The Atlantic magazine’s website reported what would have been a surprising bit of news. “Condoleezza Rice Blames Georgian Leader for War With Russia,” the headline for Joshua Kucera’s article reads. The sub-headline states: “The former secretary of state contradicts the view, held by many U.S. Republicans, that Russia began the 2008 war.” And the author writes, “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.” Indeed, the surprise in Kucera’s article is that it is completely wrong, and yet the Atlantic published it anyway.
“It’s outrageous,” Condoleezza Rice says of the Atlantic story. “The idea that I would blame the Georgians couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Kucera’s entire article is based on quotations taken directly from Rice’s recently published memoir, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington. Nevertheless, he somehow is able to distort the meaning of the words in the book so that the former secretary of state no longer recognizes them as her own.
“The idea that I somehow blamed Saakashvilli for this . . . I just don’t think that is accurate,” Rice tells me in a phone interview. “It is true that we were worried that the Russians would provoke [Georgian president Mikheil] 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.”
“I think the Russians wanted this war,” the former secretary of state tells me, saying that the Russians got what they wanted. “They were doing all kinds of things to try to provoke the Georgians. The shelling of Georgian cities by the South Ossetians, Russian allies, is clearly what started the war.”
Primarily, Rice blames Putin: “The Russians, I believe, wanted a confrontation with Georgia. And I would lay that [on] Putin, yes, because even though he wasn’t president at that time, it was Putin who was always toughest on the Georgians. I explain in the book, too, that there is an almost irrational hatred of the Georgians by many Russians…”
In the book, Rice subtly suggests that Russian hatred for Georgians might even be motivated by the Georgians having darker skin than the Russians. As Rice writes in her memoir:
The average man on the street will tell you without too much prompting that the dark-skinned inhabitants of the Caucasus are thieves and thugs. Once when staying in a somewhat seedy Moscow hotel, the Ukraina, I returned from dinner to be told by an agitated “hall lady” (in the old Soviet Union these senior citizens stayed up all night to “watch” the comings and goings of hotel guests) that some Georgian men had been asking after me. Her unvarnished anti-Georgian screed was delivered without her apparently noticing that I, too, was dark-skinned.
It is not clear why an article in the Atlantic would promote the view that Georgia was the aggressor, but it is nothing more than distortions aimed at furthering the Russian line.
Like the Atlantic, Putin has also suggested that Georgia deserved what it got. "If policies had been different, I am positive, tragic events would not have taken place in Abkhazia and South Ossetia 18 months ago," Putin reportedly said in 2009. "Saakashvili has pursued political goals of tearing the bonds linking Russia and Georgia."
Actually, Putin has gone even further before, accusing the Americans of starting the war themselves! The good news is that at least the Atlantic has not yet given serious thought to that conspiracy theory.
In her book, in the very chapter on Russia and Georgia, Rice even tells a story of the Russian strongman trying to intimidate her so that the U.S. would go soften its support of Georgia. Rice writes:
I then changed the topic to Georgia and simply said that I had a message from the President. “We are concerned about the rhetoric toward Tbilisi and the embargo,” I said calmly. “Any move against Georgia will deeply affect U.S.-Russian relations.” In an instant Putin stood up, peering over me. “If Saakashvili wants war, he’ll get it,” he said. “And any support for him will destroy our relationship too.” It was a physical posture clearly meant to intimidate. So I stood up too and, in my heels, rose to five feet eleven over the five-foot-eight or so Putin. I repeated the President’s message. For a distended moment we stood there face to face—well, almost.
One can disagree with how Rice handled the war Russia waged against Georgia. And reasonable people can disagree with any number of foreign policy decisions the former secretary of state made while she served in the Bush administration. But this fact is indisputable: Rice blames Russia, not Georgia, for the 2008 conflict.
Nevertheless, Kucera and his editors at the Atlantic seem to take the Kremlin's view of the events.