This summer, the five-day Ossetian war generated widely conflicting opinions on whether Georgia or Russia was at fault. Two months later at Yale, the debate is still raging.
At a Wednesday-night event organized by Yale European Undergraduates, the three panelists disagreed on virtually everything regarding the conflict, except perhaps that the series of events was a seminal moment in modern international politics. Two speakers called Russia the aggressor, albeit for different reasons, while the third argued that Russia’s actions were entirely legitimate and necessitated by Georgia’s movement into South Ossetia.
The panel, attended by about 100 students, was arranged to address what Octavio Medina ’10, co-president of the YEU, described as a lopsided view of the Russo-Georgian conflict portrayed in the American media.
“The media have portrayed Russia as the main aggressor,” Medina said before the panel. “With the whole ‘Putin Era,’ there’s a tendency to portray anything from Russia as evil.”
On Aug. 7, Georgia sent troops to South Ossetia to reclaim it from rebels who want independence from Georgia. That same day, Russia invaded Ossetia and began bombing Georgia proper. Five days later, on Aug. 12, Russia halted its advances into Georgia and a cease-fire was arranged between the aggressors. Most Russian troops left Georgia by Oct. 8, but some troops still remain in South Ossetia.
Moderator Jeffrey Mankoff, associate director of International Security Studies at Yale, opened discussion by proposing that there are three possibly guilty parties in this war: Georgia, for trying to reclaim South Ossetia; Russia, for its disproportionate military response to the conflict; and the West, for its lack of diplomatic action after the conflict began.
Andriy Schevchenko, 2008 Yale World Fellow and deputy chairman of the Press Freedom Committee in the Ukrainian parliament, argued that the second of Mankoff’s options was the correct one.
Moscow invaded Georgia because it was annoyed that Georgia was trying to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Schevchenko said. A native Ukrainian, Schevchenko argued that the conflict had an impact beyond Georgia, causing alarm among other nations of the former Soviet Union that “Russia is in our backyard.”
“I hardly see Russia as a legitimate peacekeeper in that part of the world,” Shevchenko said. “I see my country, Ukraine, as a good mediator for that region.”
Giorgi Kvelashvili ’09, a political science graduate student and senior advisor of the National Security Council of Georgia, argued that while Georgia has moved on from its Soviet past, Russia has not. Russia is still clinging to its imperialist history, he said, and the conflict was really about Russia not wanting Georgia to be an independent democratic nation.
But Keith Darden, assistant professor of political science, said — in a dramatic departure from the comments of the other two speakers — that Russia acted reasonably in this conflict.
“They responded in a way that was perfectly fine with regard to military [strategy],” Darden said. “You move in for quick victory. To the Russians’ credit, they are now pulling back.”
Darden pointed out that Russia only placed 500 troops in South Ossetia, the number agreed upon in its peacekeeping agreement with Georgia.
Kvelashvili disagreed with Darden, saying that the war was clearly in Russia’s best interest in terms of expanding territory. The two also debated whether or not South Ossetia was ever a legitimate part of Georgia, as the region declared autonomy after Georgia gained independence in 1991.
European leaders confirmed last week that Russians had withdrawn troops from buffer zones outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia in accordance with a deadline negotiated in the European-brokered peace agreement.