A Dishonest Commentary on Georgia and Russia

by Joshua Foust on 8/17/2011 · 6 comments

Heritage scholar James Jay Carafano endorses the Georgia propaganda film “5 Days of War.”

The film ends with testimonies from Georgians who lost family members in the war. “After I met a lot of refugees,” Harlin said last night during a post-screening discussion of the movie at Washington’s Landmark Theater, “I felt I had to tell their story. That’s why we added the testimonials.”

The liberal blogosphere is already attacking Harlin’s film for being “anti-Russian.” Though mainstream Hollywood embraced “Hotel Rwanda,” a similar motion picture, it will likely turn its back on “5 Days of War.” The difference: the latter implicitly calls into question Mr. Obama’s decision to make nice with Moscow.

So, let’s ignore the questionable moral equivalence of a 5 day war that killed far fewer than a thousand people to a genocide that killed over a million people during four horrifying months of systemic murder. We can probably safely assume Renny Harlin did not interview any Ossetians or Abkhazians for his film’s recounting of horrors—nor did he consult the sections of the Human Rights Watch report which also accused the Georgians of committing war crimes and illegally shelling Tshkinvali before the start of the war (an action which killed several Russian troops and which was the casus belli for a Russian response).

In other words, Carafano is starting his review from a pretty fundamentally dishonest perspective (he could have mentioned that Renny Harlin’s film was actually sponsored by the government of Georgia, but that might get in the way of his narrative). But it doesn’t stop at the film. Carafano brings up the bombings in Georgia:

For example, recent allegations that the Russians engineered last year’s bombing outside the U.S. Embassy in Georgia (at the same time the White House was pushing for ratification of a U.S.-Russia arms control treaty) quickly produced a squad of predictable skeptics. Writing for The Atlantic, Joshua Foust (a fellow at the American Security Project) suggested the whole thing may have been a frame-job by the Georgians. “[T]hey have a vested interest in blaming everything on Russia,” he points out.

Here, however, is what Foust doesn’t explain. It looks like the Georgians had been trying to keep the whole story quiet—and work back channels in the U.S. to get the Russians to back off. The story was actually “outed” here in the U.S.

Yes, to a point. However, since Carafano is apparently aware of my analysis of reporting on the Georgian bombings (and not, let us assume, just filching links from another dishonest Weekly Standard freakout about it), then he might have thought to reference the additional reporting I highlighted that casts doubt on the CIA’s assignment of blame to the GRU, or that, contrary to his portrayal Georgia has been pushing this bombing story since December. In fact, since we’re going there, here is the letter the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been emailing reporters and embassies since June:

GEO IED fullc

So to claim the Georgian government wanted to keep this quiet is, once again, just dishonest. And the film meant to portray Russians as grizzled evil-doers and Georgians as helpless lambs is the worst sort of pedantic malarkey.

Then again, this is not much of a surprise. Much as the Right wants to complain that inexplicable Russian hostility is some artifact of President Obama’s uniquely complacent Russia policy, the relationship actually began suffering strain under President Bush—well before the 2008 war in Georgia. Despite that, the U.S.—Russian relationship remains much as it always has: periods of guarded cooperated punctuated by periods of tension.

Now, I have my own problems with Obama’s policy of “reset” with Russia. I think the President was too quick to dismiss President Bush’s very real accomplishments in securing Russian cooperation on a number of issues, and too reliant on the last year of his term to define what the relationship had become.

That being said, this is sadly part of a pattern. Every single election cycle since the end of the Cold War, the Right has spun up this huge push to portray Democrats as being “soft” on Russia. In the 1990s, the rightwing meme was that President Clinton was too weak on fighting Boris Yeltsin’s corruption. Despite strongly condemning Russia’s mass killings during the second Chechen War, he was nevertheless accused of “waffling” by critics. In 2004, John Kerry was derided as being weak on terrorism after the Beslan School massacre. And finally, from 2008 onward, President Obama has been derided for his weakness on Russia, starting with the war in Georgia and continuing to the current push back against his “reset” policy.

There’s no doubt the Left is much less confrontational toward Russia. There’s very little doubt that sometimes a little confrontation is good for a relationship defined as much by frustration as it is by accommodation. But the Right’s gleeful use of misleading rhetoric to gin up an adversary where one really doesn’t exist is worse than embarrassing: it is actively counterproductive to ever having a normal relationship with Russia. It’s time to stop.

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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 Registan.net. 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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Jason S August 18, 2011 at 11:10 am

After reading a few of Mr. Foust’s articles on Georgia, I have been left wondering why someone of non-Russian persuasion (an assumption on my part based purely on his last name) could have such a biased view on the events of the past two decades in this small country. His analysis makes no honest attempt to address the actual facts which led to the conflict, but rather seems to mimick official Russian talking points. Amongst these indisputable facts are: 1) Russia had been ratcheting up its rhetoric prior to the war, illegally repaired a railway in Abkhazia months before the war, and increasingly invaded Georgian airspace with its fighter jets prior to the conflict 2) Russia held wargames just north of Georgia’s border in July, 2008, even handing out fliers to soldiers which stated, “know your enemy”, the enemy being Georgian soldiers 3) Ossetians bussed women and children out of the conflict zone days before the war started 4) Russian peacekeepers made no attempt to stop Ossetian militia from shelling Georgian villages on August 5,6 and 7th leading up to the Georgian response. I could go on. The Tagliavini report, trumped by many on the left as the definitive document proving Georgian culpability but which in reality was a political document, even admits that there were non-sanctioned Russian troops and armament on Georgian soil prior to the start of the conflict. Why were they there, if not in preparation for war? How did Russia mobilize its massive response so quickly, if the war hadn’t already been planned? Mr. Foust and his fellow Russian apologists make use of the general international ignorance regarding these and the myriad other facts when making their spurious points, and one has to question the motive. Why be so virulently opposed to a small and vulnerable country? Was their sin that they aligned themselves with the US, and more specifically George Bush? Or was the great sin that they stood up to the Putin-Medvedev axis? For anyone looking for insightful and honest analysis on this important conflict, please read the book, “Guns of August”, and ignore this BS.

James Jay Carafano August 18, 2011 at 11:18 am

Josh, I think you are wrong. I dont think the Georgian government “sponsored the film. I belive the Georgian funding came from private sources.

Joshua Foust August 18, 2011 at 11:28 am


From the Economist piece on the film:

Beyond the largesse of philanthropists, the Georgian government knows the propaganda value of such cultural artefacts. Papuna Davitaia, the minister for “diaspora issues”, co-produced the film. The ministry of defence provided the military hardware for the battle scenes. All the scenes featuring Mr Garcia were shot in the presidential palace or outside the parliament building.

A lot of funding came from private sources. But it’s impossible to ignore the involvement of the Georgian government.

Alexander August 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Joshua, thanks for a very interesting piece which, for me, provides an analysis of most of the western reporting on the 5-day war. The media coverage of the conflict has left me wondering whether most western commentators are so anti-Russian that they cannot do their job properly (remember that Ossetian girl who was not give a chance to speak on FOX News about the Georgians’ atrocities during the conflict?) or that the PR agencies working for the Georgian government are really good.

I have never taken sides in the conflict which occurred so far from my country. However, I think it is not only unprofessional but also completely stupid to portray Russia as the only aggressor during that war and give only one side – the Georgians – an opportunity to speak out about the atrocities committed during that war.

Very good piece!

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