2008: Geopolitical Tremors and a Changing of the Guard

2008: Geopolitical Tremors and a Changing of the Guard
Sergei Chirikov


The brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia was the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union that the Russian military was used against an independent state demonstrating Russia’s willingness to carry out a major military campaign to achieve a political objective.  It would expose the divide between Western and Eastern Europe in their relationships with Russia.  The controversy centered on two regions: South Ossetia and Abkhazia.   

These regions lie between the Russian North Caucasus area and the Middle East creating a buffer zone between it and Russia.  The strategic importance of the region had made it a security concern for Russia while many oil pipelines and facilities are also located here.   Russia viewed the Black Sea coast and being adjacent to Turkey as invaluable assets.  Access to the Black Sea was important to Russia and Abkhazia was, therefore, more important.  South Ossetia became, to Putin, simply a blade to hold over the neck of Georgia.

One of Russia’s first acts involving Georgia was enacting a new visa regime.  In 2002, Putin initiated the massive grant of passports to residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia without Georgian approval.  Called “passportization,” this later provided an excuse to Russia for future dalliance in the areas.  

There was an unsteady truce until 2004.  In that year, in Georgia’s Rose Revolution, Mikhail Saakashvili came to power and ousted Edouard Shevardnadze.  One of his first orders of business was to reunite South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Georgia.    

By 2008, almost all the residents of these areas had obtained Russian passports.  Additionally, Russia supplied 67% of the South Ossetian budget by this time while their de facto government predominantly hired Russian citizens who occupied similar positions in Russia.  In 2008, South Ossetia and Abkhazia submitted a formal request to the Russian parliament recognizing their independence after Western countries recognized the independence of Kosovo.  Sending a warning shot, Russia said that if Georgia sought NATO membership, Russia would recognize the request of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Then in July, NATO and Russia held parallel military exercises in the Caucasus.

What resulted was the worst outbreak in hostilities since South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia in 1992.   Before open hostilities broke out, Saakashvili was the head of the most rapidly developing military force among former Soviet states.  Further, he was living up to his reputation domestically as a reformer by tackling corruption, downsizing the bureaucracy, and improving the economy.  Georgia was becoming a success story among former Soviet states.   After the 2004 Rose revolution, Russian elites, many of whom had Putin’s ear, believed Saakshavili had become part of an American project to have NATO encircle Russia. 

In April 2008, Putin had been invited to a NATO meeting in Bucharest where he bluntly stated that a NATO force on Russia’s doorstep would be viewed as a threat to their security.  The rhetoric was not appreciated in most Western capitals.     

Fighting broke out as most people were tuned into the Summer Olympics in Beijing.  Both Bush and Putin were in China at the time.  Some later accused Mikhail Saakashvili of starting hostilities to coincide with the Olympics.  Others say the same of Russia.  

At the outset of hostilities, world leaders called for a halt in fighting fearing a small regional war would soon escalate into something larger.  An emergency session of the UN Security Council was convened to discuss the issue.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Russian troops to retreat and respect the territorial integrity of Georgia.  

The war was accompanied by a media battle between the two countries.  Television reports showed Russia in a favorable light and the broadcasts were aired in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Although this played well in Russia, the efforts had little effect internationally.  Russian hackers attacked Georgian government and media websites.  It is estimated that Russia spent millions on these efforts to blame Georgia for the hostilities, and the media and cyber attacks coincided with the shooting.

The hacking was achieved by an army of citizen patriot hackers who doled out targeted Denial of Service attacks and website defacements which were similar to those that attacked Estonia in 2007 and were traced to Russia.  About 35% of Georgia’s internet functionality was targeted with the greatest effect coming between August 8 and 10th as Russian forces were entering South Ossetia.  As with previous cyber attacks in Estonia, it was difficult to definitively place blame on the Russian government although it is likely they encouraged it.  The cyber attacks had no decisive effect on the battlefield, but they do show the face of modern warfare.  By impeding the ability of Georgia to react, respond, and communicate, it bought precious time for Russia to control the international narrative early in the campaign.

The brief war in Georgia showed Russia’s assertiveness in revising international relations and undermining American power.  Russian president Medvedev introduced a doctrine that said Russia would defend Russian citizens wherever they lived. The presence of Russian citizens in other countries would be used as a pretext for military action if Russia believed the lives, safety, or security of Russian citizens was threatened.  The invasion also put to rest the notion of Georgia joining NATO.  Since the invasion, the two regions have become essentially Russian military bases.  

Few people realized it at the time, but this brief war heralded an important transition in international politics.  It signaled the end of the post-Cold War era.  Moscow demonstrated the will and ability to contest the US vision of security in Europe, led by NATO, while also vetoing expansion at their back door.  The historical significance of this brief war has been greatly underestimated.

In effect, Russia set up Mikhail Saakashvili into initiating hostilities against their presence in South Ossetia.  Saakashvili walked down the path because of his own ambitions.  He was motivated to take over contested territory; Putin was motivated to take out Saakashvili.  Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary at the time, noted that Russia baited a trap and Georgia walked right into it.  Rice later confided that she warned Georgia of Russia’s ambitions and goals and said that NATO was not likely to come to their aid like they did in the Balkans.  Instead, Washington believed it could control Georgia in a crisis situation.  What was really lost on the battlefield were not military equipment and men, but the idealistic belief Russia would come to accept the security framework the US had established in Europe with NATO at the tip of the spear.  The US view of a “whole, free, and at peace” Europe was mugged out of existence by Russian aggression.

It also illustrated a fatal weakness in the Western alliance- uncertainty within NATO about a commitment to Ukraine and Georgia.  The EU was reluctant because of its reliance on Russian oil and natural gas.  The United States was reluctant to get drawn into a protracted foreign war with strong ethnic overtones.  The war affected all the former Soviet republics as Russia started to regain its sphere of influence.  It sent a chilling message to countries like Moldova, Armenia, and Azerbaijan who all had their own conflicts to worry about.  All these countries had large Russian-speaking populations.

Russia was acutely aware of American politics when hostilities came to a head in August.  Bush was a lameduck President and the next one would be either Obama or McCain.  Russia was betting on Obama and he did not let them down on the campaign trail.  When asked, Obama called for a UN mediator to monitor the conflict, for international forums to condemn the aggression and even for Georgia to refrain from using force even after Russia managed to occupy one-third of the republic.  Obama’s reaction was one of indecision and moral equivalence.  It was music to Putin’s ears.

Next: Hillary, Barack and the 2008 campaign


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