The Russia - Georgia War: 10 Years On

Has the West Learned Anything From It?

Ten years ago, in August 2008, Russian troops invaded Georgia. At the time, the event was more of a Georgian tragedy than a major international incident. Its significance was overshadowed by the excitement over the Olympic Games that were taking place in Beijing and was further diminished by the world’s general lack of knowledge about Georgia’s existence. But in the context of the wide array of Moscow’s aggressive moves that followed, the Georgian war turned out to be the season-opener of Russia’s 21st century wars.

THE CAUSES OF THE WAR

As Ronald Asmus documented in his 2010 book about the “little war that shook the world,” tensions between Georgia and Russia had been building up, as Georgia had continuously expressed its desire to “go West.” Georgia had embarked on a road of rapid democratization and modernization since the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003 overthrew the corrupt and dysfunctional Shevardnadze government. With the support of Western leaders and organizations, the new Georgian government had begun making deliberate efforts to leave its post-Soviet legacies behind.

Georgia was not alone in ratcheting up tensions with Russia. The West itself had done a few things to unnerve Moscow. First, it had recognized Kosovo’s independence, something Russia vehemently opposed. Mere months later, at the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Georgia and Ukraine were told that one day they would become members of the Atlantic Alliance. NATO had made this promise more as a diplomatic move than anything else, as it had been “leading on” Georgia and Ukraine for years, in hopes of fostering close relations with these countries, and encouraging positive reforms all around. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had exercised its leverage over Georgia by stationing “peacekeeping” military forces in Georgia’s two separatist conflict zones in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With Georgia’s territorial integrity fractured, due to these “frozen” conflicts and Russia’s significant role in perpetuating them, NATO membership could only be a distant hope. But still, the promise of Georgia’s NATO membership “someday” was enough for Russia to presume that the liberal democratic West was creeping up to its backyard and would soon envelope Georgia and Ukraine. During Russia’s weaker years, before Putin managed to consolidate power and lead Russia out of political and economic distress, NATO expanded significantly, absorbing ten post-Communist countries including the Baltic States and Poland. This major expansion was already unacceptable to Russia, whose leaders have historically seen the world from the great power politics perspective, and have believed that Russia is entitled to a certain “sphere of influence”, which has always included the former USSR states.
As Ariel Cohen and Robert Hamilton documented in their 2011 monograph on the Russia-Georgia war, the Kremlin had a very clear set of objectives for the invasion, and had spent two and a half years preparing for it. Russia’s objectives “included effectively terminating Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia and Abkhazia by solidifying control of the pro-Moscow separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thus denying Tbilisi control over these territories in perpetuity; … sending a strong signal to other post-Soviet states, first and foremost Ukraine, that the pursuit of NATO membership may result in dismemberment and a military invasion.”

Another major goal was to destabilize the existing pro-Western government and weaken or overthrow President Mikheil Saakashvili who was highly critical of Moscow, particularly of then-President Dmitry Medvedev and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Moreover, gaining control of the south Caucasus energy corridor by installing a pro-Russian government would have been one of the ultimate benefits of the war for Russia as it would yield political as well as financial gains for the aspirant hegemon. Overall, the invasion of Georgia seemed like the best way for Moscow to send a message to the West—former USSR countries had to be kept within Russia’s “sphere of influence” and Europe and the U.S. had no rights there.

THE FIVE-DAY WAR

On August 7, 2008, Russian troops illegally crossed the Russo-Georgian border and entered the South Ossetia conflict zone. Next, they accused Georgia of “aggression against South Ossetia,” and launched a large-scale invasion of Georgia on August 8. The Russia military organized land and air strikes against the Georgian military forces in South Ossetia as well as on undisputed Georgian territory, most notably bombing the city of Gori, just a few miles away from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Russian and Abkhazian military forces also opened a second front by attacking the Kodori Gorge in Western Georgia, at the de facto border of Georgia’s second breakaway territory, Abkhazia. Russian naval forces also became involved in the invasion, blockading part of the Georgian coast on the Black Sea, close to the Abkhaz territory.

The invasion also included a cyber warfare component. The cyber-attack was launched during the physical invasion. According to Cohen and Hamilton, “The war against Georgia marks the first time in its history that Russia has used cyber war and information operations in support of its conventional operations. The Russian cyber campaign attacked a total of 38 Georgian and Western websites upon the outbreak of the war, including those of the Georgian President, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Bank, the Parliament, the Supreme Court, and the U.S. and United Kingdom (UK) embassies in Georgia.”
This effort was meant to create chaos and uncertainty, and delay effective communication between the government and the citizens of Georgia, as well as between the Georgians and the outside world. Moreover, an aggressive disinformation campaign was launched against Georgia during and after the war, with Russian actors rewriting the narrative, and creating multiple, conflicting stories about the war. One of the most common false narratives is that Georgia attacked South Ossetia, and Russia, due to its peacekeeping mandate, had no choice but to intervene. A recent report, funded by the U.S. State Department, meticulously detailed the events that took place leading up to, and during, the war, further illustrating the fact that unlike the popular Russian narrative, the war was not a Russian intervention in a Georgian civil war instigated by the Georgian government.

Five days into the war, the U.S. and European allies brokered a ceasefire agreement between Russia and Georgia. The war left Georgia more fractured than ever, with Russia seizing de facto control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The war also displaced over 20,000 people and left more than 200 casualties.

Russia’s standing in the international community did not suffer much after the war, despite general expressions of outrage from various Western leaders, including then-President George W. Bush’s public condemnation of Russia’s behavior. No sanctions were placed on Moscow by the West. At the time, the event was seen as a one-off incident, but recent actions by Russia shows that the invasion of Georgia was only the beginning.

Relatives of Georgia's servicemen killed during the 2008 brief war with Russia over control of South Ossetia mourn during a ceremony on the 10th anniversary of the conflict at the memorial cemetery in Tbilisi on August 8, 2018. (Getty)

WESTERN IGNORANCE OR “THE TRAGEDY OF GREAT POWER POLITICS”?

Now, the war is commonly seen as evidence of Western fecklessness and naiveté when it comes to adequately dealing with Russia. However, despite this narrative, Georgia was simply a victim of great power politics, not of Western ignorance. Georgia’s safety and territorial integrity were not a top priority on a long list of Western strategic interests at the time. The outgoing U.S. president was overcommitted to multiple unwinnable wars; the European Union was entering one of its worst economic and identity crises, and it was worried about its energy security, largely guaranteed by Russia. NATO had no interest in entering a military conflict over a non-member state. During the invasion, Georgia had to fend for itself, relying only on diplomatic and humanitarian assistance from the West.
Fortunately, the support Georgia received at the time was sufficient for brokering a ceasefire. But in the aftermath of the war, Georgia was again left on its own to deal with its ever-aggressive neighbor in the north. In the meantime, the West engaged in a brand new Obama-led “reset” policy with Russia in hopes of improved relations with the rising superpower.

But no reset could curb the rising Russian aggression which within the decade reached Ukraine, Syria, Europe, and the United States. Unlike Crimea and Donbas, however, Georgia turned out to be lucky—the ceasefire agreement was brokered in time to keep most of the country intact, and the capital safe. In retrospect, the fact that Russia invaded Georgia is less shocking than the fact that the extent of the war was quite limited compared to the rest of Russia’s modern wars. This does not diminish the significance of the tragedy, but it does highlight the successful maneuvering of Europe and the U.S. at the time.

Every year, on the anniversary of the war, a long list of journalists, analysts, and former policymakers publish op-eds criticizing the Western naiveté, and “our” collective failure to see Russia as an aspirant global aggressor. This year has been no exception, and the bitterness and passion of most commentators is not without reason. For example, in his Forbes article, a well-known Eurasia reporter, Malik Kaylan declared, “We are paying for the Russian invasion of Georgia ten years ago.” In this article Kaylan argues that the Western media got caught up in the controversy over who started the war. The media chose to blame Saakashvili’s erratic behavior, instead of seeing the truth that Russia had been trying to “play democracy against itself” in Georgia for years.

On the political side, too, there is plenty of blame to go around. “The US failed Georgia when Russia invaded,” wrote a former UN ambassador in his Letter to the Editor in the Washington Post. The word “failure” is used very frequently in these kinds of writings. Misha Saakashvili, Georgia’s president at the time also wrote his own op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, recounting the tragic event, adding that “many of our partners in the West failed to realize that the Georgian conflict was not ultimately about Georgia. The generally lackluster international response to the invasion and occupation emboldened Russian adventurism in the country’s ‘near abroad.’” In defense of the U.S. side, then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice wrote an illuminating Washington Post op-ed, explaining that the U.S. did indeed “do something” about the invasion, but it was really the Europeans who failed to support Georgia. “When the Russians launched their invasion, the United States focused first and foremost on protecting the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the duly elected Georgian government. In that regard, U.S. military transport returned Georgian armed forces from Iraq so that they could defend their homeland. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told his Russian counterpart that we were doing so and not to interfere. … We launched a ‘humanitarian convoy,’ escorted by U.S. warships. This was a signal to the Russians.”

In reality, the West’s lackluster reaction was less of a failure to support Georgia and more of an opting out from fully supporting it. As Saakashvili wrote, “Along with Lech Kaczyński, the late president of Poland, I warned that Ukraine would be the next Putin target. Few took this warning seriously in 2008. Six years later, our prediction came true.” If the Polish president knew Russia’s intentions, so did the rest of the European leaders. If Condoleeza Rice, a seasoned Sovietologist by training, was in the proverbial trenches of the Russia-Georgia conflict, then President George W Bush also knew about Russia’s plans in Georgia, in Ukraine, and in Russia’s “near abroad.”

It is naïve to say that the Western leaders were naïve. It is fair to say that Georgia was not a priority at the time, and great power politics superseded the West’s commitment to the post-WWII world order. They chose short-term peace and appeasement of a despot over long-term confrontation with Russia. Had President Bush sanctioned Russia in 2008 for its invasion of Georgia, U.S.-Russia relations would have deteriorated significantly for the next decade at least, but perhaps Putin would not have felt emboldened to invade Ukraine or attack American democracy like he has done. Similarly, to say that NATO leaders were naïve and didn’t anticipate Russian aggression in Georgia is inaccurate; they just chose to keep NATO out of it. Unfortunately the problem with appeasing a revisionist despot like Vladimir Putin by allowing him to create and recreate “spheres of influence,” as some Western leaders in the past have chosen to accept, is that there is no real end to that cycle. Appeasing leads of emboldening. The sphere of influence can be shifted around just as quickly as it’s been put in place, and one day it can subsume the appeaser himself; the U.S. and EU allies have had to learn this lesson the hard way.

*Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). She is co-editor of FPRI’s 2017 volume Does Democracy Matter? The United States and Global Democracy Support. Her research interests include the geopolitics of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, the post-Communist CEEE countries, EU’s eastern enlargement policies, and Russian foreign policy


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