U.S. corporate media frequently evoked the Cold War as a key to understanding the conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. This was certainly true of the media themselves, which generally placed black hats or white hats on the actors involved depending on whether they were allied with Moscow or Washington.
On August 11, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams referred to "what's being called the Russian blitz of the nation of Georgia, former Soviet republic that split away and is now threatening to split apart from within." NBC reporter Jim Maceda followed up: "The powerful Russian war machine is moving ever deeper into Georgia, and teaching all of us really a lesson about what makes Russia tick." Maceda then gave what has become the standard media template for describing the conflict:
It started as a gamble by Georgia, the former Soviet republic and darling of the West: Move quickly into the breakaway pro-Russian enclave called South Ossetia and take back what is legally Georgia's. But the plan failed. Instead, Russian forces invaded Georgia last week and crushed Georgian resistance. According to U.S. military officials, Russia is out to decimate the U.S.-trained Georgian armed forces.
Maceda concluded: "But after hundreds, perhaps thousands killed and tens of thousands displaced, tonight Georgians are asking, 'When will the Russian bear stop?'"
But buried within this U.S. media narrative is an entirely different way to understand the conflict. In this reading, South Ossetia (like the similar enclave of Abkhazia) is an area that has been largely independent of Georgia ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russian forces have been present in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the early 1990s, defending the separatist regions against Georgian attempts to forcibly incorporate the territories. The situation has repeatedly broken out into open combat, most recently early this month, when fighting between Georgian and separatist forces escalated into full-scale efforts by Georgia to reclaim both breakaway territories.
Georgia's military efforts--which involved, according to reports from Human Rights Watch (8/10/08, 8/14//08) and Western reporters on the scene (Washington Post, 8/12/08), intensive shelling of civilian areas--reportedly caused many noncombatant deaths and prompted a large proportion of the South Ossetian population to seek safety in Russia. It was this humanitarian crisis, coupled with Georgian attacks on Russian forces in the separatist areas, that Moscow cited as its justification for its military intervention. This does not suggest that Russian tactics are beyond criticism, or that a military response of this magnitude is justified.
Georgia's contribution to the escalation of tensions in the region were not completely ignored by U.S. media, but its aggressive actions were often euphemized, as in AP's reference to "a crackdown by Georgia last week" (8/11/08), and were rarely allowed to interfere with the preferred narrative of Georgia as victim of an expansionist Russia.
On CBS Evening News (8/11/08), Katie Couric asked correspondent Wyatt Andrews, "So how did this fighting start and what is it really all about?" Andrews' response avoided the issue almost entirely, declaring: "What's troubling about this war fought in a relatively unknown region is that none of the suffering here is about the enclave of Ossetia. This war is all about Russia and the message Russia is sending to the world." Andrews went to explain that Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin "has been planning this attack on Georgia for years."
Similar language was prevalent in media accounts that stressed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's allegedly pro-democratic tendencies and Western education. (Saakashvili took power in a 2004 election in which he got more than 96 percent of the vote; he was re-elected in more competitive January 2008 balloting that was marred by state intimidation of opposition parties, according to an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe report.) As the Los Angeles Times put it (8/13/08): "Russia has itched to strike at southern neighbor Georgia's brash, Western-oriented leader, President Mikheil Saakashvili. And Saakashvili gave the Kremlin an opportunity when he sent troops into the separatist region of South Ossetia last week in an effort to reassert Georgia's sovereignty."
A few outlets did remind readers of Saakashvili's crackdowns on dissent and independent media outlets (Los Angeles Times, 8/12/08; The Guardian, 8/14/08). But for the most part, the conflict was presented as black-and-white struggle between Moscow's despotic aggression and Georgia's pro-Western democracy. Any possible alternative perspective was more often denounced than presented, as when a Washington Post editorial (8/12/08) declared that "the most urgent need is to see clearly what is taking place. As the crisis deepened, one could hear in Washington the usual attempts to blame the victim, as if Georgia somehow deserved this fate because its elected government had opted for friendly relations with the West."
Actually, few in Washington seemed to be making a case for punishing Georgia for being friendly with the U.S. There was, however, competition among U.S. pundits for the most aggressive condemnation of Russia. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote (8/12/08), "Russia, as my grandmother could have told George W. Bush, always fights dirty." Post columnist George Will (8/12/08), meanwhile, declared that "Russia's aggression is really about the subordination of Georgia, a democratic, market-oriented U.S. ally." L.A. Times columnist Max Boot (8/12/08) compared Russia to Nazi Germany--while allowing that the analogy "may appear overwrought." Writing in the Washington Post (8/11/08), Robert Kagan also made a comparison to Nazi Germany.
A striking feature of the coverage was the ability of pundits who have enthusiastically advocated for U.S. invasions of sovereign countries, dismissing concerns that these would violate international law, to demand that Russia be punished for breaking that same law by violating Georgian sovereignty. These commentators seemed blissfully unaware of the contradiction, as when New York Times columnist William Kristol wrote (8/11/08) that "in Iraq, we and our Iraqi allies are on the verge of a strategic victory over the jihadists," citing this as evidence that 2008 was "an auspicious year for freedom and democracy," while two paragraphs later condemning the fact that "Russia has sent troops and tanks across an international border." Kristol even cited Georgia's eager participation in the violation of Iraq's sovereignty as a primary reason that "we owe Georgia a serious effort to defend its sovereignty."