Even though the Ukraine crisis has significantly overshadowed the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, the frozen conflict in the Caucasus continues to have important implications for Russian foreign policy.
The Russo-Georgian conflict is a complex multilayer phenomenon directly linked to the process of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the formation of the nation states that replaced it. Pictured: Pro-Georgian demonstrators wave flags outside of an EU summit in Brussels in 2008. Photo: AP
Seven years ago in August 2008, the lingering Georgian-Ossetian conflict spilled over into a five-day war between the Russian army and regular Georgian units. Today, although largely overshadowed by events in Ukraine and the Middle East, these events in the South Caucasus continue to impact the way politicians and experts view Russian foreign policy.
In August 2008 a new status quo began to take shape in the South Caucasus. The recognition of independence for two former autonomous territories of the Georgian SSR was an important consequence, marking the first time since the Belavezha Accords that statehood had been granted to an entity that had not been a union republic at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Hence, the “August topic” had already acquired significance ahead of this year’s anniversary, due to the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine, which has become a symbol of the struggle for influence in the entire former Soviet Union as a whole.
The standoff has been accompanied by a flow of critical statements about “Russian revisionism” and Moscow’s responsibility for the destabilization in Europe. At the same time, the events of seven years ago are conveniently embedded into this scheme, which are now perceived as a kind of “trial balloon” on the part of the Kremlin.
Let’s try to understand the extent to which this perception reflects reality by taking as the starting point the allegation of “Russian military aggression” in 2008. Frankly speaking, it would be more correct to speak of “military intervention” or “direct involvement in the conflict.” In either case, this involvement or intervention did not suddenly arise seven years ago. By August 2008 it had been rumbling for nearly two decades, with varying degrees of Russian participation.
It should be recalled that Russian peacekeepers (which former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili would later describe as “occupiers”) were deployed in South Ossetia with the consent of official Tbilisi, which signed the Dagomys Agreements on June 24, 1992. No one declared this legal instrument null and void until August 2008. Moreover, it formed the basis of the mandate for the OSCE mission in Georgia. Having put its signature to the Dagomys Agreements, Tbilisi effectively recognized the alienation of part of its sovereignty over the disputed territory.
The 1992 Agreements conferred supreme sovereignty over the “cool” hot spot on the quadripartite Joint Control Commission (JCC), while the peacekeeping operation was to be carried out by a mixed peacekeeping force comprised of both Russian and Georgian battalions. These Agreements also explicitly prohibited all parties (including Tbilisi) from imposing economic sanctions or blockades, setting up humanitarian obstacles, or hindering the return of refugees. Peacekeepers were even given the right to “take all measures to localize armed clashes and eliminate bandits in districts and villages in the territory of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Region outside the conflict zone and the safety corridor.”
What triggered the conflict? Not the Georgian army’s attack on Tskhinvali in August 2008, but official Tbilisi’s unilateral attempts to tear up the legal foundation for settling the conflict. They began in May 31, 2004, when, under the pretext of combating smugglers in South Ossetia, and without consulting the JCC, the Georgian Interior Ministry sent Special Forces (approximately 300 soldiers) into South Ossetia.
All JCC members, with the exception of Tbilisi, regarded it as a breach of the Dagomys Agreements. There followed an avalanche of statements and mutual accusations, resulting in bloodshed inside the conflict zone for the first time since 1992.
Unlike Abkhazia, for 12 years South Ossetia had enjoyed a relatively stable truce, offering peace a chance. Incidentally, in pre-2004 South Ossetia (again, unlike Abkhazia) Russian “passportization” was not particularly active. But the policy itself was popular simply because it gave people certain human rights, such as the right to cross the border and to receive medical treatment and education outside the de facto entities.
But the haste with which Georgian politicians began to “unfreeze” the conflict, with no proper condemnation by its Western allies, prevented the policy from being implemented. Moreover, the highly selective attitude to the legal aspects of the settlement of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict (supplemented by the unilateral actions of the West in the Balkans over the same period) only strengthened the Russian establishment’s view that the true yardstick should not be talk about values, but rather, force and realpolitik.
Today, criticism of “Russian revisionism” in Crimea should be tempered by memories of the “revisionist attempts” of 2004-2008 and the “unfreezing” of the ethno-political conflicts in the Caucasus.
Add to that the domestic political dimension. In the early 1990s, the first phase of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict in North Ossetia (i.e. on Russian soil) saw the arrival of thousands of Ossetian refugees not only from South Ossetia, but also from inner regions in Georgia. They made up 16 percent of the total population of North Ossetia at that time.
This factor was the main culprit for “warming up” the Ossetian-Ingush conflict in Russia in 1992. Needless to say that the logical conclusion of Georgia’s “anti-separatist operations” (announced seven years earlier by Georgian General Mamuka Kurashvili in a TV broadcast) was an exacerbation of the Ossetian-Ingush problems.
Hence, Russia was not short of rational grounds for delivering a strong response. The discrepancy between national interests in any particular region and the ability to properly formulate and promote them was another matter entirely.
Unfortunately, many of Moscow’s actions in August 2008 backfired, particularly the attempts to copy the information methods employed by the Americans in Kosovo or during the “campaign against terrorism.” Instead of a clear, consistent focus on Russian interests, there were histrionic sound bites about “genocide,” “our September 11,” etc. Substantive reasoning was replaced by propagandist verbiage.
Last but not least, the rhetoric today often draws parallels between South Ossetia 2008 and Crimea 2014. But it is worth noting that even after the five-day war, in which Ukraine’s third president Viktor Yushchenko supported his Georgian counterpart Saakashvili’s South Ossetian operation, the Kremlin’s official position on Ukraine did not change significantly.
The statement by Vladimir Putin (then Russian prime minister) in an interview with German broadcaster ARD on August 30, 2008, is a case in point: “Crimea is not a disputed territory.” Moreover, in October 2008 the Russian-Ukrainian Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation was extended for another ten years.
Violation of this agreement, as well as the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, was not an end in itself for Moscow prior to 2014. And it did not occur in a political vacuum. What is even more, it was not some kind of continuation of the trend of South Ossetia.
In many ways, the Kremlin’s actions in Crimea were a reaction to the events of “Maidan-2” in Kiev and the attempts to change the status quo in a Russian region of interest without regard to those interests. One can argue about whether Moscow’s response was proportional, as well as the extent to which it contradicted international law and created additional risks for Russian policy itself.
But, as in the case of the Caucasus, it was rather a reaction to certain alterations in the customary alignment of forces that seemed to pose a threat (explicit or potential). The response in both 2008 and 2014 was determined not according to general purpose schemes, but rather, the particular set of circumstances in each instance.
All of this suggests that the events of “hot August” were a complex multilayer phenomenon directly linked to the process of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the formation of the nation states that replaced it. The personal factor (in the form of Putin and Saakashvili), though present, was not paramount.
It is still too early to judge whether Russia won or lost strategically. Many risky steps and decisions were taken that defy clear explanation. In solving one set of problems through taking military and political custody of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Kremlin created another one, which requires separate treatment.
And that applies in equal measure to the “Ukrainian decisions” of the last two years. But it would not be amiss to balance the harsh claims against Moscow with an analysis of its reasons—one that is not based upon clearly defined schema, but sifts through the nuances of Russian domestic and foreign policy.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.