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Page last updated at 09:08 GMT, Friday, 15 August 2008 10:08 UK

Russians losing propaganda war

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in Tbilisi on 13 August 2008
Most of the Western media are based in Georgia

The Bush administration appears to be trying to turn a failed military operation by Georgia into a successful diplomatic operation against Russia.

It is doing so by presenting the Russian actions as aggression and playing down the Georgian attack into South Ossetia on 7 August, which triggered the Russian operation.

Yet the evidence from South Ossetia about that attack indicates that it was extensive and damaging.

Blame game

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford has reported: "Many Ossetians I met both in Tskhinvali and in the main refugee camp in Russia are furious about what has happened to their city.

"They are very clear who they blame: Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, who sent troops to re-take control of this breakaway region."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 13 August 2008
Has Moscow learned yet how to play the media game?

Human Rights Watch concluded after an on-the-ground inspection: "Witness accounts and the timing of the damage would point to Georgian fire accounting for much of the damage described [in Tskhinvali]."

One problem for the Russians is that they have not yet learned how to play the media game. Their authoritarian government might never do so.

Most of the Western media are based in Georgia. The Russians were slow to give access from their side and this has helped them lose the propaganda war.

Georgia, meanwhile, was comparing this to Prague in 1968 and Budapest in 1956. Even the massacre at Srebrenica was recalled.

Mud sticks

The comparisons did not fit the facts, but some of the mud has stuck and Russia has been on the international defensive.

The visit by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Georgia is a signal of support for Mr Saakashvili.

Significantly, she is not paying a matching visit to Moscow but will return directly to the United States where she will brief President George W Bush in Texas.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington on 13 August 2008
Washington has accused Russia of widening the conflict

She has refused to condemn Georgia and barely acknowledged Russia's point that it had to protect its peacekeeping forces (a battalion-sized unit allowed in South Ossetia along with Georgian and North Ossetian and South Ossetian forces under a 1992 agreement).

Instead she blamed Russia for widening the conflict by bombing beyond what the 1992 deal called the "zone of conflict" in South Ossetia.

She said: "This is something that, had it been about South Ossetia, could have been resolved within certain limits.

"Russian peacekeepers were in the area; that is true. And Russia initially said it needed to act to protect its peacekeepers and its people.

"But what Russia has done is well beyond anything that anyone could say is for the protection of those people and for those peacekeepers."

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The Americans have sent in planes full of humanitarian aid, again a symbol of support.

But they have sent no military supplies. Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said: "I don't see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation. Is that clear enough?"

US diplomacy is also concentrating on the issue of sovereignty and territorial integrity - which means that South Ossetia and the other restless region, Abkhazia, must remain within Georgian borders. Russian has questioned this.

Moscow's anger

This widens the whole question into one of Russian behaviour generally, which is much surer ground for the Bush administration. The US will continue to press for eventual Georgian and Ukrainian membership of Nato.

The Republican presidential hopeful Senator John McCain also sees in this conflict an opportunity to put Russia in the dock, declaring: "We are all Georgians now."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Dmitry Medvedev at G8 in Japan on 9 July 2008
Germany, at least, has been notably reluctant to find fault with Russia

All this is likely to anger Moscow, which will feel that it has a case and that it is being ignored. Right from the start it said that the operation was not an invasion.

The adverse effect on US-Russia relations, about which Mr Gates warned, is going to be a two-way process.

There are signs, though, that there is some sympathy for Russia within the European Union - although not among the Eastern European states who still fear Russia and not in the British government, which has matched the US line about Russian "aggression".

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeing Russian leaders and while she too will urge them not to challenge borders, the German government has been notably reluctant to blame Russia.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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