Academy Fellow (2013)

Five years since the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, the shifts in the balance of power and perceptions between the West and Russia are clear. But this does not necessarily mean the post-Soviet space will inevitably succumb to Russia's assertiveness. 

The five-day war's significance 

On the fifth anniversary of the war between Russia and Georgia, which was ostensibly over the breakaway province of South Ossetia, it is worth considering how the conflict’s ramifications extended beyond the geographically tiny theatre of hostilities. 

A number of developments gave the war greater international significance. For the first time since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia overtly invaded a neighbouring country, altering the geopolitical landscape. Also for the first time, the European Union assumed the role of mediator and contributed to the cessation of hostilities. 

An impartial picture of the origins of the war is still emerging. For some, Russia was decidedly the aggressor, having amassed a significant number of troops near the border with Georgia by late July 2008 and having fixed (also by late July) the railway in Abkhazia that provided heavy armaments for Russian paramilitaries to oust Georgians from the border-adjacent Kodori Gorge region. For others, Russia’s acts were substantially facilitated by irresponsible moves and announcements from Georgia’s political and defence leadership. In this vein, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s pledge to re-unify Georgia by the end of his presidency and his appointment of anti-Russia hawks in key positions were contributing factors. 

Higher stakes for Moscow 

The anaemic response to the war by the United States, Georgia’s supposed security guarantor, suggests that Georgia was not considered that important. Even though the EU took a lead role in ending the hostilities, it was neither able nor willing to make Russia honour the hastily concocted 'six-point plan' to end the fighting. As a result, the EU’s political prestige suffered; another triumph for Moscow. EU efforts highlighted the West’s impotence in the face of Russia’s attempts at domination over post-Soviet periphery countries, seen by Moscow as regions of 'privileged interest'. 

To this geographical area in particular, Moscow sent a clear message: times have changed, give up your Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Polls in almost all Eastern European and former-Soviet countries, conducted shortly after the war, showed unease with Moscow's new level of assertiveness and a reduced faith in US and NATO military protection. Meanwhile, polls conducted in the major states of Western Europe showed that more than 50% were against military assistance (effectively invoking Article 5 of the NATO Charter) to the Baltic states and Poland in case Russia attacked them – a sizeable drop from pre-2008 polls. 

Kremlin: the emboldened

Less than a month after the war, the Kremlin's message was articulated in the so-called 'Medvedev Doctrine'. Amid generalities and dry legal language, this lay the notion of 'inadmissibility' of the unipolar (read: US-led) world. Resentment over loss of superpower status meant that slapping Washington in the face became a feature of Russian foreign policy.

Capitalizing on Washington's strategic overextension, Moscow demonstrated its ability to shift the balance of power. Subsequent events attest to this shift. Russia virtually 'reclaimed' Ukraine in early 2010, partially due to insufficient Western backing of Kyiv. A number of strategic industries in Armenia were bought by Russia, curtailing its political independence. The Eurasian Economic Community has been gaining momentum and strengthening institutionally. And after the war, Georgia's domestic political process was derailed, intensifying the authoritarian tendencies of the Georgian leadership, rendering its style disquietingly similar to Putin's 'power vertical'.

All is not lost

However, recent trends in Russia's favour could yet turn out to be temporary. Oil and gas prices could fall hurting the economy; and the US, assuming it extricates itself from its current quagmires, is still the strongest world power, albeit a primus inter pares rather than an unquestioned global leader. Notwithstanding the West’s 'strategic retreats', 102 countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state, compared to just five for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

By the time of the tenth anniversary, the Georgia-Russia war could be seen as just another attempt by Russia to alleviate its phantom pains over lost imperial status.  

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