The August War, 13 years later (Part 3)

Part 3: Wake-up calls, resets, and waiting

This is Part 3 of 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. 

August 8, Introduction & Part 1: warning lights and memories of the war

August 9, Part 2: misperceptions of the war, and their entrenchment 

August 10, Part 3 & conclusions: did we miss a chance to alter the Kremlin’s behavior, and could we do it now?

Part 3: 

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.”

* * * * *

Conclusion

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. 

— MM

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