Saturday, August 10, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Five Days in 2008 that Shook the World But Didn’t Change It

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 10 – Five years ago this week, Russian forces invaded Georgia after Tbilisi took actions that Moscow regarded as provocations, thus setting in train the first and so the only use of force between two internationally recognized states on the territory of the former Soviet Union since the very first years after 1991.

            Many in both Russia and the West thought at the time that neither the post-Soviet space nor the international community would ever be the same, that Moscow’s willingness to use force to achieve its goals would force the two countries involved and others as well to change forever their understanding of those with whom they were dealing with.

            But now, five years on, it has become all too obvious that both parties to the conflict and those further afield have remarkably quickly adapted themselves to this brave new world and devoted themselves to overlooking Russian aggression and Georgian incautiousness in order to “reset” their policies or focus on the future.

            Both the speed with which this has happened and the comprehensiveness of the neglect of an event that seemed at the time to be a game changer are a clear sign of three larger problems.  First, because of Russia’s size and importance, the post-Soviet West will never be willing to impose real costs on Moscow.

            Second, the countries living around Russia’s periphery in almost all cases thus remain in a gray zone, one in which Western rhetoric may suggest that it will, in the words of former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “always defend our friends,” but in which the West at present will not do much more than that.

            And third, the peoples of the Russian Federation find themselves in an even more unfortunate position. With rare but welcome exceptions, they receive even less, not even getting the kind of rhetorical support for basic human and ethnic rights that the West used to offer them prior to Mikhail Gorbachev’s time.

            Moscow recognizes all of these things, has pocketed them and thus is ready to wait out the West confident that the West will come around. The peoples living around Russia’s periphery increasingly do as well – Mikhail Saakashvili’s failure to understand this reality in fact led him to act in ways that set the stage for the 2008 war.

But in all too many capitals of the West, these realities, both regarding the nature of the regime in the Russian Federation and the likely trajectory of Western relations with it regardless of what Moscow does, are either ignored completely or viewed as something that new leaders and new rhetorical initiatives render irrelevant.

This Western failure of understanding often leads to suggestions that everything has changed after this or that event if Western governments define it in positive ways or that nothing has changed after this or that event if Western governments define it in negative ones, a pattern that only reinforces the underlying problems.

A plethora of articles over the last ten days on this sad anniversary provides convincing evidence of this unfortunate reality.  But perhaps the most useful with regard to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia has been provided by Tatyana Ryazanova and Aleksandr Gazov of “Osobaya bukhva” (

In a scence-setter on the 08.08.08 war, Ryazanova and Gazov point out that “in August 2008, after the conclusion of military actions, it seemed that ‘the region would never be what it was people’ and even that ‘the world would not be what it had been,’ that the relations of the Russian and Georgian peoples had been irretrievably changed once and for all.”

“Five years have passed,” they note, and what are the real consequences of a conflict that many thought would change everything? The answer, the two suggest, is “in general, nothing.”

                To be sure, they continue,  “Georgia doesn’t control Abkhazia and South Osetia. But it did not control them for many years before the war, and the recognition by Russia, Venezuela and several other Third World countries of Abkhaz and South Osetian independence did not change this fact in any way, did not strengthen it or weaken it.”

            Also as before, Georgia is “not a member of the CIS” and Moscow and Tbilisi do not have “official relations. But Mikhail Saakashvili already has in fact become an exile in the presidential palace and the new masters of Georgia are pursuing a calculated economic policy, seeking the return of Georgian products to the Russian market and possibly will achieve much more.”

            “Of course, Moscow has not refused to provide protection to Abkhazia and South Osetia, but on the whole, relations between Russia and Georgia are gradually normalizing,” even though they hardly resemble those between Russians and Georgians “60 years ago” or “even relations between Russians and Chechens now.”

                “The majority of Georgians are inclined to see in Putin and his regime an enemy,” the two Moscow writers say, “but they do not see Russians as enemies. In the same way, Russians do not see Georgians ass enemies, and therefore the efforts of Kremlin propagandists to make use of the Georgian card in domestic politics do not elicit anything except irony.”

            And they conclude with the observation that “Abkhazia and South Osetia were de facto Russian satellites before the war and thus they have remained,” with the only change being that Moscow’s assistance to these “newly independent states” has increased “many times over” from what it had been earlier.

            Indeed, it would seem that “the only serious consequence of ‘the war of the three eights’ was that hundreds of Russian, Osetin, and Georgian families lost their relatives” in a conflict that many on all sides thought was going to change the world but has changed only theirs, albeit horribly and forever.          

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