The 2008 War in Georgia: Lessons for the Crisis in Ukraine

April 24, 2014

The political crisis in Ukraine, and especially the Russian government’s involvement in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, gave rise to the search for suitable historical analogies. In many cases, this was done primarily in order to publicly condemn Russia and emphasize the unacceptability of its behavior to the West. One obvious example was the oft-invoked comparison with interwar Germany, referred to, among others, by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yet such farfetched parallels are largely taken out of context and fail to fully explain the situation. A less melodramatic and more relevant analogy is the 2008 conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which, although distinct in many aspects, bears several important similarities to the current conflict.

The 2008 conflict in Georgia remains a contested issue from which different parties have drawn different conclusions; therefore, its lessons are far from universal. Nevertheless, it is an important reference point for policymakers. This idea was illustrated during a March 13, 2014 discussion with Ukraine’s acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., when Yatsenyuk was asked by the Ambassador of Georgia, Archil Gegeshidze, what lessons the international community should draw from the events in Georgia. Yatsenyuk responded that the lesson was, “If you don’t have [NATO’s Membership Action Plan], you have something else, like military aggression.”

In the context of European security, Yatsenyuk’s assessment—that a NATO Membership Action Plan would have enhanced Georgian and Ukrainian security—ignores the fact that Russia views NATO enlargement as a serious threat. This, in itself, poses a security threat to the two countries, whose movements to join NATO could be countered by Russian force beyond that which we saw in Crimea. This issue is part of a broader problem of differing perceptions of European collective security, which should become the main focus of Western and Russian policymakers.

Ambiguity of NATO Enlargement

The idea that things would have turned out differently for Georgia in 2008 and for Ukraine in 2014 if only they had been granted NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) is wishful thinking that stems from the Alliance’s peaceful post-Cold War enlargement. During the fourth and fifth waves of enlargement (1999 and 2004, respectively), ten Eastern and Central European states joined NATO in a process which, combined with their accession to the European Union, symbolized their reuniting with the West in political and economic terms. For countries like Poland and the Baltic States, who had a difficult history with Russia, NATO security guarantees held particular significance as a form of protection from their eastern neighbor.

However, Russia’s reaction to NATO enlargement was initially tempered. Although Russian officials questioned the necessity of NATO existence, they nonetheless stated on multiple occasions that it was the right of sovereign states to choose their own alliances. With Russia’s grudging acquiescence and an absence of serious crises in Europe during this period, the West considered its enlargement policies successful.

Yatsenyuk based his argument on the incorrect assumption that Georgian and Ukrainian accession to NATO would have followed this same pattern. But it became clear early on that, unlike the Baltic and Central European states, Georgia and Ukraine were much more critical to Russia economically, geographically, and symbolically. After pro-Western revolutions occurred in these states in the mid-2000s, Moscow did not hide its irritation with what it called Western interference in its “near abroad.” Against this backdrop, the possibility of NATO membership for these states became a serious security concern for Russia. These events also coincided with a period of decline in U.S.-Russia relations, highlighted by President Vladimir Putin’s 2007 speech in Munich, where the Russian leader criticized the United States for acting unilaterally . Altogether, Russia clearly signaled that it regarded NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine as unacceptable—a position that should have become obvious when Putin personally attended the NATO Bucharest Summit in April 2008 to advocate against a MAP for the two republics.

The conflict in Georgia was interpreted by many in Russia, Georgia, and the West as a Russian attempt to stop NATO enlargement. If the West were to accept Russia’s concerns as legitimate, it would have implied a compromise of the Alliance’s open-door policy and a concession to a “resurgent Russia.” As a result, the West continued to affirm its commitment to Georgia’s NATO membership. After the 2008 conflict, however, the prospect of membership for Georgia and Ukraine lost its appeal on the Alliance’s agenda. For several years Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had actively sought NATO accession for his country with much Western support, was welcomed neither in Washington nor in Western European capitals.

At the same time, Russia continued to harden its stance on NATO. In 2010, it listed NATO expansion and the movement of the Alliance’s military infrastructure closer to Russian borders as the top external military threat in its new military doctrine , thus making containment of NATO a part of its national strategy. In Ukraine that same year, newly elected President Viktor Yanukovych declared his country a non-aligned state in an effort to calm Russian concerns while keeping European aspirations alive. All parties seemed to recognize that further NATO enlargement would mean the disruption of the tenuous status quo that had emerged after NATO’s initial absorption of Russia’s former Central European allies.

In addition, Russia felt that it faced no credible threat of deterrence from the West. Despite Western objections and condemnation during the 2008 conflict in Georgia, the Western response did not seriously punish Russia, and its leadership thus concluded that it could bear comparable costs in the future. The lesson from Georgia is that Russia perceives NATO enlargement as a threat to its security and will not hesitate to use force to contain it.

Europe’s Inadequate Security Architecture

A broader observation that can explain both conflicts is related to the European security architecture. Simply put, there is no effective European or Transatlantic mechanism that can bridge the differences between Russia and the West on security issues. This does not mean their relations are not institutionalized: we have the OSCE, the Russia-NATO Council, the Russia-EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement—which includes cooperation on external security—and multiple bilateral agreements in place. However, Russia, being a member of neither the EU nor NATO, often feels excluded from the decision-making process on European security and claims its interests are neglected when the West acts as a bloc. As a result, this security system is only effective during periods of normalcy and is poorly adapted for crises.

Moreover, during critical moments that render the inadequacy of the existing security architecture particularly obvious, the member states have not made it a priority to address the deep-rooted problems of the system. As the current conflict in Ukraine shows, the West focuses instead on preparing a strong response to Russia, while Russia concentrates on defending its actions. Russia’s behavior confirms the fears of those in the West who regard it as an aggressive state seeking to restore its sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe. On the other hand, strong rhetoric from the West, including the use of such words as “deterrence” and “containment,” confirms Russia’s belief that NATO is actually a hostile alliance.

There is no easy way out of this vicious cycle. Several attempts have been made since the end of the Cold War to strengthen cooperation on security issues between Russia and the West, including proposals to further expand the role and responsibilities of the OSCE, the possibility of NATO membership for Russia, and, most recently, a new treaty on European security proposed by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But these efforts have not produced any substantial results. The real lesson from the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine is that until conflicting Russian and Western views of European security are reconciled, the possibility of new crises in the region will remain high.

Oleg Shakirov is an M.A. Candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.

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