When Russia Invaded Georgia

It happened in 2008 and foretold a decade of Putin’s adventurism.

 
 

Russian soldiers hold their flag in Tskhinvali, Georgia, Aug. 11, 2008.
Russian soldiers hold their flag in Tskhinvali, Georgia, Aug. 11, 2008. PHOTO: ANDREI SMIRNOV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
 

Like many other heads of state, I had planned to attend the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. I canceled my trip after Russian-backed separatists began firing on Georgian positions in the breakaway territory of South Ossetia. On Aug. 8, 2008—the day after full-scale war broke out in my country—the Olympics opening ceremony took place.

Long before its conventional assault on Georgia, Russia openly backed separatist militants, launched cyberattacks, and used disinformation to meddle in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Initial intelligence reports of Russian forces entering Georgian territory didn’t even cause enough concern to order Georgian military officials back from their holidays. Though Moscow had long attempted to thwart Georgia’s turn to the West, Russia had not launched a conventional military attack on a neighboring country since it invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

But in August 2008, under the auspices of “securing” the separatist enclave, Russia invaded my country. To say the Kremlin uses disproportionate force is an understatement: Russia bombed Georgian positions with more than 200 aircraft, while the Georgian air force had fewer than a dozen combat aircraft in service. Some 80,000 Russian land troops deployed to Georgia; our entire army stood at less than 30,000.

Yet some in the West, like then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, faulted Georgia. Leaving aside the practical impossibility of Georgia attacking a nuclear power 100 times its size, the entirety of the conflict took place on internationally recognized Georgian territory. The Kremlin’s claim that its land forces mobilized overnight in response to an emergency was absurd. Such an onslaught required careful preparation, especially given the mountainous terrain of the Russian-Georgian border.

Russian military operations also were not confined to South Ossetia. Russian armed forces advanced toward Georgia’s capital. Georgian troops, who resisted with a fierceness the Russians had not expected, held off their march to Tbilisi. In the days that followed, the international community played a critical role in halting the Russian offensive. The Bush administration notably sent a “humanitarian convoy” to Georgia, deterring further aggression with cruise-missile-armed warships and military aircraft.

A decade later, in direct violation of the cease-fire agreement, thousands of Russian troops still occupy one-fifth of Georgian territory. The repercussions of those five days in August remain widespread. Vladimir Putin’s biggest victory was exposing rifts in the West. Many European and U.S. leaders swiftly and unequivocally condemned Russia. But lobbyists on the Kremlin’s payroll, and Western governments engaged in lucrative energy and defense deals with Moscow, placed the blame on Georgia.

Mr. Putin continues to exploit those fault lines today. The Kremlin finances fringe European political movements on the right and left. In the U.S., Russian-funded disinformation on social media fuels the breakdown of civil discourse.

The lack of a unified response to the Georgia crisis also underscores how many in the West still underestimate Russia’s ambitions. This puzzles me. Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer, has never hidden his aspirations to control former Soviet states. Before the war, I had warned Georgia’s trans-Atlantic partners that a Russian invasion was possible—and so had Mr. Putin.

Countries like mine bore the brunt of Mr. Putin’s aggression. Georgia is a natural target: We have always seen ourselves as part of the Western world, and Russia likewise views us as the frontline of Western civilization. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told me before the war, Russia outmaneuvers the U.S. in places where Russia perceives the stakes to be higher.

Many of our partners in the West failed to realize that the Georgian conflict was not ultimately about Georgia. The generally lackluster international response to the invasion and occupation emboldened Russian adventurism in the country’s “near abroad.” Along with Lech Kaczyński, the late president of Poland, I warned that Ukraine would be the next Putin target. Few took this warning seriously in 2008. Six years later, our prediction came true.

After years of aggression in the post-Soviet space, Russia now has graduated to confronting the West directly. Mr. Putin, like all tyrants, hopes to secure his regime by undermining democracy. He is succeeding. Russian information operations, cyberattacks and election meddling have exposed serious vulnerabilities in the democratic institutions Americans once took for granted.

How can the West respond? Approach Russia as it is. Mr. Putin is not going to stop until he is stopped. He views concessions from the West as signs of weakness and pushes for more.

Seizing Georgian territories and Crimea was not merely about gaining territory. Russia creates and perpetuates frozen conflicts to prevent aspiring members from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Georgia, the largest non-NATO contributor of troops to Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan, has long demonstrated dedication to the alliance. Russia has no right to veto NATO membership for any of its neighbors, and all members of the alliance must acknowledge this. NATO-aspirant countries in Russia’s backyard, like Georgia and Ukraine, should be offered a realistic road map to accession.

Strengthening the U.S. military and the trans-Atlantic alliance will be the decisive factor in stopping Mr. Putin. Cutting off the regime’s access to capital markets will expedite the process. The sanctions against Russian officials and oligarchs announced in April by the Trump administration are encouraging. The European Union and the U.S. cannot budge on sanctions until Russia withdraws from illegally occupied territories, fully and unconditionally.

The more Russia pushes against the West, the more the West should push back. The West has the upper hand but consistently fails to play it. As long as this continues, the invasion of Georgia will echo louder and louder.

Mr. Saakashvili served as president of Georgia, 2004-13.

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