Clarity in the Caucasus?

The Facts and Future of the 2008 Russian-Georgian War

Servicemen of the military forces of South Ossetia attend an oath of allegiance ceremony in Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Georgia, July 5, 2015. Kazbek Basaev / Reuters

Few people believed that the fact-finding investigation into the 2008 Russia-Georgia war by the European Union -- which released its final report on September 30 -- would reveal new facts. But the report does confirm that Georgia acted irresponsibly in attempting to reconquer the secessionist region of South Ossetia by force, and that Russia acted irresponsibly in militarily intervening to prevent Georgia from overrunning South Ossetian militias and Russian peacekeepers. Yet in declaring a plague on all the houses involved in the five-day war, the EU report misses an opportunity to outline how the long-running territorial disputes of the Caucasus might be best resolved.

In the sweltering August of last year, as Russian tanks headed into Georgia and Georgian forces retreated in municipal buses and old Zhiguli automobiles, the EU emerged as the critical broker in trying to halt the violence. When the smoke cleared, part of the EU’s plan for reconciliation was to charge a high-level working group with investigating the origins and conduct of the war. All sides justified their actions in terms of international law, with Georgia arguing that it acted to prevent violent secession, and Russia arguing that it was protecting ethnic Ossetians and Russian peacekeepers from indiscriminate, even genocidal, attacks. The working group -- formally established in December 2008 and chaired by Heidi Tagliavini, a senior Swiss diplomat with experience in the Caucasus -- was to judge these claims.

Over the spring and summer of 2009, the mission’s members solicited expert analysis, conducted interviews, and received thousands of pages of official documents from Russians, Georgians, South Ossetians, and Abkhaz. The resulting report, which is three volumes and runs more than 1,000 pages, is the first of its kind in EU history. Historians will consider it a major resource, on par with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s famous 1913 report on the origins of the Balkan wars.

Predictably, all sides have interpreted the document according to self-interest. The Russian government and press highlight the portions that blame Georgian President

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