The 2008 Russo-Georgian War: Putin’s green light

On August 8, 2008, Russian forces began the invasion of Georgia, marking the start of Europe’s first twenty-first century war. The conflict itself was over within a matter of days, but the repercussions of the Russo-Georgian War continue to reverberate thirteen years on, shaping the wider geopolitical environment.

The international reaction to Russia’s military campaign in Georgia was to prove remarkably muted, with Moscow suffering few negative consequences. On the contrary, EU leaders led calls for a ceasefire that appeared to favor Russian interests, while the US under the new Obama administration was soon calling for a reset in relations with the Kremlin.

Understandably, many in Moscow interpreted this accommodating approach as an informal invitation for further acts of aggression in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Six years after the Russo-Georgian War, Russia embarked on a far more comprehensive military campaign against Ukraine, where Moscow continues to occupy Crimea and large swathes of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

The 2008 Russo-Georgian War is now widely recognized as a landmark event in the transition from the era of post-Soviet cooperation between Russia and the West towards today’s Cold War climate. The Atlantic Council invited a range of experts to share their views on the legacy of the conflict and its impact on the international security environment.

John Herbst, Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council: Thirteen years ago, Europe experienced major power aggression for the first time since Hitler’s defeat in 1945. Russian troops attacked and defeated Georgian forces in a short war that Moscow and its proxies in South Ossetia provoked. The reaction of the West was slow and weak. French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated ceasefire terms that Moscow largely violated without consequence. The Kremlin learned that the West preferred to ignore or at least minimize Russian bad behavior in the so-called Near Abroad.

Moscow applies this lesson in Georgia today as it regularly moves the demarcation line between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia a few meters further into the country. Russia also applied the lessons of 2008 in Crimea and Donbas. It took the West some time, and the July 2014 shooting down of the MH17 passenger airliner, to impose serious sanctions on Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine.

If US President Joe Biden would like to demonstrate the fresh resolve in dealing with Moscow that he promised as a candidate, he should announce contingency sanctions that the US will apply the next time Moscow “adjusts” that internal demarcation line in Georgia.

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Matthew Bryza, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: The weak international response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia greenlighted Russia’s subsequent military assault on Ukraine.

Many senior officials of transatlantic governments with whom I worked to mediate the conflicts over Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia condemned Russia’s invasion, but also blamed then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for provoking Vladimir Putin.

Hence, the ceasefire agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy was one-sided in favor of Moscow, while the subsequent EU report about the five-day war (incorrectly) blamed Georgia for firing the first shots. Later in 2008, Paris announced plans to sell Russia a Mistral-class helicopter carrier, prompting a Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff to declare how much easier it would have been to defeat Georgia with the ship already in Russia’s arsenal.

But neither did Washington do much to deter future Russian military aggression in the Black Sea region. Days after the ceasefire in Georgia, the Bush administration rejected Tbilisi’s request for anti-tank and air defense weapons. And a few months later, the new Obama administration awarded Moscow with its “Russia Reset” policy. Based on this reaction, Putin could only have concluded that the benefits of invading Ukraine would exceed the costs.

Alexander Vershbow, Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council: Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia brought the West’s relations with Russia to their lowest point since the 1980s. Coming less than six months after NATO’s Bucharest Summit, which had declared that Georgia and Ukraine would be NATO members one day, the invasion was a direct challenge to both countries’ right to choose a Euro-Atlantic future.

The invasion of Georgia should have been a wake-up call to the international community, a clear signal that Western efforts since the fall of the Berlin Wall to integrate Russia in a collective security framework had failed. Yet a year later, the US and its allies decided to try again, to “reset” relations with Moscow, and to continue to treat Russia as a strategic partner rather than an adversary.

Only after the illegal annexation of Crimea and the launch of Moscow’s hybrid war in eastern Ukraine did the West finally acknowledge that Putin’s Russia had become a revisionist power seeking to reestablish its dominion over the eastern half of Europe. We can only speculate whether a firmer and more clear-eyed Western response in 2008 could have prevented the tragic events of 2014.

Daniel Fried, Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council: Putin wanted the war. In the summer of 2008, he kept provoking then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili until, against US advice, Saakashvili gave the order for Georgian forces to push back Russian-controlled South Ossetian forces that were shelling Georgian villages. The Russian army, prepared and with its pretext in hand, crossed into Georgia in strength.

The Georgian army held out for two days, but on the third day its lines broke and it retreated toward Tbilisi. The Russians advanced but, with the Georgian army prepared to fight for the capital, stopped short. French President Nicolas Sarkozy then negotiated a flawed ceasefire. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to France and Georgia with fighting still flaring, worked out corrections to the ceasefire, and obtained Saakashvili’s signature.

Putin wanted at a minimum to slap down Georgia, and at maximum to get rid of Saakashvili and put Georgia under de facto Kremlin control. Saakashvili, talented but mercurial, had rescued Georgia from the verge of becoming a failed state. Elected President in January 2004 after the first of the post-Soviet “color revolutions” the previous December, Saakashvili improved the economy, launched major reforms, and pushed hard for Georgia to advance toward eventual NATO membership. He also refused to accept Russian de facto control over two breakaway Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and engaged in a shadow conflict there.

Putin wanted Saakashvili gone but Georgia did not collapse. The Bush administration in the US, with the help of then-Senator and Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden, organized a financial rescue package. Saakashvili remained President of Georgia until voted out of office in 2012, and presided over a peaceful transfer of power.

The conflict provided a number of lessons. First, Putin was prepared to start a war in order to force a country that he regarded as within Russia’s sphere of influence to heel. Putin repeated this with Ukraine in 2014. Second, the US was not able to prevent the conflict (though it tried), but was able to prevent Putin from destroying Georgian sovereignty in the immediate aftermath. The US was able to do much the same for Ukraine: it could not reverse Russia’s immediate gains in Ukraine, but did help Ukraine prevent Putin from destroying Ukrainian sovereignty.

Thirdly, while Georgia successfully defended its sovereignty with US and European support, it did not use the time gained to strengthen the country from within. Saakashvili’s successor, the Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, won election by capitalizing on Saakashvili’s shortcomings, but has neither continued Saakashvili’s most successful reforms nor launched his own. Georgia’s politics have drifted, with Russian influence slowly growing. Ukraine has done somewhat better maintaining, albeit unevenly, its own reforms, even though it remains under even greater threat of Russian aggression than Georgia.

The bottom line is this: Georgia, like Ukraine, fought to maintain its sovereignty. But it is unclear what they will do with the time that their patriots gained for them. The ultimate winner of the Russo-Georgian War is not yet clear.

Brian Whitmore, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia, occupied 20 percent of its territory, and got away with it. As a result, today we are all Georgians, in the sense that we are all victims of various forms of Russian aggression emanating from an emboldened Kremlin. The August 2008 invasion of Georgia was a Beta test for future aggression against Russia’s neighbors and a dry run for the tactics and strategies that would later be deployed in the 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Another important lesson from the invasion of Georgia is that we need to pay close attention to what Russia does to its neighbors because this is often a harbinger of what Moscow will soon be doing to the West. When Russian forces attacked Georgia on the night of August 7-8, 2008, it was preceded by a cyberattack, a disinformation campaign, and an all-out effort to meddle in that country’s domestic politics. These are all tactics that are now very familiar to the United States and its allies. Thirteen years ago, a new era of Kremlin aggression began and it went unchecked. Today we are paying the price.

Peter Dickinson is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Georgian soldiers seek cover near a blazing residential building following a Russian bombardment in Gori. August 9, 2008. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)