Forgotten Russian Attack on Georgia: 14 Years After the August War

PeopleOther ♦ Published: August 8, 2022; 21:10 ♦ (Vindobona)

The 2008 Russo-Georgian War was a military conflict in the South Caucasus between Georgia on the one side and Russia and the internationally unrecognized Russian-backed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other. The Caucasus conflict had a major impact on the relationship between the EU and the USA and Russia. At the time, Russia seized the breakaway Georgian republics. 14 years later, Russia has attacked Ukraine and may have similar goals.

The Russian Federation militarily intervened against Georgia in 2008. / Picture: © Wikimedia Commons; Yana Amelina, CC BY-SA 3.0

The 7th of August 2022 marks the 14th anniversary since the Russian Federation militarily intervened in Georgia in 2008.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been de facto independent since the early 1990s, although this was not recognized by any sovereign state worldwide until 2008. Russia attacked Georgia militarily and sealed the secession of the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia. Even today, these regions are de facto independent, but within Russia's total sphere of influence.

The two disputed regions could serve as a template for the fate of the Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics.

Background of the conflict

For Russia, the Caucasus region is considered a "near abroad" in which it claims security interests. But since the 1990s, the West has been expanding its relations with Georgia and other states in the Caucasus. NATO and the EU, in particular, established several partnerships with Georgia.

Russia sees U.S. involvement in Georgia as an attempt to build a unipolar world under U.S. leadership. In 2006, the European Union signed a neighborhood agreement with Georgia similar to those with Armenia and Azerbaijan. The agreement is intended to facilitate the country's access to the European single market.

Russia itself intensified its relations with the Kremlin-loyal breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. Russia also strengthened its economic ties with the breakaway states and supported them militarily, financially and politically. Russia began granting Russian citizenship to Abkhazians and Ossetians. Among other things, states were recognized by Russia as independent, and Russian General Vasily Lunev was appointed defense minister of South Ossetia, according to the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Russia started sending more troops and security personnel to the renegade regions. In June 2008, the OSCE reported almost daily military clashes in the conflict areas.

According to the BBC, Georgia moved tanks, artillery, and troops to the border on August 7. The Georgian Interior Ministry announced that by August 7, more and more Georgian security personnel had fallen victim to rebels and Russian militias in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

On August 8, 2008, the conflict turned into a warlike confrontation. Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev had announced: "countermeasures" against Georgia's "military offensive" at a meeting of the National Security Council in Moscow. Russia then attacked Georgia from the air as well as over land and sea.

According to the Georgian government as well as the investigative commission commissioned by the EU, Russian forces had captured the strategically important city of Gori, which is located only about 100 kilometers west of the capital Tbilisi. In addition, they had occupied the trunk road 60 kilometers from the capital. Thus, they divided the country into two areas. Georgian forces withdrew to protect the capital from capture.

Russian President Medvedev halted the military operation in Georgia on August 12, according to Russian media. The safety of soldiers and citizens was assured and the "Georgian aggressor" punished, he said - warning that they could strike again at any time. The war lasted five days, which is why it is also called the 5-Day War.

Consequences of the 5-Day War

After difficult negotiations, the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev presented a peace plan for the embattled South Caucasus in Moscow on August 12, 2008. The then President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now in a Georgian prison, had also agreed to the EU peace plan.

The peace plan envisaged the final cessation of hostilities between Georgia and Russia and the restoration of the pre-war status quo. In addition, both parties to the conflict were to ensure access to humanitarian aid.

Russia has deployed regular units of the Russian Armed Forces in a "buffer zone" in Georgia. There could be no question of deploying Russian peacekeepers as before since Russia officially represented one of the warring parties in this war.

The withdrawal of all Russian troops from Georgia was to begin no later than ten days after the deployment of at least 200 international observers from the European Union, the UN, and the OSCE in September 2008. Disagreement remained on the issue of recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Medvedev had stated that Russia would not reverse this step. When Russian troops will leave South Ossetia and Abkhazia remains an open question.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia have since been de facto independent as the Republic of South Ossetia and the Republic of Abkhazia, but their sovereignty is recognized internationally by only five states, which would be Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Syria.

Georgia continues to consider South Ossetia and Abkhazia as part of its territory. The then-Russian president recognized the independence of the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Together with the regions of Arzakh, and Transnistria, all of which belonged to the former Soviet Union and are also protected by Russia, South Ossetia forms the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations, or community of non-recognized states, that mutually support each other's aspirations for sovereignty.

As a result of that war, the idea that Russia would eventually embrace the security framework Washington had established in Europe, as well as NATO's role as a primary security agent, was lost.

Great-power politics brutally mugged the normative slogans that underpinned much of U.S. post-Cold War foreign policy, such as the vision for a "whole, free, and peaceful" Europe.

Implications for Ukraine

Many breakaway republics in the post-Soviet space look to Moscow as their protective power and some cases receive substantial support.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia belong together with the regions of Arzakh, and Transnistria to the Moscow-controlled Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations. This community is controlled by the Kremlin.

Also for the Georgian government until today a problem Russia opposes the peace plan and does not let go of its grasp over the seceded areas of Georgia.

Many EU countries, including Austria, in solidarity with Georgia and Ukraine, reminded of the war in 2008.

Especially in the Ukraine war, this fact and the memory of 2008 become significant again. Russia is once again breaking international law and placing great power aspirations on its neighbors.

Moscow wants to expand their alliances with former Soviet States and Regions and uphold their ideals of Russian Hegemony over them. Ukraine is also a victim of Russian hegemonic aspirations in the post-Soviet space.

In the beginning, like in Ukraine, the conflict in Georgia was an exchange of fire between Russian-backed separatists from Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Georgian military. Then, the Russian Federation attacked Georgia to get a foothold in the separatist regions. Since February, Ukraine is a victim of a large-scale Russian invasion too.

One day, the war in Ukraine will end and Russia will participate in the peace talks as it did with Georgia in 2008. In the same way that Russia gained control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it may be able to hold on to Donetsk and Luhansk as well.

Regardless of how the war in Ukraine turns out, one thing is certain, some of the war in Ukraine is reminiscent of Georgia in 2008.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia

Federal Agency for Civic Education Germany

State Agency for Civic Education Baden-Württemberg