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EU report: Georgian attack started war with Russia

BRUSSELS – Georgia and Russia both claimed to find vindication in Wednesday’s independent report on the causes of their 2008 war, but neither seemed likely to be able to take the moral high ground because of its blunt judgments.

The EU-sponsored report supports Russia’s insistence that Georgia launched the short but intense war with an indiscriminate rocket and artillery barrage on the separatist capital of South Ossetia — an act the commission said was not justifiable under international law.

Georgia can find support for its claim that Russia taunted and provoked it for years before the assault, then responded with disproportionate force, sending armored vehicles deep into undisputed Georgian territory.

Russia’s retaliation went “far beyond the reasonable limits of defense,” the report said, rejecting claims the country was trying to prevent genocide with its invasion of its southern neighbor, a former Soviet nation with fervent hopes of joining the EU and NATO.

The beginnings of the July 2008 war had been murky, its aftermath contentious.

It ended in less than a week with Russia crushing Georgia’s army and driving its troops out of the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia and away from the borders of another such region, Abkhazia.

Since then, Russia has recognized both regions as independent countries. But among U.N.-member countries, only Nicaragua and Venezuela have followed suit. Russia continues to keep thousands of troops in the regions, which have blocked EU monitors from operating there.

The findings of the independent commission, led by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini and released Wednesday in Brussels, were based on the work of 30 European military, legal and history experts. Its conclusions are critical to the hopes of both Russia and Georgia.

Overall, Russia seems to have benefited more than Georgia from the report, if only because in the aftermath of the fighting Georgia was viewed in the West as the underdog, a victim of naked aggression.

Russia’s EU envoy Vladimir Chizhov said in a statement Wednesday the commission had provided “an unequivocal answer to the main question of ‘Who started the war?’” He said the findings should encourage “those leaders who have been hesitant” to blame Georgia to reconsider.

But he rejected the notion that Russia responded with disproportionate force. “Russia’s reaction was quite proportional, swift and to the point,” he said.

The Russian foreign ministry said in its own statement Wednesday that the Tagliavini commission report “clearly points at the countries which armed and trained the Georgian army,” a thinly veiled criticism of Ukraine and, especially, the United States.

Those aspects of the report critical of the Kremlin are not likely to weaken Russia’s conviction that it acted completely within its rights. Instead, they seem likely to provoke more complaints from Moscow that the West is biased against Russia and applies a double-standard to its conduct.

Whether the Kremlin admits it or not, it cares about Western public opinion. Russia is just starting to emerge from a deep recession and is desperate for Western investment.

In part to woo investors, the country is seeking to repair ties with the U.S. and especially some of its biggest trading partners, the Netherlands, Germany and other members of the European Union. It is also seeking to persuade NATO to halt its eastward expansion.

“It seems the impact of the report could be a positive development for Russia in its relations with EU and NATO,” said Dr. Lt. Col. Marcel de Haas, a senior political military analyst at The Hague-based Clingendael Institute of International Relations.

“Of course, issues remain: Both NATO and the EU continue to tell Moscow it needs to get its troops out” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, de Haas said. “But in the sense that Russia is coming out of this looking reasonably good, it can point toward an improvement in relations.”

Not long after the report’s release, the Kremlin said it was ready to fully restore cooperation with NATO that was suspended in after the war.

President Dmitry Medvedev’s spokeswoman Nataliya Timakova said a planned visit to Moscow by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen in December should demonstrate that the alliance is also ready to resume ties.

And Russia may take comfort from the likelihood that the Tagliavini commission’s criticism of Georgia’s military actions will weaken that country’s bid for NATO membership.