World Still Paints Russia Red

Last month marked the three-year anniversary of the bloody South Ossetia War, an armed conflict involving Russia, Georgia, and the separatist government of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The humanitarian and international community censured all sides for war crimes and various acts of violence against civilians.

Russia, however, received the majority of the criticism, specifically from former Soviet satellites and the United States. This criticism was unjust and unfair. Democratic states including the U.S. have let the memories of the Soviet Union cloud their diplomatic vision, something which became evident during the week-long conflict.

The 2008 South Ossetia War can be traced back to 1992, when a similar conflict resulted in the formation of a new South Ossetia. An engagement between Georgia and South Ossetian separatists backed by former Soviet military units resulted in South Ossetia breaking away and gaining de facto independence while under a Russian influenced government. The 2008 war was started when Georgia attempted to retake South Ossetia. 

In response to the conflict, President George W. Bush demanded Russia remove troops from the region and accused the country of “bullying and intimidation,” saying it was an unacceptable “way to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.” A chorus of prominent analysts joined in, with Fareed Zakaria saying the West must bring Russia into “the civilized” world. Eastern European countries led by Poland and Ukraine also were quick to condemn Russia. 

This anti-Russian bias remains unfair and dangerous in contemporary diplomacy, as it threatens to isolate Russian politicians from the West. Bipartisan committees led by the European Union found that “all sides shared responsibility,” while Georgetown Professor Charles King described the Georgian attack as an “ill advised Reconquista.” Finally, a report by Swiss Diplomat Heidi Tagliavini concluded Georgia violated international law by attacking Russian peacekeeping forces in Tskihinvali, and Russia was justified to defend its peacekeepers.

So why then did the international community portray the Russians as boorish war hawks and Georgians as bullied freedom fighters? Cleary, Russia’s Soviet past has clouded the diplomatic vision of several NATO members. While the leaders of former Soviet satellites advocated for peace, they also flew to Georgia to offer support. Although the Russians initiated withdrawal negotiations, the difficult task was completed by the European Union under the guidance of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. During its 70-year history, the Soviet Union committed numerous unspeakable atrocities including genocide of ethnic Ukrainians, however Eastern Europe must define a new relationship with the Russian Federation or risk future confrontations with Russia.

Noam Chomsky argues Russia has been portrayed negatively during and after the conflict because of its lack of media tact. The Wall Street Journal reported that Russian politicians embraced the idea that the Bush administration encouraged Georgia to begin the war to emphasize Senator John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) national security background. While all administrations engage in the propaganda battle, Russia’s problem is its inability to present credible evidence. 

Russia no doubt made several moral and diplomatic errors during the 2008 South Ossetia War. There is significant evidence from Human Rights Watch that Russia committed acts of violence against civilians during the conflict. The one-sided backlash they received from the international press was uncalled for, however, as their Soviet past clearly still haunts them. New bonds and relations must be created with the Russian Federation without bias or Eastern Europe and the United States will risk future conflicts.   

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