Condoleezza Rice Warned Georgian Leader on War With Russia

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The former secretary of state's memoir calls into question the view, held by many U.S. Republicans, that Russia began the 2008 war*

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili shake hands in Tbilisi, on August 15, 2008, for talks on formalizing a French-negotiated ceasefire to the South Ossetian conflict / AP

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Georgian President Saakashvili alienated potential NATO allies by "letting the Russians provoke him" into starting a war over South Ossetia. That's in her new book where, as with the controversy over Uzbekistan, she portrays herself as the voice of reason, in this case trying to contain the impulsive Saakashvili while also restraining the more bellicose members of her own administration.

She describes a meeting in Tbilisi with Saakashvili before the war broke out:

He's proud and can be impulsive, and we all worried that he might allow Moscow to provoke him to use force. In fact, he himself successfully provoked conflict in another breakaway part of the country, Adjara, and benefited when it had been reintegrated into Georgia through domestic and international pressure. The precedent, we feared, might make him think he could get away with a repeat performance in the territories located closer to Putin's beloved Sochi.

She urged Saakashvili to sign a non-use-of-force agreement, and he refused.

"Mr. President, whatever you do, don't let the Russians provoke you. You remember when President Bush said that Moscow would try to get you to do something stupid. And don't engage Russian military forces. No one will come to your aid, and you will lose," I said sternly.

Here's how she describes the start of the war, the evening of August 7:

Despite Georgia's unilateral ceasefire earlier in the day, South Ossetian rebel forces continued shelling ethnic Georgian villages in and around the capital, Tskhinvali. In response, the Georgian military commenced a heavy military offensive against the rebels..."

That more or less comports with how the European Union describes the tick-tock leading up to the war, but certainly not Georgia's biggest boosters in Washington, for whom it's still a matter of faith that "Russia started the war." And in those early days, it must have seemed in the White House, too, that Russia started it because the U.S. was considering intervening to help Georgia. Her description of the first National Security Council meeting after the war started:

The session was a bit unruly, with a fair amount of chest beating about the Russians. At one point Steve Hadley intervened, something he rarely did. There was all kind of loose talk about what threats the United States might make. "I want to ask a question," he said in his low-key way. "Are we prepared to go to war with Russia over Georgia?" That quieted the room, and we settled into a more productive conversation of what we could do.

We had already heard about the "loose talk" from another source, Ron Asmus, who wrote that there was discussion in the White House about the U.S. bombing the Roki Tunnel, through which Russia sent supplies into South Ossetia. But oh, to have the full details of that conversation... Sadly, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had stepped down by 2008, so his book doesn't cover the issue, and his replacement, Robert Gates, doesn't seem like the kind to write a tell-all (or even tell-some) memoir.

After the fighting was over, she held a joint press conference with Saakashvili where the latter went off script making her so angry "I couldn't even speak.":

I was... worried about the capricious, emotional and exhausted Georgian president and what he might say. "Mr. President, just thank the Europeans and the Americans for standing with you. Say something encouraging to your people about ending the war. Leave any comment about the Russians to me," I said.

The press conference began smoothly, but as he kept speaking, I could see that the Georgian's blood pressure was starting to rise. With halting speech he continued, as if trying to decide what to say next. Saakashvili speaks wonderful English, so I knew that wasn't the problem. All of a sudden his language became aggressive. He started calling the Russians barbarians and claimed their tanks were "on a roll" and would not stop. Okay, I thought, I expected some tough words to the Russians We're still all right. Then he started in on the Europeans, referencing Munich and appeasement...I was so mad at Saakashvili I couldn't even speak...

We held a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels a few days after the agreement was signed. I found the allies surprisingly charitable toward Saakashvili, but a few did say that he had demonstrated why MAP [a Membership Action Plan] was not a good idea.

Update, November 17: Rice told the Weekly Standard that she does not hold the Georgian leader responsible for the 2008 conflict. "The idea that I somehow blamed Saakashvilli for this ... I just don't think that is accurate," she said. "It is true that we were worried that the Russians would provoke Saakashvili and that he would allow himself to be provoked. But in no way were the Georgians at fault, and I think that's clear from the full text." The author has more here.


* - The headline originally stated that Rice blamed the Georgian president and the sub-headline that her memoir contradicts the view that Russia began the 2008 war. They have been changed to better reflect the author's original article.

This article originally appeared at EurasiaNet.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at The Bug Pit.

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