Russia In Georgia: Aggressor Or Peacekeeper?

While Russia and Georgia are battling in South Ossetia, they are also engaged in a propaganda war on the world stage. Western nations friendly to Georgia have condemned Russia's attacks against its neighbor. Moscow counters that its actions are a legitimate peacekeeping operation.

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Meanwhile, Russia and Georgia are fighting a propaganda war on the international stage. Georgia's friends in the West have condemned Russia's attacks against its neighbor, but Moscow says its actions are a legitimate peacekeeping operation aimed at protecting civilians, and that's the story ordinary Russians have been hearing.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.

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GREGORY FEIFER: Russia's state-controlled television news is presenting a very clear message about what's going on Georgia.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: News reports here have focused on what they call Georgia's aggression, Russian claims of atrocities carried out by Georgian soldiers, and Moscow's humanitarian aid to thousands of refugees.

Russia says it's sent its forces on Friday to protect the civilian population of South Ossetia. Georgia has long accused Russia of trying to annex its pro-Moscow breakaway province.

International media has shown images of dead and wounded Georgian civilians near burning apartment buildings. But Russian officials say the Western press is broadcasting Georgian propaganda. On Sunday, the Russian military's deputy chief of staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, denied Russian forces had killed any civilians.

Mr. ANATOLY NOGOVITSYN: (Through translator) The Georgians say the Russian air force is targeting civilian settlements. But I take full responsibility in saying the Russian side hasn't hit a single civilian target.

FEIFER: Deputy Foreign Minster Grigory Karasin accused the Western media of reverting to Cold War-era stereotypes.

Mr. GRIGORY KARASIN (Deputy Foreign Minister, Russia): (Through translator) Once again, the West is behaving strangely. Many countries have taken up positions of criticism of Russia and are stopping Russia from trying to bring peace to the region.

FEIFER: The Georgians say they're fighting for survival against the country moving to reestablish itself as a global superpower. Washington has called Russia's response dangerous and disproportionate. But Moscow says its actions are absolutely legitimate and accuses Georgia of genocide. Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin said Tbilisi had launched a bloody adventure and lost the right to rule South Ossetia.

Prime Minister VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Russia spoken)

FEIFER: Georgia has dealt a fatal blow to its own territorial integrity, he said. It's hard to imagine how Tbilisi will now convince South Ossetia to be a part of Georgia.

Mr. VITALY CHURKIN (Ambassador, Russia): (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: At the United Nations, sparring between the Russian and U.S. ambassadors looks like a page out of Cold War history. On Sunday, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin lashed out after U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad accused Russia of seeking to overthrow the Georgian president.

Mr. CHURKIN: (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: Regime change, that's American terminology, Churkin said. We don't use that kind of language, adding: but some leaders do step down for the sake of their country, and I'm glad you're talking about it publicly.

Although there have been a very few voices of dissent in Moscow, opinion on the streets of the city is overwhelmingly in favor of Russia's actions. Nutmila Kaniava(ph) says she's shocked by what's going on in Georgia.

Ms. NUTMILA KANIAVA: (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: People are dying, she says. Sometimes I get so upset I have difficulty breathing.

Kaniava spoke for many when asked who's to blame for the hostilities.

Ms. KANIAVA: (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: Georgia, of course, she says. Who else? They're the ones who attacked another country.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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