Russians in Tskhinvali

Remembering The Russo-Georgian War

Russians in Tskhinvali

Until 2008, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Russian Federation in 1991, Russia had been involved in eight conflicts, five of which were foreign civil wars in the previous Soviet sphere of influence and three were domestic conflicts.

The Russo-Georgian war was significantly different from those wars because it marked the first time Russia had invaded another sovereign state since the collapse of communism.

The conflict marked the end of the post-cold war period and in the eyes of many in the west the sight of Russian tanks rolling over its neighbour’s borders initiated a ‘cold war reflex’, serving as an important marker in Russia-US relations and European security.

Hostilities started on the August 6, 2008, although the official anniversary is often marked on the 8th when the Georgian military started shelling South Ossetia in the early hours of the morning.

Around 1000 people were killed in the five days of fighting and thousands more were forced to flee their homes.

In the past 13 years, Russia has further integrated South Ossetia and Abkhazia into its sphere of influence, placing military bases there and going as far as incentivising the residents with Russian citizenship.

The conflict proved to be a turning point that has seen Russia act more militarily emboldened on the world stage and in its ‘Near Abroad’, as exemplified through Russia's military involvement in Syria and the annexation of Crimea.

In Russia, the events of August 2008 are known as ‘The Armed Conflict in South Ossetia’, whereas in the west, the conflict is referred to as the Russo-Georgian War.

Despite open hostilities lasting not more than five days, it took the lives of more than 1,000 people and therefore could be considered a war – the first on the European continent in the 21st century.

Questions over who was the ‘aggressor’ and what were the events leading up to August 8th remain until this day.

Russian Spetsnaz in Georgia 2008.  Copyright Alexei Yermolov
Russian Spetsnaz in Georgia 2008. Copyright Alexei Yermolov

The Road To War

During the time of the USSR, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were autonomous regions that were part of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic – essentially part of Georgia.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, centuries-old ethnic tensions and nationalism came bubbling to the surface across the multi-ethnic territory of the 15 Soviet Republics.

South Ossetia is populated by an ethnically distinct minority who wanted to separate from Georgia, resulting in a conflict of succession from 1989 to 1992. A similar situation erupted in Abkhazia from 1992 to 1993, with Georgia accusing Abkhazia of systematically deporting ethnic Georgians from the region.

Apart from several skirmishes along the border, the conflicts remained frozen for 15 years. However, it did secure Russia’s place as a guarantor of peace and security within the region.

The agreements that ended the post-cold war conflicts saw Russia station several hundred peacekeepers in South Ossetia and 3,000 in Abkhazia.

Prior to the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, Russia had officially recognised the two autonomous regions as part of Georgia. However, in reality, both were militarily propped up by Russia and financially dependent on the country.

The frozen conflict thawed with the events of the Rose Revolution that saw Mikheil Saakashvili become the President of Georgia in a bloodless takeover of power in 2004.

Young, bold and US-educated Saakashvili had clear ambitions for what he wanted to happen to the rebellious enclaves bordering Russia – he wanted them back completely with no middle ground.

Seen as a reformer, Saakashvili’s presidency began on an overwhelmingly positive stride with an influx of new building projects and anti-corruption policies.

His first major success as President was the reigning in of Adjara, another autonomous republic on the Black Sea coast that was known as a criminal haven and private fiefdom of the local leader Aslan Abashidze.

Saakashvili easily brought Adjara under federal control, forcing Abashidze to resign and flee to Russia.

Emboldened by this, Saakashvili’s next move was to recapture South Ossetia with its capital Tskhinvali.

Leading up to 2008 Georgia spent years modernising its armed forces and working on a plan to fully reclaim territories that Georgians believed was truly theirs.

Russia on the other hand, having a stake in both of the separatist regions, was determined to prevent Georgia from claiming the territories by force. Moreover, Russia had its reputation on the world stage to protect, and perhaps could not be seen to simply allow Georgia to take back the territories that were essentially Russian dependencies with a permanent Russian peacekeeping contingent.

Saakashvili and Putin
Saakashvili and Putin in 2006. Credit Alamy

Geopolitical Events Of 2008 Bait The Bear

Earlier in the year, Kosovo gained recognition for its independence. A move that Russia vehemently opposed because of its close political and spiritual alliance with Serbia.

By 2007, Georgia's attempts to subjugate Abkhazia and South Ossetia had become clear. Leaning on the example of Kosovo, authorities of the unrecognized republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia turned to Russia with an official request for recognition of their independence, having previously declared their independence in 1991.

Today South Ossetia is recognised by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria and the tiny island country of Nauru.  

The biggest event that baited Russia that year was NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit which promised Georgia and Ukraine entry into the alliance one day.

This was seen as unacceptable by Russia, becoming more than just a conflict over disputed territories.

Russia made it clear that the expansion of NATO, bring it even closer to Russia’s borders, was not an option. Analysts of the region suggested Russia would make an example of Georgia.

According to Robert M. Gates, the US secretary of defence at the time: “The Russians had baited a trap, and the impetuous Saakashvili walked right into it.”

Accurate or not as that may be, impetuous Saakashvili was no less eager to reclaim the territories and in the early hours of August 8, 2008, the first shots were fired, officially marking the beginning of the war.

Map of Georgia

Five Days Of War And Thirteen Years Later

The Council of the European Union Independent Fact-Finding Mission, led by Heidi Tagliavini ultimately placed the blame of starting the war on Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia.

After firing missiles over the border into South Ossetia, Georgia managed to briefly capture a large chunk of the enclave.

The conflict can be summarised into three stages: first Georgia attacks South Ossetia on August 8th and Russia responds by sending in tanks and air force into the pro-Russian enclave.

Secondly, Russia does not stop at the region’s border, on 11 August Russian troops went into undisputed sovereign Georgian territory, invading Gori and attacking Poti, which are hundreds of kilometres away from the conflict zone.

Lastly, a ceasefire was negotiated on August 12th that called Russia to withdraw from Georgia proper, which they did not do until October.

Today, more than a decade since the conflict, the two regions can be seen as Russian dependencies. Many new buildings in the centre of Tskhinvali have plaques saying: "Built with the financial support of the Russian Federation" as well as other signs saying “Thank you Russia.”

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