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Russia-Georgia conflict: Why both sides have valid points

As Russian troops prepare to withdraw from Georgian bases and cities they invaded last week, a look at the two contradictory stories of what happened and why.

August 19, 2008

Russians manned the gate of a Georgian Army base they took over in the western town of Senaki last week. Though Russia has signed a cease-fire deal, it remains unclear when they will pull out.

Bela Szandelsky/AP

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As Russia's flash war with Georgia winds down, two distinct – and contradictory – stories about what happened and why are taking shape. The Moscow press paints a one-sided picture of a beleaguered Russia forced to respond to naked aggression by a pro-Western adventurer, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in order to save Russian citizens from "genocide." In the West, some depict the war as a replay of the USSR's invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan, and warning that a resurgent, oil-rich Russia is returning to Soviet-style domination of its neighbors with brute force.

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But close examination reveals a more complex picture – one that suggests each side also has some valid points in its defense. Correspondent Fred Weir gives an overview from his longtime perch in Moscow.

Who started the conflict?

There seems little doubt that the conflict began with a massive military assault, launched overnight by Georgia on Aug. 7-8, apparently aimed at retaking the breakaway republic of South Ossetia before Moscow could react.

Human rights monitors and Western journalists now being admitted to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali can find little evidence to back up Russian claims that the Georgians committed genocide.

But their reports so far implicate the initial Georgian artillery and rocket bombardment of the city of 10,000 people as causing the massive destruction they're finding, including schools, churches, and the main hospital.

Also crucial, from Moscow's point of view, is that the Georgian attack on Aug. 8 killed 15 Russian peacekeeping troops, stationed there under 1992 peace accords, and injured dozens.

But the causes of the conflict run deep and, like the layers of an onion, the conflict has many different levels.

What is Georgia's view?

When the USSR broke up in 1991, Georgia won its independence and was admitted to the United Nations as a sovereign state within its Soviet-era borders. Under international law, therefore, the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia belong to Georgia. Tbilisi alleges, with considerable evidence, that Russian meddling during the bitter civil wars that followed helped the two statelets win their de facto independence and that Moscow's support has been crucial to keeping them going ever since.