Some people seem to misunderstand which country was invaded.
By MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI
Originally published at WSJ.com.
Since Russia invaded Georgia last August, the international community seems stuck on one question about how the war started: Did the Georgian military act irresponsibly to take control of Tskhinvali in the South Ossetia region of Georgia?
This question has been pushed to the center in large degree by a fierce, multimillion-dollar Russian PR campaign that hinges on leaked, very partial, and misleading reports from a military observer from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that claimed Georgia responded militarily in South Ossetia without sufficient provocation by Russia. Judging from recent media coverage, this campaign has been successful.
Focusing on this question distracts from Russia's intense, blatant policy of regime change that has long aimed to destabilize Georgia through ethnic manipulation, and thus thwart our democracy while stopping NATO's expansion. Furthermore, it has never been in dispute whether our forces entered South Ossetia. I have always openly acknowledged that I ordered military action in South Ossetia -- as any responsible democratic leader would have done, and as the Georgian Constitution required me to do in defense of the country.
I made this decision after being confronted by two facts. First, Russia had massed hundreds of tanks and thousands of soldiers on the border between Russian and Georgia in the area of South Ossetia. We had firm intelligence that they were crossing into Georgia, a fact later confirmed by telephone intercepts verified by the New York Times and others -- and a fact never substantially denied by Russia. (We had alerted the international community both about the military deployment and an inflow of mercenaries early on Aug. 7.)
Second, for a week Russian forces and their proxies engaged in a series of deadly provocations, shelling Georgian villages that were under my government's control -- with much of the artillery located in Tskhinvali, often within sites controlled by Russian peacekeepers. Then, on Aug. 7, Russia and its proxies killed several Georgian peacekeepers. Russian peacekeepers and OSCE observers admitted that they were incapable of preventing the lethal attacks. In fact, the OSCE had proven impotent in preventing the Russians from building two illegal military bases inside South Ossetia during the preceding year.
So the question is not whether Georgia ordered military action -- including targeting of the artillery sites that were shelling villages controlled by our government. We did.
The question is, rather: What democratic polity would have acted any differently while its citizens were being slaughtered as its sovereign territory was being invaded? South Ossetia and Abkhazia are internationally recognized as part of Georgia, and even some areas within these conflict zones were under Georgian government control before the Russian invasion. We fought to repel a foreign invasion. Georgians never stepped beyond Georgian territory.
My government has urged the international community to open an independent, unbiased investigation into the origins of the war. I first proposed this on Aug. 17, standing with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Tbilisi. I offered to make every shred of evidence and every witness available. Russia has yet to accede to such terms of inquiry.
Also, last Friday I stood for several hours before a commission established by the Georgian Parliament, chaired by a leader of an opposition party, to investigate the conduct of the war. This is the first time that any leader from this part of the world has been scrutinized live on national television for his or her wartime decisions by a legislative investigation. I have also required every member of my administration and military to make themselves available to the committee.
The real test of the legitimacy of Russia's actions should be based not on whether Georgia's democratically elected leadership came to the defense of its own people on its own land, but on an assessment of the following questions. Was it Georgia or Russia (and its proxies) that:
- Pursued the de facto annexation of the sovereign territory of a neighboring state?
- Illegally issued passports to residents of a neighboring democracy in order to create a pretext for invasion (to "protect its citizens")?
- Sent hundreds of tanks and thousands of soldiers across the internationally recognized borders of a neighboring democracy?
- Instigated a series of deadly provocations and open attacks over the course of many months, resulting in civilian casualties?
- Refused to engage in meaningful, bilateral dialogue on peace proposals?
- Constantly blocked all international peacekeeping efforts?
- Refused to attend urgent peace talks on South Ossetia organized by the European Union and the OSCE in late July?
- When the crisis began to escalate, refused to have any meaningful contact (I tried to reach President Dmitry Medvedev on both Aug. 6 and 7, but he refused my calls)?
- Tried to cover up a long-planned invasion by claiming, on Aug. 8, that Georgia had killed 1,400 civilians and engaged in ethnic cleansing -- "facts" quickly disproved by international and Russian human-rights groups?
- Refused to permit EU monitors unrestricted access to these conflict areas after the fighting ended, while engaging in the brutal ethnic cleansing of Georgians?
These are the questions that need to be answered. The fact that none can be answered in Russia's favor underscores the grave risks of returning to business as usual. Russia sees Georgia as a test. If the international response is not firm, Moscow will make other moves to redraw the region's map by intimidation or force.
Responding firmly to the Putin-Medvedev government implies neither the isolation nor the abandonment of Russia; it can be achieved in tandem with continuing engagement of, and trade with, Russia. But it does require holding Russia to account. Moscow must honor its sovereign commitments and fully withdraw its troops to pre-August positions. It must allow unrestricted EU monitoring, and accede to the international consensus that these territories are Georgia. Such steps are not bellicose; they are simply the necessary course to contain an imperial regime.
We all hope that Russia soon decides to join the international community as a full, cooperative partner. This would be the greatest contribution to Georgia's stability. In the interim, we should make sure that we do not sacrifice democracies like Georgia that are trying to make this critical part of the world more stable, secure and free.
Mr. Saakashvili is president of Georgia.
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