Opinion: Ten years after the war with Russia, Georgia remains exposed and vulnerable

The threat from Russia looms large over Georgia.  Although the odds for a resumption of hostilities seem insignificant at the moment, Russia continues its hostile acts against Georgia, sending a message that it continues to find unacceptable the country's political path, argues George Mchedlishvili in this commentary for commonspace.eu

Much water has flown under the bridge since the cessation of hostilities in the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Today, Georgia has a different leadership, while Russia, despite still being under Putin, has relatively modest financial wherewithal as prices for oil and natural gas are more modest. But the core dynamics, the apple of discord between the two countries, is still in place. It is Georgia's pro-western aspirations and, what is an utter nightmare scenario for Moscow, the chances that Tbilisi will succeed along this path.

How and Why It All Happened?

Despite the night of August 7 is considered the official date of the start of 2008 Russia-Georgia War, the hostilities of that night were preceded by almost a week of heavy shelling of the Georgian villages by Ossetian paramilitaries, causing casualties among civilians and Georgian peacekeepers and resulting in return fire of Georgian artillery that in turn led to casualties in the regional capital of Tskhinvali. Dozens of regiments and hundreds of tanks of the Russian Army, which had been stationed along the border between Russia and Georgia since late July, all poured in once the Georgian side opened fire. The pretext was the "protection of Russian citizens". Over the next few days, Russian military units, supported by paramilitaries from the North Caucasus, overwhelmed the Georgian army positions and occupied not only South Ossetia and parts of Abkhazia hitherto controlled by Georgia, but also swaths of land and major cities in uncontested Georgian territories (sometimes referred to as "Georgia proper"). A hastily concocted EU-mediated ceasefire agreement did stop the hostilities, but failed to hamper occupation of the two territories, and their subsequent recognition as independent states in late August by a decree signed by Russia's president Dmitri Medvedev. Nearly 20 thousand ethnic Georgians became IDPs, joining hundreds of thousands of others displaced in the 1990s.

However, those events of early August themselves did not start out of nowhere; they had been brewing for several years, as relations between Georgia and Russia had been growing increasingly tense, coming to a head by those fateful day of 2008.

While the immediate casus belli, cited by Russia, was the bombing of "sleeping Tskhinvali" - an utterly spurious claim given it was Tkhinvali from where heavy shelling of Georgian positions were taking place, - the actual reason was Georgia's pro-western leadership and its desire to join NATO. The NATO Bucharest Summit that took place four months earlier explicitly stated in its Declaration that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members. Although the date of incorporation into the Alliance was not even discussed, and the so-called Membership Action Plan - the final stage prior to the integration - was not granted, Moscow nonetheless decided to send a clearer message and demonstrate the inadmissibility of such developments. 

On a more general note, since the coming of the leader into power in 2000, Putin's Russia has been positioning itself as a bulwark against the West's encroachments. This morbid vision considers entire Eastern Europe and Central Eurasia as a zero-sum game within the global geopolitical tug of war, whereby a desire of a country to become a part of major western institutions - oftentimes precisely for the reason of limiting the impact of Russia's aggressive policy - is viewed as a threat to Moscow's own security.  

So by attacking and dismembering Georgia, Russia sent a very clear message to Tbilisi that its western orientation is a punishable offense. But the biggest message was intended for the West, especially Washington, which at the time was considered Georgia's main backer. The gist of that "main" message was: South Caucasus, and the entire post-Soviet space for that matter, is Russia's backyard and no one but Moscow is allowed to have a meaningful influence there. As a confirmation of this notion, less than a month after the war, as part of the so-called Medvedev Doctrine - Russia's guiding principles of foreign policy - Moscow explicitly claimed that the post-Soviet space was the sphere of its "privileged interests ... regions where countries with which we have friendly relations are located".   

Small War with Wider Implications

The August War claimed about 750 lives and lasted only five days - a fairly modest war from a purely technical standpoint. But its implications went far beyond the tiny geographical area it played out. Among the immediate wider outcomes of the war one could single out the following:

First, it showed that Russia meant business and would do anything - including military aggression - to prevent the drift of a post-Soviet state toward the West.

Second, it demonstrated that the West - EU, NATO and US in particular - has a limited power to protect its ally in this part of the world. This outcome alone, which signified "bringing America down a peg", went a long way to boost the popularity of Putin and Medvedev's popularity. With the Cold War confrontational mentality being fashionable again, few policies sell better in Russia than the demonstration by its leadership of the West's weakness.

Third, the war was Putin's personal payback to both Saakashvili and Bush: the former's sin was recalcitrance in the face of advice and threats to abandon the drive to the West, and Bush was viewed as a main culprit in championing Kosovo's independence from Serbia, something Moscow vehemently opposed.

Fourth, despite its apparent bravado, the very first months after the war demonstrated Russia's limited international heft. Only a handful of countries besides the Russian Federation recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states - and even they did it in return for Moscow's economic assistance (read bribery). Not a single CIS member state, including Russia's allies within CSTO and SCO, followed Moscow's suit, despite strong and repeated exhortations to recognize the two provinces. The contrast is particularly stark compared to more than 110 states that have recognized Kosovo.

As far as longer-term consequences of the war are concerned, I would single out a rather muted western reaction. Granted, both EU and NATO made genuine attempts to reassess their relations with Russia and even downgraded them temporarily, but less than a year after the war both were back in a business-as-usual mode with Moscow. Even in the United States, one of the first international steps of the new Obama Administration was an attempt to "reset" relations with Russia. In a word, the West forgave Moscow its August 2008 belligerence, which emboldened Russia and encouraged its further adventurism, this time on a bigger scale - in Ukraine. Many international experts and politicians believe that had the West's response been more pronounced in 2008, Russia would not have dared to annex Crimea and initiate a bloody separatist war in Eastern Ukraine. Thus, total disruption of already battered Ukrainian economy would have been avoided and more than 10 thousand lives would have been spared.

It should be noted, however, that the West responded to Russia's war on Ukraine with a higher degree of unity and consistency. The combination of sanctions and diplomacy did exacerbate Russia's economic woes, laying bare its distorted character and overreliance on hydrocarbon resources.

Therefore, despite its tactical headways in Syria and Ukraine, Russia today is more isolated internationally than 10 years ago - even its most loyal allies show growing signs of self-reliance and strive to weaken their dependence on Moscow.

In response to Russia's aggression against Ukraine, NATO developed the Readiness Action Plan, which is aimed at reinforcing the defense capabilities of Central and Eastern European member-states. The plan will render Russia's potential moves against the Baltics extremely costly, which should deter Moscow from its plans to stir up trouble in those countries.   

Most importantly, Russia's main objective - to kill Georgia's prospects to join NATO and EU - was only partially achieved. These prospects were indeed set back, but by no means disappeared. On balance, last decade witnessed Georgia's progress along the path of European and Euro-atlantic integration, which manifested itself in entering into force of the Association Agreement, including Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). In March 2017, Visa Free Travel for short term stays entered into force for Georgian citizens. As far as ties with NATO are concerned, despite stalled membership prospects, cooperation is progressing and expanding in scope and depth.

Beyond NATO and EU, Georgia's ties with its main security guarantor - the United States - are also on track, despite initial grievances in the wake of Trump's victory, conditioned by the latter's apparent friendliness toward Russia and its leader. The currently ongoing fourth iteration of the large scale US-Georgia military exercise Noble Partner 2018, with its 3000+ personnel from 13 countries - mostly NATO members - is a clear indication of Georgia's unabated enthusiasm to stake its future with the West.  

Conflict is not Over

Ten years after that fateful August, the key question that hovers in the air, asked by many analysts and commentators, is whether another flare-up is possible or likely.  Despite a relatively calm situation along the occupation line, Russia continues its hostile acts against Georgia, sending a message that it continues to find unacceptable the country's political path. The human rights and basic freedoms of the remaining ethnic Georgians in the separatist territories are continuously violated. Another punitive policy is the so-called "borderisation", with barbed wire and border signs reading "State Border of South Ossetia" installed along the occupation line. Often, Russian and Ossetian soldiers move the "border" hundreds of meters deeper into the territory of Georgia proper in the process, with some sections already less than a kilometer away from the major East-West highway that runs through the entire length of Georgia - highlighting the country's vulnerability

The timing of these creeping annexation moves is usually are carefully chosen. Recent occurrences coincided with the signing of Association Agreement with the EU in 2014 and the opening of Georgia-NATO Joint Training Center in 2015.   

These border operations, along with regular detentions and kidnapping of ethnic Georgians on trumped-up charges of "illegal border crossing", are a part of Russia's current intimidation tactics. The violent murders of several Georgian citizens at the hands of the occupation forces over the past few years are a stark reminder that the present "frozen" stage of Russia-Georgia conflict might reheat again. So is the consolidation of Russia's increasing military presence in the occupied regions, now including state-of-the-art offensive weapons and missiles, along with a number of military bases. The total headcount in thse military facilities amounts to several thousand soldiers and officers, with some of the units stationed about 50 kilometers away from Tbilisi. Russia's political and economic grip over the regions is also intensifying, with the military, security and intelligence structures of the regions fully incorporated into those of Russia.

This threat looms large over Georgia.  Although the odds for a resumption of hostilities seem insignificant at the moment, the fact that Georgia is not a member of any military alliance and is not protected by collective security obligations, leaves it exposed and vulnerable. 

source: George Mchedlishvili is Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the International Black Sea University in Tbilisi. He contributed this commentary to commonspace.eu

The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of commonspace.eu or its partners

Related articles

Editor's choice
Borrell tells the European Parliament that the situation in Afghanistan was critical, but the EU will remain engaged

Borrell tells the European Parliament that the situation in Afghanistan was critical, but the EU will remain engaged

Borrell underlined that the European Union will make every effort to support the peace process and to remain a committed partner to the Afghan people. "Of course, we will have to take into account the evolving situation, but disengagement is not an option.  We are clear on that: there is no alternative to a negotiated political settlement, through inclusive peace talks.