Events in Georgia show Nato powerless to confront Russia


ANALYSISPolitical, economic and moral sanctions are the only options open to the West, writes Lara Marlowe

TWO WEEKS after the war between Russia and Georgia began, no one's quite sure how it started. It's an important question, because the aggressor deserves less sympathy and - as both sides have insisted - the aggressor should be punished.

The official US/Georgian version, as stated by president Mikheil Saakashvili to the French philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy, is that the Russians simultaneously launched a disinformation campaign accusing the Georgians of preparing for war, evacuated women and children from the South Ossetian "capital" Tskhinvali, massed troops and sent Russian tanks through the Roki tunnel that separates Russia from South Ossetia - all before Saakashvili gave the order to fire.

But a timeline based on information provided by the government of Georgia shows Georgian troops occupying villages in South Ossetia at 2.45am on August 8th, and the first Russian troops entering South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel nearly three hours later.

The Georgians fired multiple rocket launcher systems (MRLS) (also known as Grads or Stalin's organs) on Tskhinvali that same night. Anyone who's ever been on the receiving end of an MRLS attack can tell you it is terrifying. Images of Tskhinvali under multiple rocket fire were exploited to the hilt by the Russians.

Russians, Georgians and Americans cannot be considered reliable sources on how it started. And the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which had eight monitors in theatre, isn't saying, for fear of jeopardising plans to deploy an additional 100 monitors to the area.

In her understated way, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, came closest to the truth when, standing beside the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, in Sochi on August 15th, she said both sides were to blame, but that the Russian response was disproportionate.

Like the Iraqis in Kuwait in 1990, Russians went on a rampage of looting, towing Georgian coastguard ships out of Poti port, driving away the Humvees the US gave Georgia. Like Israel in Lebanon two summers ago - albeit on a smaller scale - the Russians bombed civilians and created a refugee crisis. And like Israel in Lebanon from 1978 until 2000, Russia calls its partial occupation of Georgia a "security zone".

It was a bit rich to hear the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice condemning Russia for using cluster bombs in Georgia. The last time anyone used cluster bombs - which are banned by more than 100 countries - it was Israel in Lebanon. I don't recall Rice condemning Israel for it.

The Russians claimed 2,000 people were killed by the Georgians in South Ossetia. Human Rights Watch found evidence of 44 deaths in Tskhinvali. "Gori Razed to the Ground" read a headline in the Georgian Times. I travelled to Gori four times. Though several areas are badly damaged, most of the town is standing.

There is so much cynicism and hypocrisy flying around that one risks forgetting the victims. Those responsible for turning thousands of old people out of their homes, forcing them to walk for days, shod in sandals or bedroom slippers, making them sleep in fields and beg for food, truly deserve punishment.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't come well out of this either. In his over-eagerness to achieve something he could call success, Sarkozy transformed himself "from mediator into a messenger of capitulation", wrote Daniel Vernet of the French newspaper Le Monde.

According to Henri-Lévy, Sarkozy forced Saakashvili to accept the Russian "security zone" by telling him: "You don't have a choice, Misha. Be realistic. When the Russians come to overthrow you, none of your friends will lift a little finger to help you."

Sarkozy and Saakashvili belong to the same informal network of pro-American, pro-Israeli, economic liberals. Unquestioning admiration for the US is almost a cult in Tbilisi. What other capital would name its main avenue to the airport after George W Bush? Where else would you find a glossy, red, white and blue magazine cover showing Georgian soldiers in camouflage uniforms in Iraq, under the headline "God Bless Georgia"? There are strong suspicions of US involvement in the Georgian offensive.

Rice visited Tbilisi exactly four weeks before the war started, when some western residents of the capital suspect she gave Saakashvili the go-ahead. The French investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchâiné quotes French military intelligence as saying US advisers helped target Georgian multiple rocket launchers.

The US should have learned from Iraq the dangers of destroying an unsatisfactory but stable status quo. Georgia virtually lost South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the early 1990s; president Saakashvili's impetuous drive to bring them back under Georgian rule has probably guaranteed their loss forever. But the biggest prize for upsetting the apple cart must go to Washington.

On May 27th, 1997, at the Élysée Palace, I witnessed the signing of the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Co-operation and Security between the Russian Federation and Nato. It was supposed to be the funeral for the cold war. In a burst of good will, then president Boris Yeltsin promised to disarm Russian warheads.

There was one caveat. Russia made it clear it would not accept the admission of Baltic states or former members of the Soviet Union to Nato. In 1999, Nato admitted three former members of the Soviet bloc. In 2004, seven more joined, including the three Baltic states, which had been members of the Soviet Union proper. Vladimir Putin complained. But Nato persisted, courting Ukraine and Georgia.

How would Washington react if Russia forged defence pacts with Canada and Mexico? Disgraceful as Russian behaviour in Georgia has been, it's not hard to understand Moscow's point of view.

Before he died in 2005, the great US diplomat and historian George F Kennan, the man who coined the term "containment", led a group of foreign policy experts who campaigned against the expansion of Nato. Unfortunately, no one listened to them. At a time when Georgians are moaning about not having been allowed to join Nato, a starker truth is evident: the alliance that was formed to counterbalance Soviet power is powerless to confront Russia.

We have not taken the full measure of the dangers of the Georgian crisis, though Russia's threat of nuclear retaliation against Poland should send a shiver down all our spines. It is outrageous that Russia has obtained permission to keep 500 "peacekeepers" in Georgia; even more outrageous that we'll be incredibly relieved if Moscow settles for that.

Russia now occupies the Georgian towns of Gori, Khashuri, Senaki and Poti, and maintains a stranglehold on rail, road and sea transport. Moscow has more or less destroyed Tbilisi's dream of offering a non-Russian "Eurasian corridor" for gas and petrol to the West.

The Georgian newspaper editor Zaza Gachechiladze likens Russia to a trained circus feline: "You can never say when it will suddenly jump on the crowd. Either you force it back into the cage of civilised manners, or you kill it. The latter is impossible, so you have to put it back in the cage."

One uses a whip to drive wild animals into a cage. The equivalent in the "civilised world", says Gachechiladze, is "serious political, economic and moral sanctions". It's not much, but it's the only whip at our disposal.

• Lara Marlowe is Irish TimesParis Correspondent and reported from Georgia during the recent war there