A war with no winners: a re-examination of the Russian-Georgian conflict four years on
The August War of four years ago changed international relations for good, and it's time we caught up
As this summer’s Olympic Games get underway in London, in Georgia, the country’s collective focus will be on the events of the previous games in Beijing.
Russia’s assault on Georgia in August 2008 marked Moscow’s first invasion of a neighbouring state since its war with Afghanistan began nearly three decades earlier. The conflict was a seminal moment in the history of post-Cold War Europe, and posed fundamental questions about the West’s relationship with Russia that remain unanswered to this day.
The August War showed that the nature of international relations had changed, and should have overturned many of its long-held assumptions. Four years on since Russian artillery was trained on Georgia’s ancient capital Tbilisi, the time has come to re-examine the causes of the conflict and its consequences for global peace and security.
International relations theorists should largely endorse the actions of the Government of Georgia. The liberalist analysis would accept the need for a threatened state to act independently.
Whilst the realist might criticise the Georgian Government for responding militarily in the face of numerically superior Russian forces, they would nevertheless accept that the survival of the nation state is the ultimate rationale for action. The sociological approach, based on perceptions and norms that guide identity, would agree that Georgians had every right to perceive an immediate and imminent threat, and to respond accordingly.
Most commentators have overlooked the complexity of the challenges facing the Georgian Government in 2008. A focus solely on the number of troops or intensity of fire in the conflict zone during the start of the war is misplaced. In reality, the outbreak of hostilities marked the final breakdown in a relationship which had been deteriorating long before 2008.
Considered by Moscow as part of Russia’s ‘sphere of privileged interest’, Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003 and subsequent democratisation raised serious concerns within the Kremlin over Tbilisi’s future direction. If Georgia’s democratic experiment were to prove successful, many in Moscow feared its momentum may carry across the Caucasus and threaten Russia’s own carefully-nurtured kleptocracy.
But Georgia’s new trajectory posed even greater problems for Moscow – Tbilisi had made no secret of its ambitions to join the trans-Atlantic and European political and security structures, principally NATO.
At the Alliance’s Bucharest summit earlier in the year, NATO had announced that Georgia, along with Ukraine, would be granted membership. The casus belli of what took place later that summer has long been debated, but from Russia’s perspective it seems it was a green light for their expansionary plans.
Even if for some the causes of the conflict remain in doubt, its consequences were all too apparent. As Ron Asmus rightly pointed out, a candidate country for NATO membership and close partner of both Britain and the US had been invaded. For the first time since the Cold War, Russia had sought to change borders by force, a measure which evoked memories of the darkest days of Soviet military aggression in Europe.
Key international institutions failed to respond, and Russia appeared to have been handed a de facto veto over future NATO expansion. And today, Russia continues to occupy a fifth of Georgia’s territory, and is fast consolidating its foothold - in October last year, Russia’s Duma agreed to maintain military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for a further 49 years. Four years after the invasion, the occupation continues.
It is a widely respected feature of British politics that defence is the first duty of any government. That rationale is also deeply embedded in the Georgian psyche. The persistent attacks upon Georgian troops and civilians combined with the movement of Russian forces into Georgian territory presented the Saakashvili administration with a fait accompli. The fall of the Georgian Government would also have spelt an end to Tbilisi’s democratic experiment and its potential as an example for the region.
It was Georgia’s ambition – not its military – that worried Russia. The Georgian military was, after all, in a state of unpreparedness - the elite 1st Brigade had been deployed in Iraq in support of the US-led campaign, whilst the vast majority of Georgia’s tank force was undergoing maintenance. This was not an army ready for an offensive as Moscow would later claim.
Equally difficult to deny were the efforts of the Georgian leadership to prevent a further escalation of tensions - President Saakashvili announced a unilateral ceasefire and made repeated efforts to contact President Medvedev, yet received no response to either overture from Moscow.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 marked the nadir in the post-Cold War relationship between Moscow and the West. But for Georgia this was lamentably only the most recent chapter in a long and bitter experience of Russian aggression, annexation and occupation. For it is in this wider historical context that this conflict must ultimately be viewed.
The accepted norms of international relations need to be re-evaluated, and international institutions must keep pace. As James Sherr of Chatham House noted, thinking in international institutions “was hobbled by post-modern assumption which, to this day, exerts a powerful influence on mindsets, discourse and tools of policy”.
Four years has given us only limited hindsight. But have we learned the lessons? The August War changed international relations for good, and it is time we caught up.
David Darchiashvili is a senior parliamentarian in Georgia and is the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on European Integration
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