Speaking to officers of the Southern Military District in Vladikavkaz, Medvedev seemed to suggest that the goal was preventing Georgia from joining NATO (h/t to Civil Georgia for flagging this story):
If we had faltered in 2008, geopolitical arrangement would be different now and number of countries in respect of which attempts were made to artificially drag them into the North Atlantic Alliance, would have probably been [in NATO] now.
And just in case anybody didn't get the message, Medvedev repeated it later in the day, in remarks to reporters in Rostov-na-Donu:
We have simply calmed some of our neighbors down by showing them that they should behave correctly in respect of Russia and in respect of neighboring small states. And for some of our partners, including for the North Atlantic Alliance, it was a signal that before taking a decision about expansion of the Alliance, one should at first think about the geopolitical stability. I deem these [issues] to be the major lessons of those developments in 2008.
This is a remarkable admission. In the past, Kremlin officials have said they reluctantly went to war with Georgia to stop Tbilisi's "aggression" and "genocide" in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. But here, Medvedev suggests that the campaign was -- at least in part -- an effort to stifle Georgia's NATO bid (which looked a lot more realistic in the summer of 2008 than it does today).
It also fits with the circumstances surrounding the August 2008 war, which came just months after Georgia was denied a formal Membership Action Plan -- but was promised eventual membership in NATO -- at the alliances summit in Bucharest in April 2008.
In an article in August 2008, I outlined a series of steps Russia took with regard to Georgia in the months following the summit -- and preceding the war:
Later that month, Russia deployed 1,500 additional troops, some heavily armed, to its "peacekeeping" contingent in Abkhazia without Georgia's consent. The move was an express violation of a 1994 cease-fire agreement ending a brief but grievous civil war between Abkhaz and Georgian fighters.
In the weeks that followed, Georgia accused Russia of shooting down unmanned drone aircraft conducting reconnaissance flights over Abkhazia. Russian military aircraft were also detected violating Georgian airspace near the separatist territory.
In June, Russia stoked tensions yet again by deploying unarmed troops to Abkhazia to rebuild a rail link between the cities of Sukhumi and Ochamchira. Moscow argued the move was a humanitarian gesture meant to improve the territory's decrepit transportation infrastructure.
Then, in July 2008, Russia began massive military exercises near the Georgian border:
At center stage in those maneuvers -- which took place in the second half of July, not far from Georgia's border -- was Russia's 58th Army, the very unit that would later play a key role in the incursion.
Those exercises are just one link in a chain of incidents suggesting that Russia's military action in Georgia was planned months in advance, awaiting only an appropriate pretext to act.
Would Georgia be in NATO today if the war had not happen? I doubt it. I covered the Bucharest summit in the spring of 2008 and the opposition from France, Germany, and Italy was fierce indeed. Moreover, Georgia's recent backsliding on democracy is giving even its strongest supporters in the alliance pause.
But nevertheless, Medvedev's bout of truth telling on Monday was revealing indeed.
-- Brian Whitmore