President Dmitry Medvedev has discussed the 2008 war in South Ossetia in a joint interview with RT, Echo Moskvy and the First Caucasus Television station.
Read the full transcript
Ekaterina Kotrikadze, First Caucasus Television: Mr. President, thank you very much for agreeing to answer our questions, including those from the Georgian PIK TV network. August 2008, the Russian-Georgia war – that was three years ago, but its consequences are still felt today, even though that war only lasted for five days. Right now, we are in Sochi, and Georgia is just a few kilometers away: Abkhazia is right across the border from here. But I cannot go to Abkhazia, being Georgian, because I will be simply denied entry. And it will be Russian border guards who will stop me. 500,000 Georgian refugees have found themselves in a similar situation, being unable to return to their homes. How could you help those people?
Dmitry Medvedev: I think it is possible to help them, but that would require action aimed at finally restoring peace, so that Abkhazians, Georgians and Ossetians can engage in civilized dialogue. That would enable them to deal even with the most complex challenges, including the issue of refugees, or the issue of entry and transit. All of these matters are secondary to the conflict that took place almost exactly three years ago. Therefore, diplomatic efforts, negotiation and the willingness to listen to one another – these are the necessary prerequisites for resolving these issues. And on top of that, one also needs to recognize the reality that has emerged in the region as a result of the military gamble in 2008.
FCT: Then let us go back to the events of 2008. Back then, you met with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. Your meeting took place in St. Petersburg. And there was an impression at that point, both in Tbilisi and in Moscow, that we had arrived at some sort of an accord, and the dispute would not be allowed to boil over into an armed conflict. And I reiterate that this feeling was present both in Moscow and in Tbilisi. Could you tell us whether you managed to agree on anything with the Georgian president back then?
DM: You know, Catherine, I had the same impression at the time. I can still recall meeting President Saakashvili for the first time. It was in St. Petersburg. We met in the Constantine Palace, and as Mr. Saakashvili arrived, I told him, literally: “You know, there are many problems in the region at the moment. Georgia is at odds with these unrecognized states. But I can assure you as the newly elected president of Russia that I shall do everything in my capacity to help you find some compromise solutions that would accommodate everyone, and would eventually facilitate reintegration of Georgian territory. If that is acceptable for all the parties engaged in negotiation, naturally.” That is what I told him, word for word.
His response was: “But of course, we are ready to cooperate.” And I also had this impression that we could at least try to find some creative solutions, if not open a new chapter entirely. But first of all, there was an opportunity to meet on a regular basis.
What happened later on? We held meetings, we had conversations. As far as I remember, our last meeting took place in Astana. There, we agreed that we would sit down and have a serious discussion. And the venue for that would be right here, in Sochi.
I told Saakashvili: “Come to Sochi, and we will have a sensible discussion on all of our issues.”
By that time, Saakashvili had started going on about Georgia’s problems and its perception of the situation, and I explained Russia’s opinion to him. But since we were in Astana at the time, marking its anniversary, I invited Saakashvili to come to Russia.
And he said: “Alright, I am ready to do this.”
I can tell you honestly, I spent the next month checking regularly for any feedback from our Georgian counterpart. There was nothing. But at the same time, Georgia was getting more and more visits from “envoys from across the ocean,” as they would be dubbed in Soviet-speak. The moment of truth for me, as I realized later while analyzing those events in hindsight over and over again, came with the visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Following that visit, my Georgian colleague simply dropped all communication with us. He simply stopped talking to us, he stopped writing letters and making phone calls. It was apparent that he had some new plans now. And those plans were implemented later.
Aleksey Venediktov, Echo Moskvy: Mr. President, am I correct to assume that, the way you see it, that visit by the US secretary of state was meant to urge President Saakashvili into war? Do you think the United States was deliberately encouraging Georgia to pursue a conflict?
DM: No, I don’t think so. The United States is a very large country headed by pragmatic people. But in politics, connotations and nuances are very important. There was a time once, back when I was head of the Presidential Administration, when I paid a visit to the White House and met with none other than Condi Rice and the then-head of the President’s Executive Office. And at some point, we were joined by George W. Bush. He simply walked in in a common casual manner, like “Hey, hello.” And the first thing he told me was, “You know, Misha Saakashvili is a great guy.” I said to him: “Mr. President, I don’t know. I’ve never met him. Maybe I will one day.”
Unfortunately, his words have proved to be darkly prophetic. Mind you, those were the very first words I heard from George Bush during our personal meeting.
As it is, I don’t believe the Americans urged Georgia’s president to invade. But I do believe that there were certain subtleties and certain hints made – statements like “It’s time to restore constitutional order,” or “It’s time to be more assertive,” – which could effectively feed Saakashvili’s apparent hopes that the Americans would back him in any conflict, that they would stand up for Georgia and even go to war with the Russians. Therefore, I do see a relation between Ms. Rice’s visit to Georgia and the events that followed. Just as I see a link to my further discussions with the US president – our phone conversations and then our personal meetings.
FCT: So there was no “green light” from the White House? This is a phrase they often repeat when analyzing the war of 2008: “It must have been green-lighted by Washington.”
DM: Well, I would have to at least have some official information or intelligence reports to be able to make such a statement. I don’t have them. But we can make an analysis: My Georgian counterpart ceased all communication with us following a visit by Condoleezza Rice. Maybe that was just a coincidence. But I’m almost absolutely sure that that was when they came up with a plan for the military gamble which ensued in August 2008.
EM: President Saakashvili claims that Russia had been preparing for war long before August 2008. He cites your predecessor, then-president Vladimir Putin, as saying: “We will show you some Northern Cyprus” – that’s a quote, according to Saakashvili. You were part of the government at the time. Can you confirm or deny that such deliberations took place?
DM: That is just total nonsense. Mr. Saakashvili generally does a lot of talking, and he often loses control of what he is saying. There were no discussions of the kind – I would know, as I’ve been part of the government for over 10 years. That is number one. And secondly, conflicts are no good for anyone, ever. Those who say you can resolve something through violence are liars. Conflicts have never resulted in anything good. If we had managed to prevent this war, it would have been to everyone’s benefit, and Georgia’s most of all. The fact that it didn’t happen is a real tragedy. And in my opinion, only one person is responsible for this – it’s just the way governments function – and that man is the president of Georgia.
Sophie Shevardnadze, RT: But in any case, Mr. President, war represents a failure of diplomacy. (Medvedev: Exactly.) Looking back at the situation three years later, what would you have done in a different way? What is it that Russia failed to do in order to avoid the war?
DM: I can tell you frankly: Had I realized back in July 2008 that Mr. Saakashvili was nurturing such plans in his inflamed mind, maybe I would have addressed him in an even tougher way. And I would’ve tried to drag him out of his environment at home, get him to come to Russia, or some third country, in order to talk to him, simply talk him out of this. But of course, I had no idea. So when it all happened, even though we had been aware that there were plans in Georgia to “restore their territorial integrity” through the use of force, I still thought it was a paranoid scenario that would never become reality. You always keep hoping that common sense will prevail over this kind of rationale. That is why I was surprised by what happened on August 8, and I’ve explained it many times: I realized that by unleashing this war, Saakashvili had personally devoted his country to destruction. And that is the scariest part, both for him and for the Georgian people.
RT: When interviewed by Aleksey Venediktov, Mr. Saakashvili said that you were actually avoiding him during the summit in Astana. And that made it clear for him that a conflict was unavoidable.
DM: Well, what can I say? First of all, he is a difficult man to evade, because he sticks to you like a barnacle. If he wants to get hold of you, he will do a fair job of it. He approached me several times and we spoke. I remember it clearly: we talked while sitting on a bus and we talked while taking a walk in a park. I’ll tell you more. In the evening, we went out for a cup of tea and a glass of wine. And even there, we sat on a sofa and kept discussing the prospect of a meeting. So Saakashvili is making this up. Let it lie on his conscience, along with many other things.
FCT: Speaking of Saakashvili personally, and of Russian-Georgian relations after 2008, there has been no progress whatsoever; they are non-existent. And it is clear that to a certain extent, it’s been due to the personal attitudes of either leader. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili put forth an official proposal recently advocating a dialogue with no preconditions. Why did you turn it down, considering that Saakashvili is the legitimately elected president of Georgia?
DM: I did it only because Saakashvili had committed a crime against the Russian Federation and its nationals. Hundreds of our citizens were killed on his orders, including Russian peacekeepers. I will never forgive him for that, and I will not talk to him, even though he occasionally tries winking at me at various international forums. I can talk to anyone else, no problem. We can discuss any issues – of course, as long as we observe the present international legal status of the region, and stay within the context of the decisions I’ve had to take. And believe me, those were very hard decisions. But Mr. Saakashvili is a person I’ll never shake hands with. I realize that he is the legally elected president of Georgia, and it is only up to the Georgian people to grant or deny him a vote of confidence.
Anyway, I am confident about one thing: sooner of later, Mikhail Saakashvili will no longer be president of Georgia. Such are the rules of politics. And whoever becomes the next president in Georgia, they will have a chance to restore positive and beneficial relations with Russia. Moreover, I can tell you personally that it is absolutely painful for me to see that our countries lack positive relations, because we are very close as nations and as people. If not for this dimwit gamble of 2008, we could have kept up our dialogue for years, despite all of its political complexities, and we could have eventually arrived at a solution that would be acceptable for everybody, including the Georgians and the population of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That is exactly what I’ll never forgive Saakashvili for. And I think that the Georgian people ought to express their assessment of Saakashvili, but do it through a democratic process.
Wrapping up our discussion on Saakashvili, I can tell you this: he should actually be thankful to me for halting our troops at some point. If they had marched into Tbilisi, Georgia would most likely have a different president by now.
RT: Mr. President, we actually have a whole bunch of questions on that subject. (Medvedev: A bunch? Oh no, I’ve already said a lot.) Why did you decide not to march on Tbilisi?
DM: I believe that the peace enforcement operation, which took five days, was a mission accomplished. Our mission was not to capture Tbilisi or any other city in Georgia. Our only objective was to halt the invasion that Saakashvili had unleashed. Besides, I’m neither a judge nor an executioner. I’d like to stress once again that it is up to the people of Georgia to assess Saakashvili and decide his fate through a democratic vote. Well, maybe they could also use other means, the way it sometimes happens in history. But deposing Saakashvili by force wasn’t on my agenda back then, and I can tell you earnestly I still think it was the right decision – even though it would’ve been a piece of cake.
RT: One more question. In Europe, they still believe that while Russia’s initial response was legitimate as self-defense, further actions by Russian troops were excessive. After all, why wasn’t it an option to simply push the Georgian forces out of South Ossetia and stop at that point?
DM: You know, Sophie, people are free to make speculations like that, and I have come across them many times. But try putting yourself in the shoes of Russia’s commander-in-chief – my shoes, that is. Sure, we could have merely forced them out and stopped there. But what were we hearing from Georgia? “We shall fall back to our initial position, and our American friends and their allies will help us re-arm ourselves, get us new aircraft and what-not, and then we shall resume the same offensive with renewed vigor.” Letting them do that would have been a crime against the memory of those who died protecting their land. Therefore, our mission at the time was to destroy Georgia’s war machine, so that it wouldn’t be able to target civilians in Ossetia, Abkhazia and the Russian Federation – because, as you know, it’s all mixed there.
to be continued