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The Return of the Russian-Georgian War

The Return of the Russian-Georgian War

Russian armored vehicles approach the city of Gori, Georgia, August 2008. (Photo: Joao Silva for the New York Times)

Four years after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, the event is back in the news, in Russia if not here. Moreover, it appears to be tied to a power struggle, and the news also resurrects old questions about exactly how that war started.

Understanding the precise order of events is key to understanding the war, but the chronology remains shrouded in mystery. Each side blamed the other; they differed both on facts and on interpretations, and they pointed to different earlier events to justify their own actions as retaliatory. Although the events occurred in the midst of the “information age,” both sides used information as a weapon of war as they issued claims, denials, and counterclaims both during the battles and afterward.

The onset of the war appeared suddenly to those of us in the West who had not been paying attention. In fact, tensions along the border areas had been building for months, and in some respects for years.

The breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had seceded fromGeorgiain the early 1990s, shortly after Georgia seceded from the Soviet Union. At the time, the rest of Georgia was immersed in chaotic fighting among armed gangs vying for control of the state. The secessionists, who claimed to fear for their survival, had been encouraged by Russian troops already stationed in the area (possibly acting without clear authorization in that chaotic period); those troops then stayed on as peacekeepers in both regions and have been there ever since. Moscow did not annex the territories, nor did it recognize them as independent at the time. Yet, in the years leading up to 2008, Moscow’s representatives handed out Russian passports to all takers in the breakaway regions. To be sure, there were many takers; many South Ossetians, for instance, hoped to unite their region with North Ossetia, which had remained within the Russian Federation. In any event, there were no other passports available. Those passports would become the basis forRussia’s later justification that it had to intervene militarily in Georgia to protect its own citizens. (Some commentators, misreading this, assume that the regions are populated by ethnic Russians. That is not the case.)

President Mikheil Saakashvili had been working to reunify the fragmented Georgian state since attaining office in 2004. First he concentrated on the areas already nominally under Georgian authority but in fact dominated by local warlords. Then he sought to lure the separatists back through political and economic engagement as well as military pressure. Russia, for its part, imposed economic sanctions on Georgia and seconded military officers to the separatist governments. In 2006 and 2007 Russian aircraft attacked sites within Georgia. Also in 2007 Russia withdrew from the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), which had restricted how much military equipment it could station near the Caucasus. (There are many issues involved in the CFE and, presumably, in Russia’s decision to leave it, but one consequence was freeing up Russia’s southern flank.)

Thus, provocations and incidents had become commonplace over the course of several years, and they frequently occurred in the summer. These generally produced an annual spike in tensions but not open warfare. Some of the events of 2008 were initially seen as repeating the pattern, but this time the consequences were different. In April 2008 Putin ordered Russian state agencies to open offices in the breakaway regions. From April through July, Russian railway troops repaired the tracks leading into Abkhazia, which had been damaged for years. Russian Cossacks and North Caucasus volunteers began filtering into South Ossetia to defend it against Georgian aggression. In July the Russian army conducted large-scale military exercises near the border with South Ossetia; when the maneuvers ended, the troops remained in place and on alert. Then, on August 6 and 7, South Ossetian militias opened fire with heavy artillery on Georgian villages within the territory. (While Abkhazia was marked by fairly clear lines between the two sides, South Ossetia was a patchwork of Ossetian and Georgian villages, each pledging allegiance to its own side.)

Direct fighting between Russian and Georgian forces broke out during the night of August 7–8, 2008. The Georgian army intervened in South Ossetia and launched an offensive against Tskhinvali, the capital. The Georgian government said it had to move to stop the shelling of Georgian villages, but it was also taking advantage of the opportunity to reintegrate South Ossetia back into Georgia. The Russian 58th Army filed through the Roki tunnel into Georgia that same night, with the assertion that intervention was necessitated by the threat of genocide against the Ossetian people. (Prime Minister Vladimir Putin asserted that Georgian forces had already killed 1,500–2,000 people in Tskhinvali. After the war, the Russian prosecutor general revised the figure to 133.) A dispute arose as to which side moved first. Most interpretations, however, hold that the Georgians made the initial move, but that the Russian intervention followed immediately thereafter—in as little as 30 minutes, according to the International Crisis Group—suggesting an extraordinary level of preparedness. Russian troops also moved into Abkhazia, both by sea and via the newly repaired railroad. (There had been no fighting in Abkhazia until the South Ossetian intervention began; then Abkhaz militia attacked a Georgian stronghold.) The Russians moved through both enclaves and occupied portions of Georgia beyond them, systematically destroying civilian and military infrastructure. A cease-fire was signed after five days, and Russia recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia on August 26.

Now, Russia’s internal politics has brought these events back to the surface. The Russian case always rested on the notion that Russia was defending South Ossetia from Georgian aggression and possibly genocide, even though Russian forces were clearly in place and prepared to move with little or no advance notice. Earlier this month, an anonymously produced YouTube video put that narrative into question.

According to Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer, the video appeared just before the fourth anniversary of the war. In it, several retired and active-duty generals—including Yury Baluyevsky, who at the time of the war had recently stepped down as chief of the general staff—condemned Dmitry Medvedev’s handling of the war. (Remember that Medvedev had become president and Putin had become prime minister in May, three months before the war. The president is officially in charge of the armed forces.) The generals accused Medvedev of cowardice and indecisiveness in carrying out a plan that Putin had devised while he was still president. His hesitation caused a delay of one day in the start of the war, which they said led to an increased number of casualties. (The video is called “The Lost Day.”) Putin, who was attending the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, had to call Medvedev by phone in order to give him a “kick” and get the war going.

In a press conference on August 8, 2012, Putin (president once again) confirmed that the plan existed, although he described it as a contingency plan. He said that it had been worked out by the general staff in late 2006–early 2007 and that he had approved it. He noted that the plan included the training of the South Ossetian militias, whose actions had precipitated the war. Moreover, Putin implied that the delay was not one day, but three. In his retelling, the South Ossetian militias held off the Georgian aggressors for three days until the Russian army arrived; he placed the beginning of military operations on August 6 and the arrival of Russian forces on August 9. Once again he mentioned accusations of genocide and the figure of 1,500 “victims of aggression” (although he attributed the number to South Ossetian authorities). He also said that he talked to Medvedev and the defense minister by phone on August 7 and 8, although he declined to discuss specifics of the conversations.

Medvedev, in Tskhinvali on the occasion of the anniversary, denied the account. He countered that he ordered military operations in a timely manner, during the night of August 7–8, two and a half hours after the beginning of the Georgian attack, no earlier and no later. To have done so earlier, he continued, would have constituted an inappropriate use of the armed forces on foreign territory. He said he talked to Putin by phone but only on August 8, after the decision had been made. Medvedev also noted that General Baluyevsky had not complained at the time and that he had no idea who had authored the film or who had ordered it.

So, after an unexpected rush of new information, the timing of the war seems to be less clear than ever, officially at least. Putin and Medvedev cannot agree on when the war started, when the Georgians attacked, or when the Russians intervened. (Neither said anything about Russian troops occupying Georgian territory outside the enclaves.) Putin described the plan as a normal contingency plan, yet the Russian response was too fast not to have been prepared in advance. His assertions that the planning involved South Ossetian militias and that the war began on August 6, when the militias attacked Georgian villages, suggest that these attacks were part of the plan as a provocation. If the militia attacks were intended as a trap, the Georgians were all too eager to fall into it. Yet the fact that it took the Georgian army until late in the evening of August 7 to launch its offensive against Tskhinvali could explain the “delay” that the generals complained of. After all, Medvedev specifically said that Russia still officially recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as Georgian territory at the time and that it would have been inappropriate to send troops into foreign territory before the Georgian army had attacked. “I started from the fact that these decisions concerned, at that moment, a foreign state, a state that until August 26 we recognized as Georgia. . . . These decisions were taken only on the occasion of a direct aggression against citizens ofRussiaand Russian peacekeepers.” Medvedev is, after all, a lawyer.

The video clearly constitutes an effort to undermine Medvedev’s position in the government. Has Putin decided that Medvedev has outlived his usefulness? It is possible; Putin did imply that there was a delay and that the delay was even worse than the generals had said. On the other hand, the military could be behind it. As president, Medvedev criticized the army’s performance during the Georgian war and initiated a military reform afterward that cost thousands of officers their positions. Of course, Putin could be taking advantage of the generals’ resentment and turning them against his erstwhile protégé. That would be well within the traditions of Russian governance.

Further reading:

Crisis Group Europe Report No. 195, Russia vs. Georgia: The Fallout (Brussels: International Crisis Group, August 22, 2008).

Fawn, Rick, and Robert Nalbandov, “The Difficulties of Knowing the Start of War in the Information Age: Russia, Georgia, and the War over South Ossetia, August 2008,” European Security 21:1 (March 2012): 57–89.

Felgenhauer, Pavel, “Putin Confirms the Invasion of Georgia Was Preplanned,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 9:152 (August 9, 2012).

In Russian:

Novye podrobnosti ‘piatidnevnoi voiny,’” RIA Novosti, August 8, 2012.

Reshenie ob udare,” Interfax, August 9, 2012.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.