This story was updated on December 2, 2010 to correct the language of publication used for the alleged US embassy cables. The disclosure of alleged US diplomatic correspondence by WikiLeaks has rekindled the oft-debated question of who started the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia. But, as always for this topic, the answer boils down to a matter of perspective.
In dispatches from Tbilisi reportedly sent during the initial stage of the five-day conflict, former US Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft maintained that the Georgians did not intend to start the conflict, but rather were dragged into the war.
The diplomat’s cables were published by Russian Reporter magazine, a Moscow-based weekly that says it received the documents after agreeing to a cooperation proposal brought by a Russian-speaking WikiLeaks volunteer. An interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in the magazine earlier this month.
The ambassador’s supposed account of the events (published in English) contradicts the view espoused by many in the international community that Georgia sparked the fighting by attacking South Ossetia in a bid to reclaim the secessionist region. The documents instead suggest that South Ossetian separatist fighters initiated the fighting.
“From evidence available to us it appears the South Ossetians started today’s fighting,” reads a purported August 8, 2008, dispatch from Tefft. “The Georgians are now reacting by calling up more forces and assessing their next move. It is unclear to the Georgians, and to us, what the Russian angle is and whether they are supporting South Ossetians, or actively trying to help control the situation.”
EurasiaNet.org contacted the US Embassy in Kyiv, where Tefft now serves as ambassador, in an attempt to confirm the veracity of the information contained in the cables. But the embassy declined to comment on the information. The documents are not yet available on WikiLeaks, and none of the website’s major international partners have published them.
In an email to EurasiaNet.org, Russian Reporter Editor Vitaliy Leybin said that media outlets working with WikiLeaks made different types of requests for materials. Russian Reporter was interested specifically in the Russia-Georgia-war-related cables, and received these particular cables first, Leybin said.
“All these documents will soon be published on WikiLeaks, of course,” Leybin said. “I cannot say when exactly, because it was decided to make postings in separate portions.”
WikiLeaks could not be reached for comment. The group’s website, including its Cable Viewer section, remained inaccessible on December 1. The US officials have opened a criminal investigation into the leaked cables. Interpol on November 30 issued a search-alert for Assange on rape and sexual molestation charges filed in Sweden.
If the cables published by Russian Reporter prove authentic, they are at odds with the conclusions of the European Union-commissioned investigation into the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. That commission was led by Heidi Tagliavini, a Swiss diplomat. European investigators assigned responsibility to all sides, but placed the blame on Georgia for starting the conflict by shelling Tskhinvali, the capital of separatist South Ossetia, on the night of August 7-8.
Ambassador Tefft reportedly wrote on August 8 that “As late as 22:30 Georgian Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials were still hopeful that the unilateral cease-fire announced by President Saakashvili will hold. Only when the South Ossetians opened up with artillery on Georgian villages, did the offensive to take Tskhinvali begin.”
Many of the conclusions made by both EU and, reportedly, Tefft could be a matter of different interpretation of the same events. Some believe that the war began with the South Ossetian shelling of Georgian villages earlier in August, while others think the Georgian counterattack on Tskhinvali set the Russian war machine in motion.
“All evidence available to the country team supports [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili’s statement that this fight was not Georgia’s original intention,” reads the cable published by Russian Reporter. “Key Georgian officials, who would have had responsibility for an attack on South Ossetia have been on leave, and the Georgians only began mobilizing August 7 once the attack was well underway.”
But this would not be enough to change the perspective contained in the EU report. “Even if it were assumed that Georgia was repelling an attack, e.g. in response to South Ossetian attacks against Georgian populated villages in the region, according to international law, its armed response would have to be both necessary and proportional,” which it was not, the EU report stated.
Russian commentators, though, have interpreted the same cables differently. “The documents published by Wikileaks make it clear that Western diplomats – Mr. John Tefft, at least - knew from the very beginning who was the real initiator of this war,” The Voice of Russia proclaimed on November 30.
In an interview with Kommersant, Russian Reporter Editor Leybin reached a similar conclusion.
No matter the perspective, Tbilisi feels exonerated by the cables, which have been the main news story in Georgia since the global WikiLeaks buzz started on November 28.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.