The 2008 Georgian-Ossetian/Russian War: Saakashvili’s Strategic Communications/ Disinformation Campaign

by Gordon M. Hahn

The following is a slightly revised version of my 2008 article. [Originally published as – “Georgia’s Propaganda War,” Russia – Other Points of View, 5 September 2008, www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2008/09/georgias-misinf.html#more; see also: http://www.russialist.org/archives/2008-163-1.php%5D.

The five-day Georgian-Russian saw Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and other Georgian officials waging an aggressive propaganda campaign and, in many ways, a disinformation war in the Western mass media. This media offensive was the result either of a carefully planned disinformation war or a rush by Western governments, mainstream media, and think tanks to get the Georgians’ side of the story and their side only. Either way, the Georgians were able to wage an effective and constant barrage of propaganda and disinformation against the Russians.

In some 40 appearances in the Western media and at Western think tanks, Georgian President Mikheil Saakasahvili and his ministers made numerous statements in their effort to convince the West that it was obliged to defend Tbilisi from Russia’s incursion. The following is a review of Georgia’s official version of events and a comparison of their claims with the facts as we know them as of late August and early September 2008.

RUSSIAN PLANNED WAR AND ATTACKED FIRST

CLAIM: President Saakashvili and other Georgian officials repeatedly accused Russia of undertaking a “well-planned invasion” of Georgia and attacked first in order to sieze the country and remove him from power. [Mikheil Saakashvili, “Russia’s War Is The West’s Challenge,” Washington Post, August 14, 2008 and CNN interview with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, CNN News, 8 August 2008, http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2008/08/08/intv.saakashvili.cnn?iref=videosearch.%5D

FACT: Both sides planned for war as a contingency. They both held maneuvers in late July, used them to move forces and equipment near (Russian) or into (Georgian) the conflict zone, and ratcheted up the confrontation from the usual summertime tit-for-tat sniper and small arms fire to mortars to light and then heavy artillery until approximately midnight August 7-8 when Georgian forces opened up a massive heavy artillery barrage and sent at least two battalions into South Ossetia’s capitol of Tskhinvali. Russian forces were ready and responded with a full-scale invasion and air war.

Georgian military officials have in advertently revealed that they had brought heavy artillery into the conflict zone very early on. For instance artillery brigade commanders told a Georgian newspaper that Georgian artillery used in the zone on August 7 included: “(a)t least 300 gun barrels of Georgian artillery.” Among these were: “the 203-mm Pion systems, the 160-mm Israeli-made GRADLAR multiple rocket launchers, the 152-mm Akatsiya, Giatsint and Dana self-propelled guns, the 122-mm Grad and RM-70 multiple rocket launchers, as well as the D-30 and Msta howitzers of the infantry brigades.” [“Georgian artillery inflicted ‘heavy losses’ on Russians,” BBC Monitoring, August 25, 2008 translating Georgian weekly Kviris Palitra, August 25, 2008.] It takes many days if not weeks to bring in the kind of heavy artillery about which the commander is talking into or near the conflict zone through the mountainous terrain around South Ossetia from Georgian army bases in Tbilisi, Senaki or Gori.

THE RUSSIANS BROKE SAAKASHVILI’S AUGUST 7 CEASEFIRE

CLAIM: Saakashvili claims the Russians broke his late afternoon August 7 ceasefire.

FACT: In fact, no cessation of fire occurred; both sides continued with more sporadic fire. Moreover, as Saakashvili was declaring his ceasefire, Georgia began moving reinforcements to the conflict zone to back up the two battalions and materiel’ they had already positioned there in violation of the ceasefire agreement. [Peter Finn “A Two-Sided Descent into Full-Scale War,” The Washington Post, August 17, 2008, p. A1.]

GEORGIAN FORCES OCCUPIED ALMOST ALL OF SOUTH OSSETIA

CLAIM: As Russian and Ossetian forces engaged the Georgian army on August 8, Saakashvili claimed: “The Georgian government’s forces, according to information as of 21:00, completely control the entire territory of South Ossetia except the highland settlements of Dzhava.” [“Saakashvili: voiska Gruzii kontroliruet vsyu territoriyu Yuzhnoi Ossetii,” KavkazMemo.ru, 8 August 2008, http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/printnews/news/id/1226844.html.%5D

FACT: In fact, Georgian troops never even controlled all of Tskhinvali and began withdrawing from there at 20:30 and only held a slice of the city in the south as Russian troops began to enter it. [Timeline from the Georgian Foreign Ministry, accessed 28 August 2008, http://www.mfa.gov.ge/index.php?lang_id=ENG&sec_id=461&info_id=7484p%5D

CONTACTS WITH RUSSIAN AUTHORITIES

CLAIM: In his August 14 Washington Post article, Saakashvili stated: “Our repeated attempts to contact senior Russian leaders were rebuffed. Russia’s foreign ministry even denied receiving our notice of cease-fire hours after it was officially — and very publicly — delivered. This was just one of many cynical ploys to deceive the world and justify further attacks.” [Saakashvili, “Russia’s War Is The West’s Challenge”] The Georgian president was reiterating a claim he made in his televised address to the Georgian people on August 7, when he Saakashvili stated that the Georgian authorities had not been in touch with Vladimir Putin or other Russian authorities “for days.” [CNN interview with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, CNN News, 8 August 2008, http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2008/08/08/intv.saakashvili.cnn?iref=videosearch.%5D

FACT: On the next day in his television address to the Georgian people Saakashvili said: “We have been in constant contact with the leadership of the local Russian peacekeeping forces. Several hours ago, they told us that they have completely lost control over the actions of the separatists.… We are in constant contact with the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the ministry tells us Russia is trying to stop the separatists from engaging in armed action, but without any success.” [“Sakashvili’s Televised Address on S. Ossetia,” Civil Georgia, 7 August 2008, 21:45, http://www.civil.ge.]

HOW MANY RUSSIAN TANKS AND ARMOURED VEHICLES?

CLAIM: At an August 18 Heritage Foundation conference ‘The Russia-Georgian War: A Challenge to the U.S. and the World’ Georgian Ambassador to the US Vasil Sikharulidze stated that “1,200 tanks and 15,000 soldiers” entered Georgia “within 12 hours” bringing the number of Russian troops in all of Georgia to 25,000 as of August 18. Georgian Minister for Reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia Temuri Yakobashvili told the conference by video phone that 1,200 tanks and armored personnel carriers entered Georgia in the first 48 hours of the Russian incursion. [Transcript of a Heritage Foundation Forum on the Russian-Georgian War “A Challenge for the U.S. and the World,” Heritage Foundation, Washington DC, August 18, 2008, Federal News Service, August 18, 2008.] Three weeks after the war Yakobashvili also escalated his figures to “2,000 tanks.” [Nikolaus von Twickel, “Theories Swirl About War’s Beginning,” The Moscow Times, August 28, 2008.]

FACT: No independent source has confirmed the deployment of such a large Russian invasion force. The respected Janes’ Defence Weekly reported that in fact the “invasion force consisted of 15,000 and 150 tanks and heavy self-propelled artillery pieces.” [Giragosian, “Georgian planning flaws led to campaign failure.”]

RUSSIA’S 3,000 ARMORED VEHICLES AND 80,OOO TROOPS

CLAIM: On August 24, Saakashvili claimed that the Russian military operation “planned for many months” brought “80,000 servicemen and mercenaries” and “about 3,000 armored vehicles” into Georgia. [“President says 80,000 Russian soldiers, 3,000 armored vehicles invaded Georgia,” BBC Monitoring, August 24, 2008 citing Channel 1, Tbilisi, August 24, 2008, 1600 GMT.]

FACT: Such a deployment of equipment would mean that Russia’s entire 58th Army (and then some) was deployed from its jihad-plagued North Caucasus to South Ossetia. No other source has made such a claim.

RUSSIAN ATROCITIES

CLAIM: In his August 18 Washington Post article, Saakashvili wrote: “Within 24 hours of Russian forces of “brutally purging Georgian villages in South Ossetia, raping women and executing men.” [Saakashvili, “Russia’s War Is The West’s Challenge”] On the same day as well, Saakashvili stated in a CNN interview that Russian planes were “specifically targeting the civilian population, and we have scores of wounded and dead among the civilian population all around the country, not so much in the conflict area.” [CNN interview with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, CNN News, 8 August 2008, http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2008/08/08/intv.saakashvili.cnn?iref=videosearch.%5D At an August 12 press conference, Saakashvili asserted that despite a ceasefire the Russians were continuing to attack “purely civilian targets.” [“’Georgian Will Never Surrender’,” CNN News, 12 August 2008, http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2008/08/12/sot.georgia.saakashvili.surrender.itn?iref=videosearch.%5D In an August 13 press conference, Saakashvili stated: “Russian tanks are attacking the town of Gori and rampaging through the town…The worst kind of marauding I ever could imagine. There was a rampage through Georgian-controlled villages of South Ossetia and through upper Abkhazia ­ Kodori, and scores of people, according to the reports which we cannot totally confirm… Internment camps were set up, and we are getting reports of large-scale violation of human rights of the worst case…What we are seeing in the area is classical Balkan-type and World war II-type ethnic cleansing and purification campaigns. …(T)he worst kind of atrocities are being committed in my country against my people of all ethnic groups.” [“Tensions Still High in Georgia,” CNN News, 13 August 2008, http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2008/08/13/sot.georgia.presser.saakashvili.ap?iref=videosearch.%5D Minister Yakobashvili told the Heritage Foundation that Russian forces had engaged in “ethnic cleansing” and inflicted “enormous atrocities, unbelievable suffering” on the Georgian population. [Transcript of a Heritage Foundation Forum on the Russian-Georgian War “A Challenge for the U.S. and the World,” Heritage Foundation, Washington DC, August 18, 2008, Federal News Service, August 18, 2008.]

FACT: As of two weeks after hostilities ended no campaign of ethnic cleansing or atrocities and no internment camps have been found. There have been no reports of Russians “raping women and executing men,” as Saakashvili claimed. There were later reports of destruction and perhaps a few murders committed by Chechen battalions (irresponsibly sent by Moscow to fight on its behalf) and Ossetian militiamen. The alleged large scale killing, raping and internment camps have not been mentioned again by Saakashvili or any other Georgian official. Human Rights Watch has reported one occasion on which Russian air forces appear to have used of cluster bombs, banned by international convention. The Georgian side has stated a official civilian death toll among Georgians of 69 as of August 25 with several hundred civilians wounded. [“Senior MP: 215 Killed in Conflict,” Civil Georgia, 19 August 2008, 23:05 http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=19215&search=civilians%20killed%5D This hardly amounts to the massive Russian atrocities being claimed by Tbilisi. Also, there are reports of rather good behavior on the part of Russian soldiers. [See Saba Tsitsikhashvili, “The Ramifications of the Ten-Day Blockade of Georgia,” HumanRights.ge, 27 August 2008, http://www.humanrights.ge/index.php?a=article&id=3057&lang=en.%5D As the respected military studies journal Janes’ Defence Weekly reported on August 15, it was the Georgian army that targeted the residential capitol of South Ossetia with an indiscriminate, all night artillery barrage on 7-8 August with “notoriously imprecise” truck-borne GRAD missiles. [Richard Giragosian, “Georgian planning flaws led to campaign failure,” Janes’ Defence Weekly, August 15, 2008 in Johnson’s Russia List, #152, August 19, 2008, http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnsonwww.org%5D

THE RUSSIANS, NOT THE GEORGIANS DESTROYED TSKHINVALI

CLAIM: On August 13, Saakashvili told a press conference that Russian aerial bombardment, not Georgian artillery fire, “leveled the town of Tskhinvali.” [“Tensions Still High in Georgia,” CNN News, 13 August 2008, http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2008/08/13/sot.georgia.presser.saakashvili.ap?iref=videosearch.%5D

FACT: Every independent source reports that Gerogian artillery bombarded Tskhinvali for twelve hours through th night of August 7-8. Saakashvili is the only person to claim that Georgia did not bomb Tskhinvali and that the Russians caused all or most of the damage.

RUSSIAN DESTRUCTION OF GEORGIAN CIVILIAN INFRASTRUCTURE

CLAIM: Saakashvili, as we have seen, accused Russia of destroying civilian infrastructure. His underlings, Ambassador Sikhuralidze and Minister Yakobashvili ministers told the West that Russian forces were systematically destroying Georgia’s civilian infrastructure, including burning its forests and national parks and blowing up bridges to sever Georgia from its neighbors, Armeina and Azerbaijan. [Transcript of a Heritage Foundation Forum on the Russian-Georgian War.]

FACT: Reporters on the scene have reported a very different story: “In west Georgia, few signs of damage by Russia” shows, the Russians in fact “used force minimally” and “avoided any inadvertent high-profile attacks on civilian targets.” “Early in the conflict, Georgian officials in Tbilisi warned of an impending disaster as Russian tanks from Abkhazia massed at Zugdidi’s edge. But residents said there had been little or no damage to their town.” Even Russia’s air attacks on the port of Poti destroyed the military side of the port but left the civilian side intact. [Borzou Daraghi, “In west Georgia, few signs of damage by Russia,” Los Angeles Times, August19, 2008.] Regarding the torching of Georgian forests, a Georgian newspaper noted that the Russian military set fire to forests during the occupation of Kartli because it was searching for Georgian artillery weapons that Georgian artillerymen hid there during the Georgian army’s retreat; a fact left out Minister Yakobashvili’s comments. At least two major bridges were destroyed by Georgian forces in targeting Russians making crossings. [“Georgian artillery inflicted ‘heavy losses’ on Russians,” BBC Monitoring, August 25, 2008 translating Georgian weekly Kviris Palitra, August 25, 2008; Roman Anin, “Kto v sopagakh ­ tot i srochnik. Ikh zdes’ polno,” Novaya gazeta, No. 62, 25 August 2008.]

RUSSIAN TROOPS ENCIRCLING TBILISI

CLAIM: On Wednesday, August 13, Saakashvili said in a CNN interview that Russian troops were “circling,” “closing on” and planning to capture the Georgian capitol, Tbilisi, and install a puppet government. [See Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili, “Georgian president’s Russia claims raise eyebrows,” Associated Press, 13 August 2008, 8:12.]

FACT: The Russians undertook no military operations against the Georgian capitol throughout the five-day war.

RUSSIA WILL BOMB TBILISI DEMONSTRATION

CLAIM: On August 12 Saakashvili mentioned and therefore gave credence to supposed rumors that Russia would bomb the August 12 rally in Tbilisi. [Dzhindzhikhashvili, “Georgian president’s Russia claims raise eyebrows.”]

FACT: There was no Russian bombing of Tbilisi throughout the war.

RUSSIA BOMBING THE BAKU-TBILISI-CEYHAN OIL PIPELINE

CLAIM: Minister Yakobashvili tried to pique American fears that Russian forces sought to interdict the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline by saying that the Russians had repeatedly tried to bomb it. [Transcript of a Heritage Foundation Forum on the Russian-Georgian War.]

FACT: A Russian force that included tens of sophisticated fighter jets and, according to the Georgians’ own statements, some 1,200-3,000 tanks and armored personnel carriers would have been able to bomb a pipeline and much else in the course of five days if it had wanted to.

CYBER WAR

CLAIM: Minister Yakobashvili and other Georgian officials claimed that Russian authorities initiated a large-scale cyber-attack on Georgian government websities before and during the war. [Transcript of a Heritage Foundation Forum on the Russian-Georgian War.]

FACT: Experts on cyber warfare have grave doubts that the Russian military or intelligence agencies conducted cyber warfare against Georgia. They argue that the suspected attacks were consistent with independent hacker networks that hit Georgian pornography and gambling websitas part of an extortion racket. Moreover, these attacks were only launched after Georgian forces had already engaged Russia forces, suggesting that they were either attacks by independents or that the Russians were not ready for war, since cyberwarfare is a part of the Russian arsenal. [Shaun Waterman, “Analysis: Russia-Georgia cyberwar doubted,” United Press International, August 18, 2008.] On August 5 Georgian hackers targeted SOTR (South Ossetia Television and Radio) after it reported that Tbilisi was covering up the killing of 29 Georgian servicemen during an exchange of fire between Ossetiyan and Georgian forces on August 1-2. The fake news the likely Georgian or Western hackers inserted claimed the casualties were among Russian mercenaries [“S. Ossetian News Sites Hacked, Civil Georgia, 5 August 2008, http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=18896 and “Osetinskie saity atakovany khakerami posle publikatsii o tainykh pokhoronakh gruzinskikh soldat,” Regnum, 5 August 2008, http://www.regnum.ru-news/1036460.html.%5D The movement of Georgian tanks into South Ossetiya coincided with cyber attacks on other South Ossetian news sites, some of which were hosted in Moscow. The South Ossetiyan Ministry of Information’s website suffered a denial-of-service attack. Also, Russian news sites, including Kremlin-funded Russia Today, were hit during the war [Joshua Levine, “From Russia With Panic,” The Baffler, https://thebaffler.com/salvos/from-russia-with-panic-levine%5D.

U.S. IS TAKING OVER GEORGIA’S PORT AND AIRPORTS

CLAIM: On August 10 Saakashvili claimed on Georgian national television that the arrival of U.S. military cargo plane carrying humanitarian aid meant that “Georgia’s ports and airports will be taken under the control of the U.S. Defense Department.” [Dzhindzhikhashvili, “Georgian president’s Russia claims raise eyebrows.”]

FACT: The U.S. Defense Department Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell immediately refuted this: “We have no need, nor do we intend to take over any Georgian air or seaport to deliver humanitarian aid. … We have no designs on taking control of any Georgian facility.” [Dzhindzhikhashvili, “Georgian president’s Russia claims raise eyebrows.”]The U.S. never did so.

RUSSIA HAS LOST MORE PLANES THAN IN ANY CONFLICT IN ITS HISTORY

CLAIM: In an August 13 television address Saakashvili said, “Russia has lost more airplanes than in any conflict of this scale since 1939.” [Dzhindzhikhashvili, “Georgian president’s Russia claims raise eyebrows.”]

FACT: The entire Soviet air force was destroyed in the first days of Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, and in the present war Russia is claiming the loss of four airplanes.

CONCLUSION

American support for Georgia in the present crisis is based in part on the belief that Russia is to be blame for instigating this war. Much of this belief is founded on Saakashvili’s and other Georgian officials’ statements to American officials like the State Department’s Matthew Bryza. Western publics and decision-makers should not take the statements of Georgian officials regarding this war or much of anything else at face value. They should think twice and then thrice about whether backing President Saakashvili, his aspirations for Georgian membership in NATO, and the resulting ‘hot peace’ with Moscow are in the West’s interests.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; and Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution. Dr. Hahn also has been a Contributing Analyst for Russia Direct (russia-direct.com) and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California) (www.russiaotherpointsofview.com).

2 thoughts on “The 2008 Georgian-Ossetian/Russian War: Saakashvili’s Strategic Communications/ Disinformation Campaign

  1. There is a naivety in this piece which I doubt the author still holds. That Georgia, almost full armed by the US, entering into battle with Russia with almost certainly a tacit understanding with the US, (and lead by someone very close to the US), was somehow wholly independent in misleading the whole of the Western media.

    To a large extent the same naivety was shown in this BBC radio report by James Rogers from November 2008 which discusses the same issues from the point of the media being bombarded with versions of the story to the point that one paper printed the news that Russia started the war even as its own journalist in Georgia was telling them it was Georgia.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/documentaries/2008/10/081029_caucases_doc.shtml
    (the radio broadcast to accompany the text has not been available on the BBC site for a long time, and has been removed recently from the eastern-european-blogspot. I’ll try to put up a copy some time in a few days time.

    It seems to me that Georgia certainly had assistance – advice on which media PR companies to use, what claims they might get away with in the short term, what times of day would get them into print without being double checked.
    Meantimes just who do the western media use to double check such sources. Well obviously they go to their own foreign office and to their own nations’ intelligence services. These are the people who get editors to print bizarre stories coming out of a tiny country with a President whose name no one can pronounce even despite their own man on the ground saying something different.

    Nowadays the Syrian Human Rights Observatory – a one man operation in England who reads social media – is the main source of “the facts” out in Syria and has been for 5 years. No one checks who he is – no one even mentions him except as the Observatory. Everyone puts all their faith in him. Why? Editors must be getting a hell of a lot of reassurance from off the record sources that they can/should rely on him for accuracy.

    The White Helmets, Bellingcat, they all work this way. Deniable soldiers on behalf of intelligence operators. Hybrid Media.

    Like

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About Gordon M. Hahn