Opinion: Spark of hope that Russia’s aggression will not pass this time

Heidi Tagliavini

The ambassador announced about her resignation on the eve of the G-7 summit in Germany and in the wake of Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists’ attacks in Marinka near Donetsk. Various sources give accounts of her emotional exhaustion and how she no longer saw any point in negotiations.

Over her career, Tagliavini has worked in Moscow, Georgia, Chechnya, Ukraine, the Balkans. When Russia attacked Georgia, the then President of France, which chaired the EU Council, Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to Moscow and arranged a five-point peace plan with the then President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev. Military actions ended, but the peace plan has not been implemented until now.

The Tagliavini report

Soon afterwards, the European Union asked the Swiss government to appoint Tagliavini to lead an independent EU commission looking into the causes and beginnings of the Russian-Georgian war. The commission was endowed with EUR 1.6 million and, in September 2009, presented its report. Both the Russians and the Georgians cherry-picked the points they liked from it and spared no praise.

The report summarized that both sides reacted inadequately, thus “objectively” equating the aggressor and the victim. The Georgians were accused of starting shelling of Tskhinvali, thus provoking the Russian reaction. The latter were chided for handing out Russian passports to South Ossetians and similar misdeeds.

With her report, Ms Tagliavini helped Russia get away with what was obviously an international crime, aggression against a sovereign state. According to Russian military expert Pavel Felgengauer, “Moscow wanted that its August 2008 military adventure be seen as a reaction to ‘Georgian aggression’ against Tskhinvali and Russian peacekeepers in the region.” The commission delivered just what Moscow wanted – by putting on paper that there was no proof of large Russian military presence in South Ossetia before the Georgian attack on the night to 8 August.

Russia justified its military action claiming it sought to stop a genocide of the Ossetian people at the hands of Georgia. Its propaganda machine trumpeted about 2,000 killed Tskhinvalians. The report claims 162 civilian Ossetians died during the entire conflict. So the commission failed to come up with any evidence of a genocide, yet the Russian fairy tale about protecting a people was taken at face value.

The timeline of events in Georgia

I have spoken to the renowned analyst Andrey Illarionov who was in Tskhinvali in September 2008. In his estimates, no more than 5-10 percent of buildings were damaged in the streets he saw. And this was after both the Georgian shelling on the night to 8 August and the Russian artillery attacks on 9 and 10 August. Interestingly, comments posted on osradio.ru on 7 August suggest that 58 units of the Russian army were already in Tskhinvali on that day. Abundant testimonies by Russian soldiers in the press, including the defence ministry’s daily Krasnaya Zvezda, also confirm that Russia invaded the Georgian territory first.

Before the attack on Georgia, the Russian army had been conducting military exercise Kavkaz-2008 near its borders until 2 August. Between 2 and 7 August, some 50 people of the Russian media were taken to Tskhinvali. It’s what we call “pre-deployment of reporters”.

On 5 August, Mikhail Mindayev, the minister of interior of South Ossetia and former serviceman of the Russian security, FSB, ordered to destroy Georgian villages Avneri and Nuli. The latter had a population of some 2,000. Artillery razed the villages to the ground on 6 and 7 August. The Tagliavini commission did not find it strange that the Ossetians were in possession of 152mm artillery, something that even official Russian peacekeepers could not have.

After 3 August, separate units of Russia’s regular army were being taken into South Ossetia and on 4 August the first group of 300 volunteers and Cossacks crossed the Russian-Georgian border and, in the evening of 6 August, the leadership of the North Caucasus Military District settled in the town of Java. The commission, however, did not find these episodes worthy of investigation.

Shelling on 6 and 7 August continually intensified. In the early hours of 7 August, a convoy of Russian armoured vehicles crossed the Roki Tunnel and, at 2 PM on that same day, the first Georgian soldier was killed. Russia’s peacekeeping commander later testified he had received a declaration from the Georgians that they had no intention of attacking the peacekeepers; none of their posts were either attacked or shelled.

On 7 August, at about 11:30 PM, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered a military response. On that night, Georgian artillery shelled Tskhinvali, where part of the population had already been evacuated and where Russian units were stationed. Illarionov discovered that at 5:50 AM on 8 August, Russian peacekeepers opened fire on Georgian soldiers. At 6:20 AM, the Georgians fired back.

Whichever way you look at it – whether the starting point was the artillery shelling or the use of light weaponry – Russia was the one that started military actions. However, the flexible Swiss diplomat and her minions made it seem like Georgia was the provocateur. Just like according to the Soviet historiography, it were the Finns who started shooting at the Red Army that was just hanging out by the border, thus sparking the Winter War, after which the Soviet Union had no choice but to take a part of Finland, Karelia, under its protective wing.

Not repeating same mistake twice

I am convinced that the Tagliavini report was a criminal act of indulgence for the aggressor, irrespectively of whether she independently directed the investigation the way she did or whether she carried out someone’s orders. Ms Tagliavini’s purported objectivity allowed the aggressor to feel like it could do whatever it wanted with impunity – in other words, its test for the West in Georgia was a success. Therefore the report’s authors, led by Ms Tagliavini, are also responsible for encouraging Vladimir Putin to take up another adventure of aggression, this time against Ukraine. After throwing away Sarkozy’s Georgia plan, he assumed that this time, again, someone like Tagliavini would spin mother Russia out of responsibility for seizing foreign lands.

The Swiss diplomat was appointed to the Ukraine mission by the then chairman of OSCE, her compatriot Didier Burkhalter. Perhaps Tagliavini was the only candidate acceptable to Russia, but Kiev had little ground to rejoice in receiving the expert in turning a blind eye.

By contrast, her departure indicates that this time the aggressor will not be equated with the victim. Perhaps Ms Tagliavini has been exhausted by Russia’s pressure to turn away from what was actually happening, a pressure that was getting increasingly at odds with the prevailing Western position vis-a-vis Russia?

This month a year ago, a passenger plane with some 300 people onboard was downed over Donbass. An international commission has already sent out draft conclusions to countries involved in this tragedy. Earlier, the Netherlands suggested setting up a tribunal to investigate the incident, but Russia vetoed the proposal. But the Dutch initiative alone suggests that there’s some basis for setting up a tribunal and once the report comes out, it will inevitably change how Russia is treated.

Ms Tagliavini is to be replaced by Austrian diplomat Martin Sajdik, who has spent over a decade in Russia. Given that the OSCE is currently chaired by the Serbian Ivica Dačić, known as one of Putin’s best friends in Belgrade, the successor is not the worst possible option for Ukraine. One must not forget that Sajdik’s goal is not to side with any of the parties but to mediate. However, he is a diplomat of an EU country whose candidacy was accepted by Russia.

Even though the OSCE envoy is not the crucial actor in Ukraine’s path towards peace, this high-profile substitution, I believe, is a clear sign that Russia’s aggression will not be met with diplomatic acceptance. It has been decided not to make the same mistake twice.

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