Georgia began war with Russia, but it was provoked, inquiry finds

1,000-page European Union analysis of South Ossetian conflict points finger of blame at both sides

The first authoritative study of the war over South Ossetia has concluded that Georgia started the conflict with Russia with an attack that was in violation of international law.

But the exhaustive 1,000 page analysis published yesterday by the EU also concluded that Russia was responsible for a long history of provocation in the region and reacted disproportionately.

"Much of the Russian military action went far beyond the reasonable limits of defence," concluded the report.

It also said that there was evidence of widespread ethnic cleansing by South Ossetian forces of Georgian villages within South Ossetia that the Russian Army had failed to stop. And it denied the Russian allegation that the Georgian attack had amounted to a genocide of the Ossetian people.

The conflict cost about 850 lives and left 35,000 people – mostly ethnic Georgians – unable to return to their homes.

"Operations started with a massive Georgian artillery attack," the report stated. It judged that "the Georgian claim concerning a large-scale Russian military incursion into South Ossetia" before the war began could not be "sufficiently substantiated".

Both sides seized on the results of the report – commissioned by the EU and authored by a Swiss diplomat – as evidence that their conduct had been justified. The issue of who began the conflict has been the subject of a public relations battle, fuelled by wildly differing interpretations of the events of last August provided by the two sides. According to Russia, the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, forced Moscow to take action with his reckless missile assault on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

According to the Georgians, Moscow had a long-standing plan to provoke the conflict and conducted an illegal invasion of Georgia and annexation of Georgian territory.

"[The report] provides an unequivocal answer to the main question of 'Who started the war'," Russia's EU envoy, Vladimir Chizhov, said. He added that the report should encourage "those leaders who have been hesitant" to blame Georgia for the war to rethink their stance.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that "any sane person" would understand that Mr Saakashvili was to blame but it disputed sections of the report that claimed that Russia's response was disproportionate.

The Georgians tried to gloss over the very clear allegation that Tbilisi had started the war and instead focused on the report's criticism of Russia.

Eka Tkeshelashvili, the secretary of Georgia's National Security Council said: "The report confirms that all arguments that Russia used for invading Georgia are basically outright lies."

While there was comfort for both countries, it is likely to be the Georgian government, and in particular Mr Saakashvili, who comes out of the judgement worst.

The report's conclusion that there was not a major Russian incursion into South Ossetia prior to the Georgian attack undercuts Mr Saakashvili's credibility. He has been criticised at home for his handling of the war and lost much of the trust that he had built up on the international arena.

A Georgian attack on Tskhinvali, the capital of its breakaway region of South Ossetia, was brutally repulsed by the Russian Army, which went on to bomb and occupy large swathes of Georgia proper before retreating.

Crucially, the report states that Georgia's attack on the night of 7 August was an offensive, not a defensive, response to an invasion. It comes to the unequivocal conclusion that the assault breached international law.

Russia and Georgia: The propaganda battle

Ever since the guns stopped firing in last year's five-day war, the propaganda battle between President Saakashvili of Georgia and Prime Minister Putin of Russia has continued to be fought with intensity. Both sides have recruited Western PR firms to put across their side of events, and recently even the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have engaged a US PR company.

In the cultural field as well there have been fevered efforts to present one-sided views of the conflict. State-controlled Russian television produced an array of dubious documentaries to mark the anniversary of the start of the war in August. Russian viewers were also treated to an extraordinary feature film about the war, where Georgian soldiers were shown being commanded on the battlefield by black American officers, and shooting unarmed civilians in the back.

On the other side of the fence, in recent weeks the opposition Russian film-maker Andrei Nekrasov released his documentary Russian Lessons, which was shown in various European capitals. This film takes the diametric opposite view, accusing Russia of a long-held plot to destroy naive and innocent Georgia, in the process downplaying Georgia's attack and Ossetian casualties.

The EU report is the first detailed and non-partisan attempt to get to the bottom of the events of last August, and with its strong criticism of all parties appears to have penetrated through the haze of propaganda created by both sides and reached a truth that many impartial observers of last year's war suspected all along: that Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia all deserve a share of the blame.

Shaun Walker

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