Masha Karp reviews Part Three of the BBC documentary 'Putin, Russia & the West'

16 February 2011

By Masha Karp

Unequal Sides of the Triangle 

From 19th January to 9th February 2012 BBC2 showed a four-part documentary, ‘Putin, Russia and the West’ (series producer - Norma Percy, series director - Paul Mitchell, executive producer – Brian Lapping, BBC executive producer – Fiona Campbell). The film caused a great deal of controversy (see for example Vladimir Bukovsky and Masha Slonim [in Russian], and Victor Davidoff [in English], and comment in the UK press [see pieces by Luke Harding in The Guardian and Peter Oborne in The Telegraph]).

Masha Karp reviews the third part of the documentary for Rights in Russia (her reviews of the other parts of the documentary can be read here: Part 1Part 2Part 4

The title sequence for all four episodes of 'Putin, Russia and the West' ends with a still of American and Russian leaders - American and Russian flags behind them - sitting at the top of a glass table, so that their reflections are visible too. In the first two parts we see Bush and Putin at the table. In the third, wittily, as if by an afterthought, they are suddenly joined by Medvedev. The fourth presents Obama, Medvedev and Putin, the latter two having swapped places in the friendly reshuffle. By the end of the final part, it becomes obvious that it is these people at the table that the film-makers are primarily fascinated by - they prefer seeing the world in the binary opposition between Russia and America (thus uncannily mirroring Russia’s own insistence on seeing American interference everywhere) and believe that there is nothing more interesting than top-level diplomacy. 

In real life, of course, top-level diplomacy can be fascinating when real issues are at stake, and incredibly boring when there is just a lot of hot air. Part 3 of the series is an example of the first of these two, and Part 4 is an example of the second. This is what largely determines the impact of each of these two final parts of the documentary. 


The drama of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, which undermined all the historical and cultural connections between the two countries and resulted in deaths and displacement of hundreds of people, plus the annexation of 20% of Georgian territory, could have been prevented had the diplomacy worked right. 

It didn’t. Georgia was left betrayed by the international community. Part 3 ('The War', director David Alter) shows in minute detail how it happened. 

On the whole the film gives as objective a view as possible of events. However, unfortunately the story starts with a noticeable distortion. The mass deportation of Georgians from Moscow in 2006, in the course of which several people died, and a huge anti-Georgian campaign was unleashed by Russia in addition to the introduction of trade sanctions, is referred to in the film as “deportation of Georgian workers”. In fact it was more like ethnic cleansing. Because the scale of the incident is played down, it is not immediately clear that it was precisely this episode that provoked Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Moscow, but what follows serves as a wonderful introduction to Putin’s style of diplomacy. Certain of absolute impunity, he risks being outright rude. Rice describes how on arrival she was first made to wait for several hours and then taken to a “hunting lodge” in the country where, allegedly, Medvedev’s birthday was being celebrated. When she finally insisted on “doing some work”, Putin took her to another room and in response to the request to leave Georgia alone, basically told her that he was going to have it his own way. 

The warnings from America were addressed to both sides of the future conflict. As a result, Georgia pulled its troops out of rebel South Ossetia, but made an effort to train and equip its army, while for its part Russia ensured that key government positions in South Ossetia were filled by Russians and Russian passports were given out freely to anybody who asked. Although the facts are told objectively,when it comes to explanations, the commentary sometimes still follows the Russian propaganda line. “By recognising a breakaway state (Kosovo) Bush unintentionally reignited the conflict between his ally Georgia and Russia”. The word “unintentionally” is of course a concession to objectivity, but the sentence as a whole takes its cue from Putin’s next clip where he threatens America. Thus Putin’s clever use of the situation makes Bush responsible for “re-igniting the conflict”, if unintentionally, and the commentary ceases being neutral. 

The real drama starts when Saakashvili’s desire to find security within NATO, in which Bush supports him, clashes with the firm stance of Angela Merkel. She turns Saakashvili’s own words against him announcing that countries who have security problems should not be allowed to join NATO. “Our alliance exists to defend our common security”, she says. “We should not admit members who bring security problems with them.” 

Then in April 2008, when NATO members gather in Bucharest ( ironically, in the palace built by the communist dictator Ceausescu), the diplomatic battle that has largely predetermined the outcome of the events is played out: to grant Georgia and Ukraine a Membership Action Plan (MAP), members have to come to a unanimous agreement. We get the feel of the battle by seeing some its participants. The Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski suspects that “some allies had made commitments to the Russians that MAP would not be granted,” while the German Foreign Minister Steinmeier feels offended that his country was accused of appeasement of the Russians. He states unambiguously that if Georgia with its impending conflict joined the alliance, “NATO would be at risk of being drawn in”. East Europeans with America’s help are trying to get Georgia in immediately in order to protect it from the imminent threat, but the day is won by Angela Merkel, who suggests a clever “compromise”: MAPs are discarded and Ukraine and Georgia get a promise they will join NATO eventually, only the time for joining can’t be determined just yet. 

Although the significance of what had happened was not immediately grasped even by those present in the room – Gordon Brown, for example, was puzzled by the turn it had taken – Russia understood immediately and, as the commentary says, “within weeks of the NATO summit Russia upped its support for the Georgian separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia” 

The film then follows meticulously as the escalation of the conflict unrolls, punctuated by diplomatic efforts to stop it: Georgian fighter planes brought down by the Russians; Russian peacekeepers caught transporting weapons to Ossetia (why should peacekeepers in Ossetia have been Russian in the first place?); special Russian troops sent to repair a disused railway in Abkhazia; Russia’s attempts to make Saakashvili sign a pledge not to use force; Condoleezza Rice’s promise that Saakashvili can rely on the international community to support him; Russia sending more troops into South Ossetia and poising a further 12 thousand battle-ready troops on its northern border; Saakashvili’s call to mobilize the army; the Russian ambassador Yuri Popov’s failure to attend a meeting with the Georgian peace negotiator, because his car had flat tyres; Saakashvili’s order not to return fire, but keep the army moving into South Ossetia; and finally, after yet another shelling of Georgian villages, Saakashvili’s order to start the military operation. 

Much has been said about this decision “to restore constitutional order” (incidentally in imitation of Russia’s explanation of its actions in the breakaway Chechnya, although this is not mentioned in the film) – from accusations that Saakashvili gave way to hysteria to reproaching him for walking into a trap the Russians had set. But in the context of the film another theory seems more convincing. The Georgian president realized that if he did not do anything, the Russian army would simply occupy the breakaway republics, without the international community batting an eyelid, as they did not mind Russian “peacekeepers” staying in Abkhazia for 14 years after the previous conflict. He says in the film: “There was already a Russian presence, there was already an annexation process underway de facto, on the ground and… it crossed every line of civilized behaviour – we had no other way but to act…. We thought that at least we would win some time to hold back the Russians and hopefully the international community would wake up and...we would get some kind of a reversal”. 

The international community did not wake up and in a couple of days Russian troops were within 40 miles of Tbilisi. The United States could think of no other way of “signalling” to the Russians that they were against their invasion other than sending combat troops – and this of course they would not do. Finding justifications was not difficult at all. US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates says in the film: “My feeling at the time was that the Russians had baited a trap and Saakashvili walked right into it. So they were both culpable” 

Combining clips from the interviews of Gates, Rice and Hadley with photos of Bush’s National Security Council, the film-makers manage to create a sense of the decision actually being taken in front of our eyes and even though we know the outcome we can’t help being glued to the screen as if we were watching a thriller. We actually see the process of betrayal! The behaviour of the Russian side, now enjoying a position of strength, is also depicted vividly. In the process of negotiations initiated by Sarkozy (who presumably felt some responsibility for supporting Germany at the NATO summit in Bucharest), the French President proposed signing a document which would commit both sides to withdrawing their troops. We see the document with  Sergei Lavrov's added corrections: in the sentence “Georgian and Russian forces will withdraw fully,” the words “and Russian” are crossed out.

Lavrov of course knew what he was doing. Russian forces have not withdrawn from Georgia. They are still there. The agreement negotiated by Sarkozy has never been carried out. The West has allowed Russia to have its own way. And yet - surprisingly – in the concluding remarks the commentary picks up yet again the official Russian (or is it the ‘Western anti-American ’?) line: “America’s attempts to expand its influence in Russia’s backyard have been checked.” Having watched Part 3 of the documentary, which is particularly careful in representing different sides of the conflict, one gets the feeling that these words have been added in an afterthought to conform to the general brief of the series.