Accuracy in Media

A year ago this month, Russian forces invaded the territory of Georgia; five days of heavy military conflict and damage to all sides ensued. Though great disparities exist in official numbers, according to Reuters approximately 400 soldiers and 800 civilians were killed. Of the estimated 200,000 civilians displaced by fighting, approximately 20,000 remain in exile today.

But just last week, in events eerily reminiscent of activities leading up to last year’s war, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Georgia of firing mortars into South Ossetia, while Georgia charged the Russian military with expanding boundaries in the breakaway region.

The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on European Affairs held a hearing presided over by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) to take a closer look at Georgia-Russia relations. Invited to speak were Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; Ambassador Alex Vershbow, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs; and Ken Yamashita, an Assistant Administrator in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The enigmatic statement made by Obama about his desire to “reset relations” with Russia is still generating headaches around the world. Sen. Sheehan had little choice but to rehash the concern: “What’s your response to 22 major European figures recently signing a letter highlighting their worry with Obama’s statement and the commitment America has for allies?”

“In no way does an improved U.S.-Russian relations mean less cooperation with allies,” Gordon replied. “On his recent trip to Georgia, Vice President Biden reaffirmed our commitment to Georgia, right to choose allies, and become a member of NATO,” Philip Gordon said in his opening statement.

Gordon and Vershbow voiced major discontent throughout the hearing for Russia’s inadequate commitment to peace and communication. Despite the highly pressing need for communication and dialogue in light of last weekend’s fracas, Gordon claimed that Russian Ministry of Defense officials had failed to show up to a meeting organized by the U.S. and Georgia’s Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism program to discuss the situation.

With about 1,000 Russian troops remaining stationed in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, rhetorical sallies are still commonly traded between the two sides. Tensions remain extremely high in Georgia-Russia relations. Aside from Nicaragua, Russia is the only country in the world to recognize independence for the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“It just goes to show the major concern with security and escalating rhetoric. A good lesson to take away from the incident is to get effective preventive-mechanisms off and running,” Gordon argued. “Security is a major concern. Several more soldiers have died from skirmishes and sniper-fire since the end of the war. First Russia has to abide by the cease-fire agreements.”

On the domestic front, Georgia has been working toward personnel development in their political and economic systems in hopes of making the country more attractive to foreign businesses. Georgia is amidst a major rebuilding phase, not only repairing war-ravaged buildings but also utilizing international-aid for long-term stability and self-sufficiency. The $1 billion aid by the U.S. has been of particular help to stabilize their agriculture, banks and economy according to Gordon.

“Money from USAID is being put to good use, as much of it has been allocated for rebuilding and updating their infrastructure, improving transportation, building energy and hydrocarbon plants, and growing the private sector,” USAID official Ken Yamashita told the subcommittee.

“The incident last winter with the Nabokov pipeline in Ukraine showed the importance of European energy independence and energy diversification, even though it will cost in the short-term,” stated Gordon.

Making note of the key geographical position Georgia occupies in the Caspian region, Sen. DeMint asked the panelists: “Critical for oil-independence in Europe, Russia destroyed much of Georgia’s defensive weapons warning others against selling weapons to them. Are we yielding to Russia, and what is the official U.S. policy?”

“We haven’t refused, and we are not taking that into account. The one-year anniversary is a time of reflection, but more so a time of action. We are not hindered by Russian threats,” Vershbow assured the Senate.

“We find Russia’s resistance to international monitoring and transparency troubling. I think the rationale for NATO enlargement is intact, and I think Russia has also benefited from stable, democratic neighbors on their border. Under Article 5, an attack on one is an attack on all. I think that has deterred Russia,” Vershbow stated.

Today, Georgia and Russia continue teetering on the brink of a full-scale war that can break out at any moment. Consequently, particular emphasis must be placed upon avoiding the inflammatory rhetoric and false accusations which can very well lead to cataclysmic miscalculations and destruction. For the U.S. in particular, handling a war between their ally and reemerging nemesis would present a burdensome scenario amidst the economic and political chaos of the current day.

Experts still debate which side is guilty of provocation and belligerence; some blame Mikheil Saakashvili for taking Russia’s bait and entering a war allies had warned against. Regardless, there is little doubt Saakashvili must exercise greater restraint in the future before entering a war Georgia has little chance of winning.

“Saakashvili has a personal history with Russian leadership, and we saw the consequences last summer of too much testosterone in that region. Much of the war was personality-driven, and he took the bait,” noted junior U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN).




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