The Russo-Georgian ‘Five Day War’ of 2008
What really happened during the ‘Five Day War’ of 2008 in Georgia?
In early August of 2008, half of the Georgian military, some 13,000 troops, marched to Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, to take over from South Ossetian separatists who were shelling villages in Georgia. Then Russia intervened. … Why?
This is a part of my brief blog series on Russian politics I am doing this week because it is the holidays and I have a little bit more time. Enjoy!
The plan of the Georgian military was to move most of its forces to Tskhinvali and to later occupy the Roki tunnel in order to cut off any potential for reinforcements from the North. What Georgian forces were not expecting was a major Russian military force in assistance of South Ossetian separatists.
During their initial military operations, Georgian troops met approximately 3000 South Ossetian militias and 500 Russian peacekeepers in Tskhinvali. Some argue that “even a highly professional army” would have had problems with executing blitzkrieg military operations against such a force. It should not be surprising then that the Georgian militia had difficulties; it is not that the Georgian militia was untrained or ill-equipped but rather that they did not have a “cohesive combat force” that performed in “real battle” prior to the Five Day War.
To add unto the inherent difficulties of their mission, Georgia was also not expecting reinforcements from Russia to arrive at such short notice, or at all. In fact, Georgia only expected Russia to finance South Ossetian militia forces rather than personally involve themselves in the conflict.
Of course, Georgian officials were not completely clueless; they knew that involving themselves in the conflict was risky, but they sought much-needed change in the status quo which was not working to their advantage.
The Causes of the Five Day War
Many speculate over the causes of the Five Day War. As with other recent events, Russia assures the West that their intervention in Georgia was only to ensure peace in the region. In other words, Russia argues that they were only doing what other NATO and UN peacekeepers have repeatedly done in the past.
Others suggest that it is likely that Russia prepared a “trap” for Georgia because of the extent at which Russian authorities were ready for a large-scale invasion. Notably, it was only a matter of hours before Russia engaged with Georgian militia.
Why Did Russia Prepare a Trap for Georgia?
There are a number of reasons to believe that Russia prepared a trap for Georgia. The War came at a time when Russian and Western relations were deteriorating. The following developments helped in escalating tensions:
- (1) Georgia and Ukraine were being considered for membership in NATO prior to 2008;
- (2) the US installed anti-ballistic missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland;
- and (3) the US and other important EU states almost universally accepted Kosovo independence.
According to the Kremlin, these events, especially Kosovo independence, suggested that Russia was losing their geopolitical foothold on the international stage. In fact, Cheterian writes that it would be “difficult” to understand Russian military intervention in Georgia in August 2008 “[w]ithout taking into account” the Kosovo independence of February 2008.
Although, there are many more causes to the conflict that are above this brief analysis. Another notable factor is that Georgia’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) was “rejected” in Bucharest during the NATO summit in April 2008. Arguably, it was precisely this rejection by NATO that allowed for the Five Day War to happen.
The Consequences of the Five Day War
Analysts argue that the conflict in 2008 “seriously undermined” American influence in the region. The first issues affected negatively by the conflict were trade in gas and oil. Russia had also promised and pressured Kyrgyzstan to close one of the larger US airbases near the Manas airport.
Historically, the Manas airport was important in providing military support to intervention in Afghanistan. In the future, we can expect less Western intervention especially if Russia continues to exercise its influence over the region.
Another point of significant negative consequences for the West is over the “failure of diplomacy” evident in the conflict. With increasing worldwide hostility toward international and Western organizations, this can be a problem for further peacekeeping processes. We know that Russia was already largely opposed to NATO enlargement as of 1990 when NATO’s geographical boundaries were being discussed.
Russia was publicly against these developments but Vladimir Putin maintained that “each country has the right to choose the form of security it considers most effective.” Accordingly, Georgia has since the Rose Revolution of 2003 sought to make their Euro-Atlantic integration a top priority. Jolyon Howorth explains that the US left relations between formerly Soviet states and the West for the EU to handle since the crisis in Georgia in 2008. Many political advisors urged the US to reconsider their stance since they believed that they were inadvertently fueling Russian revisionism.
Similarities Between the Crimean Annexation & Georgia
The annexation and the Five Day War are entirely different events. However, they both share similar characteristics; they are internationally disputed and show that Russia repeatedly uses unlawful justifications for foreign intervention.
Both Georgia and Ukraine were promised membership by NATO but were denied in 2008; both had goals to become stronger democracies; and both had recurring problems with Russia’s peacekeepers and military that justified violent intervention on the basis of supporting Russian compatriots.
Most importantly, in both cases the West stood by with little to no serious repercussions to Russia apart from sanctions to a sanctions-resilient economy and losing membership in the G8 group, along with other seemingly trivial punishments in comparison to what Russia has gained.
It is safe to say that if the West does not learn from their mistakes with Georgia and Crimea, similar events may transpire elsewhere, perhaps in Lithuania, Estonia, or Kazakhstan.
Here are some previous posts from this series:
Putin & The Great Patriotic War (1941–1945)
The Great Patriotic War in Vladimir Putin’s Russia signifies the staple of perseverance and victory for the Russian…
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