“I Should Have Shouted Louder” – Saakashvili on 2008 War, Part 2
The former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, laid all bare about the 2008 August War in a wide-ranging interview with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).
“If Russia wanted to stop, they should have been given the leeway…if international pressure had been there or worked, Russia would have had a way out, but at the time nobody else applied pressure, that was the problem; there was no one to apply pressure.”
It was a diplomatic narrative that did not work.
No, it didn’t, because you need two to tango. We needed the West to tell them to stop and the West was so confused and lost that their first instinct was to blame us because the Russian narrative made its way into the Western narrative, such as the words Bush said in Beijing; Bush tells Putin, look, you know that Saakashvili is hot-blooded. I don’t think in my conversations with President Bush I was hot-headed. But for many years they were saying so, that I was impetuous. It was an overwhelming sentiment. Now we know how it works with the Russian propaganda machine, then nobody else knew.
You’re absolving yourself of all blame when it comes to that image?
Well, I can be emotional but it’s not like I’m crazy. I could be tough with the Westerners, I mean it’s not like I’m such a piece of cake. Another thing I had with the Westerners which wasn’t really appreciated is that I came to them as an equal, to preach what they preach – but they don’t always want to practice what they preach. When a small country comes to their table and talks to them like an equal they don’t always appreciate it, they think you’re getting ahead of yourself. It’s obvious. Now I know it; back then I thought this is my world, here we are equals. The Americans are usually more tolerant of this, but I remember, for example, how the Obama administration reacted when we said Georgia would block Russia’s entry to the World Trade Organization. They couldn’t believe it.
We heard your government went to Western neo-cons asking them how much they could count on the US in the event of war.
We never said the war would happen, we’d say, ‘Russia is attacking us’ and be told ‘Russia will never attack you, don’t worry’. They had the vision that it’s still a new world where nothing happens without America knowing and running it; so, there is no way Russia can try to change the world, they’d say. George Bush told me when he was in Tbilisi in 2005, ‘Misha, how does it feel now that you can tell Putin, I’m next to this big guy, come and get me?’ That was his way of saying, from now on you are under my protection. He was cocky, Bush… But even Americans didn’t appreciate it when during the war I spoke with Bush and then Condi came and said it was the worse press conference in her life, when I basically accused the West of appeasement. She was very unhappy, not that she could argue with anything I said. I felt it was my last big moment to speak out when the world media was listening, and I wanted it to be remembered. And I was right because it continued in Crimea.
Did they give Georgia assurances that if the war did break out, they’d be on your side?
No, nobody ever gave such assurance and we would never discuss it, discussing this was already taboo. You don’t discuss things based on “ifs” – asking them such a question would be a huge provocation. It’s an absolute Russian and leftist Americans myth. Of course, I said, ‘What happens if they attack?’ But I asked these questions to Condi Rice, to others and they said no, they are not going to attack. In her book she twisted things and says, ‘I warned Saakashvili not to dabble’ – that’s not true. She told the story in a way that would fit her narrative; at that table there were about 20 people present, witnesses can confirm it. She was saying don’t get provoked. Ok Condi, we won’t get provoked but what if they attack us? ‘They’re not going to attack you, don’t do anything.’ That’s how the conversation went.
Don’t do anything – that could be construed as a warning, RIGHT?
You don’t get provoked and they won’t do anything, and I said, ‘What if they go beyond provocation and attack us, what do we do? What is your red line?’ ‘They won’t do it, don’t worry,’ she answered; I said, ‘What’s the red line when America will do something?’ They said, ‘Don’t worry, they won’t do it.’ And during that conversation she said, ‘Misha, we never really recognized how high the stakes are for the Russians and they’re much higher than we have in this region, that’s what they’re exploiting.’
At what point did you realize that war with Russia was inevitable?
It was already a very dangerous situation in May that year. Not earlier; earlier Putin menaced me, but I took it as a diplomatic game, akin to blackmail tactics. But then [Putin] told me straight to my face that there was a plan to attack Georgia militarily, and I remember Andrey Ilarioniov, his former advisor, also told me in 2007 in Lithuania. And Putin in February 2008 said ‘you will have a little pain but you won’t suffer too much.’ But May was the crucial point when they started to bring troops into Abkhazia, racking up infrastructure in a hasty way and then we started to really panic, because these things were happening. That’s when I decided to send this letter to the Russians offering them some kind of arrangement in Abkhazia because, again, we thought that they’re all about Abkhazia and that offered us something, some solution just short of out-and-out war.
By Vazha Tavberidze
“I Should Have Shouted Louder” – Saakashvili on the August 2008 War, Part 1
“I Should Have Shouted Louder” – Saakashvili on the 2008 War, Part 3
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