Russia’s all-out aggression against Ukraine, which will pass the 18-month mark next week, is indirectly but strongly connected to the Russo-Georgian war of 15 years ago.
In the first week of August 2008, Georgian villages in South Ossetia, a separatist enclave controlled by Russia since 1992, came under heavy artillery fire; on August 14, Russian tanks reached the outskirts of Tbilisi, before retreating to Tskhinvali a week later.
The ceasefire was negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who rushed to Moscow to persuade Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to roll back the invasion, and it was United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who convinced Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to sign the deal, which prompted the Kremlin to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “independent states” (Rossiiskaya gazeta; Svoboda, August 8).
Reflections on that war in both Russian mainstream media and on uncensored platforms converge on the point that the swift Russian victory and Western readiness to accept it encouraged Moscow to rely on military power as a versatile instrument of policy — and thus charted the road to war with Ukraine (Izvestiya, Meduza, August 8).
Military reform in Russia
Immediately after the war in Georgia, drastic military reforms were launched in Russia aimeing to turn the army into a combat-ready force capable of engaging in dynamic multi-domain operations in modern wars. The rapid deployment of special forces and airborne troops to Crimea in February 2014 was perceived as positive proof of success in that modernization (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, July 20).
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has exposed the gap between political ambitions in the Kremlin and the real capacity of its military machine, geared for fast offensive maneuvers but incapable of sustaining protracted battles. The march on Kyiv in February 2022 turned into an abject military disaster, and the Black Sea Fleet, which performed a near-perfect landing in Poti in August 2008, is presently struggling to defend itself against Ukrainian naval drone strikes (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 6).
High-intensity long war – never planned for
In the high-intensity long war, which, despite claims to the contrary, was never planned by the Russian General Staff, the question about the quantity and quality of reserves, dismissed as irrelevant after the war with Georgia, comes to the fore, and a new round of “limited” mobilization is necessary for sustaining the pattern of holding defensive lines and conducting tactical offensive operations, for instance, in the Kupyansk direction (Izvestiya, Novaya Gazeta, August 11).
The Russian High Command, nevertheless, remains reluctant to declare this mobilization, suspecting that society might become too anxious for the firmly controlled elections coming up on September 10 (Republic.ru, August 10). Ukrainian long-distance drone strikes may have low material impact, but they add to these anxieties — so much so that every explosion, such as the one at the optical-mechanical plant in Sergiev Posad in the Moscow region, is presumed to be from an enemy attack (Svoboda, August 10). The surge of jingoism in August 2008 happened against the background of optimistic expectations in Russian society for embracing technological innovations.
Now, however, the brutal repressions against anti-war activists proceed along a broad path of de-modernization, exemplified by the hostile takeover and degradation of Yandex, one of Russia’s most successful high-tech companies, much to the chagrin of its founder Arkady Volozh (RBC, August 10).
Escalation of conflict with the West
Many groups in the Russian elite are distraught by the confrontation with the West and irked by personal sanctions. Even so, the Kremlin is firmly set on escalating this “civilizational” conflict, searching for every sign of discord and disunity, which were so apparent in August 2008 (Forbes.ru, August 11).
The US presidential elections of 2024 are the main focus of hopes for the erosion of Western unity; however, immediate calculations are centered on Turkey, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keen to host Russian President Vladimir Putin and persuade him to return to the abruptly canceled “grain deal” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 9). In August 2008, Erdogan also took a cautious stance, seeking primarily to ensure that the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan oil pipeline remained intact and that Batumi was off-limits to Russian intervention (Novaya Gazeta, August 7). Erdogan’s main goal in the Caucasus was set on strengthening its alliance with Azerbaijan, and Russia’s dominance over the region was damaged in the fall of 2020, when Armenia was defeated in the Second Karabakh War (Kommersant, August 11).
Ceasefires unreliable for conflict management
Ceasefires have proven to be unreliable means of conflict management, and Georgia feels compelled to minimize the risks inherent to the “hybrid peace” with Russia, which maintains military groupings in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Svoboda, August 9). This risk avoidance translates not only into abstention from condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine but also into profiteering from the war by keeping trade channels open for sanctioned goods (Carnegie Politika, August 4). A Russian cruise ship encountered protests in Batumi; yet, at the same time, tens of thousands of Russians flock to Tbilisi to escape mobilization or as “tourists” (see EDM, August 10; Kavkaz-uzel.eu, August 11). Various business connections with Russia inevitably involve the export of corruption, which distorts Georgia’s democratic institutions and compromises its official course set on transatlantic integration (Republic.ru, August 12). Instead, rapprochement with China has been cultivated, and the recent week-long visit of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili culminated with a meeting with President Xi Jinping and the signing of a treaty on strategic partnership (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 1; see EDM, August 10).
Long-term consequences of accommodating Russia
Georgia’s case illustrates the long-term consequences of accommodating Russia’s penchant for the crude application of military power in asserting its dominance over neighboring states. Yet, it also proves the feasibility of curtailing and deflating Moscow’s ambitions.
Georgia failed in its attempt to stand against Russian aggression, but even half-hearted Western support sufficed for deterring Putin’s desire for a regime change in Tbilisi and dissuading Russia from annexing other Georgian provinces.
Ukraine is much more capable of defending itself against Russian attacks, and the West has found a moral imperative for providing the necessary material support for this courageous effort. Initiatives for the cessation of hostilities may appear a natural response to the tragedy and costs of the long war, and they correspond to the interests of many actors in the Global South who are affected by the European calamity.
Georgia keeps reminding the international community that such initiatives amount to rewarding the aggressor, while Ukraine continues to assert that a just peace is not an idealistic dream but a realistic prospect underpinned by its determination to fight and defeat Russian imperialism and militarism.
- Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at PRIO
- This text is also published by Eurasia Daily Monitor