Questioning Georgia

by Joshua Foust on 11/7/2008 · 4 comments

Remember when I said Mark Ames was being too hard on CJ Chivers over his coverage of the Georgian conflict? Well.

Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the longstanding Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression.

Instead, the accounts suggest that Georgia’s inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.

The accounts are neither fully conclusive nor broad enough to settle the many lingering disputes over blame in a war that hardened relations between the Kremlin and the West. But they raise questions about the accuracy and honesty of Georgia’s insistence that its shelling of Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, was a precise operation. Georgia has variously defended the shelling as necessary to stop heavy Ossetian shelling of Georgian villages, bring order to the region or counter a Russian invasion.

Call into question indeed. Chivers is not pushing any agenda here, he is just reporting what information he can get when he can get it—and unlike way too many journalists, not treating the information he has as conclusive and case-settling. Even so, documenting the growing divergence between the Georgian portrayal of the war and what independent observers on the ground have seen is a laborious process—and Chivers deserves thanks for continuing to do the work needed to get it all into the open.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Helena Cobban November 7, 2008 at 11:57 am

Joshua, you cut Chivers and his bosses at the NYT ways too much slack on this Georgia question. Bernhardt of Moon of Alabama, I, and numerous non-US news sources were all reporting, at the time, back in August that the OSCE monitors on the ground in Georgia were demurring from the made-in-Washington “story” of how the war got started.

Chivers and the NYT in general either ignored completely or seriously downplayed the value of those monitoring reports back then. Only now, once the meme of “vulnerable, innocent little Georgia” has had three months to take root in the US public discourse, do they go back and mention OSCE monitoring reports whose conclusions were already widely available at the time, and were reported back to OSCE HQ and the EU. (But Washington, also a member of OSCE, apparently didn’t request a briefing on them.)

The only new thing in Chivers’ latest report is buried ways down low where he says that Brit. Army Captain Ryan Grist, who had been head of the OSCE monitoring team, later left his post under unclear circumstances.

You and your readers would benefit from checking out the main post and comments on this at MoA today. You could also go back and check some of what I was blogging in August about the OSCE reports, at Just World News, portal here.

Joshua Foust November 7, 2008 at 4:27 pm

Helena, you and MoA assume that the NYT was supressing information for some reason. I, too, was noting that Georgia seemed to be the aggressor in the conflict, not Russia or South Ossetia. However, all I had to go on was my (limited) understanding of conflict there and the buried news reporting.

The NYT was one of my main sources for all of this, too. Their reporting has been consistently superior to other American news organizations. Chivers and his editors in New York would have been negligent not to run the story last month about Saakashvili releasing audio recordings of radio broadcasts hinting that Russia attacked first… especially since that was the cornerstone of their declaration of innocence in the whole affair.

Just as they would have been negligent not to report this today. I didn’t see in either yours or MOA’s blogging at the time any evidence that the OSCE observers’ account was conclusive in discounting all other accounts of the conflict — rather, they confirmed your (plural) and my working hypothesis that Georgia was the aggressor. Interesting, yes, but hardly the smoking gun of negligence you’re making it out to be.

Helena Cobban November 7, 2008 at 10:30 pm

The OSCE observers were trained, politically neutral military observers, working for an intergovernmental body to which all relevant regional governments (and our own) are all parties; they were present and well deployed on the ground, and tasked precisely with overseeing threats to national, regional, and border security in Georgia’s long-identified problematic, potentially secessionist regions. Therefore, their reports should have been considered quite definitive, absent any absolutely overwhleming reason to doubt or second-guess them.

That was why I (and presumably also MoA) gave them such high credence at the time. The NYT did not. And even the latest report by Chivers and Barry buries the identity and name of the OSCE, and then casts Grist’s fairly definitive findings into a degree of doubt by saying things like, “well, both sides have their own explanations of what happened” and “it’s hard to find out the real truth”, etc, etc.

One of the main goals of the OSCE in fielding these (fairly expensive) monitoring teams is to prevent the eruption and escalation of armed conflict by providing accurate ground-level reporting of incidents. They deserve considerably more respect, recognition, and support than they usually get in the US MSM. Treating OSCE reporting as “just one source among many conflicting sources” completely misreads their real capabilities, role, and importance.

Joshua Foust November 8, 2008 at 8:38 am


At the time, the NYT was one of the main papers reporting that Georgia was the offensive party — just as they were the only U.S. paper talking about the weeks of shelling beforehand. You might think this report doesn’t confirm your biases enough, but accusing them of “burying” this idea, or of criminal neglience or something, is just not called for.

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