetian residents.
Still, the report — crafted by Heidi Tagliavini, a Swiss diplomat who previously headed the U.N. observer mission to Georgia — says repeatedly that there were no defensible grounds for Saakashvili to send military forces into South Ossetia. The initial onslaught included indiscriminate rocket fire, particularly in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, the report says.
Saakashvili has maintained that he ordered the offensive because he thought that a large contingent of Russian troops was storming across the border. The EU task force led by Tagliavini, however, reported that it could find no evidence to substantiate Georgia’s claims.
The task force also said that the Kremlin "largely surpassed" its attempts to defend Russian citizens in the area when it sent tanks and jets over the Georgian border, drove Georgian units from South Ossetia, then continued south until it stopped just 25 miles outside the capital, Tblisi.
“Consequently, it must be concluded that the Russian military action outside South Ossetia was essentially conducted in violation of international law,” the report says.
The Kremlin also bears responsibility for exaggerated assertions that its invasion was intended to stop a “genocide” of South Ossetian civilians, the report says. Russian leaders initially said Georgian forces killed 2,000 in the first stages of the war. That figure was adjusted later to fewer than 200.
The report says that South Ossetian irregulars, operating behind Russian lines, terrorized ethnic Georgian villages, referencing a Human Rights Watch study that found that South Ossetian militias killed at least 14 people in Russian-controlled territory.
“There is credible evidence of cases of summary executions carried out by South Ossetian forces,” the EU report says.
In the aftermath of the war, international observers have been barred from operating in South Ossetia or Abkhazia.
The Kremlin recognized both as independent countries just weeks after the war last year, a move that exasperated much of the West, as the two regions legally are still part of Georgia. Since then, only Nicaragua and Venezuela have followed suit. That hasn’t deterred Moscow from beefing up its presence in the two regions and continuing to refer to them as separate nations.
In mid-September, Russia signed defense agreements with both regions, allowing Russian military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for an initial 49-year period. The bases are to house some 1,700 Russian servicemen in each region, and weapons systems will include tanks and S-300 air defense missile batteries.
Local officials have been glad to accept the money and support.
“In Abkhazia, now everything is all right … with the Russian forces stationed at the border,” said Nadir Bitiev, a senior aide to Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh.
Bitiev said that the presence of 1,700 Russian troops in Abkhazia didn't add up to a de facto Russian annexation. He also said that after Georgia ’s push into South Ossetia, Saakashvili and other Georgian leaders “lack the moral authority to say anything.”
“Once such a military crime is committed … any actions by other states can occur,” Bitiev said in a phone interview Wednesday.
There are some in Russia who contend that their country’s military didn't go far enough. By halting before Tbilisi, they say, the army missed a chance to destabilize Saakashvili, who, despite growing domestic opposition and a series of protests, remains in power.
"I think that Russia should have entered Tbilisi and arrested Saakashvili and the main leaders of his regime,” said Mikhail Alexandrov, a longtime expert on the Caucasus at a government-funded research center in Moscow .
The EU report notes that none of the parties involved seem to be changing their minds.
“The views of the sides involved in the conflict have been widely divergent from the beginning, and appear to be getting more so as time goes by,” it says. “Thus the truth seems increasingly difficult to ascertain and verify.”
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