This August Russia, Georgia and its breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia commemorate the fourth anniversary of the war that they fought in 2008.
But while the mood has been predictably festive in Moscow, Tskhinvali and Sukhumi, which prevailed in that war, there has already been, as Russians say, at least one spoonful of tar in the barrel filled with honey. Anonymous authors have posted a 'documentary' on Youtube, in which three former high-ranking Russian commanders unanimously accuse Russia's then Commander-in-Chief Dmitry Medvedev of indecisiveness during the initial stage of the 2008 war. The documentary doesn’t only criticize Medvedev, but also lauds his mentor and Russia’s current Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin of playing a decisive role in preparing a plan to repel Georgia and then ordering its execution. The incumbent presidents response to these claims indicates that his PR strategists may be seeking not only boost Putin’s ratings, but also to offer a more convincing explanation as to why he had to come back to the Kremlin four years after stepping down and backing Medvedev as Russia’s president.
Of the three generals featuring in the documentary, it is ex-chief of General Staff and former deputy secretary of the Security Council Yuri Baluyevsky who is most blunt in his assessment of Medvedev's conduct four years ago. According to Baluyevsky, only after then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called from Beijing and chastised his protege Medvedev, did the latter authorize implementation of a contingency plan of responding to use of force by Georgia. The Russian military developed the plan and Putin approved it before handing over presidency to Medvedev in spring 2008, according to Baluyevsky. “Until Putin distributed kicks in the backside, nothing started,” the respected general claimed.
A shorter version of the documentary is unambiguously titled “Medvedev's cowardice killed 1,000 people.” It was posted on August 5 and has attracted over 300,000 hits since then. The full version, which is titled “the Lost Day of War,” was posted two days later on the eve of Medvedev's August 8th visit to Tskhinvali.
In comments released on August 9, Medvedev dismissed the generals’ claims as lies, insisting that he ordered a missile strike on the Georgian forces less than four hours after they began a ground assault on Tskhinvali. According to Georgia’s own version of the war shared with EU’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (IIFFMCG), Georgian artillery began bombardment at 11.35 am on August 7, 2008 and the ground operation commenced at 00.15 am on August 8, 2008. According to Medvedev, he ordered a missile strike on the Georgian forces at 4.00 am on August 8, 2008. According to the Russian version of events shared with IIFFCG and incorporated in the mission’s 2009 report, however, “the first Russian units entered the territory of South Ossetia and the Russian air force and artillery started their attacks on Georgian targets at 14.30 on 8 August, i.e. immediately after the decision on an intervention was made by the leadership of the Russian Federation.”
The allegations of Medvedev's indecisiveness made by the generals appear to be collaborated by earlier reports, including a Wikileaked cable from the U.S. embassy in Moscow that claimed that several phone calls took place between Putin and Medvedev before the Russian troops were ordered to respond to the Georgian assault. In either an indiscretion or a deliberate slight, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confided to the French Ambassador that Medvedev had come in for significant criticism among the ruling party elite for his handling of the initial hours of the crisis, according to the cable.
In reality, however, the Russian troops were being deployed into South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel even before Saakashvili ordered a ground assault on Tskhinvali and Russian leaders officially authorized intervention.
As IIFFMCG’s 2009 report notes, “there are a number of reports and publications, including of Russian origin, indicating that… an influx of irregular forces from the territory of the Russian Federation to South Ossetia in early August as well as the presence of some Russian forces in South Ossetia, apart from the Russian PKF (peacekeeping force) battalion, prior to 14.30 hours on 8 August 2008."
At 3:52 a.m on August 7, 2008, for instance, Georgian secret services taped a cell phone from a supervisor at the South Ossetian border guard headquarters who asked a guard at the Roki tunnel, which separates South Ossetia from Russia, whether the armour had arrived. The guard informed the supervisor that armoured vehicles had left the tunnel, commanded by a colonel he called Kazachenko. Col. Andrei Kazachenko served in Russia's 135th Motorized Rifle Regiment, according to New York Times whose journalists were given access to the tapes. The paper reported that the Russian side didn’t refute the authentity of these tapes. Moreover, one of Russia’s own officers – who participated in the campaign – unwittingly confided to the Russian Defense Ministry's Krasnaya Zvezda daily that his unit was already in South Ossetia on August 7. Capt. Denis Sidristy – who was a company commander in Kazachenko's 135th regiment – said his unit received the order to move into South Ossetia before Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili ordered beginning of the shelling of Tskhinvali and was in or near the Tskhinvali when the shelling of this city by Georgian artillery began at 11.35 pm on August 7.
Only after the Georgian forces advanced deep into Tskhinvali on August 8, did Russian troops began to rout them with the Russian armour convoy entering this city shortly after 4.00 pm that day. On August 9, Georgian forces began to retreat from Tskhinvali.
My hunch is that Moscow must have learned of Tbilisi's plan to try conquering Tskhinvali in advance and positioned units so that they could rout the Georgian assault, but didn’t issue a public order for an intervention until the latter had progressed enough to create indisputable evidence that the Georgians had begun the war and that the Russian forces had to intervene to defend Russian peacekeepers and South Ossetians, majority of whom hold Russian passports. If Medvedev were to officially order the military operation one day before he did – as authors and characters of the ‘documentary’ insist he should have done – then Russian troops would have had to engage Georgian forces before the latter had launched a ground assault. Such a move would have made it hard to argue that Russian forces were deployed to South Ossetia to “coerce Georgia to peace” as the Kremlin put it back then.
In short, Medvedev didn't stall much, if at all.
So why are then such generals, as Baluyevsky, who have avoided strongly criticizing the political leadership in public, now accusing Medvedev of indecisiveness?
The answer to this question might be the same as to the question of why the first several questions to Putin during his routine visit to a Russian province on August 7 were about that documentary.
That the Kremlin pool correspondent for a state-controlled national news agency asked a question about a youtube upload on a subject hat had nothing to do with the purpose of Putin's visit to the Leningrad region spoke for itself. It was also illustrative that Putin chose not to explicitly defend his protege’s record, skirting around the issue of indecisiveness altogether and seeking instead to detail his impact on the decision-making in the 2008 operation.
And if that was not enough, Putin took more questions on the subject the next day, this time confirming that back in 2006 or 2007 he did approve a plan of military response to an assault by Georgian forces and that he did call Medvedev twice from Beijing twice on August 7 and 8, 2008. Putin also disclosed that he called Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov on the same days. This disclosure is particularly illustrative because Putin was the prime minister at that time, so had no authority to issue instructions to the defence minister who reports to the president.
If true, allegations by sources close to the Kremlin and government of South Ossetia that the documentary was filmed by a crew from Russia's Channel 5 that is owned by the Kovalchuk brothers who are close to Putin is another hint about the true purpose of this documentary, according to Russia's edition of Forbes.
Why would the Kremlin orchestrate a PR ploy to discredit what Russians have earlier thought to be one of the few real accomplishments of Medvedev’s presidency?
It might be that, when still a premier, Putin felt constrained to disclose the true scale of his impact on the 2008 events and is trying to compensate for his self-restrained now that he is back for the Kremlin and doesn't have to care about maintaining a plausibility of Medvedev's presidency.
Putin may be seeking to advertize his decisive role in the war to boost his credentials, which have been eroding in Russia in general and in Moscow in particular. An August 2012 poll by the respected Public Opinion Foundation shows that the share of Russians who trust Putin is lowest in the past nine years. Only 44% of Russians trust Putin compared to 55% in March 2012 and 47% in 2003, according to this web site of this respected pollster, which lists the Kremlin among its regular clients.
It might be also the case that Putin is not as much trying to reaffirm his lead role during Medvedev's presidency, as he is trying to cut the man down to his size. After all, Medvedev has continued to publicly opine about major issues of defence and foreign policy, which are the president's prerogatives, and even didn't rule out seeking presidency again in spite of leaving the Kremlin to become the prime minister in May.
I believe that the prime reason behind the campaign could be a desire by the Kremlin to offer a better justification to the Russian public of why Putin had to return to presidency in 2012 after stepping down and backing Medvedev as Russia’s new president four years earlier.
The two didn’t bother to offer any plausible justifiable explanation when announcing the swapping of the jobs back in fall 2011 and that angered the Russian public, fuelling street protests of the past winter. What better justifies Putin’s return to the post of the Commander-in-Chief than revelations by respected generals that his predecessor proved to be an indecisive, ineffective national leader in times of war?
Such revelations, of course, than raise the question of why Putin could have trusted such a man with first ruling Russia for four years and now running his government, but that’s another tale that the Kremlin may spin differently when needed.