The August War, 13 years later
By failing to learn the lessons from Georgia, did we encourage the Kremlin to pursue its disruptive course?
This is Great Power’s series of interviews — conducted with Georgians who were on the front lines of the war before, during, and after it began — about the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008. These are people that I learned from and worked with — and who I think we all have a lot to learn from. Great Power readers will no doubt understand that these lessons are as much about getting our relationship with the Kremlin right now as they are about events 13 years ago and thousands of miles away. (This series was originally posted as 3 parts, but is reposted here as one article)
On August 8, 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. It should have been a warning to us all — and a chance, maybe, to avert what has come after from the Kremlin. But it didn’t turn out that way.
There are a lot of ways of describing this decision to not see what happened for what it was, particularly through the powerful rearward lens of the Russian stealth invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
But the best word I can think of to describe it, and what came after, is heartbreaking. For Georgia, Georgians, and the Georgia that could have been. For the Syrians and Ukrainians who would soon meet the sharpened Russian military that emerged from the lessons-learned of the Georgian incursion. For all the rest of us in the West who have had our discourse and politics manipulated and twisted far more than we like to admit by Kremlin disruption.
For all of this and more, the averted gazes after the August War in 2008 were just crushingly heartbreaking.
This is usually absent from the “X years on” accounts of the 2008 war — today being the 13th anniversary of the start of that conflict.
Also absent from these accounts is how prepared, deliberate, cruel, and devastating the Russian military campaign against Georgia really was. The phrase “five day war” minimizes what was done, and the context of how we discuss it is usually about the clash between personalities or geopolitical ambitions. None of this captures the texture of the invasion — the fires, the violence, the propaganda. The bravery of Georgians and a dedicated group of international friends — who showed up in Tbilisi and stayed until the shooting stopped, and who fought to increase pressure on Moscow from Western capitals.
But I think what was lost and what we missed is best explained by Georgian voices. And this is what I wanted to bring you today: 13 years on, some of the memories and reflections of just a few of the Georgians who were right in the middle of the war, and what came before and after — Georgians who are part of the reason that the Kremlin couldn’t achieve all of its objectives in 2008.
Through the work that I had the privilege to do and the way I chose to do it, I had the enormous good fortune of being, for a time, a colleague, student, archivist, and sometimes friend of more than a few of these Georgians. I was one of the new editions to the team of international consultants and advisers who were added in the period after the war — when the Georgians were trying to make their way with a new American administration improbably pressing a “reset” with Russia; when they were trying to explain why support for their experimental democracy-building was so important; and when they, along with the Balts and Poles and Swedes, were trying to explain to Washington and Brussels what would come next if we closed our eyes about 2008. As a registered foreign agent for the Georgian government (for the Georgian National Security Council, and later for the Prime Minister and President), this was the problem set before me: how to document what Russia was doing to Georgia, and how to explain why it should mean something to those of us living thousands of miles away.
What happened in Georgia in the period between the lead up to the Rose Revolution in 2003 — one of the famed pro-democracy “color revolutions” that still give Putin indigestion — and roughly about the end of 2011 — when the Russian-made oligarch who now controls Georgia “entered politics” and threw a wrench into the sometimes beautiful, sometimes Frankensteined, always unconventional machinery of governance that was built up from the dust that came before — is a truly remarkable story amply populated by a truly transformative group of individuals. It’s one of these strange node points in history where whatever Fates there may be spin together a group of people in the same place at the same time and some kind of magic happens. Like the period in the ‘20s & ‘30s when so many writers and artists jumbled together in Paris and Spain, in cafes and into the Spanish Civil War. It’s not just the paintings and novels and poems that survive, but the stories of how these works came to be that are still being told and retold a century later. It’s the story of the process as much as the product that captures us.
In Georgia, hundreds of dedicated, smart, often impossibly-young Georgian reformers joined the government and parliament after the Rose Revolution in 2003 — and then they basically didn’t see their families very much for the next nine years. Famously midnight-oil burning, there could be a meeting of ministers or deputies at 2am one night, and by afternoon that day there would be a draft policy or plan about what to do. They inherited a corrupt, crime-ridden, stumbling, failed post-Soviet nation that couldn’t keep the lights on or keep its territory under the control of the central government, and in that handful of years before the Russian tanks came — and working closely with international allies and advisors who knew the importance of what they were trying to do, and the importance of doing it with great speed — they transformed the country so completely that people had already started to take for granted that it hadn’t been like this all along.
In those years, articles about the Georgian transformation were scattered across the Western press. International critics of Georgia’s polarizing young president, Mikheil Saakashviki (aka “Misha”), would grumble that this was all PR smoke and mirrors — but it wasn’t, and pages of economic indicators, new investment, the restoration of electricity to the country, and a totally rebuilt police force were just a small part of the very real work that was being done to save this small and beautiful place from the self-eating nothingness of post-Soviet existence and put it on the path toward Europe and toward NATO. The speed of this work is actually impossible for Americans — used to a Congress that can barely pass budget resolutions every year — to imagine.
The war in 2008 was about slowing the trajectory of Georgia toward the West, and it was about beginning to erase all the stories that you should know about the incredible people who could even imagine that the transformation of such a place was possible.
So I used the occasion of the anniversary of the war as an excuse to reconnect with old friends about old times after these recent strange years of separation, and to collect more of their truly unique knowledge. Here are a few of their memories of the war, and what it meant, and what the compounding cost of ignoring what the Kremlin’s aggression really looks like.
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Russia invaded Georgia during the opening of the Beijing Olympics, and it’s an understatement to say the attention of the world was elsewhere. Like the cyberattacks on Ukraine and the US during our Independence Day holidays, the Kremlin loves to double-spoil your day. I think President George W Bush, himself a great supporter of Georgia and its Western ambitions and close to the end of his 8 years in office, was seated in the section of the Olympic stadium reserved for world leaders watching the mechanized wonders of the Chinese propaganda pageantry when an adviser leaned over his shoulder to inform him of this news. Sitting somewhere behind him was then-Prime Minister Putin (his understudy Medvedev was playing the role of president that day). You can still find videos and photos of Bush and Putin watching the opening ceremonies together, and then seemingly tense exchanges during other Olympic events before Bush departed back to Washington.
Back in Georgia, nobody was watching the Olympics. They were tuned-in to the frequent updates from their government about the advance of the Russian military into their territory, the bombings, and what the government was doing to defend the nation and work with international partners to negotiate an end to the war.
Eka Tkeshelashvili was Georgia’s foreign minister during the war. Not much more than 30, she had already been justice minister and chief prosecutor, and would later serve as the president’s national security advisor and in other senior positions. She was known by Georgia’s Western partners for her incredibly fast, incredibly precise way of speaking — in any language, but especially English — and her archival memory of details and facts that she used to press Georgia’s case.
Temuri Yakobashvili was Georgia’s state minister for reintegration — meaning he was responsible for all the work to engage Georgia’s two breakaway/occupied territories, Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (aka South Ossetia), and for negotiating with his Russian counterparts on all related issues. He would later serve as Georgia’s ambassador in Washington, and was generally a sublime cultural ambassador for Georgia’s wine, cuisine, history, art, literature, and film. He was also replete with an endless supply of off-color jokes and anecdotes.
Giga Bokeria was deputy foreign minister, and would later be national security adviser. His mother was a chess grandmaster, and Giga had inherited this ability to see many possibilities unfold many steps ahead into the future and had a sometimes irritating way of answering questions before you asked them. He was famous for “Bokerian time” — being hours and hours late for meetings, even important meetings, because he was in some even more important meeting that ran late. But he was a charmer with apologies, which goes a long way.
Shota Utiashvili was the director of the analytical department in the Georgian Ministry of Interior. This was a vital intelligence position, particularly about Russian activities in and around Georgia. He said nothing that was unnecessary or without deliberation. During the war, he was sent out to the frontlines of the fighting to gather accurate information about what was actually happening — as opposed to the Russian propaganda footage — and communicate it to Georgia’s international partners and back to the team in Tbilisi.
Elene Khoshtaria was in the crisis group of the Georgian National Security Council during the war in 2008. The group helped put together the timeline of what was happening, coordinated government messaging, and coordinated the international press covering the war (in particular, their safety). They worked to ensure that Georgian society was informed but not panicked about events on the ground. Elene also served for many years as deputy to the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, which included working on Georgia’s NATO aspirations, always a top priority for the country. She was known for being serious, concise, straightforward — not a time-waster, in any respect, and not an ounce of bullsh*t.
Each of these Georgians played a vital role before, during, and after the 2008 war, and was a trusted interlocutor for the Georgian government with its Western partners. They were all young and had young families in Georgia at the time of the war. (I will use their first names to cite them in this piece — to save a lot of letters, but also in the Georgian habit.)
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Part 1: Warning lights and memories of war
I began by asking the Georgians what role they had played in trying to warn Georgia’s Western partners in advance of the war. This was a whole-of-government effort spanning many months, backed by timelines and spreadsheets and maps and reports and physical evidence. Their allies in this were the Baltic states, Poland, and Sweden.
“I think the crucial moment was the [NATO Bucharest Summit in early April 2008],” Giga offers. The summit communique had strong language that Georgia and Ukraine would someday become members of NATO — but did not offer details on a specific Membership Action Plan or how to get one. The Bush administration had pushed hard for MAP for both countries — but there were European opponents. “The Bucharest summit sent a message to Putin that the US position with the European partners was weakened; that the Western world, the free world, was deeply divided; that there were major players who were not willing to challenge Putin’s goals to undermine the statehood of its neighbors, the frontier states. And I think that was the tipping point in Putin‘s decision-making.”
Temuri described telling a group in Brussels in May 2008 that Georgia was on the brink of war with Russia. Afterward, a senior EU official came up to him and said: I would refrain from using the ‘W’ word because no one wants to hear it here.
“It was not a lack of effort by Georgia to explain [what was coming],” Temuri explains, “but a lack of willingness to hear what Georgia said… The answer we were getting was, don’t provoke the Russians. It’s the same advice they were giving to the Ukrainians when the Russians were taking over Crimea. Don’t provoke the Russians.”
This theme of provocation runs all through the topics is this interview. There were months of preparations by Russia to invade, mass troop movements, the construction of hundreds of kilometers of rail lines to move men and materiel into place — all while the Georgians were engaged in extensive, parallel diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the potential conflict, and while many of their best-trained troops were in Iraq fighting as part of the our coalition efforts. But the perception war has always been about whether Georgia somehow “sparked” the war the Russians had prepared for.
“Most of our diplomacy at the time was concentrated actually on prevention of the war,” says Eka. “To warn what was understood from our side about what the Russians were up to. The events that preceded the war. Providing information, but also seeking solutions to it.” There were two tracks: one was with international partners, to inform them and engage them to engage the Russians; and the other to engage the Russians directly. “This coincided with Medvedev coming in as president, and direct contact from Misha.”
The foreign ministry followed up with proposals for specific, innovative new solutions to the conflict. “We delivered [these proposals] to the Russians — and they were, at the end of the day, completely ignored by the Russians… We saw escalation of the situation well in advance of August — March, April, and May already, on the ground both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia — paratroopers coming in to Abkhazia, and Russia issuing passports to the regions, and legal semi-recognition of the regions as sovereign regions even before the conflict… expanding troop presence beyond what was allowed by the UN mission in Abkhazia and by the OSCE mission in South Ossetia… One of the primary jobs for us at the time was to have a very active diplomatic interaction across different platforms for peace negotiations… methodically and systemically raising awareness and knowledge and appeals to help with this on the ground.”
Misha followed up on his outreach to Medvedev at their next meeting, about the proposals from the Georgian side that would have gradually changed the dynamics on the ground. This included proposals for Russian troop withdrawal from parts of the Abkhazian territory, but they got peacekeeping presence; Georgian authorities could start to rebuild the territory; IDPs from the conflict in the ‘90s would get to turn, etc. Elements of this would not have been popular domestically, but the Georgian government felt that change “in a dramatic way” was necessary to change the facts on the ground. “We were ready to pay the political price internally if that would’ve come to some fruition, that proposal,” Eka says. “If Russia would have had even the slightest intention for any peaceful resolution, this was a very strong face-saving plan for them as well, because they would’ve still been part of the process, they wouldn’t have been kicked out, they would’ve been part of the resolution. But obviously there was nothing in Russian planning for any de-escalation. They were methodically preparing for escalation and then invasion, which they did… Already in Misha’s second meeting with Medvedev…. he basically said that he was not in charge of this process and there was nothing he could do with these proposals.” Putin was in charge.
Eka described in some detail the ways Russia moved troops into position, pretending they were peacekeepers in the regular contingents. “They went blatantly beyond all qualifications of what the peacekeepers should have had on the ground, and we basically said we are not in the position anymore to maintain the ‘fake news’ that these were peacekeepers… they didn’t comply anymore and weren’t hiding it at all. This is when they started repairing the railway connection in Abkhazia, which they effectively used when they were moving the tanks and the troops when they came in August for the war.”
Eventually Germany was put in charge of trying to come up with a plan to de-escalate the tensions. “So the narrative was,” Eka explains, “let us work on it, we will de-escalate the situation, and will come up with a new plan how to turn the situation around, and have a peaceful resolution. And we said OK… The plan was not perfect, there were elements of the plan that were problematic to us… but the situation at the time was too tense, too desperate, and de-escalation was desperately needed… we understood that this was the only chance to turn around the situation and move developments into the negotiated format rather than Russia moving the situation into armed confrontation.” A meeting was planned in Berlin on August 4— but ultimately the Russians blew off the meeting. “They said they were planning their summer vacations,” Eka remembers with an audible eyeroll.
“For me,” says Shota, “ the clearest indication of the war was August 2-3. Our signals intelligence reported intercepts from the Ossetian borderguards that about 4000 people — a quarter of the entire Ossetian population — were evacuated in a single day. Since then it couldn’t be clearer that we were heading to the war.”
“When Steinmeyer [Germany’s foreign minister and the negotiator of this process] was visiting the Abkhazian region,” Eka says, “he basically said, ‘I sense the war already there, they are getting ready for the war.’”
“When the Russians said they were planning their vacation” — Eka’s eyeroll feels persistent — “they had already begun shelling villages, constant escalation everyday, Russians bringing in journalist crews to South Ossetia in preparation for the war. Nothing was in anyway indicative of vacation time… I think this was something that was not understood or underestimated by our international partners, what this meant…This is how the Russians responded to robust attempts at de-escalation… this should have been the moment of interaction with them, with clear signs of what would’ve been the price that they would’ve paid if they would do this. And I guess the missing link always in this situation was that.”
Eka described how four or five different redlines were drawn, and then changed with no consequences for Russia. “It was somehow an expectation that if we would have restrained, no matter what would happen — including when Russian troops came in, including when we had nonstop shelling and bombardment of the villages and we had to rescue the citizens from the ground — that somehow the situation would’ve been saved and Russia ultimately would not intrude into the territory of a neighboring country. Because yes, they could show muscle, yes, they could show the strength, yes, they could harass — but ultimately with a real invasion, they would not do it. This was the understanding — and it was a complete misunderstanding. Russia had a well-developed strategic intention at the time to do this. And the strategy was not only with Georgia, but with Russia’s vision of its place in ‘the neighborhood of Russia,’ as it calls it, and in the projection of its power elsewhere. With Georgia they basically tested the ground for crossing redlines — real real redlines that nobody thought would have been crossed — and it went by without Russia paying any price. And that was already something that showed how Russia then used this lesson in relation to Crimea…”
“Georgia was the testing ground,” Eka concluded, “a testing ground for punishing and destroying a successful democracy in Russia’s neighborhood that did not agree to become a country with limited sovereignty — which Russians had articulated quite clearly and many times. They had that vision that countries in their neighborhood have limited sovereignty in foreign and internal matters, as well.”
“Our failure was that we failed to convince our good partners,” Giga says, “and the Bush administration was a very good partner — we failed to show that there was a strategic threat coming from Putin’s actions to Georgia’s sovereignty, and, larger than that, that Putin’s goal was challenging Euro-Atlantic security. That he was actually capable of taking this kind of risk. Putin was treated as a nuisance — a serious nuisance — but not more than that… This was our failure, even with our best friends.”
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I asked the Georgians about their most poignant memories of the days of the war — professional or otherwise.
“My most vivid memory was going to Tskhinvali on the 4th of August,” says Temuri, “where mysteriously the Russian cochair did not show up, saying that he had a flat tire, and then that the spare tire was also flat. We were going to see the head of the Russian peacekeepers. But when we were driving in the city — it was like one of those western movies where you see the deserted town, and bad sh*t gonna happen, and the dry bushes are blowing across the sand. And I told my deputy, the city is pregnant for war. This abnormal silence. This depopulated city, stray dogs running in the streets, no cars, no people. War was in the air… This is my most vivid memory. Everybody is evacuated. But there are a bunch of Russian journalists who apparently arrived in Tskhinvali to report about the war — several days before the war started.”
“The transition into the war — I remember that,” says Eka. “The situation was getting worse and worse every day, it was 24-hour work to ring up everybody [on the diplomatic lists] who was on vacation in hard-to-reach places. And then to observe, on a personal ground, that this was already happening, and nothing was preventing the invasion at the end of the day — this was a really painful moment to realize, when the troops were already through the Roki tunnel and, yes, the Russian army at the full scale was already entering.”
“There were many things that we were seeing, signs that we could interpret that were leading us to think that Russia was preparing for warfare,” says Temuri. “For example, the leaflets that were distributed among Russian soldiers, ‘Know Your Enemy’ — distributed during the Kavkaz military exercises — the enemy was definitely clearly as Georgia. The sudden failure of our IT infrastructure during the war — all the major websites went down, not only the government but also think tanks, others — and the telephone lines. Unless these things are premeditated, it’s not gonna happen like that.”
“A particular fact that I recall,” says Bokeria, “is that until the last moment, everybody, even our best friends, thought that ‘we should not get provoked [by Russia],’ and that that would be enough to calm the situation. That the Russians would not go to the extent that it will be impossible not to react — because it would mean they would undermine the whole country, and who knows what could have been the scenario. You never knew where the Russian troops would stop, if they would, when you learned that they are entering your territory in big numbers — or if you would allow their ethnic proxies to have ethnic cleansing of the local villages, which was ongoing — and the bombardment. And you don’t act?” An impossible notion, as far as he is concerned.
Giga continues: “We knew that they would try to provoke a mutiny within the army and within the country [if we didn’t react to their attacks] — because you have a government that just observed as people were slaughtered. And then [the Russians] would have acted, in the way they can, in several directions within our country.” The kind of measures that we know call active or hybrid or grey. “So I always recall this particular conversation with Secretary [Condoleezza] Rice — to whom I am so grateful, because she came to Georgia at a very important moment… There was still a misunderstanding that it was this was a move to show strength, and not a willingness to actually start an invasion. That’s why I recall this conversation where I said, ‘what should we do if they take further sovereign territory that is not under their control by force?’ —and her response was, ‘I know the Russians, they won’t do that.’ … [There is that] cliché charge against the Bush administration that they somehow encouraged us to war — it is just the contrary.”
Eka described how the core foreign ministry staff spend two sleepless nights working out of a think tank because they were worried about the government buildings being targeted if Russia attacked Tbilisi.
“Personally, my most unforgettable moment was the phone calls,” says Shota. Georgia does sometimes live up to its reputation of feeling like a large but tiny village where everyone knows everyone — and this is very much the case when it comes to people reaching out directly to officials whose mobile numbers they have had in their phone since high school. “The people whose towns were occupied wanted to call somewhere to report what was happening around them. Some were seeing their neighbors killed, their houses robbed and burned, and they thought the same thing would happen to them. Three or four of them had my number and called me with these horrible accounts.”
“When we opened a hot-line during the war to evacuate people from the territory that was being bombed/occupied/affected by the war,” writes Elene of the crisis group’s operations. “In one village that was getting bombed, we sent a bus to the highway near the village to evacuate people (we couldn’t get it inside the village itself), and I was on a phone line with one of the residents to get updates. Throughout the call, I could hear how they were losing people on the way… In the end, some made it out of the village, but others did not.”
Georgia’s international friends — those with access to their own planes — started to arrive in Tbilisi. Eka describes how the Lithuanian foreign minister arrived, and they went out to Gori, near the line with South Ossetia — which had already been bombed and was about to be bombed again. The Russians were targeting critical infrastructure. The Lithuanian said that he would stand on the bridge, and if the Russians bombed it, they would have to kill a European foreign minister, as well. They saw corpses lying in the rubble as they walked together through the town.
“The night that we learned the five presidents were flying to Tbilisi,” says Eka, referring to the announced arrival of the Polish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian presidents, who flew together into Georgia, “this literally brought hope back to people as well — that [as long as] the presidents were in Tbilisi, Tbilisi would not be bombed or invaded. And this was the personal courage of all four, a very hard way of coming to Georgia at the time, the Baltic presidents and the Polish president. And we are very grateful to them for doing that. And we fed all the details of this to the people, so they could understand what was happening, and I really admire the courage of the people. We didn’t see people fleeing, we didn’t see disarray, we didn’t have any banking crisis, or people withdrawing cash, people buying food. Tbilisi was functioning as if everything was almost normal — with just very tense people, obviously, in looking at what might happen. But we didn’t have panic in the city.”
“After Bush announced he was sending a military-humanitarian mission, sending the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State — it was a crucial crucial moment, and a crucial message,” says Giga. “After the first US plane landed at the Tbilisi airport, the Russians told them the plane had to be withdrawn, because they had to bomb the airport — and we all worried that if that demand would be met, that that would be a signal of very dangerous tension. And we were all relieved when the message was that the Americans were not removing the plane. And then the Russians didn’t dare to bomb the airport. This was an important psychological-political-military moment, that the US government has refused to do this. This was a confirmation of the seriousness of the message of President Bush — and not only that, but other moves that they made, which we learned of later on.”
But amidst the war and all these great games, they were still young people with families. “At some point you forget everything personal,” says Eka. “My daughter was nine months old at the time, and was out of town with her granny, it was summertime… And on the 10th or 11th of August, when already Russian troops were advancing more and more, and there was valid ground to believe they would come up to Tbilisi as well — I realized that I had to get her back to me… [When my husband went to get her,] people panicked. They thought that something was already happening. So my husband had to explain to people that we had to have our 9-month-old with us, that we were not fleeing the country, that nobody was fleeing the country.”
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt had come and would give Eka and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorsky a ride to an EU meeting on the Georgia crisis on his plane, since there were still no commercial flights. “Everybody from Eastern Europe was fully convinced that Russia was ready, and it was in fact their intention basically to crush Georgia and have regime change, the classics of what Russia would do in the early 20th century,” says Eka. “And my colleagues were saying to me that as foreign minister, I had to go to another country as a safe country, to have legitimate representation of Georgia be assured — as the Baltic states did, for example, during the WWII occupation of their countries… But at the time, we thought it was not the moment to do that. It would’ve been very hard to reconcile the idea of how to do that. But even talks like that in those short days — all of that was happening.”
“A funny memory I have,” writes Elene. “We were on the eighth floor of the national security council at the moment George Bush announced he would send humanitarian help to Georgia — the ships and airplanes. And when we heard that, and we were saying that Russia will probably pull off something before that. And suddenly we heard an explosion and the lights went out. Turns out it was just an electric generator that malfunctioned and exploded.” Elene has a gift for capturing the weirdness of these situations in anecdotes.
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Part 2: Misperceptions of the August War, and their entrenchment
I asked the Georgians about what they thought was not well understood about the war in 2008, and about things they hear over and over again about the war that simply aren’t true. This was a constant project for all of us — pushing back on narratives of the war that rippled forward in time to alter perceptions of the Georgian government and how they were engaged by Western partners. This was, of course, the point of the muddled narratives, in their most basic ambition. But many had quite specific design and purpose.
Sometimes this misperception was simply about what was missing from what people knew — as the group mentioned in Part 1, for example, how truly prepared, violent, and total the war was, and how integrated propaganda, cyberattacks, electronic warfare, and other disruptive measures were with the bombardments. For example, during the war and even after the ceasefire went into effect, Russian helicopters were seen dropping incendiary devices and flares into Georgian national forests to start forest fires; when the Turks sent planes to help fight the fires, Russian forces turned them back from Georgian airspace. There’s a lot of texture that gets left out in concise telling, and most of it does a pretty good job of exposing Russian preparations and intentions.
Because often the misperceptions are about shifting the overarching narrative of why the war happened. Never mind that in 2011, Medvedev admitted the invasion of Georgia had been to keep Georgia and Ukraine out of NATO — everyday was a new day to blame the how of the war on the Georgians.
Our Georgian panel mostly say the same thing when asked about untrue things they frequently hear about the war.
“That we ‘provoked’ Russia. That irrational behavior of Georgia provoked Russia. That’s such a big lie,” says Temuri. “I thought for a while that it was just some kind of blame game, shift-the-blame game, but now I understand that people kind of genuinely believe that if we did not ‘provoke Russia,’ things would not have happened?” There’s a pause of patient incredulity. “That is actually how much they do not understand how Russia works. Or how Putin’s Russia works. And how Putin is very skillfully exploiting these kinds of things.”
“That Georgia was ‘lured into a trap’ by Putin, and this was such a mistake, what Georgia did,” says Giga. “There are more hostile versions of this comment, saying Georgia ‘started the war.’ But the more subtle versions say that [Putin] pushed us into this ‘trap.’ And I think that’s the most ‘smartest stupid analysis’ of this.”
“That Georgians wanted this to happen, and that they miscalculated when defending themselves when Russian troops came in,” says Eka. “So basically the narrative is that we should have understood that the Russians would crush us, and it was a ‘miscalculation’ to believe we could defend ourselves. This is the biggest misunderstanding of what happened at the time... As if it was an ad hoc confrontation largely caused by miscalculated action of the Georgian government.”
Elene agrees. “A common misinterpretation by the West is that the war was caused by some accident or ‘provocation,’ but in reality it was Russia’s thought-out strategy that was building up way before the war started. In the beginning of August (either August 2nd or 3rd), aggression had already started against Georgia — with Russian military forces inside, bombings, and victims. The Crimea war sadly showed later how much all of it was a part of Russia’s grand strategy.”
“The biggest thing [that is misunderstood] is that it was planned action from the Russian side, planned well ahead of August 2008, strategically planned and executed by Putin. This is still not understood,” says Eka. “It’s still somehow seen as ‘well things got out of hand at some time’ — but no. They had this planned. They were ready for that. Not in a perfect way.… But they learned from that.… and they do it better the next time. And until it is stopped, there will always be a next time.”
Giga reminds that there were earlier warnings. “We were trying to deliver this message to all of our partners, not just the US, that Putin’s goal was as he said at the [Munich Security Conference in 2007].” Putin’s address was notable for the change in tone on resentments and aggression toward the West, and in its vision of Russian power. A few months later was Russia’s cyberattack on Estonia, with the accompanying Bronze Night riots, and then Georgia the next year — so now the speech is very much seen as Putin’s announcement of what was to come. At the time this interpretation was seen as “alarmist.”
“We took his words very seriously,” Giga says, “but I don’t think it was taken that seriously by most of our partners… There are objective reasons for that, including the war in Iraq, and the overall situation — but until August 2008, even the Bush administration’s understanding of the willingness and ‘readiness to use power’ by Russia was underestimated.”
“[The Russians] understand that they need to pull above their weight,” Eka says. “Because at the end of the day, Russia is not as mighty as it wants to be seen as. It wants to have a seat at the table of the superpowers that will emerge in a multipolar world, and an ideal situation, with several poles —China, the US, and for some reason they see themselves as that caliber. And that [each of these] have their own spheres of influence. With countries of limited sovereignty around them. For that, you need to project power inside of your own region — but outside as well, so you leverage it. That’s what they do with Syria.”
Temuri also connects the extensive preparations for war with broader Russian goals. “The chatter that we deciphered afterward,” he says, referring to intercepts and other intelligence material, “showed serious preparation… unfortunately it was not taken in the West as a sign of preparation for war.” He describes how Steinmeier, the German interlocutor on de-escalation talks with Russia, told them in July 2008 how Russia had prepared the scenario for war. “He said ‘they will push you to respond to the shelling, and then they will to come to defend these guys, and they will defeat you because you are much smaller, and before the West wakes up, you will be defeated.’” This is always key point of frustration from all these Georgians: they were aware of the essentially lose-lose scenario the Kremlin was constructing for Georgia, which is why they pressed their Western allies to disrupt the execution of the scenario.
“The Western recommendation,” says Shota, “was ‘ignore Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whatever happens happens and then you can blame the previous [Georgian] government, which effectively lost these territories.’ And that was the West’s biggest mistake — thinking that the pro-Western government in Georgia could have survived if it gave up the territories. The Russians knew that perfectly well [that we would not].”
Georgian territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been termed de facto breakaway territories since wars with the central government in the early ‘90s, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union — two of many such ethnic-ish conflicts that Russia stoked across the former Soviet states to keep levers of control scattered about. They tend to be called “frozen conflicts” — which is a pretty inaccurate description when they are persistent lines of conflict in more than one respect. Ethnic cleansing from the territories has significantly reshaped their demographics, with somewhere between 300-400,000 Georgians (and other nationalities and ethnicities) being forced out, a majority during the ‘90s, but tens of thousands more in 2008. Lots of Russians have moved in — Abkhazia, on the Black Sea, is kind of touristy, and was used heavily in the construction of the Sochi Olympics (Sochi is just over the border); South Ossetia is little more than a town and a Russian military camp, now, with ‘retired’ Russian officers given incentives to settle there. There was a great project done in 2010, comparing satellite photos of South Ossetia before the war and after. This time, Russia bulldozed the villages they had forced people out of, leaving no trace of them, so the IDPs could never return. The boundary lines with the territories — which Russia and only four of its cronies (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, and Nauru) have recognized as independent states — tend to move forward overnight at frequent intervals as the Russians chew into Georgian territory. In a country of about 3.5 million, its a large displaced population. Many want to return to ancestral homes. It’s a complex issue for any Georgian government, politically and socially.
Discussion of the territories is a source of great frustration for Temuri, who was responsible, at the time, for the policy to engage them. “So much money, as a soft power instrument, went into South Ossetia. Which was working! And we had evidence that this soft power — building the schools, building the swimming pools, building sports facilities [was working] … Having access to normal life, basically.” Temuri describes how allowing South Ossetians to visit a particular restaurant on the road to Gori was a really big deal, and a very popular decision. “Why would we screw with something that was working, and that we had invested so much time and money into? And then we would go and take South Ossetia by force? There was no need for that. And then people say, ‘oh but you had plans, your general staff was making plans to arm yourselves’ — of course they were having plans, of course they were thinking about all possible scenarios, of course, that’s what general staff does, prepare for territorial defense.”This twisting of logic, that if you prepare to defend yourself, it’s somehow a provocation of Russia — the same thing was used in Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict. “We had no military plan for South Ossetia. We were focused on the soft power initiative — which was working.” In Abkhazia, Georgia focused on addressing major health care problems like tuberculosis, hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS, and the economic benefits of cross-border trade with the occupied areas. All of these were popular initiatives.
A range of different reasons for how Georgia ‘stumbled’ into war have been patiently constructed. “The biggest misperception is the completely unfair and fraudulent charge against the Bush administration that somehow they pushed the Georgian leadership to take an action [against Russia]. Completely false,” says Giga, referencing the narrative that certain personalities within the US administration who were close to the Georgians were encouraging them to take on the Russians head-to-head, telling them that if they did, they would get US or NATO military support. “On the contrary, our problem was the message from Secretary Rice and others ‘not to get provoked.’ When we had a chance to pose this question — how should we react if they do not just provoke, as they have done all these years, but if they move, if they try to have another occupation of the bits of the territory that were under Georgian government control within South Ossetia. It was not [then] a clear line of separation. So if they take a strategic move to take military aggression to next level — a big sweep of territory to be occupied, ethnic cleansing in that territory, and a challenge to Georgian statehood — what should we do?”
The Georgians never felt they got a good answer. “Because when you are told not to get provoked,” Giga continues, “you’ve got to tell the partner what you see as the danger, the redline after which it will be impossible not to react, because if you don’t react, you might lose statehood, as such… If there was a government that doesn’t react to this — occupation, ethnic cleansing — then there is no state. And we will never know how far into Georgian territory they would go.” Giga also discussed how the Russians combined use of their regular army forces and local proxy forces, and may have planned to use the proxies to conduct more of the action — all of which casts a future shadow on planning for the invasion of Ukraine.
“We would ask,” Eka says, “‘what is it that you said to the Russians, that if they do it, then what?’ And there was never an answer to that. And that was the biggest problem. It was never thought through, what if Russians would do it. What should’ve been the consequences of that. And this was partially linked with the inability to imagine what would happen after... At least after Crimea, they came out with sanctions.”
“‘You shouldn’t react’”— there is a full-body eye-roll from Giga. “Take the situation of Ukraine. Ukraine was unable, because of its internal situation, to react to the invasion of Crimea militarily. There was no military confrontation, they just took it — the Russians. Did they stop there? Of course not. And Ukraine had strategic depth, Georgia doesn’t. This was an hour and a half drive from our capital. They say we’re walking into a trap — but you’ve learned that a big number of regular forces of a hostile country are entering your sovereign territory, and the territory under your de facto control is being bombed, and there’s a threat of ethnic cleansing there, and there’s the threat of a quick blitzkrieg towards the Tbilisi surroundings — and you don’t react? That is political treason of your country if you don’t react.”
He continues: “We had information about Russian armor and military troops entering the Roki tunnel. And then our peacekeepers were killed. And in that situation the trap is if you don’treact. Imagine if you don’t react, and then you have the Russian-infiltrated groups [in Georgia] saying ‘we have a treacherous government’ and this is within your military service, and then there’s a rebellion — and we knew that they were trying to do this… I’m not saying that they would have succeeded. We never knew how far and what those troops will do — but we knew the Georgian villages there were already under immediate threat, because they were bombarded, and we needed to act to make it possible for those people to get evacuated. Imagine a government that doesn’t act in that situation. So that’s the most smartest stupid thing” — a detailed, developed argument that doesn’t hold up next to basic realities on the ground — “that is observed sometimes about the war.”
In the years just after the war, there was a hot war over the Wikipedia entries for the conflict. This multiplied by a thousand was the daily narrative war. It’s died down since the oligarch’s party took over in Georgia — they often have as little to say about Russian actions in Georgia in August 2008 as they do about Russian actions now in Ukraine (a topic on which they are famously silent). Elene reminds that this silence doesn’t apply to their predecessors, who they often disparage about the war in base terms — for political motives or, well, otherwise. “The ruling Georgian Dream party lies that the [Saakashvili government] representatives fled the country during the war — which isn’t just fake news, but a blatant lie. Representatives of the government who weren’t in Georgia at the time were, on the contrary, coming back to the country. Including the Minister of Defense.” The disappearance of the current Georgian government from the narrative pushback has left lazy half-truths littered around, and sometimes advanced them.
There’s one other untruth that persists, Eka reminds. “That the war is over. Because, again —that the occupation continues, that the creeping annexation continues, and that in technical terms, in terms of public information, that the war is not over…. The [ceasefire] agreement is not implemented, Russian troops are on the ground, they enlarge their presence even more.”
* * * * *
Part 3: Wake-up calls, resets, and waiting
History and perceptions of history were a constant theme throughout the interviews — recent, and further into the past.
“All countries of the Soviet Union,” Eka reminded, “they have history of how Red Russia came in. In Georgia, with the first republic” — Georgia was briefly independent and democratic from 1918-1921, between the collapse of the Russian empire after the October Revolution and when the Soviets got around to reestablishing control of the Caucasus a few years later — “it was a social democratic country, with a modern European constitution, with females voting and being in the parliament. And then literally the Russian army came in, and the government at the time was too young and incapable to defend the country in any effective way, and they fled…”
Eka talked about how the post-Rose Revolution government always had this history in mind, and how the quiet failure of the first republic shaped their contingency planning. “So the question [for us] was, what do we do when the Russians come in and invade? Do we put up some defense actions to allow for some diplomatic action to save whatever can be saved, or do we just again flee?” Her tone makes it clear what the choice was: to stay with the people, and not to be silent if the Russians came again. “This was a serious factor for Georgians, because we all remembered the precedent of the first republic.” It is also why the Baltic states, with similar history that has shaped ideas about resistance, were so adamantly on Georgia’s side about Russian actions.
So, given everything that was discussed in Part 1 and Part 2, did the Kremlin succeed in rewriting the history of the August War? Yes and no, depending on which part.
“Partially,” says Eka. “They used massively their propaganda, even during the war. As you remember, [during the war] they used visuals of the bombardment of Gori”— a Georgian city that Russian forces were bombing — “as if it were visuals of the bombardment of Tskhinvali” — which is in the breakaway region. Essentially, Russian media used images of their own forces bombing civilian targets and killing civilians in Georgia as footage to say Georgian forces were killing civilians in South Ossetia. “And after that they worked on legitimizing their action, including by recognition of the regions [as ‘independent’].”
“Partially,” says Temuri. “We have to admit that Russian propaganda, centuries old propaganda, is a very effective tool… It’s not only what you see on RT, but in the way that they infiltrate and plant ideas and plant narratives and plant this and plant that — and plant people, directly and indirectly, spies and women and honeytraps. It’s a sophisticated game that people don’t understand… Russia had a whole team [their own propaganda machine, plus an international team including Ketchum, the PR behemoth]… trying to mitigate the narratives. And at a certain point they understood something fundamental. That they didn’t need to win the narrative, but blur the narrative. And that’s exactly what they did. It’s what they do now in Ukraine.”
“I wouldn’t say that they succeeded,” says Giga, “because what happened in Ukraine was a huge factor for some people who had an honest but deep misunderstanding of the situation in Georgia. But where the free world has not succeeded yet — while the conclusion has now been made that Putin is not just a bad partner, but an adversary, a foe, an enemy, a threat — I think there still is no effective strategy defined and agreed in the Euro-Atlantic community against that threat. There are still divisions and inconsistencies within the US — and especially in European big players — about the nature of this threat. And this is a success for Putin. That there is a lack of success in strategy for his containment and roll-back, and to push him back.”
“Neither us nor them were fully successful in creating the narrative about the war,” Eka reflects. “For us the problem is we were not fully successful in establishing the perception of the truth of what happened — the strategic meaning of what happened for the global context, especially for liberal democracy.”
Elene again highlighted the current government and its stance on the war. “Partially [Russia did succeed], because Georgian Dream’s propaganda is promoting the narrative that the war was Georgia’s fault. And they are doing this through different instruments — including through the [Georgian] President’s messages in her meetings with international partners.” The messy domestic political situation echoes a lot into messaging with international partners, to the great frustration of just about everyone involved.
So there is the factor of Russian propaganda narrative, and the factor of whatever the current government is doing — but the Georgians also highlight the factor of those who do not want their own stance before the war evaluated unfavorably. While it is true that after Crimea, there was much greater awareness of how far Russia is willing to go and the types of pressure it will apply — this is not always projected back onto how what happened in Georgia is assessed.
“If we are very honest about it, and very cynical at the same time, acknowledging the truth partially for many means acknowledging the mistakes that were made at the time, in terms of the assessment of the situation,” says Eka. “And this answer is not easy for many…. So if we acknowledge the fact that it was not a miscalculation on an isolated event by the Georgian government on what happened, but was a preplanned action from the Russian side — executed quite meticulously, which didn’t happen out of the blue, which still continues with occupation — then those who have a different political narrative about [why it happened]… It’s not easy to do. That’s why this mixed narrative of the war continues… But what happened in Ukraine made it more difficult to discard the argument of strategic aim of Russia.”
“Because nobody wants to say that ‘yes we made mistakes’ or ‘yes we didn’t pay enough attention,’ there is an absolutely disgusting attempt to blame Georgians who allegedly provoked Russia,” says Temuri, “which eventually took the form of the Tagliavini commission.” The Tagliavini report was an EU-backed “fact-finding mission” on the events leading up to and during the war, about which these Georgians have always had pages and pages of disagreements. Depending on how you read it, it assigns fault to both sides, but although it documents Moscow’s extensive preparations for the war and brutal execution of the war, it accepted the idea that the actual war would not have been sparked if not for Georgian actions (you can revisit Part 2 for what the Georgians have to say about this.) “Not in the report, but in the presentation of the report, they included the language that Georgia started the war.” Think Bill Barr’s rollout of the Mueller report. “So the whole argument shifted with the help of the West, about who started the war, instead of talking about aggression. And very unfortunate then was that it took quite a significant time for the West to recognize the occupation of Georgia.”
At some point, the Georgians’ insistence on using the word “occupation” became a point of conflict with the US and the Europeans — but for a whole range of legal reasons, it was important. I remember many a diplomat complaining about “the Georgian obsession with commas” — the insistence that official language always reflect that the occupied territories were legally part of Georgia. At first, this was an uphill battle. Temuri told Misha he would resign to alleviate this conflict. But Misha came back, Temuri relates, and said, “You know what? We are responsible for our nation, not these people.” They continued to fight the occupation point, and now this is broadly-accepted language in the West. It was included, for example, in the statement that the State Department made about the anniversary of the August War.
But while the language may be good, the language isn’t enough.
“The Russians did not rewrite [the history of the war],” writes Shota. “They let it be forgotten, largely because the West forgot it, too.”
And this gets back to the idea that 2008 was a wake-up call that not enough people answered.
“Business as usual with Russia stopped after the war,” says Elene, “but then it continued again with Obama becoming President and resetting with Russia. Russia saw this ‘reset’ not as a compromise with the West, but rather a weakness of the West — which allowed it to continue later by invading Ukraine.”
“I think for the Bush administration it was a clear wake-up call, and they had a strategy,” says Giga, “but for many European partners, it turned out not to be. And they chose, at the time, this comfortable cliché thing that it was this ‘legacy of the chaotic ‘90s ethnic conflicts,’ and it was the ‘provocative Georgian government’ why this happened, and that this had nothing to do with Putin strategic intentions — which would go further.” After the war, both the Georgians and the Moldovans warned the US that Putin had his eye on Crimea, and that he would use passportization and other tools like those used in Georgia to help target it. But this was seen as “fear-mongering and warmongering.”
“But during the war, after the invasion, it was the actions and position of the Bush administration that saved Georgian statehood,” Giga says. “The statement Bush made, and then the steps they took — in addition to the sacrifices of our soldiers, this gave us those days that saved Georgia’s sovereignty. And I think the Bush administration after that was willing to have a serious strategy against Putin prepared. Which included continued push for a NATO Membership Action Plan at the next summit — which some of the European skeptics were very unhappy about — and smart sanctions of some kind... But then, of course, the change of administration happened and there was this quite unfortunate reset, which I think was a strategic mistake.”
Crimea always looms large over these discussions. “I think what happened in relation to Ukraine, sanctions from both the US and the EU [after the invasion] — if that had happened in 2008, it’s speculative, but I very much doubt that Crimea and Ukraine would have happened,” says Eka. “The biggest lesson in Russia drew from 2008 is there’s no real price they have to pay. As we see now in Ukraine, they are willing to pay a price, too, depending on how big the price is.”
She continues: “But if at that time there had been credible action — and we never had any expectation ever that anyone would do anything militarily against Russia — but when we speak about the price, at least when it comes to political price and price in terms of sanctions, that should’ve happened. And that should’ve happened vis-à-vis the war, and vis-à-vis the non-implementation of the agreements that they signed up for. They didn’t pay a price for the invasion, and they didn’t pay a price for the continued occupation. They don’t pay a price for the creeping annexation now — and that was the lesson from 2008 for them.”
About what was missed and how you get from August 2008 to Crimea, Giga says: “I would underline three things. First, the general underestimation of Putin’s willingness to use power, and his real strategy to undermine the post-Cold War Euro-Atlantic order — and therefore attack Georgia, and then Ukraine, and then anybody who would be looking as a successful pro-Western country on Russia’s borders as part of that. Second, Bucharest” — when the division about Georgia and Ukraine’s admission to NATO convinced the Russians they had an opportunity to act to prevent this from happening. “Third, after the war, it was the reset… US support for Georgia’s territorial integrity has been important, even through the reset, and it is not that I am saying that we were abandoned or there was some betrayal — that’s not the case. But if we are discussing a mistake in containing Putin’s actions — these three. This is what I mean.”
“I don’t think it was understood by [the Russians] that anybody had a wake-up call,” says Eka. “What could’ve been part of the package, a very robust strengthening of Georgia, including in military and defense, and not being shy of that. And by that, underscoring that it’s not Georgians who are responsible for the invasion of their own country, and that they should have all the defense capabilities they need to have for anything in the future.” There was significant debate after the war about providing even defensive capabilities to Georgia, for fear defensive arms would encourage them to believe they could fight Russia. This exact same logic was initially applied to Ukraine after Russia invaded — that if the Ukrainians were provided defensive capabilities, they would believe they could fight the Russians who were invading their country. After seven years of war, the tide has mostly turned on this for Ukraine. Finally.
Eka is insistent on the idea that there was significant missed opportunity in Georgia after 2008. “By that logic [of building a stronger Georgia], instead of getting weaker neighbors that [Russia] can control and puppeteer, [they] will get stronger democracies if [they] go in that direction [of military aggression]. For Russia, the lesson should have been that instead of getting crumbling democracies that [they] can control — because it’s not about territorial control for them… Instead of crumbling democracies, you get stronger democracies. And if you get that it’s a strategically opposite objective for Russia. And that would have been a sign for them that there was a wake up call…” She references the $1 billion aid package for Georgia that was put together and passed by the US Congress in record time after the war, a show of support for the young democracy which was absolutely vital in several respects, especially in offsetting the potentially devastating economic impact of the war for the Georgian economy. But what if this has been bigger, and strengthened Georgia after the war in more areas and with less hesitancy?
“The Russians are very practical people. I mean the Russian government,” says Temuri. “If you look at their behavior, Russians never cross the redline. They divide the redline into pink-lines, and cross them one by one. And before there is a realization in the West that the line is crossed, the line is already crossed. So they create the new realities on the ground, and then the Americans have to play the catch-up game. So people say, ‘what, do you expect us to go to war with Russia?’” He sighs. “Nobody expects you to go to war with Russia, but there have to be redlines and enforcement mechanisms that if you cross the line, there will be consequences. And every time we see enforcement of these redlines, we see Russians retreating. Unfortunately, this is the only language they understand... Instead of sanctioning Russia and pushing them to China, if you could give to the Ukrainians weapons that would give a bloody nose to Russia, it would be much more effective. Or, seeing that Russia is trying to do something in Crimea, instead of telling the Ukrainians ‘don’t provoke Russia,’ allow the Ukrainians to show them the bloody nose. You come back to fundamentals. You put the redline, and you put the cost and the mechanism of enforcement for crossing the redlines… Nobody is asking the West to go and fight a nuclear war with Russia, or any other conventional war with Russia — it’s about putting redlines and enforcing them.”
* * * * *
Many of these interviews were, of course, bookended by discussions of the new administration, and — for me — a sense that there is so much opportunity to push Russia back in the region — but no one is leading the charge.
“Weakness is provocative,” Giga says. He had said this to me before, and every time I want to write it down again. This should define the architecture of how we deal with Putin’s Russia — instead we misunderstand, often, that what Russia perceives as weakness is often different from what we believe weakness to be. Each time we are shocked when they take a risk above a threshold we thought we understood to be defined. Usually this just means we didn’t listen to what they say — like Putin’s Munich speech — projecting onto their words our own interpretation of meaning that superimposes layers of complexity that simply are not there.
Which is why the people like Giga will still take any opportunity to push back on the idea that there was any other possible outcome in 2008. “The fact that the Russians got what they wanted in Crimea didn’t preclude them at all from further continuing military action deeper into Ukrainian territory and into eastern Ukraine. And they were stopped only when there was military resistance and international pressure.”
These Georgians, then as now, listen to everything every US administration says about policy toward Europe and Russia, and places between and beyond. There is always uneasiness about the willingness to give Russia the benefit of the doubt after heaps of evidence showing this is likely a fool’s errand — especially when this involves believing Russia could be a partner or solution to global problems.
“I think again there is a mistake when we hear China is a real threat, not Russia,” says Giga. “And I understand, there are real reasons, for the US especially, to say that in the mid- and long-term, China is a competitive threat — because of the resources, because of where they are now compared to Russia. But the big mistake is to use this correct projection [of the future] to downplay the immediate threat of Putin. There is zero chance that anybody would convince Putin that he needs to weaken China instead of the West. For him the target is the West. And China is a tactical ally in that. For Putin, the major thing is undermining the post-Cold War order.”
And no one seems to be leading the charge against this. Still. The Georgians fought to give us space to do this, as the Ukrainians do now. And they wait.