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The Russian Military and the Georgia War: Lessons and Implications

The Russian Military and the Georgia War: Lessons and Implications - Cover

Authored by Dr. Ariel Cohen, Colonel Robert E. Hamilton.

May 2011

114 Pages

Brief Synopsis

In August 2008, the armed conflict on the territory of Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke out between Russia and Georgia. The Russian-planned military campaign lasted 5 days until the parties reached a preliminary ceasefire agreement on August 12. The European Union, led by the French presidency, mediated the ceasefire. After signing the agreement, Russia pulled most of its troops out of uncontested Georgian territories, but established buffer zones around Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On August 26, 2008, Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, making them a part of what Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called Moscow’s “zone of privileged interests.” Since then, Russia has deployed troops to five military bases on occupied Georgian territory. This conflict clearly demonstrated weaknesses inherent in NATO and European Union security systems.


Russia launched the war against Georgia in August 2008 for highly valued strategic and geopolitical objectives, which included de facto annexation of Abkhazia, weakening or toppling the Mikheil Saakashvili regime, and preventing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) enlargement. The Russian politico-military elites had focused on Georgia since the days of the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze, whom they blamed, together with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) Communist Party Central Committee Secretary Alexander Yakovlev, for the dissolution of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and the dismantlement of the Soviet Union itself.

Russian post-communist security establishments also viewed the attractive Abkhaz coast line and illicit business opportunities provided by lawless Abkhazia and South Ossetia as additional incentives for deep involvement along the metropolitan periphery. Russian military and covert action support of secessionist movements there starting in 1992 should be seen along this continuum. Things only got worse after pro-American, NATO, and European Union (EU) oriented Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president. Since 2006, the military operation rapidly became the matter of “when,” not if.

The war also demonstrated the weaknesses of NATO and the EU security system, because they provided no efficient response to Russia’s forced changing of the borders and occupation of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) member state.

The war demonstrated fissures in Europe between the Western powers eager to maintain good relations with Russia, and the Eastern European states which, 20 years after the collapse of the USSR, retain a political memory of the Soviet occupation. Specifically, Germany, France, and Italy were anxious to put the war behind them and treated it as a nuisance, whereas the presidents of Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, and Lithuania and the Prime Minister of Latvia flew to Tbilisi during the war, to stand shoulder to shoulder with Saakashvili.

Despite negative assessments of the Russian military performance both in and outside the Russian Federation, its war goals were mostly achieved and will be analyzed in this monograph. From Russia’s geopolitical perspective, the war was a success. The military performance is more difficult to define and evaluate, as this analysis suggests.

Implications of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war for the United States include the following:

• The Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev administration and the defense establishment formulated far-reaching goals when they carefully prepared over 2 1/2 years for a combined operations-style invasion of Georgia. These goals included effectively terminating Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia and Abkhazia by solidifying control of the pro-Moscow separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thus denying Tbilisi control over these territories in perpetuity; expelling Georgian troops and the remaining Georgian population from the two secessionist enclaves; preventing Georgia from joining NATO; sending a strong signal to other post-Soviet states, first and foremost Ukraine, that the pursuit of NATO membership may result in dismemberment and a military invasion.

• In recent years, Moscow granted the majority of the Abkhaz and South Ossetians Russian citizenship. This is a tool of geopolitics that other regimes in Europe practiced in darker eras (1930s in Sudetenland). The use of Russian citizenship to create a “protected” population residing in a neighboring state to undermine its sovereignty is a slippery slope that may lead to a redrawing of the former Soviet borders, including in the Crimea (Ukraine), and possibly in Northern Kazakhstan.

• Russian continental power is on the rise. Small states of Eurasia will treat nuclear armed great powers, such as Russia and China, with respect, especially given the limited American response to the invasion of Georgia (and the current administration’s emphasis on the U.S. relationship with Moscow).

• U.S. intelligence-gathering and analysis of the Russian threat to and invasion of Georgia was found lacking. So was U.S. military assistance to Georgia, worth around $2 billion over the last 15 years, since a Russian invasion was not seriously considered to be a strategic threat to the U.S.-friendly country.

• International organizations failed to prevent the war and to force Russia to observe the cease-fire conditions.

Among the Russian goals were:

• Bringing down President Saakashvili and installing a more pro-Russian leadership in Tbilisi.

• Providing Russia with control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including using their territory and air space for broader defense objectives in the South Caucasus.

• Control of the South Caucasus energy corridor (East-West corridor). If a pro-Russian regime were established in Georgia, it would bring the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Erzerum (Turkey) gas pipeline under Moscow’s control.

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