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The Little War That Actually Didn't Shake The World

  • Ghia Nodia

Russian demonstrators with a poster of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili behind bars in August 2008 -- a wish Moscow failed to see realized.

Russian demonstrators with a poster of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili behind bars in August 2008 -- a wish Moscow failed to see realized.

What were the results of the Russia-Georgia war of early August 2008? At first it seemed as if the war would overturn everything in the region and create a new global reality. But nothing of the sort actually happened.

Russia's goal was to fundamentally change its status in the post-Soviet space: to end the West's trend of squeezing Russia out and restore its role as the dominant force in the region.

Georgia and Ukraine have traditionally been the main obstacles to achieving this. Within Ukraine -- for cultural and historical reasons -- Russia has powerful allies who could legitimately come to power. And in the end that is what happened.

In Georgia, things are more complicated. Even Russia's economic blockade did not achieve Moscow's ends. A surgical intervention was necessary.

Pyrrhic Victory?

Abkhaz celebrate Russian recognition of independence. The war did result in greater clarity in regard to Georgia's breakaway regions.
And that didn't work either. Control over several gorges in Abkhazia and South Ossetia was the main result of Russia's military victory. Of course, for a country as small as Georgia, even this is a painful loss. But considering the relative military might of the two countries, it is fair to say Georgia got off lightly.

The main thing is that Russia didn't manage to hang President Mikheil Saakashvili "by the balls" (according to Western media, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressed this very desire), neither in the literal sense, nor even figuratively. The war did not produce chaos in Georgia or provoke a serious political or economic crisis.

Despite many problems, state institutions withstood this test. The attacks by the opposition in the spring and summer of 2009 only resulted in a boost to the president's popularity and the discrediting of his opponents. No one today is predicting domestic unrest in Georgia.

Russia's reliance on "soft power" hasn't brought success either. Moscow tried supporting some apparently solid political leaders (a former prime minister and a former acting president) who are actually unpopular and second-rate figures in Georgia, apparently expecting that friendship with Putin would strengthen their position.

And the result? Zurab Noghaideli and Nino Burjandze began to appear more often on television, but their popularity didn't rise. Most Georgians want better relations with Russia, but not at the price of treason.

The "demonstration effect" of the war -- let everyone see what happens to those who openly cross Moscow -- also hasn't worked. The coming to power of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, which was Russia's most serious postconflict success in the post-Soviet space, had nothing to do with the war. At the same time, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been acting up and a pro-Western government has come to power in Moldova. Clearly there has been no overall turning point.

Much As It Was Before

The increased activity of Turkey in the region was connected with the war. Ankara proposed the strange "Platform of Stability and Cooperation in the Caucasus," which was presumably aimed at weakening the West's position. But the first step -- Turkish-Armenian rapprochement -- fell through, and everything remained as it was.

Opposition led by Nino Burjanadze (left) and others has also failed to budge Sakaashvili.
Russia did achieve some success on the information front. Russia was criticized more than Georgia was, but the war definitely led to a certain discrediting of the Georgian leadership in the eyes of the West.

As for the 2009 report by Heidi Tagliavini that was commissioned by the European Union, it doesn't matter that it rejects almost all of Russia's arguments. The main thing was that it did not justify the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali on the night of August 7-8. This has strengthened the impression that Georgia started the war and that the Georgian president was prone to reckless actions. This was a serious victory for Russia, since Russia can ignore criticism from the West, but Georgia cannot.

This was serious damage for Georgia: after the war, Western leaders had far less confidence in Saakashvili than before. But this does not mean that the war created real obstacles for relations between Tbilisi and the West or that it fundamentally weakened the West's position in the region.

Yes, NATO membership for Georgia has been derailed, but that is not a result of the war, but of the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. Ronald Asmus has written in his book, "A Little War That Shook The World," that that decision might have been one of the causes of the war.

But Georgia still has no other alternative than to push for integration with the West, and Georgia remains the West's most reliable partner in the region. The slowdown in cooperation with NATO has been offset somewhat by an acceleration of relations with the European Union.

And, finally, the main result of the war: greater clarity on the matter of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At present, the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-South Ossetian conflicts basically don't exist. There is one conflict now -- Georgia-Russia -- and no resolution is in sight. Georgia will not renounce its claim to its territory, and Russia will not alter its recognition of the two regions.

This, of course, is bad. But it is clear that, although Georgia will defend its positions, the problem of resolving the old conflicts has basically been removed from the agenda.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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