(CNSNews.com) – Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s role in the military invasion of the former Soviet state of Georgia could lead to him facing charges for war crimes, the Georgian ambassador to the United States said at a discussion at the conservative Heritage Foundation on Monday.
“We have to conduct a serious investigation in this regard,” said Ambassador Vasil Sikharulidze.
“What we would like to do is just to make all these places (in Georgia) very transparent, open for the free world, for the media, (and) international human rights activities,” he said.
Sikharulidze said reports of villages being destroyed and residents being killed, driven out, or taken hostage are signs that Russia – still ruled in practice by former President Putin, experts say – is using ethnic cleansing to gain control of territories that were once part of the Soviet Union.
“We are seeing very alarming signals from Moscow,” Sikharulidze said. “We’ve heard that villages have been burned to the ground. We’ve heard of reports of other scenes, about some killings and some Georgians who are hostages.”
The other panelists at the event, which included Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at Heritage; S. Frederick Starr, founder and chairman of the Central Asia-Caucus Institute; and Stephen Blank, research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, were in agreement that Russian violence against civilians is well-documented and not a new phenomenon.
“We have forgotten or never focused on the ethic cleansing that took place in Abkahzia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s where a majority of the Georgian population was simply driven out,” Starr said. “Any discussion of ethnic cleansing has to go back in time.”
Reports of the current Russian occupation will add more than 100,000 refugees to hundreds of thousands that already exist in Georgia,” experts said.
The panel advocated diplomatic pressure and punishing Russia for its behavior, including expelling it from the G-8, the World Trade Organization, and stripping it of its hosting of the 2016 Olympics.
The panelists also said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should send peacekeeping units into Georgia, which has sought membership in NATO since 1994.
Sikharulidze told CNSNews.com he does not think Russia, which objects to Georgia joining NATO, would have invaded if the former Soviet state belonged to the international military alliance.
Starr told CNSNews.com the current unrest in Georgia could also have been avoided if the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe had not assigned Russians to act as peacekeepers after the conflict between Russia and Georgia in the early 1990s.
“The big issue that hasn’t been mentioned here is OSCE,” Starr said. “The idea of someone forcing his way with arms into your house, killing members of the family and holding them hostage, and then have the local police invite that same person to be the peacekeeper in the house, to protect the house against further trouble, is cynical beyond the normal range of imagination.
“Yet that is exactly what OSCE did in assigning to Russia the role of peacekeeper after the first war in Georgia,” Starr said, adding that Russians could be a part of an international peacekeeping force in the region.
Georgia, however, is not free of charges that it, too, has used oppression and intimidation to keep control of its citizens, including suppressing demonstrations and declaring emergency rule in November 2007, and Georgian military operations in the breakaway region and Russian-supported territory of South Ossetia that led to the current clash with Russia.