On August 7th, 2008, the leaders of the Russian Federation shocked the world and made the controversial decision to mobilize and invade Georgia, a small, sovereign nation located in the Caucasus Mountains just south of Russia. The Georgian military had been engaged with separatists from the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for just under a week, yet by the time a large batch of Russian military personnel entered their territory through the mountainous Roki tunnel at 11:00 PM, it was too late. Despite what any news outlets would later report, the international community knew that Georgia had just lost a major chunk of its territory to this aggressor from the north. What no one knew, however, was that this seemingly minor excursion would begin a decade’s worth of continued Russian belligerence and adventurism toward its neighbors. But why start with Georgia?
Historically, the strained relations between Russia and Georgia are nothing new, and can be traced back as early as the year 1785 when the Russian Empire violated a treaty and refused to defend the eastern Georgian Kingdom during a Persian invasion. Some decades later, in 1801, Georgia joined the Russian Empire, and it remained a protected member up until 1918 when the independent Democratic Republic of Georgia was established following the Russian Revolution and the abdication of the Russian Tsardom. This was short-lived, however, as the Bolsheviks and the Red Army overthrew the Georgian government in 1921 and forcibly annexed the region into the newly-established United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) in 1922.
The USSR forced an era of tension, fear and powerlessness upon the citizens of Georgia. Under the first three years of Soviet control alone, approximately 50,000 Georgians were executed by the government, while an insurmountable 150,000 were purged up through 1951 by Joseph Stalin, a native Georgian himself. Additionally, basic rights to citizenship were stripped; according to Michael Parrish in The Lesser Terror: Soviet State Security, 1939-1953, Stalin forced entire Ingush, Chechen, Balkarian and Karachay populations, all native to Georgia, into deportation. Georgian territories were seized and distributed amongst various states, including Armenia and Turkey, and nearly half of the 700,000 soldiers that the country was forced to contribute toward the Red Army were killed over the course of World War II. Even when relatively progressive leaders like Nikita Khrushchev took control of the Soviet Union — “progressive” in that he succeeded Stalin — Georgian protests promoting independence from the USSR resulted in the massacring of hundreds of college students and demonstrators.
Thus, it should surprise no one that, upon the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Georgian officials were quick to declare sovereignty and begin holding democratic elections. Unfortunately, the radical and autocratic Georgian presidency of Zviad Gamsakhurdia prompted some to lose faith in their nation, and pro-Russian separatist groups gained prominence in certain regions — most notably in South Ossetia and Abkhazia — leading to a short-lasting civil war in the latter. Somewhat ironically, this forced Georgia to join the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in order to receive Russian military support, and, in 2001, Abkhazia and Georgia co-signed “an accord pledging not to use force against each other.”
After the accord’s ratification, a shaky sense of peace was established between Georgia and the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It was clearly imperfect, though, as protests and skirmishes continued to break out while political tensions rose unwaveringly; South Ossetia even went so far as to hold an unofficial referendum in which 99% of the public voted in favor of independence, an act ignored by the European Union but supported by the Russia Duma. Two years later, after hearing direct pleas for support from Abkhazian and South Ossetian officials, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev stated that allying with the separatist regions “is not an easy choice, but it is the only way to save the lives of people,” and pledged both political and military support to both. Several months later, after the Georgian military responded to another South Ossetian attack, Russia launched its now-infamous military invasion.
Russia’s 2008 seizure of the Ossetian and Abkhazian territories provided eerie foreshadowing for what the Federation’s neighbors had in store. Six years later, in 2014, a near-identical crisis transpired in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donbas regions, disputes which continue to the time of this article’s publication. The primary characteristic that both the Georgian and Ukrainian annexation attempts had in common is that they highlighted deep, pervading insecurities from within the highest ranks of Russian leadership. These insecurities are two-pronged, with stress placed on both military and political pressures. From a military perspective, the intimidating reach of NATO expansion is obviously considered to be a pervading, existential threat; Georgia and Ukraine were invaded while the United States and the West considered their bids to enter NATO. However, the more alarming insecurities are political, and they continue to grow increasingly problematic as democracy gains popularity within Russian spheres of influence.
During a 2005 visit, President George W. Bush proudly referred to Georgia as a beacon of liberty in a region where freedom is not always to be taken for granted. He spoke glowingly about the 2003 Georgian Rose Revolution, in which a peaceful change of power allied Georgia more strongly with the West. This revolution preceded and arguably inspired Ukraine’s 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, which forced the overturning of then-President Viktor Yanukovych and his corrupt, Russophilic administration in favor of the more Western-oriented candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. These so-called Color Revolutions, which also took place in post-Soviet Yugoslavia and Kyrgyzstan, sent a message to their former occupier that these nations were now independent and desirous of fair domestic representation. Seeing that his neighbors were quickly working to distance themselves from the influence of a relatively weakened Russia, it would not take a foreign affairs specialist to understand that Vladimir Putin, a longstanding disbeliever in the promises of democracy, was far from pleased with the symbolism of these revolts.
Following the 2008 invasion of Georgia, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko began to indirectly lay the groundwork for his own country’s invasion by publicly voicing his support for Georgian independence. It is no coincidence that this controversial anti-Russian stance hurdled Ukraine toward further political crisis in November of that year, a window which Russia seized to further exacerbate political troubles. When Yanukovych successfully regained his presidency in 2013, Ukraine spiraled into yet another revolution, and this time Putin chose to involve himself on his pro-Russia counterpart’s behalf. Shortly after, the autonomous region of Crimea was annexed by Russian soldiers.
Russia had been guilty of testing Western resolve all throughout the 21st century, particularly in Eastern Europe, but the dramatic actions against Georgia in 2008 marked a critical shift in Russian foreign policy. Long gone were the days of press releases or discrete political subversion, and ushered in was an era of violent military intervention and territorial seizures. The only thing protecting Russia’s other Western-oriented, post-Soviet neighbors is their NATO membership, and the United States and its allies should not be surprised to see Russian intervention on behalf of other separatist groups from non-member states in the coming years. Ten years after the events in Georgia, the world still waits to see who will be next.