Leading article: Georgia started it and Russia continued it – to excess

The EU report on the war offers lessons that go beyond the combatants
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The EU's long-awaited report on the Russia-Georgia war has produced a nuanced verdict, but one that finds Georgia at least as culpable as Russia, and probably more so. Specifically, it concludes that the war was started by a Georgian attack in breach of international law. But it also finds that this attack followed months of Russian provocation and that aspects of its response put Moscow on the wrong side of international law as well.

It is not quite six of one and half a dozen of the other, more seven points of blame to Georgia and five to Russia. Given that Georgia started out with a vastly greater share of the world's sympathy, however, and was widely seen as the injured party, the report hands a clear moral and public relations victory to Russia. Who started it? – the question that Moscow wanted asked above all – has been answered in a way that vindicates Russia.

Nor, on this narrow issue, does the report beat about the bush. There is the question, it says, of whether Georgia's shelling of Tskhinvali (capital of the South Ossetia enclave) on 7-8 August 2008, was justifiable under international law. Its categorical answer is: "It was not." That is the conclusion Russia has sought for more than a year, and the one it has naturally seized upon.

That Georgia's leaders suspected they would not emerge lily-white from this investigation had been evident for weeks. Its diplomats spent much of the summer in preparatory efforts to limit the damage. Their campaign went into overdrive yesterday, as Georgians stressed many other conclusions, but neglected the one – Who started it? – that Russia always regarded as key.

The report finds Russia to blame less for intervening to defend its allies in South Ossetia, than for a long history of provocations against Georgia and for what was judged to be the use of excessive force. The report singled out the "continued destruction" that followed the ceasefire which, it said, "was not justifiable by any means". In other words, Russia's ruthless response undermined, even if it did not totally negate, the fact that right was initially on its side.

That Russia and Georgia can both find justification in this report has its pluses and minuses. The pluses are that each government has something to offer its public and no excuse for not accepting the conclusions. The minuses are that both can avoid admitting responsibility, while finding ample grounds for mutual recrimination. All too predictably, the war of words was rejoined as the report came out. To the credit of the EU – both as mediator in the aftermath of the war and as sponsor of this report – there is no sign of military hostilities being renewed.

But it is not only the two combatants who should heed the report's conclusions. When the war broke out, there was an immediate rush to judgement by the British and some other Western governments, who lost no time in casting Russia as the villain and hailing Georgia as the innocent victim, being punished for its Western orientation. This stereotypical response, for which scant evidence was available, gave Russia new cause for resentment against the West.

September was a good month for Russian relations with the outside world. First, President Obama announced that he was abandoning plans to station missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Now, the EU report has absolved it of starting the Georgia war. With these two big obstacles out of the way, maybe Russia – rather than crowing – could start showing a friendlier face to the world.

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