The Man who Caused the Blame Game - Exclusive
09 April, 2015
The Man who Caused the Blame Game - Exclusive
Ryan Grist is a former British Army captain, a diplomatic veteran and a man denounced as a Russian spy by former President Mikheil Saakashvili. He is the man whose very words split the view of the West on what happened in the August of 2008. “Despite the fact that there were provocations, the Georgian side’s response to them was absolutely disproportionate,” he declared in a 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal. During the war, he served as deputy head
of the OSCE monitoring mission in Georgia, and his controversial statements, as well as his unauthorized trip to Tskhinvali cost him his job. However, Grist returned to Georgia in 2012, this time as a Deputy Head of a EUMM mission (which he left a few days after this interview was recorded). Ryan Grist’s first and only interview during his three-year-long stay in Georgia was with Georgian Journal. During the interview he revealed that he plans to write memoirs dedicated to his time in Georgia, particularly the August of 2008.

Ryan Grist: “I said to Saakashvili that the war of 2008 was pure madness. And before he had time to answer, I told him who I was. He immediately recognized the name and then, of course, the conversation took a different turn: He became very agitated, calling me a Russian spy yet again, and accusing me of destroying his country, which I don’t think I’ve done.”

Today, Grist feels that the importance of the Georgian conflict has became somewhat limited, but back in 2008, “It was the hottest conflict between the West and Russia ever since the Cold War!”

The EU, chaired by France and its industrious former president Nicolas Sarkozy, managed to mediate a ceasefire, though Grist thinks that EU could have applied more pressure on Russia back then, ensuring at least a full commitment to the 6-point ceasefire plan, which remains unfulfilled to this day.

However, things got enormously complicated when Russia pushed “the nuclear button,” as Grist calls it, by recognizing the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. It becomes even more regrettable as he voices his belief that prior to 2008, Georgia had a chance “to win over South Ossetia without firing a single shot.”

“Prior to 2008, I worked with Ossetians and there was this general feeling that they had – a feeling that they would be sold by Russia, back to The terms would include, for example, Georgia backing down from its NATO aspirations and Russia agreeing to ‘hand over’ Tskhinvali to Tbilisi. I think that prior to the war, South Ossetia could have been won over without firing a single shot. But Saakashvili had his own project: An alternative government project with Dimitri Sanakoev, who did not have any credibility in Tskhinvali and was imposed over the general population by outside forces. To think that that project was going to win over the South Ossetian population was, to say the least, very naïve. And it backfired,” says Ryan Grist, who to-this-day cannot hide his anger over actions of the former Georgian government and one man in particular, who he thinks should carry all the blame: former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili—the man who branded Grist a Russian spy. Not long ago, he had a chance to meet and tell Saakashvili everything he thought about the war and about him in person, when they accidentally met at the Istanbul airport. He recalls this meeting with barely-masked pleasure:

“Earlier this year, I was at the Istanbul airport, waiting for my flight and sitting inside the Turkish Airlines departure lounge. And lo and behold, he comes in and sits at a coffee table right next to mine. I looked up and I thought, ‘Wow, I know whom this man is!’ And I started to wonder whether I should introduce myself. I never had such an opportunity before. So I closed my computer, went up and sat next to him and asked, ‘Hello, you’re president Saakashvili, right?’ He was very pleased that somebody had recognized him. I was very honest and complimentary when explaining my opinion to him. Despite him and his party doing a lot of good for Georgia, I said, the war of 2008 was pure madness. And before he had time to answer, I told him who I was. He immediately recognized the name and then, of course, the conversation took a different turn: He became very agitated, calling me a Russian spy yet again, and accusing me of destroying his country, which I don’t think I’ve done. He talked louder and louder and people started looking at us. And then, luckily, Temur Iakobashvili (the former Georgian top official) came up to us and Saakashvili got up and left. And I was sitting there thinking about what I never managed to tell him: I actually said hello because I hoped that my impression, my perception of him would somehow change and that I would find some rational motivation behind his actions, but I didn’t; on the contrary, he got worse. I wanted to be wrong. I wanted to tell myself: ‘You see, this guy is ok. He is actually reasonable.’ But no, apparently he wasn’t. And I don’t think people like him should have been able to make the decisions he made. I’ve still got the bodies of dead young Georgians before my eyes, and I’m still very angry because I don’t know why they had to be sent to their deaths in such a ridiculous way. It did not have to happen,” recalls Grist, the British former monitor, whose comments over the war changed the way the West saw it: From outright Russian aggression to some kind of blame game between Tbilisi and the Kremlin. Grist firmly believes that the shelling of Tskhinvali, with amunitions hitting the OSCE office as well, wouldn’t have occurred without direct orders from Saakashvili. To this day, he remains scathingly critical of actions the very top of the Georgian government authorized in August of 2008.

“Diplomats act like diplomats, and Terry Hakala (OSCE mission head in 2008 who did not share Grist’s assessment of 2008 events) was certainly a diplomat. There is sometimes a fine line between diplomacy and spinelessness. Perhaps they wanted to maintain good relations with the Georgian government, which is, of course, understandable. I am not making accusations, but I believe that sometimes diplomacy is used to cover complete gutlessness.”

“What kind of military targets are the university and garden of the OSCE office? I have a huge problem with Saakashvili’s decision: The decision of shelling his own town at night. That was a massive mistake! Shelling one’s own citizens with Grad missiles is unheard of!”

Curiously, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Captain Grist is somewhat lenient when characterizing Russia’s actions. “Let’s face it, Russia was not going to see its peacekeepers shelled in that way without retaliating with massive response,” he says. “You know, Britain would do absolutely the same. Britain would do that kind of thing to defend its exposed troops, peacekeepers or not. The United States would do the same. Inevitably, the reaction from Russia was going be heavy.”

He thinks Saakashvili intended to win a small war in 24 hours – to carry out a lightning-fast, short and sharp shock operation before others could realize what happened. It obviously didn’t work out that way. Other than that, Grist points at the previous government’s belligerent lack of strategy in case the war dragged on and Russia intervened.

“One needs to deny Russians access, block the tunnels, blow up the bridges, etc. He did none of that. Tskhinvali was bombarded to soften it up, the ground forces were sent in the following morning, but there was no coordination: Tunnels were not blocked; bridges stayed intact and despite South Ossetia being a relatively small area, It could not be won over quickly. And then the Georgian tanks got bogged down in Tskhinvali’s streets because nobody thought of sending infantry ahead to accompany and defend them, which is also pretty basic,” recounts Grist, who doesn’t think he is supporting the “Russian version” of the war. He points out that his comments were repeated word by word in the Tagliavini fact-finding report, which basically served as the EU’s conclusion over the matter. As for those who do not share his views, particularly his own kin – the foreign diplomats – Grist hides no contempt for what he sees as apparent hypocrisy.

“Diplomats act like diplomats, and Terry Hakala (OSCE mission head in 2008 who did not share Grist’s assessment of 2008 events) was certainly a diplomat. There is sometimes a fine line between diplomacy and spinelessness. Perhaps they wanted to maintain good relations with the Georgian government, which is, of course, understandable. I am not making accusations, but I believe that sometimes diplomacy is used to cover complete gutlessness.”

Even seven years later, nothing has changed about what he thinks of 2008.

“I repeat, there might have been provocations, stupidities happen. But that decision – the decision to shell Tskhinvali – was made at the highest And that decision was disastrous,” claims the former OSCE monitor, whose AWOL solo tour to Tskhinvali “to find out what really was going on” cost him his OSCE job.
In 2011, he recalled the trip to Tskhinvali in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. As a response, the former Georgian government published tapes of a local NGO worker talking with a South Ossetian intelligence officer. The NGO worker is the woman who Grist stayed with during his trip to Tskhinvali. His and her alleged involvement with the FSB, however, remains unproven. While pondering these events in our conversation, Mr. Grist was predisposed to share details previously unknown – details that shed new light on the story of his admittedly ambiguous personal crusade. For example, some of the details feature him, afraid of what may lie ahead, praying to Jvari monastery while holding his children’s photos or the OSCE monitor confronting the former de facto South Ossetian PM Boris Chochiev after he was attacked twice by Ossetian militia.

“I was told by Brussels to keep a low profile, and I did precisely that. This interview is the most high-profile thing I’ve done since my arrival here.”

“Was it dangerous? Was I afraid? Absolutely. I’m not a religious person, but I remember stopping my car at a place from where the Jvari monastery was most visible and praying with photos of my children in hand, before continuing to Tskhinvali. Did I know that was the end of my OSCE career? Pretty much. I knew I was going well beyond my prescribed limits,” admits Grist, who then tells us how he barely escaped with his life on his way back.

“Two vehicles caught up with my car and stopped me. Inside were about ten men, members of the South Ossetian militia who were looting Georgian villages that I had passed on my way there. They dragged me out of my vehicle and put a gun to my head. I was talking in my best Russian, trying to make sense to them, trying to explain that I’ve just met with Chochiev, but all in vain. In the end, they threw me back into the car, turned my car around and made me drive back to Tskhinvali. And before I could reach the city, yet another group stopped me, using the same “inspection procedure” as the first. And from what little Ossetian I knew, I think they were discussing whether to shoot me or not. Eventually they just got into my car and left. I was left alone on the road, without a car, without a passport, without a phone. I headed towards Tskhinvali again. Eventually I reached Tskhinvali, went straight up to Chochiev, poked him in the chest with a finger and said, ‘Boris Chochiev, you will stop these men, and you will do that as soon as possible. Because if you don’t, you’ll go to The Hague.’ I barely escaped with my life. I had been in conflict zones before – Kosovo, Yugoslavia, Bosnia – but I had never been this close to death,” Grist recounts.

His account of the events leads to two conclusions: either these are the honest words of an honest man who really feels for Georgia, or he is still a Russian operative, “the guy who backed the Russian propaganda.” And he has a clear message to those who think the latter:

“‘Russian spy?’ Saakashvili called me that. I speak a bit of Russian, I’m fond of their literature and culture, but does this make me a Russian spy? Absolutely not. I never have been and never will be. I’m not justifying Russia’s actions; I just see reasons behind them. I’ve never been anti-Georgian or pro-Russian. I have lots of dear friends here and my daughter is called Georgia for a reason. But am I anti-war? Yes. Particularly that stupid war in 2008 that never had to happen and that made things a thousand times more difficult for Georgia. Is Russia suddenly going to say ‘Oh yeah, we’ve made a mistake recognizing them, here, have these two back?’ Not a chance. Did it need to happen? No, it didn’t. It was a stupid mistake by Saakashvili and his team. He himself would appear on TV and say, ‘Blah blah blah, I’m Ossetian!’ Oh, that’s just great! Then don’t go shelling your own people, for heaven’s sake!”

When he unexpectedly returned to Georgia as a EUMM deputy head, he was met with a media frenzy and with severe criticism from the previous government – both of which, he bluntly admits, affected his tenure in a most unpleasant way.

“I came here and immediately the media went into a frenzy, criticizing the Georgian Foreign Ministry. In fact, the latter had no say whatsoever in the matter, as [my appointment] was decided in Brussels. Due to this, the Foreign Ministry hasn’t given me diplomatic accreditation yet. I was told by Brussels to keep a low profile, and I did precisely that. This interview is the most high-profile thing I’ve done since my arrival here. When I came back here, I thought that maybe they can use me. I know many people in breakaway regions. I’ve earned their trust throughout the years. But instead of that, I was told: ‘Ryan, keep a low profile,’ so I did that.”

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