The August War, 13 years later (Part 2)

Part 2: ‘Provocations,’ ‘traps,’ and realities on the ground

This is Part 2 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 an important chance to alter the Kremlin’s behavior, and could we do it now?

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.”

* * * * * 

Tuesday’s section will conclude with a discussion of whether we missed a chance to alter the Kremlin’s behavior in 2008, and what that means now.