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Georgian troops in combat in the 2008 war. Photo: Georgian Press Center

Suggested readings

The most recent book on the war by Ronald Asmus, A little War that shook the world – Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West (2010) argues that one of the causes of the war was Russian fear of Georgian success:

"Russia deeply opposed and resented Georgia's effort to escape its historic sphere of influence and anchor itself to the West. It feared the impact that Georgia's pro-Western democratic experiment could, if successful, have in the Southern Caucasus and potentially across the border in the Northern Caucasus within Russia itself." (p. 8)

On Georgia's post-war plans, Asmus writes:

" … Tbilisi must set aside any hope of regaining the lost provinces for the foreseeable future. It must settle on a long-term non-recognition policy coordinated with the international community that can endure for years if not decades …instead, Tbilisi must focus its energies on regaining the passion for reform and democracy at home that made it so attractive originally. Georgian leaders must take the part of the country they currently control and again turn it into a democratic and reform tiger, the current economic and financial downturn notwithstanding." (p. 231)

For Asmus, the real reason behind the war was the wish by Moscow to kill any chance of NATO expansion to the Caucasus. While he admits that the Georgian leadership made mistakes it was this wider geopolitical struggle over spheres of influence that led to the fighting in August 2008.

Following the war, the European Union also grappled with trying to understand the causes of the war. It appointed Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini Head of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (IIFFMCG – CEIIG). CEIIG was mandated with investigating the instigators of the 2008 Georgia-Russia war.

The report from this investigation was published in September 2009 in two volumes: Volume I and Volume II. The report looked back to the period of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 to find traces to explain the 2008 war. It noted that while Georgia was at fault for initiating the fighting that led to the 2008 war, Russia had been engaging in provocations for years and had responded disproportionately.

A good overview of different aspects of the fighting is a book edited by Svante E. Cornell and S. Frederick Starr, The Guns of August 2008: Russia's War in Georgia, (2009).

In one essay, Thomas Goltz sums up the background story of "the downward trajectory of Georgia from its status as one of the most pleasant and prosperous places in the entire USSR, to becoming, within a decade, the very paradigm of a failed state" (p. 16). Thornike Goradze looks at the deterioration of Russian-Georgian relations under Shevardnadze.

The book contains an article by Andrei Illarionov, a vocal critic of the Kremlin, in which he argues that Russia had long been preparing for the war with Georgia:

"Russian authorities had been making preparations for war over the span of nearly one decade … by supplying South Ossetia with heavy military equipment in February 2003, including twelve t-55 tanks, the Russian government deliberately chose a military solution to the conflict with Georgia." (p. 50)

Illarionov describes the first official meeting of Putin and Saakashvili:

"On February 11, 2004, the first meeting between Putin and the newly elected Saakashvili took place in Moscow. The Russian president made two requests of his Georgian colleague: first, to refrain from demanding the withdrawal of Russian military bases in Georgia; and second "to take care of (i.e. to keep in place) Georgia's Minister of State Security, Valery Khaburdzania. Back in Tbilisi, five days later, Saakashvili announced radical reforms of the ministry of State security." (p. 55)

Illarionov also draws attention to Russian deliveries of weapons to South Ossetia and Abkhazia: "by the beginning of 2008, the two breakaway regions had received at no cost more than twice the military equipment possessed by Georgia." (p. 60)

Niklas Nilsson's essay describes how "by 2006 the significant and for all practical purposes exaggerated hopes that Georgia would turn into a consolidated democracy in a few years started to fade, both domestically and internationally" (p. 95). He also argues that Georgia's national security strategy is "closely tied to Western support for Georgian interests. This support is in turn linked to Georgia's ability to continue delivering on reform and democratisation"; which entails "delivering on the promises of democratisation" (p. 103). Overall, The Guns of August 2008 is another must-read book on Georgia.

Cornell wrote another piece with Johanna Popjanevski and Niklas Nilsson which summarizes the arguments of "Guns of August": "Russia's War in Georgia: Causes and Implications for Georgia and the World" (2008), Institute for Security and Development Policy.

Jörg Himmelreich, in "Missing from the Georgia Report," New York Times, 2 October 2009, argues that the Tagliavini report left out of its analysis the "decisive role that the United States played before, during and after the conflict."

The Human Rights Watch report, "Up in Flames, Humanitarian Law Violations and Civilian Victims, in the Conflict over South Ossetia", January 23, 2009 also looks back at the events in August.

A number of contributors in open democracy also wrote about the war and its aftermath. These include Donald Rayfield (2007), Russia vs. Georgia: a war of perceptions"; Ghia Nodia (2008), "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future"; George Hewitt (2008), "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution", 19 August 2008: Robert Parsons (2008), "Georgia after war: the political landscape"; Ivan Sukhov (2008), "Russia: how the new 'cold war' plays at home"; Ivan Krastev (2008), "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap"; Tanya Lokshina (2008) "A month after the war"; Ghia Nodia (2008), "Russian war and Georgian democracy", Ivan Krastev (2009), "The guns of August: non-event with consequences"; Zygmunt Dzieciolowski (2009) "Tbilisi: Twenty Hours Before the War"; Alexei Levinson (2009), "Russian public opinion and the Georgia war."

For a realist perspective on Russia under Putin, see Michael Stuermer's Putin and the Rise of Russia (2008). Stuermer is a German historian and conservative commentator who has a regular column in the daily Die Welt. Describing the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, Stuermer writes in the post-script to this book:

"Russia has drawn a red line to be respected not only by a small neighbour, but also by the Europeans and by the imperial power from beyond the sea … The paramount objective is to keep NATO and the US at a distance … Politics is seen as a zero sum game and it is not for the faint hearted … But it is not too early to pose the question as to who are the winners and who are the losers. On the losing side the Georgian president figures prominently. He failed to settle the problem of those breakaway … He has also compromised, probably for a long time to come, the chances of Georgia becoming an associate member of the two foremost Western clubs, EU and Nato … The [EU] is among the losers … In strategic crisis management, Europe is essentially unable to translate economic clout into political negotiating power." (p.224,225)

Georgian political scientist Ghia Nodia also provides his take on Russia's foreign policy in the April 2009 article in the Journal of Democracy under the title "The Wounds of Lost Empire." Nodia writes:

"The feeling of resentment, rather than some rational calculation of national self-interest of a type familiar to Westerners, is the major explanatory factor behind many of the steps that Russia has been taking in the international arena."… "Striking at Georgia certainly brought psychological satisfaction …."

"If Russia has become more autocratic, Russians appear to like it that way. Why? … the 1990s were not merely a time when individuals lost their pensions: they were a time when the nation lost its superpower status. … The situation of Russia's democratic Westernizers contrasted starkly with that of their counterparts in neighboring countries, who were able to combine veneration of Western models with nationalist assertions of sovereignty."

"In the appeal to values, Russia sees only hypocrisy and a secret anti-Russian agenda. Russia lacks the strength and daring to challenge the contemporary international order in its entirety. But Russia is ready to challenge that order as much as it can get away with it …"

Former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar addressed the August 2008 war in his article in The New York Times, "Stop That Bear," saying that it was emblematic of Russia's intent to make Eastern Europe "subservient" to its own interests. Laar argued that there was "no return to the status quo" between Russia and the West:

"Until Russian tanks rolled across the Caucasus it was common in parts of Europe to put tensions with Moscow down to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings. Warnings from new European Union member states on Russia's growing aggressiveness were not heeded. Prospects for an improvement in relations were talked up with reassuring phrases about "common values," 'enhanced dialogue' and 'strategic partnership', as if the only thing missing was a bit of diplomatic effort on our part.

For the sake of Europe, we must now dispose of these illusions. This was not an 'accidental war', as some prefer to see it. It was the culmination of a deliberate strategy by Russia to undermine the sovereignty and independence of its neighbors and to begin to restore its former sphere of influence by force. It is wishful thinking to imagine that Russia's ambitions are limited to South Ossetia or even Georgia."

For an example of how the Russian expert community viewed the August 2008 war, see the article entitled "Regional Conflicts Reloaded" (November 2008) by Sergei Markedonov, a leading expert on the Caucasus. The article provides a detailed analysis of the developments in South Ossetia from the late 1980's to present times, as well as of the implications of the August 2008 events for Russia and the CIS.

Dmitri Trenin, a renowned Russian expert affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, addressed Russia's role in the Caucasus in his 2009 article "Russia and the Caucasus: Reversing the Tide." He argued that the conflict between Russia and Georgia underscored the greater rivalry between Russia and the United States, and that Russia was not going to tolerate what it saw as "crossing the red line":

"Provoked, Moscow decided to deliver a full-scale armed response. Its message—for Washington as much as for Tbilisi—was: red lines are real, and they mark the border between peace and war. Russian forces did not merely engage another country's military. They fought against a quasi-ally of the United States, which had equipped, trained, and advised the Georgian military."

In Trenin's opinion, Russia was trying to teach Georgia a "lesson" on respecting the spheres of influence:

"Russia will not even consider a serious dialogue with Georgia while Saakashvili is in power. When and if there is a different leadership, Moscow will explore whether the new people in power in Tbilisi have learned the lesson of the August war. To the Russian 'teachers', the lesson cannot be clearer: mind your geography. One cannot live next to a big country, such as Russia, and openly flout its interests. In plain language, this means: forget about NATO membership, institutionalize your nonaligned status, and forbid any stationing of foreign forces in your territory. EU accession, on the other hand, is your business: Russia will not stand in your way, but this will take a very long time."

The geopolitical events of August 2008 put in question the ability of the Georgian government to deliver on its promises of economic revival in the country whose recent growth was fuelled by the inflow of FDI. In the article "Georgia's challenge now is to protect its faltering economic revival", ESI analysts Gerald Knaus and Besa Shahini write:

"Recent economic policy has been to promote Georgia as a centre of trade, to invest in the tourism infrastructure and to pursue specialisation opportunities in banking and finance. Georgia's young prime minister, Lado Gurgenidze, came to politics from the banking sector less than a year ago and has been articulate about this strategy. Warning that in order to address the huge trade deficit Georgia urgently needed to increase its exports – which amount to less than a third of the country's GDP – he listed those sectors that have the potential to do so: financial institutions, transport, tourism, hydro-electricity and food processing. All of these sectors require FDI and Gurgenidze said he hoped to attract $10-20bn in the coming five years, adding that he expected to achieve this 'if we maintain stability'. Here then is the Georgian dilemma following Russia's recent aggression: Can this strategy still work?"

Knaus and Shahini argue that Georgia needs to shift the emphasis from military build-up to strategic engagement with its neighbors:

"To focus on banking and trade, to promote an image as a gateway to the Caucasus region and to promote social spending over defence all suggest a 21st century development strategy. This is hard to reconcile with Georgia's preoccupation to recover lost territory through a military build-up, however legitimate this aspiration has seemed to successive Georgian governments. To 'turn Georgia into the Dubai or Singapore of this region' as President Saakashvili has put it requires stable relations with his country's main neighbours."

April 2010

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