As the fourth anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Georgia passes, Moscow continues to occupy Georgian territory and most likely entertains plans to subdue the Caucasian nation once and for all.
By Paweł Piotr Styrna | August 12, 2012
Georgian attempts to respond to Moscow-inspired separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the subsequent Russian
invasion. (Andrei nacu at en.wikipedia).
Four years ago, as the attention of so many was tuned to the Beijing Olympics, the Russians, under the Medvedev-Putin regime, invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. The official casus belli was South Ossetia, one of two break-away autonomous provinces over which Tbilisi had been attempting to reassert control ever since Georgia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, Moscow has supported and encouraged secessionist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In August 2008, the latter region served as a pretext to launch a war of aggression against Georgia. That the invasion was a premeditated assault was admitted by none other than Vladimir Putin and his former chief of general staff. As a result, Russia has de facto annexed and continues to occupy parts of sovereign Georgia’s integral, internationally-recognized territory.
While few in the West seem to realize Georgia’s geopolitical significance, the small mountainous nation is nestled at a strategic crossroads in southwest Asia. Along with Azerbaijan, it is a crucial link in a transit corridor connecting Europe via the Black Sea with the Central Asian states across the Caspian Sea. This route allows shipments of vital resources, such as natural gas and crude oil, to bypass both Russia and Iran. Two cases in point are the oil pipelines running from Baku and bifurcating near Tbilisi to reach Georgia’s Black Sea terminal at Supsa, and Ceyhan along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, in addition to the Baku – Tbilisi – Erzurum (Turkey) natural gas pipeline.
Russian control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia seriously threatens Georgia’s geopolitical position, however. Moscow’s takeover of the former entails the loss of approximately half of Georgia’s Black Sea coast, including the port of Sukhumi. The latter, in turn, serves as a salient aimed at the capital of Tbilisi and central Georgia’s transportation hub of Gori, which links the eastern and western parts of the mountainous country. The above-mentioned pipelines also happen to run through the Gori region.
A history of foreign invasions
Throughout its long history, Georgia—the second or third country in the world to convert to Christianity (during the first half of the fourth century AD)—has been attacked by many invaders: Arabs, Turkic tribes, Mongols, Persians, and Ottoman Turks. From the late eighteenth century onward, this long list was joined by the Muscovite imperialists, the Soviets, and Putinist Post-Soviets. These experiences generated a tradition of proud resistance.
In 1783, eastern Georgia—which had been a battleground between the Turks and Persians—turned to fellow Greek Orthodox Russia for assistance. The two sides signed the Treaty of Georgievsk, in which Russia promised Georgia protection against the two Muslim powers which had battled over and devastated the Caucasian land. However, St. Petersburg broke its treaty commitments, standing by as the Ottomans and Persians launched not one, but two bloody invasions of Georgia (1785 and 1795). Further, the Russians conquered eastern Georgia in 1801—depriving it of political autonomy, deposing its king, and subordinating the Georgian Orthodox Church to the Russian state one—and swallowed the rest of Georgia during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Muscovite rule eventually brought some economic development to a Georgia impoverished by the Turks and Persians and liberated the serfs, but was nevertheless repressive and hostile to Georgian culture and identity. Official policies to Russify the Empire’s many ethnic minorities, which happened to constitute slightly more than half of the population of the Romanov domains, antagonized the non-Russian nationalities, including the Georgians. Thus, they seized the opportunity to declare an independent state as the Russian Empire disintegrated and plunged into civil war in the wake of the Bolshevik coup in October 1917. The Russian Whites (anti-communists) clung to the notion of an indivisible Russian Empire, thereby further alienating the non-Russian ethnicities and precluding a united, transnational anti-Bolshevik front. (Incidentally, groups of both Georgians and Russians fought against the Reds on the Polish side during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919-1921). Thus, the Soviets subdued all their opponents (save the Poles, Balts, and Finns) and subjugated independent Georgia in early 1921. Their brutal and murderous rule (in no way alleviated by the fact that Stalin and several other top Bolsheviks were themselves of ethnic Georgian descent) would continue for seven more decades until the implosion of the Soviet “Prison of Nations” enabled the resurrection of a sovereign Georgian state.
However, Georgians could not afford to rest on their laurels. Their country’s independence, and even its existence as a sovereign nation, remained rather precarious. Communism-proper transformed itself into post-communism, with all the attendant pathologies (see Paweł Piotr Styrna, “The Post-Soviet Zone Twenty Years Later: An Empire Under Reconstruction,” SFPPR Issue Brief, October 2011). This included ethnic tensions exacerbated by communist rule. The Soviet regime had long sought to “manage” its diverse subject population through a nationality policy of divide et impera. Hence, three “autonomous regions” were created by Moscow within the Georgian Soviet Republic: Ajaria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia (Northern Ossetia itself was attached to the Russian core of the Soviet Empire).
After the Soviet Union imploded on December 25, 1991, Post-Soviet Russia supported separatist movements in the three regions. Suddenly, the successor of the “Prison of Nations” became a defender of minority rights in the post-Soviet sphere. During the early 1990s Georgia was forced to fight two wars—one in Abkhazia, another in South Ossetia—in an attempt to counter the Kremlin-inspired secessionists. The Russian-brokered agreements of 1992-1993 provided for the presence of Russian, native (Abkhaz and Ossetian), and (in some places) Georgian peacekeepers. Conveniently for Moscow, this chaotic situation remained unresolved for the time being. Russia became preoccupied with crushing opposition to its rule in neighboring Chechnya. Further, the post-communist Eduard Shevardnadze (the former First Secretary of the CP of Georgia and Gorbachev’s foreign minister) ruled Georgia from 1992 – 2003. Shevardnadze (who succeeded “nationalist” president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who had been ousted in a coup) adopted a foreign policy of balancing between Russia and the West at a time when the Kremlin was unprepared to confront the U.S. (Also, it was not unusual for post-communists to conduct policies friendly toward America at this time to establish their “patriotic” credentials at home). More importantly, Shevardnadze was hostile to Georgian “nationalism,” which meant that Moscow could consider him a “lesser evil” than the “nationalist” camp. Thus, the situation in the separatist regions remained “frozen,” although Russia certainly accused Georgia of allegedly sheltering Chechen terrorists during this time.
The rise of Mikheil Saakashvili
The Shevardnadze regime’s attempt to rig the 2003 presidential election resulted in the Rose Revolution, which propelled Mikheil Saakashvili to power in Tbilisi. In a stark contrast to his geriatric, Homo Sovieticuspredecessor, “Misha” was young, charismatic, and educated in the United States.
A right-of-center moderate nationalist, Saakashvili embarked on an unequivocally pro-Western, pro-American course aiming to bolster Georgia’s strength and independence vis-à-vis post-Soviet Russia. Thus, he reinvigorated his country’s attempts to join both NATO and the EU. To help Georgia survive as an independent nation, he also pursued strong ties with neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan (which irked adjacent Armenia, since it tows a pro-Russian course motivated by a no means baseless fear of being crushed by the two hostile Turkic states). In addition, Saakashvili constructed a special relationship with Israel, only to feel betrayed by the latter’s willingness to accommodate Russia’s anti-Georgian policies for the price of reducing Moscow’s support for the Islamist regime in Tehran. (Thus, Russia delayed and eventually cancelled the sale of advanced, long-range S-300 anti-aircraft batteries to the Islamic Republic in 2010, albeit the Kremlin never dropped Iran as an ally and warned menacingly against military action aimed at the regime). Tbilisi even sought good relations with Tehran, which debunks Russian claims that Saakashvili is merely an American lackey in the service of a sinister policy of “encircling” Russia.
Observing Putin’s intention to gather the lands of the old Soviet Empire and restore Moscow’s domination over the former republics and satellites, Saakashvili also sought to modernize and beef-up little Georgia’s military. Finally, the new president focused on reining-in Kremlin-inspired separatism in the autonomous regions, and managed to reestablish Tbilisi’s control over Ajaria. Abkhazia and South Ossetia would prove much more difficult to reintegrate, however, even though Georgia repeatedly offered both wide autonomy within a united state. Concurrently, however, Moscow continued to tighten its grip over the two provinces by distributing Russian passports to the inhabitants and connecting them to Russia via pipelines. South Ossetia and Abkhazia also became sources of cyberwarfare waged against Georgia.
The Chekist at the Kremlin found Saakashvili’s proud independence intolerable. Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Vladimir Putin infamously threatened to oust the Georgian president and “hang him by the balls,” although such temptations no doubt germinated in Putin’s head much earlier. Georgia’s assertive defense of her national sovereignty also coincided with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-2005 and the replacement of a post-communist government in Poland by a conservative anti-communist one in 2005. The “captive nations” of the old Soviet Bloc had dared to cooperate against Moscow’s post-Soviet neo-imperial project. Thus, they had to be taught a lesson in humility, and Georgia—a relatively small country, whose two contested border provinces could conveniently serve as casus belli—offered an easy target.
Moscow’s ready invasion plan
As Jamestown Foundation analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer demonstrated in his article entitled, Putin Confirms the Invasion of Georgia Was Preplanned that was published in the Eurasia Daily Monitor, Putin readily admitted that the plan to invade Georgia was drawn up by the Russian General Staff “at the end of 2006, and I authorized it in 2007.” These words were corroborated by Russia’s former Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, who confirmed that Russian troops were prepared to strike and had only to await the signal from the Kremlin. Felgenhauer strongly suspects the very probable eventuality that Moscow has another plan to invade and occupy the remainder of the country.
Further, as America’s former Permanent Representative to the UN, John Bolton, emphasized: “Europe’s rejection this spring  of President Bush’s proposal to start Ukraine and Georgia towards Nato [sic] was the real provocation to Russia, because it exposed Western weakness and timidity.”
The Russians spun their invasion as a humanitarian intervention in defense of minority rights and national self-determination. Simultaneously, the assault was a message to the world in general (especially the U.S.), that the Evil Empire has returned to the world stage as a military superpower, and to the former satellites and successor republics of the “near abroad,” to submit to Moscow’s domination, or else. STRATFOR’s George Friedman argued that Russia thereby announced to the United States that the balance of power had changed in favor of the former by demonstrating that America, overstretched and bogged down in the Middle East, was now unable to stop the reconstruction of the empire. The Kremlin and its apologists throughout the world also framed the aggression in terms of brute Realpolitik, asserting that Georgia had “provoked” Russia in anticipation of firm American support. Accordingly, they argued, it was Russia’s great power prerogative to enforce its “legitimate” interests and keep the “security zone” outside its frontiers clear of foreign threats. Such voices—stronger in Western Europe, but by no means marginal in the United States—are representative of a long history of Western appeasement of Moscow’s expansionism.
According to former Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd (Labor), the invasion generated an “animated” discussion between Bush and Putin during the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. The U.S. President subsequently issued a warning to Russia and sided with Georgia. Nevertheless, John Bolton described the American reaction as that of a “paper tiger” which “fiddled as Georgia burned.” Washington admittedly sent humanitarian aid to the attacked Caucasian nation—albeit no military assistance—and shipped the 2,000-strong Georgian contingent from Iraq (the third largest in Mesopotamia) to Georgia on August 11.
Bolton described the EU’s attempt to play “mediator—its favorite role in the world—between Georgia and Russia, rather than an advocate for the victim of aggression” as even more reminiscent of Chamberlain’s role at Munich. The six-part peace plan brokered by former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who represented the EU during France’s presidency, was a reflection of Europe’s docility and unwillingness to tow a tougher line vis-à-vis Moscow.
The Georgian president had warned that “if the whole world does not stop Russia today, then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital.” Given Russia’s geographic location, Western leaders (including even the Czechs, for example) may not have been worried about this eventuality. The former “captive nations” on the edges of the former Soviet Empire had plenty of good reasons to be concerned. Poland’s president, Lech Kaczyński, interceded with Sarkozy on behalf of Georgia, forged a coalition of Intermarium leaders, and travelled to Georgia along with the presidents of Ukraine and Estonia and the prime minister of Latvia. On August 12, 2008, he delivered a forceful speech in Tbilisi:
“For the first time in a while our neighbors from the north and the east have shown us a face we have been all too familiar with for centuries. These neighbors believe that the nations around them should be subordinated to them. We say NO! (…) This country is Russia, which believes that the old days of the empire which collapsed not so long ago are returning, that domination will be the characteristic of this region. It shall not! Those days are gone forever.”
Leaders of the Intermarium in Tbilisi, Georgia on August 12, 2008. L-R: President Lech Kaczynski-Poland; Georgian
President Mikheil Saakashvili (Speaking); President Viktor Yushchenko-Ukraine; President Valdas Adamkus-Lithuania;
President Toomas Hendrik Ilves-Estonia; and, Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis-Latvia. (Burak Kara/Getty Images Europe).
Needless to say, these words did not endear Kaczyński to the verkhushka in Moscow. Hence, it is perhaps not coincidental that Kaczyński’s motorcade was fired upon in November 2008, most likely by Ossetians, near Georgia-proper’s border with Russian-occupied South Ossetia. The bullets missed the Polish president, who finally perished in April 2010 over Smolensk (Russia) in a highly suspicious plane crash. Some, such as CIA veteran S. Eugene Poteat, have argued that the tragedy was an assassination by a vengeful Putin. Since then, Poland fell in line with the Moscow-Berlin axis, Ukraine elected a post-Soviet, pro-Kremlin president, and Georgia became even more marginalized.
In the wake of the destructive Russian invasion four years ago, the proud Caucasian nation’s geostrategic position has admittedly deteriorated. Political leaders in many key allied capitals—Washington, Warsaw, and Jerusalem—have essentially sacrificed her at the altar of conciliating Moscow. In spite of this, Georgia has not given up on regaining her lost provinces of Abhkazia and South Ossetia, which Russia unilaterally recognized as independent states (citing America’s misguided decision to acknowledge Kosovo independence as a precedent), which, in practice, translates into dependence on and incorporation into the Russian Federation. Mikheil Saakashvili even offered to resign in exchange for the return of the two regions. While Moscow’s war of aggression against Georgia has made the Kremlin even more brazen, it has nevertheless failed to break little Georgia’s resolve to remain independent. Her fortitude may be well-founded, for Georgia would constitute a natural and important element of an alliance former “captive nations” built around the Intermarium, which could contain Moscow; preferably with American support, but through its own efforts if necessary. The fact that such a natural geopolitical bloc does not yet exist is a testament only to the enduring pathologies of post-communism and a deficiency of political will.
Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.