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Russia Coverage: The 'New York Times' Responds | The Nation

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Russia Coverage: The 'New York Times' Responds

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Editor's Note: New York Times Standards Editor Craig Whitney issued this response to questions posed by The Nation about its coverage of the Russia-Georgia conflict in South Ossetia.

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“We are in the classic fog of war,” says Stephen Cohen.

In answer to the question you posed to Clark Hoyt, who sent it along to me--Why did the New York Times take so long to question its own misleading reporting on the South Ossetia war, in which the Times portrayed Georgia as a victim of Russian aggression, rather than as the aggressor?--it is a perverse distortion of this reporting, nothing less, to say that it portrayed Georgia as a victim of Russian aggression rather than as an aggressor.

Let's look at the record.

If you were reading the New York Times on Southern Ossetia in 2008, you would have seen this:

February 16, 2008

, Saturday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 3
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 632 words

Russia Warns It May Back Breakaway Republics in Georgia

By C. J. CHIVERS

MOSCOW--Russia held a high-level meeting with the leaders of two breakaway republics in Georgia on Friday, and vowed to increase its support for the separatists if Kosovo declared its independence and was recognized by the West.

The meeting, coupled with vocal warnings in Russia's Parliament that it would react strongly to a declaration of independence by Kosovo, threatened to push the Kremlin and the West into a fresh and potentially volatile standoff over the status of separatist territories in Georgia.

Kosovo is expected within days to declare its independence from Serbia, Russia's traditional ally.

The Kremlin has long objected to the move, and even threatened to retaliate by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions it supports inside Georgia's internationally recognized borders, as independent states.

Russia has in the past several years granted Russian citizenship to almost all residents in the separatist enclaves. In anticipation of further engagement with the regions, Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, met here with the presidents of the regions' de facto governments.

Mr. Lavrov then issued a stern but vague statement saying Russia was prepared to expand its case diplomatically in the days ahead. ''The declaration and recognition of Kosovar independence will make Russia adjust its line toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia,'' he said in a statement.

Increasing financial assistance is among the steps Russia might take, he said.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia border Russia along the Caucasus ridge, and broke from Georgia after brief wars in the early 1990s. Their status has simmered as a source of contention and ethnic tension in the years since.

Both regions have declared self-rule, but in fact are managed as Russian protectorates. The standoffs, labeled ''frozen conflicts,'' have been sources of unsuccessful international mediation and worries of renewed fighting.

Georgia in recent years has strongly protested the Russian support, accusing the Kremlin of hypocrisy.

It has noted that Russia has supported separatists inside Georgia while holding Russia's own sovereignty inviolable and waging a bitter war and counterinsurgency against separatists on the other side of the Caucasus ridge, in Chechnya.

The military, diplomatic and public relations campaigns in the region have all the while been layered with intrigue.

Then you would have seen this:

April 17, 2008

, Thursday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 12
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 597 words

Russia Expands Support for Breakaway Regions in Georgia

By C. J. CHIVERS

MOSCOW--Russia announced Wednesday that it was broadly expanding support for two separatist regions in neighboring Georgia and would establish legal connections with the regions' de facto governments.

The announcement, made by order of President Vladimir V. Putin, fell short of offering official recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two breakaway regions, which have had self-rule and intensive Russian support since brief wars with Georgia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

But it signaled a comprehensive deepening of ties between the separatist enclaves and Russia, including in trade, agriculture, education, diplomacy and social support. Officials in the region said that in its long-term ambitions, Russia's enhanced engagement was modeled in part on American support for Taiwan.

The Georgian government, which has spurned the Kremlin in recent years and tightened relations with the West, reacted with alarm. It called on international support to block what David Bakradze, Georgia's foreign minister, called Russia's policy of ''creeping annexation.''

and this:

August 9, 2008

, Saturday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 9
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 614 words

Global Politics Add Oxygen to a Smoldering Dispute

By ELLEN BARRY

MOSCOW--For centuries, the status of South Ossetia has been a nagging irritant on Russia's southern border--sometimes akin to a canker sore, and sometimes an ulcer.

The Ossetians, who number about 60,000, are part of the patchwork of ethnic groups that inhabit the mountains of the Caucasus. They have long yearned for separation from Georgia, appealing to Russia, their northern neighbor, for support.

Over the years, ethnic tension became a way of life in Tskhinvali, the provincial capital of South Ossetia, a city ringed by highlands where concrete street barriers were sometimes erected to keep the groups apart. During flare-ups, gangs of young men would ambush convoys on mountain roads.

But global politics have breathed new life into the conflict, making it a flash point for resurgent tensions between former cold war rivals. Russia, especially, sees a threat of creeping American influence as its former satellites seek to join NATO.

When Kosovo won Western backing for its bid for independence from Russia's historical ally Serbia, the Kremlin answered by vowing to win similar status for South Ossetia and for the Black Sea enclave of Abkhazia, which fall inside Georgia's borders. Georgian leaders, meanwhile, hoped to quiet the conflict once and for all before applying for NATO membership.

Although Abkhazia has far more strategic importance to both sides, the city of Tskhinvali is in a valley ringed by Georgian-held villages, on terrain easily navigable by tanks.

Mountains seal off the region to the north, toward Russia, so separatists rely on a single key route--the Roki Tunnel, which cuts deep through the mountains--for commerce, military aid and evacuation to the north.

Georgian leaders have long felt they could take the enclave swiftly, pushing north in one or two days to the Russian border.

''Without heavy reinforcement from Russia, the general sense is that Tskhinvali is not defensible,'' said Svante E. Cornell, research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Ossetians have long held themselves apart from ethnic Georgians, who make up more than 80 percent of Georgia's people; the Ossetian language has Persian rather than Caucasian roots, as Georgian does.

Now we get to August, where our first report says this. It's written from Moscow, and it's clear that we don't have any idea which side started the fighting:

August 3, 2008

, Sunday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 12
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 215 words

6 Die as Georgia Battles Rebel Group

By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ

MOSCOW--Troops from the former Soviet republic of Georgia battled separatist fighters in a rebel republic overnight, killing at least six people and wounding more than a dozen others, officials from both sides said Saturday.

Violence between Georgia and the rebel republic, South Ossetia, has flared recently after months of relative calm.

Each side accused the other of setting off the fighting, which began Friday evening and continued through Saturday morning, and involved mortars, grenade launchers and small-arms fire.

Earlier on Friday, six Georgian policemen were wounded in the border area by a roadside bomb, the Georgian Interior Ministry said.

A spokeswoman for the separatist government said South Ossetia sustained most of the casualties, including all of the deaths. Among the six people killed, five were civilians, she said. Georgia said that six civilians and one Georgian policeman were wounded on the Georgian side of the border.

South Ossetia, an impoverished patch of mountainous territory on Russia's southern border, won de facto independence following a bloody war with Georgia after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Its autonomy is largely unrecognized internationally. Georgia has accused Russia, which maintains a peacekeeping force in the region, of aiding rebel fighters there and in Abkhazia, another separatist region of Georgia.

This report, following, makes clear we still can't really say who the aggressor was:

August 8, 2008

, Friday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 5
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 620 words

Georgian Troops Enter Breakaway Enclave in Region's Fiercest Fighting in Years

By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ;
Anne Barnard contributed reporting.

MOSCOW--Fighting in the border region between the former Soviet republic of Georgia and a breakaway Georgian enclave escalated sharply Friday morning to its highest level in years.

Georgian officials said their troops had made a significant incursion into the breakaway region, South Ossetia, in response to what the officials contended were provocations from over the border, including shelling. The Georgian officials said they had taken up positions outside the capital of the enclave, Tskhinvali.

At least 25 civilians and troops were killed in the fighting that started Thursday, officials from both sides said.

The move by the Georgian troops followed a day of attacks by both sides, as well as an offer from the Georgian president to agree to a cease-fire.

The Georgian side suggested that its troop movements were not intended as the beginning of an all-out push to retake the enclave, but were rather a defensive effort to prevent shelling from the other side.

Now, remember, this is an area with no permanent Times correspondents. It's been conflicted for years. Georgian nationalism has been a powerful and disruptive force, and Georgian leaders have been radically nationalist and sometimes irrational. Look up the history of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, for example.

Now we find the outbreak of hostilities, and boy now we have sent New York Times correspondents into the area to try to find out what's really going on:

August 9, 2008

, Saturday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 1
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 1,680 words

Russia and Georgia Clash Over Breakaway Region

By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ, ANNE BARNARD and C. J. CHIVERS
Michael Schwirtz reported from Gori, and Anne Barnard from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer and Ellen Barry from Moscow, Nicholas Kulish from Berlin, Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations, and Thom Shanker from Washington. This article is by Michael Schwirtz, Anne Barnard and C. J. Chivers.

GORI, Georgia--Russia conducted airstrikes on Georgian targets on Friday evening, escalating the conflict in a separatist area of Georgia that is shaping into a test of the power and military reach of an emboldened Kremlin. Earlier in the day, Russian troops and armored vehicles had rolled into South Ossetia, supporting the breakaway region in its bitter conflict with Georgia.

The United States and other Western nations, joined by NATO, condemned the violence and demanded a cease-fire. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went a step further, calling on Russia to withdraw its forces. But the Russian soldiers remained, and Georgian officials reported at least one airstrike, on the Black Sea port of Poti, late on Friday night.

Russian military units--including tank, artillery and reconnaissance--arrived in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, on Saturday to help Russian peacekeepers there, in response to overnight shelling by Georgian forces, state television in Russia reported, citing the Ministry of Defense. Ground assault aircraft were also mobilized, the Ministry said.

Also on Saturday a senior Georgian official said by telephone that Russian bombers were flying over Georgia and that the presidential offices and residence in Tbilisi had been evacuated. The official added that Georgian forces still had control of Tskhinvali.

Neither side showed any indication of backing down. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia declared that ''war has started,'' and President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia accused Russia of a ''well-planned invasion'' and mobilized Georgia's military reserves. There were signs as well of a cyberwarfare campaign, as Georgian government Web sites were crashing intermittently during the day.

The escalation risked igniting a renewed and sustained conflict in the Caucasus region, an important conduit for the flow of oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets and an area where conflict has flared for years along Russia's borders, most recently in Chechnya.

The military incursion into Georgia marked a fresh sign of Kremlin confidence and resolve, and also provided a test of the capacities of the Russian military, which Mr. Putin had tried to modernize and re-equip during his two presidential terms.

There is no suggestion in the report above that the Times has taken sides and decided that the Russians attacked without provocation. But it's also clear that the Russian actions serve Russian foreign policy interests, in Georgia and beyond.

Next, comes this, clearly an attempt to report what we know about what was going on, but the report makes clear the limits of what we know:

August 10, 2008

, Sunday, the New York Times on the web
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 1,891 words

1,500 Reported Killed in Georgia Battle

By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ, ANNE BARNARD and C. J. CHIVERS
Michael Schwirtz reported from Gori, and Anne Barnard from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer and Ellen Barry from Moscow, Nicholas Kulish from Berlin, Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations, and Thom Shanker from Washington.

GORI, Georgia--Russian air attacks over northern Georgia intensified on Saturday morning, striking two apartment buildings in the city of Gori and clogging roads out of the area with fleeing refugees.

Russian authorities said their forces had retaken the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, from Georgian control during the morning hours. They reported that 15 Russian peacekeepers and 1,500 civilians have been killed in the conflict.

Georgian forces shot down 10 Russian combat planes over the last two days, according to Alexander Lomaya, secretary of the Georgian National Security Council.

Shota Utiashvili, an official at the Georgian Interior Ministry, called the attack on Gori a ''major escalation,'' and said he expected attacks to increase over the course of Saturday. He said some 16 Russian planes were in the air over Georgian territory at any given time on Saturday, four times the number of sorties seen Friday.

In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, wounded fighters and civilians began to arrive in hospitals, most with shrapnel or mortar wounds. Several dozen names had been posted outside the hospital.

In a news conference, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Georgian attacks on Russian citizens ''amounted to ethnic cleansing.''

Mr. Lavrov said Russian airstrikes targeted military staging grounds. Asked whether Russia is prepared to fight ''all-out war'' in Georgia, he said: ''No. Georgia, I believe, started a war in Southern Ossetia, and we are responsible to keep the peace.''

He said Moscow has been working intensely with foreign leaders, in particular the United states. ''We have been appreciative of the American efforts to pacify the hawks in Tbilisi. Apparently these efforts have not succeeded. Quite a number of officials in Washignton were really shocked when all this happened.''

The United States and other Western nations, joined by NATO, condemned the violence and demanded a cease-fire. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went a step further, calling on Russia to withdraw its forces, and President George W. Bush, who is at the Olympics in Beijing, was expected to make a statement at about 7 a.m. Eastern.

Russian military units--including tank, artillery and reconnaissance--arrived in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, on Saturday to help Russian peacekeepers there, in response to overnight shelling by Georgian forces, state television in Russia reported, citing the Ministry of Defense. Ground assault aircraft were also mobilized, the Ministry said.

Also on Saturday a senior Georgian official said by telephone that Russian bombers were flying over Georgia and that the presidential offices and residence in Tbilisi had been evacuated. The official added that Georgian forces still had control of Tskhinvali.

Neither side showed any indication of backing down. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia declared that ''war has started,'' and President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia accused Russia of a ''well-planned invasion'' and mobilized Georgia's military reserves. There were signs as well of a cyberwarfare campaign, as Georgian government Web sites were crashing intermittently during the day.

The escalation risked igniting a renewed and sustained conflict in the Caucasus region, an important conduit for the flow of oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets and an area where conflict has flared for years along Russia's borders, most recently in Chechnya.

The military incursion into Georgia marked a fresh sign of Kremlin confidence and resolve, and also provided a test of the capacities of the Russian military, which Mr. Putin had tried to modernize and re-equip during his two presidential terms.

Frictions between Georgia and South Ossetia, which has declared de facto independence, have simmered for years, but intensified when Mr. Saakashvili came to power in Georgia and made national unification a centerpiece of his agenda. Mr. Saakashvili, a close American ally who has sought NATO membership for Georgia, is loathed at the Kremlin in part because he had positioned himself as a spokesman for democracy movements and alignment with the West.

The previous report makes clear what we know and from where we know it.

There are obviously problems understanding who did what to whom and why, and this is not infrequently the case in reporting on conflicts of this kind.

Next we find this (the appended correction is of the spelling of the name of a spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach):

August 10, 2008

, Sunday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 1
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 1,664 words

CORRECTION APPENDED

Russia Broadens Military Campaign as All-Out War Threatens Georgia

By ANNE BARNARD
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Gori and Tbilisi, Georgia, and Anne Barnard from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz from Gori; Ellen Barry from Moscow; Matt Siegel from Vladikavkaz, Russia; Steven Lee Myers from Beijing; and Katrin Bennhold from Paris. This article was reported by Anne Barnard, Andrew E. Kramer, and C. J. Chivers and written by Ms. Barnard.

GORI, Georgia--The conflict between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia moved toward full-scale war on Saturday, as Russia sent warships to land ground troops in the disputed territory of Abkhazia and broadened its bombing campaign across Georgia.

The fighting that had sharply escalated when Georgian forces tried to retake the capital of South Ossetia, a pro-Russian region that won de facto autonomy from Georgia in the early 1990s, appeared to be developing into the worst clashes between Russia and a foreign military since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Shortly before dawn on Sunday, Georgia's Interior Ministry said that Russian bombers had begun striking military facilities adjacent to the civilian airport at Tbilisi. The explosions could be heard in the city, said Shota Utiashvili, a ministry official.

Things begin to escalate, and Russia's campaign expands:

August 11, 2008

, Monday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 1
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 1,750 words

Russians Push Past Separatist Region, Assaulting a City in Central Georgia

By ANNE BARNARD
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Tbilisi, and Anne Barnard from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz and Nicholas Kulish from Tbilisi, Helene Cooper from Washington, and Joseph Sywenkiy from Gori, Georgia. This article was reported by Andrew E. Kramer, Anne Barnard and C. J. Chivers, and written by Ms. Barnard.

TBILISI, Georgia--Russia expanded its attacks on Georgia on Sunday, moving tanks and troops through the separatist enclave of South Ossetia and advancing toward the city of Gori in central Georgia, in its first direct assault on a Georgian city with ground forces during three days of heavy fighting, Georgian officials said.

The maneuver--along with bombing of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi--seemed to suggest that Russia's aims in the conflict had gone beyond securing the pro-Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to weakening the armed forces of Georgia, a former Soviet republic and an ally of the United States whose Western leanings have long irritated the Kremlin.

Russia's moves, which came after Georgia offered a cease-fire and said it had pulled its troops out of South Ossetia, caused widespread international alarm and anger and set the stage for an intense diplomatic confrontation with the United States.

Two senior Western officials said that it was unclear whether Russia intended a full invasion of Georgia, but that its aims could go as far as destroying its armed forces or overthrowing Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

''They seem to have gone beyond the logical stopping point,'' one senior Western diplomat said, speaking anonymously under normal diplomatic protocol.

The escalation of fighting raised tensions between Russia and its former cold war foes to their highest level in decades. President Bush has promoted Georgia as a bastion of democracy, helped strengthen its military and urged that NATO admit the country to membership. Georgia serves as a major conduit for oil flowing from Russia and Central Asia to the West.

But Russia, emboldened by windfall profits from oil exports, is showing a resolve to reassert its dominance in a region it has always considered its ''near abroad.''

The military action, which has involved air, naval and missile attacks, is the largest engagement by Russian forces outside its borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia escalated its assault on Sunday despite strong diplomatic warnings from Mr. Bush and European leaders, underscoring the limits of Western influence over Russia at a time when the rest of Europe depends heavily on Russia for natural gas and the United States needs Moscow's cooperation if it hopes to curtail what it believes is a nuclear weapons threat from Iran.

President Bush, in Beijing for the Olympics, strongly criticized the Russian attacks, especially those outside South Ossetia, and urged an immediate cease-fire.

Times coverage begins, as it should, to reflect what impact the fighting is having on the American presidential campaign:

August 12, 2008

, Tuesday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 19
Desk: National Desk Length: 915 words

War Puts Focus on McCain's Hard Line on Russia

By MICHAEL COOPER

HARRISBURG, Pa.--The intensifying warfare in the former Soviet republic of Georgia has put a new focus on the increasingly hard line that Senator John McCain has taken against Russia in recent years, with stances that have often gone well beyond those of the Bush administration and its focus on engagement.

Mr. McCain has called for expelling what he has called a ''revanchist Russia'' from meetings of the Group of 8, the organization of leading industrialized nations. He urged President Bush--in vain--to boycott the group's meeting in St. Petersburg in 2006. And he has often mocked the president's assertion that he got a sense of the soul of Vladimir V. Putin, who was then Russia's president and is now its prime minister, by looking into his eyes. ''I looked into his eyes,'' Mr. McCain said, ''and saw three letters: a K, a G and a B.''

Shortly follows this report:

August 14, 2008

, Thursday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 12
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 1,007 words

Russian Soldiers Occupying Stalin's Birth City Are Buoyed by Battle With Georgia

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

GORI, Georgia--The Russian officer surveyed his soldiers with a strong sense of satisfaction. They had easily occupied one of this tiny country's largest military bases. American machine guns were stacked in rows. Flames licked at the walls of one barracks, built to NATO standards.

The officer had served in the Russian Army for 27 years. Ten of them after the Soviet Union fell had been sheer humiliation. Wages plunged. Officers sold tomatoes to survive.

''When Putin came, everything changed,'' he said, referring to Vladimir V. Putin, formerly the president, now the prime minister. ''We got some of our old strength back. People started to respect us again.''

The collapse of the Soviet Union was deeply painful for many Russians, perhaps most of all for its military. The sudden campaign that began last week seems to have restored a sense of confidence among its officers. It was not so much the background confrontation with the West as a stirring voice after years of decline: We are still here, the voice said, and we are powerful.

And while that may worry some--other countries in this small mountain region, for example--it felt good to officers here on Wednesday as they moved in their armored personnel carriers down empty roads in this largely military town.

Soldiers spoke of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, in Tbilisi, the country's capital, as having an outsize sense of his own importance. He put his military--fledgling and supported by the United States--up against theirs. It was no match.

''If that guy does not understand the situation, we'll have to go farther,'' said the officer, sitting under a tree near a column of tanks. ''It's just 60 kilometers to Tbilisi.''

By Tuesday, the Russian military had firmly occupied this leafy city, solidly in Georgian territory, on a day that diplomats in both countries agreed to a cease-fire. Tanks and armored personnel carriers roared through town. Dogs and old people watched.

Local commanders on the ground here said that the city was strategic and could be used for launching attacks into Southern Ossetia. They did not consider their presence a violation because they were not shooting, but guarding against a return of Georgian soldiers.

Take a look at this report:

August 15, 2008

, Friday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 9
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 782 words

Signs of Ethnic Attacks in Georgia Conflict

By SABRINA TAVERNISE and MATT SIEGEL
Sabrina Tavernise reported from Gori and Tbilisi, Georgia, and Matt Siegel from Tskhinvali, Georgia. Bryon Denton contributed reporting from Gori.

TBILISI, Georgia--As the conflict between Russia and Georgia enters its second week, there is growing evidence of looting and ''ethnic cleansing'' in a number of villages throughout the area of conflict.

The attacks--some witnessed by reporters or documented by a human rights group--include stealing, the burning of villages and possibly even killings. Some are ethnically motivated, while at least some of the looting appears to be the work of profiteers in areas from which the authorities have fled.

The identities of the attackers vary, but a pattern of violence by ethnic Ossetians against ethnic Georgians is emerging and has been confirmed by some Russian authorities. ''Now Ossetians are running around and killing poor Georgians in their enclaves,'' said Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Nikolaevich Borisov, the commander in charge of the city of Gori, occupied by the Russians.

A lieutenant from an armored transport division that was previously in Chechnya said: ''We have to be honest. The Ossetians are marauding.''

The hostilities between Russia and Georgia started last week when the Georgian military marched into the disputed territory of South Ossetia, and the Russians responded by sending troops into the pro-Russia, separatist enclave and then into Georgia proper.

The Times continued to report on what the American government was making of all this. The Bush administration sided with the Georgians and accused the Russians of aggression. And as we all know, the whole thing became enmeshed in the American political campaign.

But here's what we reported:

August 18, 2008

, Monday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 1
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 2,747 words
CORRECTION APPENDED

How a Squabble Became a Showdown

By HELENE COOPER, C.J. CHIVERS and CLIFFORD J. LEVY
Helene Cooper reported from Washington, C. J. Chivers from Georgia and Clifford J. Levy from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Anne Barnard and Ellen Barry from Moscow; Andrew E. Kramer from Tbilisi, Georgia; Sabrina Tavernise and Matt Siegel from Tskhinvali, Georgia; and Thom Shanker from Washington. This article was reported by Helene Cooper, C. J. Chivers and Clifford J. Levy and written by Ms. Cooper.

WASHINGTON--Five months ago, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, long a darling of this city's diplomatic dinner party circuit, came to town to push for America to muscle his tiny country of four million into NATO.

On Capitol Hill, at the State Department and at the Pentagon, Mr. Saakashvili, brash and hyperkinetic, urged the West not to appease Russia by rejecting his country's NATO ambitions.

At the White House, President Bush bantered with the Georgian president about his prowess as a dancer. Laura Bush, the first lady, took Mr. Saakashvili's wife to lunch. Mr. Bush promised him to push hard for Georgia's acceptance into NATO. After the meeting, Mr. Saakashvili pronounced his visit ''one of the most successful visits during my presidency,'' and said he did not know of any other leader of a small country with the access to the administration that he had.

Three weeks later, Mr. Bush went to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, at the invitation of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. There, he received a message from the Russian: the push to offer Ukraine and Georgia NATO membership was crossing Russia's ''red lines,'' according to an administration official close to the talks.

Afterward, Mr. Bush said of Mr. Putin, ''He's been very truthful and to me, that's the only way you can find common ground.'' It was one of many moments when the United States seemed to have missed--or gambled it could manage--the depth of Russia's anger and the resolve of the Georgian president to provoke the Russians.

The story of how a 16-year, low-grade conflict over who should rule two small, mountainous regions in the Caucasus erupted into the most serious post-cold-war showdown between the United States and Russia is one of miscalculation, missed signals and overreaching, according to interviews with diplomats and senior officials in the United States, the European Union, Russia and Georgia. In many cases, the officials would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

It is also the story of how both Democrats and Republicans have misread Russia's determination to dominate its traditional sphere of influence.

As with many foreign policy issues, this one highlighted a continuing fight within the administration. Vice President Dick Cheney and his aides and allies, who saw Georgia as a role model for their democracy promotion campaign, pushed to sell Georgia more arms, including Stinger antiaircraft missiles, so that it could defend itself against possible Russian aggression.

On the other side, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and William J. Burns, the new under secretary of state for political affairs, argued that such a sale would provoke Russia, which would see it as arrogant meddling in its turf, the officials and diplomats said.

They describe three leaders on a collision course. Mr. Bush, rewarding Georgia for its robust troop contribution to Iraq--at 2,000, the third highest, behind the United States and Britain--promised NATO membership and its accompanying umbrella of American military support. Mr. Putin, angry at what he saw as American infringement right in his backyard, decided that Georgia was the line in the sand that the West would not be allowed to cross. And Mr. Saakashvili, unabashedly pro-American, was determined to show, once and for all, that Georgia was no longer a vassal of Russia.

With a vastly more confident Russia, flush with oil money, a booming economy and a rebuilt military no longer bogged down in Chechnya, the stars were aligned for a confrontation in which Russia could, with a quick show of force, teach a lesson to the United States, Georgia and all of the former Soviet satellites and republics seeking closer ties with the West.

''We have probably failed to understand that the Russians are really quite serious when they say, 'We have interests and we're going to defend them,' '' said James Collins, United States ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001. ''Russia does have interests, and at some point they're going to stand up and draw lines that are not simply to be ignored.''

Georgia Makes Its Moves

The stage for the confrontation was set in January 2004, when Mr. Saakashvili handily won the presidency after leading protests against a rigged election the previous year. He made the return of separatist areas to Georgian control a central plank of his platform.

It was a potent theme. Georgia had lost the wars against separatists in the 1990s, and Russia's involvement stung Georgians. Mr. Saakashvili saw international law on his side. His young government, a small circle of men in their 30s with virtually no military experience, openly endorsed this thinking.

Georgia increased its troop contribution to Iraq, and in return the United States provided more military training. The Georgians clearly saw this as a step toward building up a military that could be used to settle problems with the separatists at home.

Whether they intended to build a military for fighting or deterrence is unclear. American officials said they repeatedly and bluntly told their Georgian counterparts that the Iraq mission should not be taken as a sign of American support, or as a prelude, for operations against the separatists. And it was obvious that Russia's army, which at roughly 641,000 troops is 25 times the size of Georgia's, could easily overwhelm the Georgian forces.

Nevertheless, the career foreign policy establishment worried that the wrong signals were being sent. ''We were training Saakashvili's army, and he was getting at least a corps of highly trained individuals, which he could use for adventures,'' said one former senior intelligence analyst, who covered Georgia and Russia at the time. ''The feeling in the intelligence community was that this was a very high-risk endeavor.''

Did you see this?

August 22, 2008

, Friday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 9
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 956 words

CLASH IN GEORGIA

: Memories and Messages | Russia Prevailed on the Ground, but Not in the Media
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
Viktor Klimenko contributed reporting.

MOSCOW--The Kremlin's tight grip on the media in recent years has been readily evident during the conflict in Georgia, right down to the way the television news has presented the Georgian leader's speeches. His voice is dubbed in a shrill Russian intended to suggest a tin-pot despot who has maniacally plunged the region into crisis.

Yet for all the government's success at managing the news in Russia, it has seemed ill prepared to press its case internationally. It failed to grasp that the same figure it was mocking on its channels, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, was using his fluency in English to dominate coverage in the rest of the world.

And the Russians were nowhere, at least early on.

It is not just Russia's overall image that is at stake. Russia and Georgia have sought to convince the world that the other side is responsible for starting the conflict, committing atrocities and failing to abide by the cease-fire. While international observers will weigh in on many of these questions, the crisis is also being adjudicated in the court of public opinion, especially in Europe, which has become an arbiter between Washington and Moscow as tensions have grown.

It was not until four days after the conflict began--an eon in the 24-hour news universe--that a top Kremlin official was sent to CNN to counter Mr. Saakashvili. The official, Sergei B. Ivanov, a confidant of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who speaks polished English and has long experience in the West, quickly acknowledged that an unfortunate perception had taken hold.

''A big Russian bear attacked a small, peaceful Georgia,'' said Mr. Ivanov, a deputy prime minister, before seeking to undo the damage. ''In fact, the situation is and was vice versa. It was a big Georgia which attacked a small and tiny breakaway republic of South Ossetia.''

The Kremlin's reluctance to muster support for its position with the same intensity that it sent tanks into Georgia offers an insight into its worldview. Under Mr. Putin, it has harbored a deep ambivalence toward the West, reflected in its discomfort in having to justify its actions and a suspicion that no matter what it says, the deck is stacked against it.

High-ranking Russian officials, who generally have a free hand in the Russian media, seem to find it demeaning to have to fight to get their message out. And they hold Mr. Saakashvili in such contempt, considering him a Western pawn who wants to bring NATO into their backyard, that they recoil at the idea of being perceived as his equal on the world stage, especially after pummeling his military forces.

The Kremlin has also occasionally fallen back onto a style of managing information reminiscent of Soviet times, curbing access to officials and issuing turgid proclamations rather than assembling a cast of appealing, English-speaking officials who can be put in front of international cameras on short notice.

And there's this, worth noting in passing:

August 29, 2008

, Friday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 1
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 1,158 words

PUTIN SUGGESTS U.S. PROVOCATION IN GEORGIA CLASH

By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting.

MOSCOW--As Russia struggled to rally international support for its military action in Georgia, Vladimir V. Putin, the country's paramount leader, lashed out at the United States on Thursday, contending that the White House may have orchestrated the conflict to benefit one of the candidates in the American presidential election.

Mr. Putin's comments in a television interview, his most extensive to date on Russia's decision to send troops into Georgia earlier this month, sought to present the military operation as a response to brazen, cold war-style provocations by the United States. In tones that seemed alternately angry and mischievous, he suggested that the Bush administration may have tried to create a crisis that would influence American voters in the choice of a successor to President Bush.

''The suspicion would arise that someone in the United States created this conflict on purpose to stir up the situation and to create an advantage for one of the candidates in the competitive race for the presidency in the United States,'' Mr. Putin said in an interview with CNN.

He added, ''They needed a small victorious war.''

Mr. Putin did not specify which candidate he had in mind, but there was no doubt that he was referring to Senator John McCain, the Republican. Mr. McCain is loathed in the Kremlin because he has a close relationship with Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and has called for imposing stiff penalties on Russia, including throwing it out of the Group of 8 industrialized nations.

* * *

September 12, 2008

, Friday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 6
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 847 words

Stung by Criticism Over Georgia, Putin Asks West for a Little Understanding

By ELLEN BARRY
An employee of the New York Times contributed reporting from Sochi, Russia.

MOSCOW--For three and a half hours on Thursday, in tones that were alternately pugilistic and needy, Vladimir V. Putin tried to explain himself.

More than a month has passed since Russia sent columns of armor into Georgia, asserting its sphere of influence with a confidence not seen since the days of the Soviet Union. But since the first hours of this crisis, Russian leaders have been asking the same question with mounting frustration: Why is everyone blaming us for this?

Mr. Putin, Russia's prime minister, made his case on Thursday in Sochi, Russia, before the Valdai Discussion Club, a collection of Russia experts from around the world. Comments aimed at the West were, at times, rueful--he said he liked President Bush more than many Americans do--and even respectful, as when he asked for a moment of silence in honor of the victims of Sept. 11.

As for the criticism that has cascaded down on his government, Mr. Putin expressed only bafflement that those in the West did not accept Russia's explanation that it had simply acted in defense of its citizens. How did they expect Russia to respond to the shelling of its peacekeepers in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, he asked--with ''slingshots?'' Did they expect him to ''brandish a penknife?''

''What else could we do?'' the Interfax news agency reported him as saying. ''Do you think we should have wiped the bloody snot away and hung our heads?''

* * **

November 6, 2008

, Thursday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 18
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 674 words

Georgia Fired More Cluster Bombs Than Thought, Killing Civilians, Report Finds

By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ

MOSCOW--Georgian military forces fired more cluster munitions during their war with Russia in August than originally thought, and some of the weapons may have malfunctioned, causing civilian casualties when they fell short of military targets and hit Georgian villages, according to new research by Human Rights Watch.

The group said Tuesday that Georgia and Russia used cluster munitions extensively in the war, which began when Georgia launched a major artillery strike against South Ossetia, a breakaway Georgian enclave, prompting Russia to invade large swaths of Georgian territory.

Though Russia endured the brunt of international outrage for its conduct during and after the war, Georgia's actions in the conflict have come under increasing scrutiny. While Georgia has strongly denied the findings, the new Human Rights Watch report, which was presented at the Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva on Tuesday, adds to a growing body of evidence of Georgian atrocities in the fighting.

Cluster bombs, typically anti-personnel weapons that eject dozens of explosive bomblets when detonated, killed as many as 17 civilians during the brief, bloody war and wounded dozens more, Human Rights Watch said in a statement. In addition, many of the weapons on both sides failed, the statement said, scattering unexploded ordnance that has already caused casualties and poses a danger to civilians.

* * *

October 25, 2008

, Saturday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 5
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 1,217 words

War's Aftermath Complicates Task of Georgian Leader's Critics

By ELLEN BARRY
Olesya Vartanyan contributed reporting.

TBILISI, Georgia--With less than two weeks remaining before Nov. 7, the first anniversary of a government crackdown on demonstrators, Georgian opposition figures remain split on whether to call for the public to take to the streets to protest Mikheil Saakashvili's government. The war with Russia in August is Exhibit A in their critique of Mr. Saakashvili, whose popularity has sustained damage in the past year. But it has also strengthened the president's hand: Fury at Russia has swamped other political issues, and Georgians may see the opposition as fulfilling wishes--or orders--from Moscow. Meanwhile, the grinding anxiety of the past two months has left Georgians with little taste for civil unrest.

Opposition leaders, therefore, find themselves on a tightrope. Three political parties called last week for rallies in front of Parliament, where riot police officers fired rubber bullets last year and used clubs to beat unarmed protesters. David Usupashvili, the leader of the opposition Republican Party, was far more hesitant, saying street protests ''may lead to a chaotic action of people, or a big disappointment of those same people.''

Somewhere in the middle is Nino Burdzhanadze, a former lieutenant of Mr. Saakashvili's who, since August, has issued the most pointed and public critique of the war and Mr. Saakashvili's role in it. Ms. Burdzhanadze formally called Friday for Georgia to hold early elections--she did not say whether she meant presidential or parliamentary--referring to the present Parliament as a ''fictional body'' and Mr. Saakashvili's government as ''scared of the truth.''

She has not said whether she intends to participate in rallies next month. But in an interview, she said the government had not leveled with Georgians about the damage caused by the war and compared the country to a kettle threatening to boil over.

''If you are closing this pot, or this kettle, it means something might happen,'' she said. ''This is what I am worried about, and I am not saying this accidentally. This is my warning to the government. They should support democratic discussion about where this country is going. Georgians are not stupid people. You can't lie to them forever.''

Few analysts expect protests this year to be large enough to pose a real challenge to Mr. Saakashvili.

A September poll commissioned by the ruling National Movement found that Mr. Saakashvili had a 76 percent approval rating. Giga Bokeria, the deputy foreign minister and a close ally of the president, said the government had invited open debate about the war, with televised hearings of a parliamentary commission starting Saturday. (The inquiry's full name is the Temporary Commission to Study Russia's Military Aggression and Other Actions Undertaken with the Aim to Infringe Georgia's Territorial Integrity.)

Mr. Bokeria added that he doubted that Ms. Burdzhanadze's criticism would find much sympathy.

''The majority of the Georgian public has a very clear understanding of what is at stake, and what was the goal of the Russian Federation, and what we were trying to defend,'' he said. ''I certainly hope and believe that we made the only right choice that was left for us, and that they will support this position.''

A poll of 800 people in Tbilisi taken at the end of September for an opposition party found that about 28 percent said that Georgia had won the war, and 64 percent said that it had lost, according to the poll's director, Iago Kachkachishvili of the Institute of Social Studies and Analysis. Asked if the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would return to Georgia, 40 percent said they expected it to happen within 10 years.

Still, there is ferment and passion around the question of whether Mr. Saakashvili could have avoided the war. Five years ago, Shorena Chanturia was part of the idealistic crowd that brought Mr. Saakashvili to power in a wave of protests known as the Rose Revolution, while her sister, Nona, stayed home and watched on TV. Now Nona is upbeat about the president, saying the war succeeded in capturing the attention of the West. But Ms. Chanturia, deeply disillusioned, is prepared to protest against Mr. Saakashvili for what she believes is an unforgivable error.

''The president elected in my country is like a czar appointed by God,'' said Ms. Chanturia, 30. ''If God doesn't like the czar's performance he will take action against him. The same thing can happen to Saakashvili.''

Now, to the article you say undermines all our previous coverage:

November 7, 2008

, Friday Late Edition--Final
Section A Page 1
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 2,030 words

Accounts Undercut Claims By Georgia on Russia War

By C. J. CHIVERS and ELLEN BARRY
C.J. Chivers reported from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Ellen Barry from Moscow. Olesya Vartanyan contributed reporting from Tbilisi, and Matt Siegel from Tskhinvali, Georgia.

TBILISI, Georgia--Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the longstanding Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression.

Instead, the accounts suggest that Georgia's inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.

The accounts are neither fully conclusive nor broad enough to settle the many lingering disputes over blame in a war that hardened relations between the Kremlin and the West. But they raise questions about the accuracy and honesty of Georgia's insistence that its shelling of Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, was a precise operation. Georgia has variously defended the shelling as necessary to stop heavy Ossetian shelling of Georgian villages, bring order to the region or counter a Russian invasion.

President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia has characterized the attack as a precise and defensive act. But according to observations of the monitors, documented Aug. 7 and Aug. 8, Georgian artillery rounds and rockets were falling throughout the city at intervals of 15 to 20 seconds between explosions, and within the first hour of the bombardment at least 48 rounds landed in a civilian area. The monitors have also said they were unable to verify that ethnic Georgian villages were under heavy bombardment that evening, calling to question one of Mr. Saakashvili's main justifications for the attack.

Now, a personal word: You should hold us to high standards of reporting in situations like this in remote areas where few have much experience. I happen to have had a lot of experience in Georgia, as you will discover if you do a Google or Nexis search of my name in connection with Georgia or the leader who took it into independence, Zviad K. Gamsakhurdia. But you should not expect the New York Times to tell you what it cannot know--for instance, who actually fired the first shot in Southern Ossetia this August, at the time when the first shot was fired. What we can do, and did, was try our best to sort it out after the shooting started.

With best wishes,

CRAIG R. WHITNEY
New York Times Standards Editor
(former USSR correspondent, 1977-80)

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