Rush <em>News Hour</em> Transcript: Vitaly Churkin, Dimitri Simes, Richard Holbrooke on Georgia-Russia Conflict


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This is a rush transcript of a hard-headed exchange between Nixon Center President Dimitri Simes and former US Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke moderated by Margaret Warner.
Prior to their conversation, Gwen Ifill engages in a conversation with Russiam Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin.
This transcript is published by permission of the “News Hour with Jim Lehrer.”

AUGUST 12, 2008
VITALY CHURKIN, Russian U.N. Ambassador
DIMITRI SIMES, The Nixon Center
RICHARD HOLBROOKE, Former U.S. Ambassador

GWEN IFILL: We start our coverage of the Russia-Georgia war with this report from Julian Manyon of Independent Television News in the Georgian town of Gori.
JULIAN MANYON: This is the road to Gori, littered with vehicles left behind by the Georgian army in their panicked retreat last night.
Gori itself is a no-man’s land. Most of the inhabitants and the army that was supposed to protect them have fled. But contrary to Georgian government claims, there are no Russian troops in the town.
But this morning, there were Russian shells and rockets. If we had known what had happened some 30 minutes before, we might never have gone in.
These pictures were taken by a news agency cameraman inside an armor-protected vehicle. Others were not so lucky.
When we got to the main square, it was a scene of devastation. Dead bodies lay openly in the street, as shocked survivors looked on.
There’s confusion here in the center of Gori. Just a few moments ago, there was apparently an air strike, and the victims of that strike — this is, in fact, apparently debris shrapnel from the air strike. And the victims of it are lying on the ground behind me over there.
Apparently, a foreign journalist has been hit and rushed to hospital. Gori today is living scenes of desolation and horror.
In fact, two Georgian journalists, a Dutch TV cameraman, and three local people were killed in the blast.
This shocked and wounded survivor had been dragged away from the scene by people fearing another attack. He was finally taken for treatment by one of the few ambulances remaining in Gori. Another victim was driven away by friends who cursed the Georgian president for starting this war.
GEORGIAN CITIZEN (through translator): Saakashvili is to blame for all this. What he’s done is kill a lot of people. We’ve lost some close friends in this war.
JULIAN MANYON: It is the old who have remained in this town under the bombing and deserted by their own army. I asked one old man why he had stayed.
GEORGIAN CITIZEN (through translator): I couldn’t leave this town. I was born here. My family comes from here, and I will die here. I’m 70 years old. I’ve always lived here. How can I leave?
JULIAN MANYON: The man crossed himself. It’s a prayer that his town badly needs.
GWEN IFILL: Now for the view from Russia. That comes from Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations. I spoke with him earlier this evening before Georgia agreed to the French-brokered cease-fire.
Mr. Ambassador, welcome.
VITALY CHURKIN, Russian U.N. Ambassador: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: We have heard conflicting reports all day about the state of affairs right now. We have heard calls for a step-down, a cease-fire. As we speak, has Russia ceased military action in Georgia?
VITALY CHURKIN: Well, there have been two major developments today. First, President Medvedev has given orders to our military to stop the peacemaking operation in Georgia.
And, secondly, there was a meeting in Moscow between the president, Medvedev, and President Sarkozy of France, who’s also now the president of the European Union. And they came up with a six-principles plan, which now President Sarkozy is taking to Tbilisi.
And if it were to be adopted also by the Georgians, then we would be on good ground to continue normalizing the situation there.
And the essence of the six principles is that there should be no hostilities, that Russian troops will return back to the line where they on, on August 6th. The Georgian troops will pull back to their permanent bases.
Then, Russian peacekeepers will have enhanced security at — in their location in South Ossetia. And there will be international discussion of the future status in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and stronger security for South Ossetians and Abkhazians.
So this is a very comprehensive package which needs to be now adopted by Tbilisi. And also Tbilisi need to make sure that there are no military provocations on their part against the Russian forces.
GWEN IFILL: So you’re saying this has been adopted by Russia?
VITALY CHURKIN: This is something which was approved by President Medvedev and President Sarkozy. Now they are taking that to — President Sarkozy is taking that to Tbilisi.
But Russia has unilaterally declared — orders have been given by President Medvedev to our military to discontinue their peacemaking operation in Georgia. So unless there are provocations on the part of the Georgian forces, there should be no fighting there.
GWEN IFILL: As we speak right now, there’s no fighting, as far as you know?
VITALY CHURKIN: As far as I know. But, of course, I’m here in New York. I don’t have the latest information from the area.
GWEN IFILL: So in your understanding of events, was Russia the aggressor here or the victim?
VITALY CHURKIN: Well, of course Russia was the victim. And, actually, a couple of days ago, I sent a letter to the president of the Security Council, informing him that Russia is conducting actions under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter in self-defense, because legally what has happened is self-defense for us, because the Georgian forces in South Ossetia attacked Russian peacekeepers who were there on the basis of international agreements and attacked Russian citizens.
But of course, politically, it was more of a peacemaking operations to make sure that — a peacemaking operation to make sure that the Georgian forces are not successful in their genocidal attack in South Ossetia, and they stop the fighting, they stop harassing and killing the South Ossetian population.
And we’ve been successful in that. Now we need to make sure that the Georgian forces have totally left South Ossetia and are no longer in a position to launch assault on that region.
GWEN IFILL: And yet, Mr. Ambassador, what you describe as a peacemaking operation has come under criticism by the president of the United States yesterday, the secretary of state today, both presidential candidates in the United States today. John McCain said, “We are all Georgians.”
Russia has come in for overwhelming criticism on this. What do you say to your U.S. allies on this…
VITALY CHURKIN: Unfortunately — unfortunately, well, the United States — in fact, the French foreign minister has even called the United States a party to the conflict of sorts. In my translation from French, he was quoted in the media as having said that.
The United States has been very closely involved with the regime of Mr. Saakashvili, has been supplying weapons to him, has been encouraging him to pursue what turned out to be a very reckless course of action.
We don’t want to believe that the United States has given directly a green light to his adventure in South Ossetia. In fact, we’re told by our American colleagues that they’re investigating now what has happened.
But we do believe that the United States need to re-think their relationship with the current Georgian leadership.
GWEN IFILL: Prime Minister Putin had harsher words. He said the U.S. is getting in the way.
VITALY CHURKIN: Well, you see, I’m a mild person.
GWEN IFILL: All right. So you don’t agree with the prime minister?
VITALY CHURKIN: No, I do. Of course I do.
GWEN IFILL: Of course you do. So do you plan to annex these two enclaves? I think that becomes the question. What’s going to become of Abkhazia? What’s going to become of South Ossetia?
VITALY CHURKIN: This is a polite and mild question. No, we’re not planning to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In fact, as I mentioned briefly, one of the principles which was agreed upon between President Sarkozy and President Medvedev is that international discussions of the future status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is going to start.
And they will also discuss with international community measures to have assured security for the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
GWEN IFILL: For people who don’t follow this regularly, they might be puzzled why it is that Russia was so — objected so strongly to Chechnya trying to break away, that separatist movement in Chechnya, yet is supporting the separatist movements in these two enclaves. What’s the difference?
VITALY CHURKIN: Well, the situations are completely different. You know, in Chechnya, it was and continues to be a republic of the Russian Federation. And we never stripped them of the status of republic. We never called the Chechens Russians.
And this is exactly what happened in Georgia. When President Gamsakhurdia, their first president of independent Georgia in their recent history, came to power, he stripped Abkhazia and South Ossetia of their autonomous status. He declared that all of them were Georgians. And when they rebelled, the Georgians launched a military assault on them.
And they lost. It was a great tragedy to the peoples of that region, the Georgians, Abkhazians, Ossetians. There were and continue to be thousands of refugees in Georgia and, you know, refugees in Russia from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Sometimes you can come across those people all over Russia, so that it was a great tragedy.
And a certain arrangement was made where Russia, both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russia has been playing a peacekeeping role and the role of the major international mediator in trying to resolve the crisis.
And all along, we have been telling — well, President Saakashvili and, of course, the previous Georgian leaders that he has to, first of all, refrain from the use of force. And he has been swearing to us and everybody else that it was the furthest thing from his mind to use force, as he put it, against his own people.
But then he lost — he started this genocidal operation against South Ossetia, where, within the first 24 hours, almost 2,000 civilians were killed, over 30,000 refugees from South Ossetia to Russia, and it’s a people of just 120,000 or so, in terms of numbers.
So that was a major blow at peace in the area and, really, an ethnic-cleansing dimension, kind of an operation on the part of the Georgians. So Russia moved in.
And also our peacekeepers were attacked in the process. Some of them were killed; others were injured. So there was no way where we’re to simply look impassively at what was going on. And we moved in, in this way, in order to re-establish peace in South Ossetia.
GWEN IFILL: If you believe that President Saakashvili, as you have just described, is guilty of genocide, is guilty of ethnic cleansing, what is it about a proposal, a mediation by President Sarkozy of France is going to be workable if you don’t think you can work with the president of Georgia?
VITALY CHURKIN: Well, we are not going to deal — Russia is not going to deal directly with Mr. Saakashvili, because we personally believe that he is not a person who can be trusted and he is the one who has ordered the killing of a peaceful population, including numerous citizens of the Russian Federation, because we do have quite a few Russian citizens there.
GWEN IFILL: And do you think he must — and you think he should be replaced?
VITALY CHURKIN: Well, we believe that it would be a good idea for him to step down. And we make no secret of that. But there are other people in Tbilisi with whom we can talk.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, thank you very much for speaking with us.
GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner has more.
MARGARET WARNER: And for more on this rapidly developing situation, we get two perspectives.
Richard Holbrooke was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration. Dimitri Simes has been president of the Nixon Center since 1994 when the former president named him to head the foreign policy research center. Born in Russia, he’s a long-time U.S. citizen.
Welcome, gentlemen, to you both.
So, Ambassador Holbrooke, when you listen to Vitaly Churkin, what conclusions do you draw about what Russian intentions are here?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE, Former U.S. Ambassador: Reminds me of Rasherman (ph). He said, and I quote him, “Russia is the victim.” I don’t think many people in the world are going to buy his assessment of what happened here.
The Russians were funding and supporting Ossetian separatists who were, in turn, goading the Georgians. The Russians deliberately provoked this and timed it for the Olympics. This is a long-standing Russian effort to get rid of President Saakashvili.
At the end of the interview, he told Gwen that they would prefer Saakashvili steps down. The real question is not what they would prefer. We would prefer that President Mugabe step down in Zimbabwe. But are the Russians going to leave Saakashvili — a legitimate, elected, democratic president — in office, or are they going to use force to remove him?
As for the cease-fire, let’s hope it holds. We, in the Bosnian negotiations, the cease-fire we had at Dayton was the 34th cease-fire in Bosnia and the first one that held. So I’m worried about cease-fires until they really take hold.
MARGARET WARNER: What does what he said tell you about Russian intentions, particularly in terms of what’s happening — what’s going to happen on the ground?
DIMITRI SIMES, The Nixon Center: Well, I think the good news is that Russia does not plan to invade the Georgia proper. The good news is…
MARGARET WARNER: Well, they’re in Georgia now. You mean permanently?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: They’ve already invaded it, Dimitri.
DIMITRI SIMES: No, they’re in South Ossetia.
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: They’re all over Georgia. They bombed the airports. They’re in Gori. They’re in the port of Pori. That’s an amazing statement you just said.
DIMITRI SIMES: Well, I made the statement which is factual. They bombed. They shelled. There were a couple of incursions, but the Russians are making very clear that they’re not planning to take over Georgia.
The Russians’ forces, contrary to Saakashvili’s original allegations, are not in Gori. And this is a fact.
And I think that the secretary of state is exactly right. We should tell the Russians that not only we expect them not to be in the Georgia proper, but should they try to be there, there would be serious consequences.
And by serious consequences, I don’t mean warnings. I mean military assistance to Georgia, making sure that Russian aggression inside the Georgia proper would become a new Afghanistan for Russia.
MARGARET WARNER: But do you agree with Richard Holbrooke that their ultimate aim is perhaps to unseat Saakashvili?
DIMITRI SIMES: You know, I think that Mr. Holbrooke is right, that this is a strong preference, and they’re not hiding it. It was American strong preference to unseat Milosevic.
But the United States did not make removal of Milosevic a condition, as Ambassador Holbrooke knows better than me. It was a contributing factor American NATO success against Milosevic that Milosevic was removed by his own people.
MARGARET WARNER: By the Serbian people.
DIMITRI SIMES: The Russians are entitled to hope whatever, but I think they should be very strongly encouraged by the Bush administration to negotiate not with some anonymous members of Saakashvili leadership, but, of course, with the president himself and the (inaudible)
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Churkin and all the other statements out of Moscow, Ambassador Holbrooke, seem to indicate that — well, they do say that Russia expects to be able to keep its — what he calls its peacekeepers in these breakaway provinces, but the Georgian troops must move back not only out of those provinces, but even way back so they can’t shell.
Now, is that in U.S. interests? Do you think that should be acceptable to the U.S.?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Abkhazia and South Ossetia are longstanding disputed areas. The current Russian position is essentially de facto annexation without changing the international border.
But I need to point out to your viewers the facts here. Over two years ago, Vladimir Putin cut off all rail, sea, land, and air, and postal service between Georgia and Russia, started throwing Georgians out of Russia, and began a campaign to undermine President Saakashvili, came very close to doing it. There was a referendum; there was a lot of drama. And Saakashvili survived with great popular support.
The Russian approach to — Dimitri is quite right about Milosevic, but the analogy doesn’t hold. The Russians seek to destroy a freely elected, democratic, pro-American, pro-Western country on its border.
It is simply not true, as my friend Dimitri just said, that the Russian troops are not outside Ossetia and Abkhazia. That’s just factually false.
Besides which, wherever the troops are, they are bombing every major airstrip in the country. The Black Sea Fleet is mobilized.
As far as Abkhazia and Ossetia, let’s set those aside. The real issue is the survival of a democratically elected regime. And the real goal of Moscow is to overthrow them.
And one last point, which Dimitri knows to be true: Vladimir Putin and Mikheil Saakashvili really have a personal enmity, which transcends the historic enmities of the two countries, and I think is an additional factor in this.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, personal enmity is a factor?
DIMITRI SIMES: I agree. Definitely personal enmity. It’s perfectly mutual on both sides.
But let me try to respond to what Ambassador Holbrooke said. First, I want to be clear about the facts. I did not say that there are no Russian units somewhere in hot pursuit in the Georgia proper. I said very clearly, however, that there is no major Russian invasion of Georgia. And this is good news, and that is what is essential for the United States.
Second, Ambassador Holbrooke knows Saakashvili well. I met Saakashvili, but I don’t know him that well, but I know a lot of Georgian opposition with this, including somebody Ambassador Holbrooke I’m sure knows well and respects close, Salome Zurabishvili, Saakashvili’s former foreign minister.
They think that this man is a hothead, that he started this military operation without serious strategic planning, and there are major problems with Georgian democracy.
This is not black-and-white. There are no good guys in this situation. And we have to be very careful not to allow (inaudible) situation like with Iraq, when we don’t care about the facts, when we say Saddam Hussein is a tyrant, and then it doesn’t matter. Are there weapons of mass destruction? Is he supporting terrorists? These things are very important.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think there’s been a rush to judgment in the West here about Russia being the bad guy and Georgia being the good guy, victim?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Quite the contrary. The Russians have succeeded in disseminating confusion about what happened.
Dimitri and I have a deep disagreement here, but we’re not going to resolve it.
And I don’t think there’s been a rush to judgment. Thousands of Russian troops and airplanes have been destroying a neighboring country, they say in response to something Georgia did in Ossetia. Even if that were true — and it isn’t — it would not justify what’s happened.
And the Bush administration’s response here has been wholly inadequate until today.
MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, let me, before we close, introduce one other topic that Vitaly Churkin alluded to and the Russians often cite, which is essentially the suggestion that the United States helped encourage Saakashvili in many ways here into perhaps thinking that he could get away with an incursion.
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Well, that is — I started to address that. President Bush is incredibly popular in Georgia. The big avenue from the airport into town is named after him. He got a huge crowd when he went there. He’s always supported Saakashvili, and the Georgians look to us as friends.
MARGARET WARNER: Talked about Georgia coming into NATO…
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Yes, has supported NATO membership. But the United States did not back this up with diplomacy.
Let me just contrast it. Ten years ago, there was a similar crisis between Russia and Georgia over the two enclaves. President Clinton dispatched the deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, who was also well-known as one of his closest friends, who shuttled back and forth between Moscow and Tbilisi, who calmed it down and resolved it for the time being.
This time around, this administration sent no one to Moscow. It was Sarkozy who did the good job today. And they sent a very low-level person, a deputy assistant secretary of state, only to Tbilisi and only for theater. That is not the kind of American leadership we want.
And in that sense, your point is correct. The American leadership role was advocated, as the Wall Street Journal said today. The president and the secretary of state took their eyes off the ball.
MARGARET WARNER: But so do you think there were sins of omission, as Ambassador Holbrooke says, or even something broader, provoking Russia…
DIMITRI SIMES: I don’t believe that anybody in the Bush administration have encouraged Saakashvili to attack the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali. And this city was essentially destroyed.
And in order to reach the city, the Georgian troops had to go through positions of the Russian peacekeeping battalion. And dozens of Russian peacekeepers were killed and wounded.
Now, Putin may be a bad guy. Russia have done wrong things in South Ossetia. I agree with Ambassador Holbrooke.
But I do not imagine that if an American battalion was attacked by anyone, anywhere that we would take the position that this is kind of OK (ph) and this is not a provocation.
The Bush administration was sending Mr. Saakashvili mixed signals. He was told, “Don’t start this war.” But he also was told, “Mikheil, we love you. We’re with you. You are a beacon of democracy in the region.”
And he got an idea — he got an idea that he would proceed with a little blitzkrieg in South Ossetia, he would have victory of the ground, and that the United States would support him.
RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I don’t know how to respond, because even the language Dimitri used, peacekeepers, is not acceptable to me as an accurate portrayal.
But we’re not going to decode this. The Russians spent two years provoking Russia — provoking Georgia. Maybe they sucker-punched Georgia; we’re not sure. But the timing, the action, the unbelievable brutality of it, reminiscent of Prague ’68, Budapest ’56, is heartbreaking.
And I want to stress, closing this. I’m not a warmonger, and I don’t want a new Cold War any more than Dimitri does. We’ve worked together in the past. We both share a vision of Russia as an important part of the world, seeking solutions to climate change, energy, and stability.
But this is a chilling effect. The Russians wish to re-establish a historic area of hegemony that includes Ukraine. And it is no accident that the other former Soviet republics are watching this and extraordinarily upset, as Putin progresses with an attempt to re-create a kind of a hegemonic space.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. Richard Holbrooke, Dimitri Simes, thank you.
GWEN IFILL: On our Web site, you can see the NewsHour’s coverage over the years of troubles in Georgia, including last night’s interview with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Visit us at and scroll down to Online NewsHour Reports.


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