Not surprisingly, criticism in the Russian media of Russia’s military actions in South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia, to the degree that there has been any criticism at all, has been muted. Clearly, this is partly due to the fact that the lion’s share of Russian television broadcasting is controlled by the state. As the Moscow Times noted, Russian television has been “flush with footage of misery left by the Georgian assault in the separatist district of South Ossetia; but few, if any, reports mention Russia’s bombing of Georgia” (Moscow Times, August 11).
State manipulation or censorship of the press is, however, only a partial explanation: indeed, the high level of nationalist and anti-Georgian sentiment in Russian society, combined with the Georgian military’s assault on the capital of the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, regardless of whether it was provoked, has meant that even many Russian liberals, who represent a small percentage of the entire Russian population ideologically, have been supportive of the Russian attack on Georgia, although not all of them unconditionally so.
One example is Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, who was quoted as saying that while he was “not delighted” by Russian foreign policy, particularly in the Caucasus, Russia was “put in a position where it had to respond” to the events in South Ossetia. Russia, he said, “did not have the right to demonstrate weakness” and had to intervene in response to a Georgian military “Blitzkrieg.”
Malashenko added, however, that he suspected Russia has already gone beyond simply upholding its “self-respect” and “protecting South Ossetia.” If reports “that the Russian fleet is located on the borders of Georgia [and] that Russian aviation is bombing Georgian soil represent the facts,” he said “then it is already a Russian-Georgian war that has exceeded the bounds of the problem of Ossetian and Abkhazian separatism” and “will have to be halted” (Novye izvestia, August 11).
An even more consistent critic of both Vladimir Putin’s foreign and domestic policy during his eight years in the Kremlin, Vitaly Portnikov, equated Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s bid to bring South Ossetia’s separatist government to heel with Vladimir Putin’s bid to “restore constitutional order” in Chechnya in 1999. “The Georgians also talk about restoring constitutional order,” he wrote. “It was precisely this kind of restoration that [Mikheil] Saakashvili was preparing for since his first day he came to power, because he desperately wants to resemble Vladimir Putin. And if anyone can blame the Georgian president for this, it is his Western friends. But we in the post-Soviet space now: the society here adores the victor with his bloody saber bared; experienced diplomats who have devoted their lives to the negotiating process are out of favor here. And if for [Mikheil] Saakashvili it became a point of honor and the point of life to retain power in Georgia, then he could not have come up with anything better than a new war on the Russian model” (www.grani.ru, August 8).
Some veteran Russian human rights activists have criticized Russia’s attack on Georgia unequivocally. A group including former Russian Human Rights Commissioner Sergei Kovalyov and For Human Rights movement head Lev Ponomarev, among others, signed a statement calling for Russia to be expelled from the Group of Eight and calling on the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to impose sanctions on Russia. “Russia lost the moral right for peacekeeping in Abkhazia and South Ossetia when, circumventing the leadership of sovereign Georgia, it became close friends with the de facto organs of power of these self-declared entities,” the group’s statement read. “Now, casting aside any decency, bringing landing units into Georgia, bombing territory that isn’t even part of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, Russia … has become a party to an armed conflict.” Likewise, Yelena Bonner, the veteran human rights campaigner and widow of Andrei Sakharov, called on the United Nations to withdraw Russia’s peacekeeping mandate and called on the UN or NATO to send peacekeepers to the region (www.grani.ru, August 10).
Several other observers predicted that the Russian-Georgian war would give Russia’s siloviki hardliners the upper hand in the country’s domestic politics. “Even a short ‘peace-keeping’ war will not only provoke a growth in enmity toward Russia on the part of Western countries, but also–and this is more important for us–will confirm [Russian] society in the opinion that over there, in the West, there are not only arrogant, rather stupid pindosy [a derogatory term for Americans], but an enemy who will not yield,” wrote Dmitry Volkov. “There are no real doubts about how Western countries will view the Russian attack. This will allow President Medvedev to be put in the unambiguous position of a ‘strong national leader’ completely dependent on the power structures” (www.gazeta.ru, August 9).
If Russia “gets involved in a war” with Georgia, this will solidify “what the Russian siloviki have achieved [over] the last several months,” wrote the commentator Yulia Latynina. “At the same time, it is completely unimportant who wins this war and who will be its victims. The very fact of such a war means that control over Russia will be retained by the siloviki, the special services, and Putin. The siloviki [would] even profit from the disgrace of Russia; in that case, there will be a bigger outcry, hysteria and money” (www.ej.ru, August 8).