Will Twisted History of Georgian War Facilitate a Repetition?

Russian peacekeeping barracks in Ossetia, 2008 (cc photo: Dmitrij Steshin/Wikimedia)

The Russo-Georgian War makes a better anti-Russian talking point if you rearrange the order of events. (cc photo: Dmitrij Steshin/Wikimedia)

When the US press takes sides, the necessary lionizing of allies and demonizing of opponents begins in earnest. And so the fascists and antisemites in Ukraine’s current “pro-West” government are downplayed or ignored (Fair Blog, 3/7/14), as is the US hypocrisy that denounces Russia’s military adventures while supporting the violent ouster of a democratic, if odious, Ukrainian government (Consortium News, 3/4/14).

Russian President Vladimir Putin has even been pronounced “delusional” for the rather obvious observation that, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the US “acted either without any sanction from the UN Security Council or distorted the content of these resolutions.”

The jingoistic process also requires a careful rewriting of history. Thus, in reporting and commentary on Ukraine, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War provides a handy anti-Russian talking point…if you leave out half the story.

On March 1, New York Times editors did as much when they suggested that Russian President Putin was not to be trusted in the current crisis, because, they said, “In 2008, he sent Russian forces into neighboring Georgia, ostensibly to protect the secessionist Georgian enclave of South Ossetia; the real goal was to weaken the pro-Western government in Tbilisi.”

The next day, Times reporter Steven Erlanger (3/2/14) described the 2008 conflict as “when Russia provoked Georgia into skirmishes that prompted an invasion and the annexation of two Georgian regions with sizable numbers of ethnic Russians, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

And the day after that, a Times editorial (3/3/14) headlined “Russia’s Aggression” upbraided Putin for the way he “humiliated Georgia in 2008, for looking wistfully westward.”

In fact, Georgia started the war with a large-scale military attack on Russian peacekeeping forces and separatist militias in the breakaway Georgian  province of South Ossetia, according to an European Union-commissioned report on the war (Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, 9/30/09). Georgia’s initial attack  killed at least 10 Russian peacekeepers and an unrecorded number of South Ossetians. (Pursuant to a local treaty, Russian peacekeepers were in the two Georgian breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as part of the Joint Peacekeeping Task Force, which had Georgian peacekeepers protect other parts of the breakaway regions.)

In the days following Georgia’s attack, the Russian army came to the aid of its peacekeepers in South Ossetia, launching a brutal attack on Georgia. Over five days of fighting, hundreds died on each side, including many Ossetian and Georgian civilians. These details were laid out in the EU’s 2009 report, which faulted both Georgia for starting the war and Russia for going far beyond the mere protection of its peacekeepers in its retaliation.

As violent as its response was, Russia was not the initial aggressor in that war, as one might misperceive from recent Times coverage. The paper  (9/29/09) seemed to get it right back in 2009, though, when the EU report was released:

After a lengthy inquiry, investigators commissioned by the European Union are expected to conclude that Georgia ignited last year’s war with Russia by attacking separatists in South Ossetia, rejecting the Georgian government’s explanation that the attack was defensive, according to an official familiar with the investigators’ work.

The New York Times isn’t alone in distorting the Russo-Georgian War for propaganda purposes. Take the Washington Post (3/6/14), where former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, now a Post columnist, referred to the war only as Russia’s “invasion of Georgia in 2008.” Or the Post op-ed (3/6/14), “When Putin Invaded My Country,” by Mikheil Saakashvili, who as president of Georgia in 2008 gave the orders to attack Ossetians and Russian peacekeepers. According the Saakashvili, “Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers crossed our border, and planes started bombing us round the clock” for no reason at all. The former Georgia president fails to mention that Georgia attacked first. 

Speaking of Russian aggression, CBS News correspondent Juan Zarate (CBS This Morning, 3/2/14) summed up the whole conflict with just a few words : 

Russians play for keeps. And we’ve seen that with Putin before. We’ve seen that with the Russians in Georgia in 2008, when they invaded.

The half-baked history appeared in many news outlets, because media bias generally tracks with the US government preferences; and, in 2008, US officials–and their echo chamber in the press (Extra!, 10/08)–were all but cheering for Georgia and President Saakashvili, a particular favorite of US neoconservatives.

As Bruno Coppieter (Der Spiegel, 6/15/09), a member of the EU commission that produced the report observed, “The support of Saakashvili by the West, especially military support, inadvertently promoted Georgia’s collision course.” It remains to be seen whether that aspect of history will repeat itself.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.