Georgia Dispute Casts Shadow over NATO

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 229

On November 25 Georgia’s former ambassador to Russia, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, questioned by a parliamentary panel probing the circumstances of the war with Russia, quoted Saakashvili’s entourage as saying, “the U.S. leadership had given the green light to Georgia’s military operation in South Ossetia.” The following day he backtracked on his initial statement, instead alleging that Saakashvili had mistaken U.S. messages as encouragement for the aggression. “Saakashvili’s entourage had tried to create the opinion that the U.S. Administration would support the use of force. In reality, it was not like that,” said Kitsmarishvili. (ITAR-TASS, November 26). Saakashvili predictably denied Kitsmarishvili’s account. Consequently, Para Davitaya, chief of the parliamentary inquiry, said he would ask the Prosecutor-General’s Office to open a criminal case against Kitsmarishvili on grounds of “professional negligence.”

This fits a pattern of bitter recrimination, accusation, division, and denial of culpability over the war that now grips a divided political establishment in Tbilisi, as the country adjusts to the loss of the two breakaway regions and strengthening of Russian influence. Internationally, the consequences are also being felt throughout the NATO alliance. Condoleezza Rice, speaking ahead of the NATO ministerial meeting on December 2, admitted that the Membership Action Plan (MAP) was now “off the table” for both Georgia and Ukraine. Her failure to qualify the statement, given NATO’s commitment at its Bucharest summit, which implied eventual membership for these two states, met with praise from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who complemented the alliance saying that “sense had prevailed.” In reality, there was never any real prospect for offering anything tangible to Georgia, far less returning to the idea of conferring a MAP, which has now dropped from official NATO discourse (ITAR-TASS, Interfax, November 30, December 1).

An independent group of military experts in Georgia, working on a report on the mistakes and operational weaknesses exposed by the war with Russia, has offered findings that contradict the Georgian government’s official position. Giorgi Tavdgiridze, one of the report’s authors, recently attacked official efforts to investigate the war, saying, “They will cover up their mistakes and conceal their wrongdoings, whether it is a result of irresponsibility or purposeful action.” The failures of the campaign, according to the report, resulted mainly from the poor guidance, bad planning, and incompetence of the commander-in-chief, Mikheil Saakashvili (Rezonansi, November 20).

Georgian officers reportedly noted a breakdown of command and control on the second day of the conflict, which may have resulted more from internal weaknesses than from the success of Russian operations. “Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, head of the Interior Ministry’s Special Operations Department Erekle Kodua, [and] Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia, [in response to] what they saw, were trying to do something. However, since they are not versed in military affairs, they did more harm than good. Officers who were subdued in a humiliating manner by former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and Kezerashvili could not stand up to them,” Tavdgiridze explained.

Saakashvili also came in for criticism for what was portrayed as “fleeing the battlefield” when he took shelter from Russian aircraft in Gori, leaving visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner behind. Saakashvili reportedly told his press secretary to ensure that footage of the Georgian president being “forced to flee” was provided to Western media but insisted it should not be broadcast in Russia or Georgia (Rezonansi, November 17). Tavdgiridze also claimed that on August 10 some Georgian officials were preparing to leave the country, crossing the Red Bridge into Azerbaijan. It appears that as the chasm between the operational commanders and the political leadership widened during the campaign, the Georgian armed forces were abandoned to their fate, while Tbilisi engaged in a “virtual war,” conducted in the world’s media.

One Georgian military expert, Kahka Katsitadze, interviewed by the daily Rezonansi on November 20, said that it was clear that NATO would not grant a MAP at its ministerial meeting in December, claiming that the group of NATO members with reservations on this issue had now swollen to 10 or 15. Moreover, suggesting that the alliance had lost trust in Georgia owing to its failure to inform the allies of its intended military actions in August, he also offered a view on the culpability of the political establishment not widely publicized by Georgia’s government. Katsitadze argued that the parliamentary commission investigating the August war was predisposed to blame the Georgian armed forces for the rapid defeat. Katsitadze suggested, however, that the political leadership also needed to take its share of responsibility for the collapse of the Georgian army. For instance, in Georgia’s official threat assessment, adopted by the Georgian Ministry of Defense, Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili had dismissed the possibility of war with Russia. He and all military commanders, including the commander-in-chief, President Mikheil Saakashvili, should be held responsible for Georgia’s failure, Katsitadze thought (Rezonansi, November 20). Western planners should pay close attention to the independent evidence emerging inside Georgia that suggests that the reasons for the sudden collapse of the Georgian armed forces during the conflict are not to be explained exclusively in terms of Russia’s military success.

The aftermath of the war in Georgia has resulted in Moscow’s achieving, in the Russian view, a strategic victory, preventing the further enlargement of the NATO alliance. Yet, there has arguably been a cost to the country, given the ensuing flight of foreign capital from Russia, the expense of basing Russian armed forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the plans to increase defense procurement and reform the armed forces in order to facilitate future local intervention, combined with raising fears of Russian aggression in the Baltic states and in Eastern Europe. The cost ultimately falls on Georgia, however, as its political leadership disputes the war guilt issues, when the state needs Western assistance more than ever to rebuild its military and reform its security structures. It is, however, the ruthless Russian exploitation of NATO’s internal divisions, which predated the conflict stemming from the war in Iraq in 2003, that rendered the alliance divided and innocuous in August 2008. Correcting this situation must be an urgent priority for the Obama administration.