Russian President Dmitry Medvedev marked the third anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Georgia by visiting a Spetsnaz unit (Interfax, August 8), and assailing both Georgia and the United States in a live interview of unusual length and candor. Medvedev recounted that he had ordered the invasion, reinterpreted the armistice signed with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, unilaterally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia in his capacity as President of Russia, and signed troop-stationing agreements with them. For this interview Medvedev chose three media outlets, each targeting specific audiences: the Western, the Georgian (with the Caucasus writ large), and Medvedev’s putative constituency in Russian society, respectively (Russia Today TV, First Caucasus TV Channel [PIK, Tbilisi], Ekho Moskvy, August 5), with full-scale reruns by state media (www.kremlin.ru, August 6; Rossiskaya Gazeta, August 8).
Three features stand out in Medvedev’s live remarks: parochial simplicity, aggressive ignorance of international law and repetition of his points as if by rote while the interview dragged on.
Commenting on the US Senate’s recent resolution on Georgia, Medvedev blames it on the “taste preferences of certain over-aged members of the Senate” (“prestarelyie,” a semi-derogatory adjective), whose resolution “leaves me indifferent.” He seems unaware that the resolution passed unanimously with 100 votes, and unconcerned about offending the US Congress, ahead of other votes of interest to Russia. The resolution, citing Georgia’s territorial integrity and internationally recognized borders, calls on Russia to withdraw its troops from the country.
Medvedev blames the United States for having encouraged Georgia to risk a war with Russia in 2008. He recalls that Condoleezza Rice, the then US Secretary of State, had visited Tbilisi only four weeks before the war. “I am almost fully convinced that it was then that this idea took shape,” Medvedev now avers, citing no evidence and ignoring strong counter-evidence to this claim (see EDM, August 10). This president-lawyer resorts to “post hoc ergo propter hoc” (“after this, therefore because of this,” equating sequence with causality) to shift the blame for Russia’s invasion of Georgia.
With that theory, Medvedev feels all the more comfortable claiming credit for issuing the invasion orders. He recounts that he did so during the night of August 7-8 and checked only the next day with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was attending the Olympic Games in Beijing. (Putin flew on August 9 to the operational headquarters in North Ossetia). Medvedev’s claim of paternity to the war is historically accurate; but his emphasis on it is a new element, intending to suggest that he can act independently of Putin.
According to Medvedev, Russia is in full compliance with the armistice terms brokered by President Sarkozy in Georgia (August-September 2008). Russian troops withdrew to their previous positions, albeit “the way Russia defined those positions.” In Medvedev’s interpretation, the armistice left Russia free to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “states” and deploy more troops there. Thus “the plan, Medvedev-Sarkozy, worked out, it stopped the war….The plan has been implemented one hundred percent.” Medvedev’s clinching argument, “I simply do not listen to other interpretations because I regard them as wrong,” will remind the French of Monsieur Prudhomme [cartoon character] with his tautology: “This is my view and I agree with it” (“c’est mon avis et je le partage”).
Retrospectively, Medvedev makes clear that Russia never honored Georgia’s territorial integrity. He even seems genuinely to fail to understand the problem. Thus he claims that Russian “peacekeeping” troops were “defending their land” in South Ossetia when they came under attack in 2008. He justifies Russia’s intervention in Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the grounds that “these territories had existed for a long time with their own governments, and had already declared their statehood” long before 2008. He mentions neither Russia’s official recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity until 2008, nor Russia’s troops in the two territories despite that legal pretense. Oblivious to legal considerations, he claims that Georgia committed “aggression” in 2008 against Russia, South Ossetia, the “peacekeepers,” and against “our citizens” (i.e., South Ossetian residents “passportized” by Russia).
All this can serve to justify military occupation and ethnic cleansing; but it also reflects poor legal culture, reluctance to honor borders and sovereignties, and ultimately a Russian proprietary sense about territories and populations. Russia’s “recognition” of South Ossetia since 2008 seems as vague and conditional as the recognition of Georgia’s sovereignty prior to 2008. Asked whether South Ossetia might “join” the Russian Federation in the future, Medvedev replies: “We cannot now predict how things will develop. But there are no legal or factual prerequisites for it [joining] at this time.” Putin responded in a similar vein recently, to young supporters at Camp Seliger). Asked whether South Ossetia might enter the Russian Federation, Putin replied: too early to tell now, “the people will decide” (Interfax, August 1; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 3).
The Kremlin had initiated this interview for Medvedev to reach three major audiences (see above) on a well-calculated timing. The Russian president, however, seemed unable to capitalize on the opportunity with any of the target audiences.