Moscow’s tried and tested Georgia strategy now tailored for Ukraine
Russian armour at the railway station in Rostov, Russia, on Wednesday. Photograph: EPA
Russia exploited the same methods, strategy and logic, and the same reliance on western passivity, in its 2008 war with Georgia and the present crisis in Ukraine.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s fear that more former Soviet republics would join western military alliance Nato was at the origin of both conflicts. He stoked tension over months, during which Russia or its local separatist allies shelled villages and took pot-shots at government forces in the hope of provoking an attack that would justify Russian intervention.
In Ukraine as in Georgia, there have been absurd allegations of a genocide against Russian-speakers.
An energetic French president holding the rotating presidency of the EU – Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, Emmanuel Macron at present – attempted to mediate. The Georgian war coincided with the Olympic games in Beijing. In the case of Ukraine, Putin paid his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping the courtesy of waiting until the completion of the games to deepen the crisis by recognising the independence of the “peoples’ republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
In 2008, Russia recognised the “peoples’ republics” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia when the shooting war ended. More than 13 years later, Russia still occupies 20 per cent of Georgia’s territory.
The war in Georgia was also seen as a threat to European energy supplies; petrol from the Caspian Sea and Russian natural gas. In 2008, the EU imported a quarter of its natural gas from Russia. Europe has since increased its dependency on Russian gas to 40 per cent of its consumption.
Westerners may tune in and out of the crises and conflicts initiated by Russia. For those living in the shadow of the former USSR, fear and intimidation are constant. When I arrived in Tbilisi to cover the 2008 war for this newspaper, a Georgian university professor told me that he lectured on the 1956 and 1968 Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. “Georgia 2008 is next in the series,” he said. “If the Russians take over Georgia, they will do the same again to Ukraine, and maybe Poland and the Baltic states.”
First Georgians, now Ukrainians, feel betrayed by US and Nato admissions that they cannot, and will not, intervene militarily. The alliance created to stop Soviet expansion appears powerless to thwart Putin’s strategy to reassert Russian influence.
“If we know how to be patient, they will grow weary and come back wanting to talk to us about strategic security and stability,” Dmitri Medvedev told a Russian security council meeting on Donbas on Monday, as quoted by Le Monde. (In 2008, Medvedev was filling in as Russia’s president, to allow then prime minister Putin to seek re-election later.) “Russia must recognise the independence of the Donbas republics,” continued Medvedev. “Experience shows that tension will subside.”
There are differences between the two conflicts. In 2008, the US and Georgia were led by reckless presidents; George W Bush and Mikheil Saakashvili. Four months before the war, Bush insisted that a Nato summit in Bucharest invite Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance. At French and German insistence, no date was set.
“Russia could have seen the Franco-German brake on the expansion of Nato as a positive thing,” says Dimitri Minic, a research fellow of the Russia and Newly Independent States centre at the French institute for international relations Ifri. “But they preferred to interpret it as confirmation of the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine.”
Saakashvili allowed himself to be provoked into firing salvoes of Grad missiles at the South Ossetian “capital” Tskhinvali, giving Russia a pretext to invade. The Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy is far more circumspect. Ukraine’s restraint and sangfroid are constantly praised by western leaders.
Following Russia’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk this week, the Élysée called Putin paranoid. Minic, who wrote his doctoral thesis on Russian strategic thought, says it is essential to understand “the perception of the strategic environment by Russian politico-military elites, of whom Putin is the embodiment”.
This perception is characterised by two central beliefs, Minic continues: “The first is that the outside world is profoundly hostile to Russia, and the second is that the US is omniscient and omnipotent . . . Any event perceived to threaten Russia is seen as the result of malevolent intentions or a western plot.”
The 2008 war was a turning point. Although they were dwarfed by the Russian army, Georgian forces did a surprising amount of damage. The Russian army underwent extensive reforms “to make it more flexible, more dynamic, more efficient and better able to engage in conflicts in Russia’s ‘near abroad’, that is to say the territories of the former Soviet Union”, says Minic.
More recently, the US learned from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Washington has publicised intelligence information on Russian troop strength, the possibility of “false flag” operations which Russia would attribute to Ukrainian government forces and the imminence of Russian moves. “This campaign of deterrence pulled the rug out from under Russia, by depriving it of surprise,” says Minic. “It threw them off balance”.
There is one major difference between 2008 and 2022 though, says a source with experience of both conflicts. The Georgian war was small scale and lasted less than a week. “This is strategic. This is global. It’s about the entire security order of post-cold war Europe.”
Putin is throwing into question all the treaties and agreements that invited the former East bloc countries into the ideological framework of the West.