After a lengthy inquiry, investigators commissioned by the European Union are expected to conclude that Georgia ignited last year’s war with Russia by attacking separatists in South Ossetia, rejecting the Georgian government’s explanation that the attack was defensive, according to an official familiar with the investigators’ work.
But the report is expected to balance this conclusion with an equally weighty one: If Georgia fired the first shot, Russia created and exploited the conditions that led to war, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report had not yet been made public.
In the years preceding the conflict, Russia encouraged separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, territories in Georgia, training their military forces and distributing Russian passports.
The European Union inquiry is the most authoritative investigation into the causes of the August 2008 war, which battered Georgia and brought relations between Russia and the West to a post-cold-war low. Russia and Georgia have both maintained that they acted defensively. With feelings still raw in both countries, each has heavily lobbied the international community to condemn the other party.
Investigators have closely guarded the report’s contents, which will be presented to the European Union’s Council of Ministers at noon Wednesday and then released to the public.
By blaming both countries, the report seems unlikely to resolve the debate over which bears more overall responsibility. Most countries have already taken a firm position on the enclaves, which only Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have recognized as sovereign nations. Europe and the United States have uniformly accused the Kremlin of changing Georgia’s borders by force, and of violating the “six-point agreement,” a French-brokered cease-fire that required Russia to withdraw its troops to prewar positions.
But the inquiry will break ground by determining who started the war. The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, has said he had no choice but to order the shelling of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, variously explaining that it was necessary to stop attacks on Georgian villages, to bring the region under control or to deter a Russian invasion already in progress.
Georgia has also released telephone intercepts from Ossetian border guards that purport to show that a Russian armored regiment crossed into South Ossetia a full day before Georgia’s attack on Tskhinvali.
Russia’s claims are also likely to come under scrutiny. The Kremlin has said it invaded Georgia to protect Russian citizens, based on Moscow’s practice of distributing Russian passports to citizens of the separatist enclaves; it also claims it was compelled to stop a genocide, invoking a grave principle in international law.
Russia has also asserted the right to defend its peacekeeping troops legally stationed in South Ossetia, a claim that may prove more durable. But it is not clear how far that reasoning would extend, since Russian troops did not simply take control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but moved into central Georgia and conducted bombing raids there.