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How One Small War Dealt a Hammer Blow to East-West Relations

Russia drew valuable lessons from its easy victory over Georgia in the 2008 war.

9 August 2018

On the 10th anniversary of the Georgian-Russian war, analysts from both countries suggest the recent rift between the West and Russia might never have opened but for that brief, one-sided clash.

 

Escalating rhetoric over several months preceded the outbreak of full-scale hostilities on 8 August 2008. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s pledge to regain control of the Russian-supported breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – on top of his policy of joining NATO – left little room for compromise after Moscow’s decision in the spring to establish direct ties with the two regions and send troops into Abkhazia, echoing Tbilisi’s similar move two years before.

 

Today as then, the Kremlin bitterly opposes Georgia’s NATO membership bid.

 

“This could provoke a terrible conflict. I don’t understand what they are doing this for,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently told the Kommersant newspaper, Reuters reports.

 

Medvedev was Russian president during the war.

 

Map of the Caucaus

 

Yet it was the experience of 2008 and its drubbing by Russia that pushed Georgia towards a pro-Western policy for good, Tbilisi State University political scientist Kornely Kakachia told Civil.ge: 

 

“If before the war, some part of the society had illusions on coexistence with the Russian Federation, thought Moscow would not take such steps against Georgia and expected that the two states could have normal relations, the myth was broken after the war. Since then, Georgia’s integration with the West became irreversible, including with NATO and the European Union.”

 

For Moscow, the main lesson from the war was not to throw its weight around too freely. Its quick decision to recognize the breakaway regions as independent states backfired. Only a handful of minor nations have followed suit, and even close allies Belarus and Kazakhstan have never endorsed the decision.

 

“Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia annoyed Western countries but there was a feeling this was a situation that would not be repeated and Russia was forgiven. But that was the last time when Russia was forgiven,” political analyst Alexei Malashenko told AFP.

 

“Relations between Russia and the West cannot be changed any more. That ship has sailed,” he said.

 

This explains why Moscow has not recognized the independence of Ukraine’s separatist regions, Andrei Suzdaltsev of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

 

Russian analyst Konstantin Kalachev said the Georgia war was a “first attempt” that shaped the Kremlin’s future policy.

 

“If it was not for the operation in South Ossetia, the annexation of Crimea could not have happened,” he added.

 

 

  • A ceasefire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy took effect on 12 August, although Russian forces continued to advance deep into Georgian territory, entering the central city of Gori on 13 August.

 

  • By 22 August most Russian troops had pulled back into Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia recognized them as independent states on 26 August.

 

  • Moscow strenuously opposes NATO membership even for countries far from its borders such as Macedonia and Montenegro.

Compiled by Ky Krauthamer

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