Russian film on Georgia war fuels talk of Kremlin rift

By Stephen Ennis
BBC Monitoring

  • Published
Russian armour and house burning in village near Tskhinvali, 18 Aug 08Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Russia poured armoured units into South Ossetia after Georgia's assault on pro-Moscow rebels there

A controversial new film about the 2008 Russia-Georgia war has led to speculation about rising tensions in Russia's ruling double-act of President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

The film, called The Day that was Lost, was posted on the internet on 5 August, a few days before the fourth anniversary of the war, which has gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream Russian media.

It accuses Mr Medvedev, who was then president and commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces, of failing to act decisively in the crucial first few hours of the conflict - a "tragic delay that cost so many lives".

Mr Putin, who was prime minister in 2008, is portrayed as the saviour of the situation - the man who "provided personal leadership" during the military operation.

In other respects, the film is typical of the version of the war given on Russian state media. It accuses the Georgians of being the aggressors and of being responsible for a "genocide" in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

It is dedicated to the "memory of the soldiers and officers of the Russian army, the memory of the militia and civilians of South Ossetia and the memory of all who gave their lives for the liberty of this land".

South Ossetia and another Georgian breakaway region, Abkhazia, are recognised as independent states by Russia and only a few other countries.

Under international law, the regions - though run by pro-Moscow separatists - remain part of Georgia.

'Serious delay'

Image source, AP
Image caption,
As president Mr Medvedev held intensive talks with the rebel leaders in August 2008

What makes the film remarkable is that the accusations against Mr Medvedev come from former senior Russian military officers who played key roles in the 2008 war, including the then Chief of the General Staff, Gen (retd) Yuri Baluyevsky.

He is shown saying that Mr Putin had previously developed a plan for "repulsing aggression" from Georgia, but that Mr Medvedev had failed to give a prompt command to put it into practice.

There was a "serious delay" at the "very highest level", Mr Baluyevsky says. He adds that he was sure that if this had not happened the "losses would have been much smaller".

The film argues that this "serious delay" lasted until 9 August, when Mr Putin took charge of the situation.

Maj-Gen Marat Kulakhmetov, who in August 2008 commanded the Combined Peacekeeping Forces in South Ossetia, is shown saying: "We felt dynamic action on the ninth - the eighth was a day that was lost".

Mr Baluyevsky was more forthright, saying that until Mr Putin "delivered a kick, everyone was afraid of something".

Conflicting accounts

In an interview given just before the third anniversary of the war in 2011, Mr Medvedev stressed that he personally "gave all the orders" for the start of military operations and that it was not until a day later that he spoke by phone with Mr Putin, who was attending the Olympic Games in Beijing at the time.

Mr Medvedev has dismissed the accusations made by Mr Baluyevsky, saying he took the decision about military action "two-and-half hours after the Georgian army started active operations". He added that "all the decisions that were taken then were taken precisely when they had to be".

Mr Putin has also commented on The Day that was Lost, confirming that a "plan to counter Georgian aggression" had been drawn up in 2006, and that it included the training of "South Ossetian militia men".

This has been seized on by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who said that it amounted to an admission that Russia was in "violation of all existing agreements" about South Ossetia and that it was "preparing a military operation against Georgia long before August 2008".

But the Russian media has been more interested in President Putin's answer to a question from a journalist about the Baluyevsky criticisms of Prime Minister Medvedev.

Mr Putin effectively sidestepped the question, saying he did not discuss his colleagues "in these sorts of terms", though he added that a decision to go to war was a "very difficult" one.

He went on to give an account of the run-up to war that appeared to differ from Mr Medvedev's. He said that the decision to "use the armed forces" had been considered for three days - from around 5 August. Mr Medvedev had implied that the question only arose on 7 August.

Mr Putin also said that he had twice rung Mr Medvedev and Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov on 7 and 8 August - which again appears to contradict Mr Medvedev's account.

'Rift among elites'

Mikhail Rostovsky, political columnist with the popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, thought that Mr Putin had offered no more than a "detached" defence of Mr Medvedev against Mr Baluyevsky's allegations.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Since August 2008 Russia has kept troops in South Ossetia to prevent Georgia retaking the region

Rostovsky also thinks that the film's appearance is evidence of a "war" being waged within the Putin-Medvedev double act, as Mr Medvedev "actively struggles for the role of real co-ruler of the country".

He said that when officials close to Mr Putin or Mr Medvedev now speak about "the other side, they do not have in mind Saakashvili, for example, but actually the president or prime minister of the Russian Federation".

According to Rostovsky, the current tension dates back to last September, when the two Russian leaders agreed to swap roles.

Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya took a similar view. She said that Mr Medvedev had earlier been under "Putin's protection", but now this "protection has been withdrawn". "Earlier, a rift among the elites was a hypothesis. Now it has become a fact," she told business daily Vedomosti.

Kryshtanovskaya is a recognised authority on Russia's elites and was until recently a member of the pro-Kremlin party, United Russia.

Who was behind it?

The main intrigue surrounding The Day that was Lost concerns its authorship. The titles at the end say it was made by a previously unknown production company called Alfa, said to be based in Tver, a city just north of Moscow.

But the Russian edition of Forbes business magazine, quoting a source in the South Ossetia administration, describes the film-makers as people from the Moscow government-owned Centre TV or Channel Five, which is owned by National Media Group. The latter is controlled by Yuri Kovalchuk, a businessman said to be a close associate of Mr Putin.

Forbes also quoted a source "close to the Russian presidential administration" as saying the film had been shot by Channel Five, possibly with the "knowledge of the Kremlin".

Channel Five, though, has strenuously denied that its journalists were involved in the film.

Mr Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has said he does not know who made the film or for what purpose.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad. For more reports from BBC Monitoring, click here

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