BRUSSELS, June 19 (UPI) -- Confidential documents written by the EU team investigating last year's Russian-Georgian war assign much of the blame to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.
A majority of EU experts say the Georgian president, and not the Kremlin, ordered the first military strike against two breakaway provinces, according to the documents obtained by German news magazine Der Spiegel. The Georgian offensive into South Ossetia and Abkhazia escalated into a five-day war with Russia that the powerful neighbor won.
That doesn't mean the Kremlin is entirely innocent. A senior member of the EU experts' commission tasked with probing the conflict, Otto Luchterhandt, a German international law expert, argues the Kremlin was legally entitled to counterattack but violated "the principle of proportionality" with its massive intervention in Georgia. Other commission members are also arguing that Russia is to be blamed.
The question of which side started the war in August 2008 has always been hotly debated.
The West had close ties with Georgia ahead of the conflict and unlike Russia hasn't recognized the provinces' self-proclaimed independence. Brussels has so far refused to take sides, but the EU commission, led by seasoned Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, will have to present its findings to the EU Council of Ministers by late July. The probe will likely answer the following question: Is Saakashvili a reckless leader or has Russia sparked yet another global crisis?
Much points to the former. The Georgian president had claimed that Russian tanks had advanced into South Ossetia on the evening of Aug. 7. But the EU experts found no such evidence. They say the Russian army didn't enter South Ossetia until Aug. 8, a day after Georgian forces had moved in. "Georgia's dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that," Der Spiegel quotes Christopher Langton, a retired British army colonel, as saying. Negative findings would seriously hamper Georgia's ambitions of becoming a member of NATO anytime soon.
Both powers are responsible for a messy war. Georgia and Russia violated international law by using illegal weapons such as cluster bombs, killing many civilians, the probe found.
The commission also says that militias in South Ossetia attacked villages inhabited by Georgians, abusing and killing many of them. Russian peacekeeping forces stationed in South Ossetia did "almost nothing" to prevent the attacks, Der Spiegel writes, adding that the EU probe calls the incidents "war crimes."
Russia has repeatedly accused Washington of fueling the conflict with its military support for Georgia. Several EU commission members according to the magazine have inquired what U.S. officials in Georgia knew about Saakashvili's plans before he launched the offensive. The probe, however, won't question U.S. officials. Brussels apparently "lacks the courage" to do so, Der Spiegel quotes one unnamed EU official as saying.