What We Can Learn About Ukraine From Russia’s Last Invasion

A Russian soldier stands at a checkpoint in the Georgian village of Karaleti, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008. CREDIT: SHAKH AIVAZOV/AP PHOTO
A Russian soldier stands at a checkpoint in the Georgian village of Karaleti, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008. CREDIT: SHAKH AIVAZOV/AP PHOTO

The Russian incursion into Crimea may be the most prominent of Russia’s post-Cold War conflicts, but it is hardly the only one. From 1999 until 2009, for instance, Vladimir Putin’s government waged a bloody campaign in Chechnya that succeeded in keeping the would-be breakaway province in Russian hands.

Of these past conflicts, Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia stands out. In August of 2008, Putin intervened in a post-revolutionary government of a former Soviet republic, ostensibly to support a pro-Russian minority living in a semi-autonomous region. Sound familiar?

Now, it’s always important to be careful about overlearning lessons from one historical example. But there are parts of the Ukraine crisis that feel a lot like a sped-up version of the Georgia war — only without the “war” part. So it’s worth taking a closer look at the history of the Russo-Georgia conflict to see the similarities and differences more clearly.

Georgia lies just south of Russia. Though Georgia has a distinct national identity, Russia has a long history of creeping into Georgian territory. The 20th century saw the longest Russia-controlled period in Georgian history: after a three-year independent stint from 1918–1921, it was forcibly roped into the Soviet Union until the U.S.S.R.’s disintegration in 1991.


Georgian independence came on the heels of a fairly bitter campaign in which Soviet troops massacred protesting Georgian students, and immediately brought regional conflicts the Soviet Union had suppressed to the fore. Georgia’s central government fought wars with two restive provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both bordered Russia and were home to distinctive ethnic groups, Ossetians and Abkhazians. Abkhazians became a majority in their region after Georgians fled and/or were ethnically cleansed during the 1992–1994 war with the central government.

The wars left Georgia with only a sliver of Abkhazia and a patchwork quilt of territory in South Ossetia, setting the stage for trouble after Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. A massive wave of non-violent demonstrations against creeping authoritarianism ousted then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, much as the current protests in Ukraine deposed Viktor Yanukovych. In another similarity, the post-revolutionary order was substantially more hostile to Russia: Shevardnadze, while hardly a Kremlin puppet, had administered Georgia for the Soviet Union for more than a decade, whereas his successor, Mikhail Saakashvili, made NATO membership a top Georgian foreign policy priority.

While a Russian military move came within days after Ukraine’s revolution, it came in Georgia after four-years of simmering tension, despite mounting tensions in the intervening years. Rather, in May of 2008, Putin issued “a decree effectively beginning to treat [South Ossetia and Abkhazia] as parts of Russia,” according to Johns Hopkins Caucasus expert Svante Cornell, and moved soldiers and heavy weaponry into Abkhazia. In June, Abkhazia cut off all ties with the Georgian government.

But it was South Ossetia, not Abkhazia, where the tensions actually spilled over into war. According to the European Union’s comprehensive report on the conflict, “subversive attacks” against Georgian targets and small-scale exchanges of fire between Georgian and South Ossetian separatist troops escalated throughout the summer of 2008. The night of August 7, Georgia had enough: it began a “large-scale” offensive against South Ossetian towns and military installations, determined to settle the matter of South Ossetian independence.

The matter was settled, though more by Russia than Georgia. Claiming (falsely) to be stopping “ongoing genocide of the Ossetian population by the Georgian forces” and protecting “Russian citizens residing in South Ossetia,” Russia responded with a massive invasion of Georgia. Within five days, Russian forces had systematically demolished the Georgian military, and secured the quasi-independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Today, only 5 countries — including Russia — recognize the provinces as independent states, and in reality they function as Russian protectorates.


So that’s a simplified version of the basic history. But there are a few instructive details that tell us a lot about the current standoff in Crimea.

First, Russia has a demonstrated talent at baiting smaller opponents into military overreach. Contrary to what American media portrayals made it sound like, neither the Russians nor the South Ossetians fired the first shot — Georgia did. But Russia had been supporting the separatists diplomatically and materially — including, among other things, using a peacekeeping mission to secretly smuggle in rockets for the South Ossetians. The U.N. mission found “a number of reports and publications, including of Russian origin, indicating the provision by the Russian side of training and military equipment to South Ossetian and Abkhaz forces prior to the August 2008 conflict.”

Indeed, it seems that Russia had, just as in Ukraine, moved forces into Georgia well in advance of Georgia’s attack. “There seems to have been an influx of volunteers or mercenaries from the territory of the Russian Federation to South Ossetia…as well as the presence of some Russian forces in South Ossetia” prior to Georgia’s offensive, the E.U. concludes. Harvard’s Simon Saradzhyan theorizes that “Moscow must have learned in advance of Tbilisi’s plan to try to conquer Tskhinvali and positioned units so that they could rout the Georgian assault, but didn’t issue a public order for an intervention until the latter had progressed enough to create indisputable evidence that the Georgians had begun the war.”

This Georgian history suggests Russia is more sensitive to international opinion than its conduct in Crimea might have you think. Putin doesn’t want to have to deal with the consequences of being responsible for starting a shooting war, but is still interested in expanding Russian control over former Soviet republics. The military moves in Ukraine, then, may be a gambit to bait the young Ukrainian government into firing the first shot, thus giving Russia a more plausible argument for further territorial aggression. So far, the Ukrainian government appears to have learned Georgia’s lesson, and hasn’t taken the bait.

Second, American support for Russia’s targets isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. After the Rose Revolution, the Bush Administration made Georgia into a pillar of its “freedom agenda;” in 2005, with Russo-Georgian tensions running high, President Bush gave a speech in Tblisi, Georgia’s capitol, declaring that “Georgia is a beacon of liberty for this region and the world… the American people will stand with you.” The support wasn’t just rhetorical: the U.S. pushed for Georgia (and Ukraine’s) entrance into NATO and helped double the size of the Georgian military. In fact, about a hundred U.S. military trainers were on the ground in Georgia when the war with Russia broke out.

All in all, the Bush Administration played a much bigger role in underwriting Georgian security than the Obama administration has with Ukraine. Yet Bush’s expansive efforts obviously failed to deter Russia’s power play. In fact, they may well have encouraged them. Slate defense analyst, Fred Kaplan, thinks that Bush’s rhetorical and military support convinced Georgians that any Russian response to their South Ossetia offensive would be incur the wrath of the U.S. military, encouraging the disastrous gamble. So it’s far from clear that the “stronger” Obama’s response to Ukraine is, the better the outcome will be for Ukrainians.


Finally, the Georgia war revealed the Russian military to be weaker than one might think. Though Russia won the war handily, defense analysts both Russian and foreign were shocked by the poor performance of Russian forces in a conflict between obviously unequal parties. “The rapid collapse of the Georgian armed forces, however, was more a result of Georgian military weakness, poor management, and limited combat capabilities, than anything accurately reflecting the prowess of Russia’s armed forces,” Roger McDermott wrote in the U.S. Army journal Parameters. The Russian military was plagued by “aged vehicles, hardware, and weaponry; ineffective command and control organizations and systems; lack of interservice coordination; failures of intelligence support…and an unusual fascination with the causes of Russian casualties, distinct from previous military operations.”

Russia has since engaged in a comprehensive military modernization campaign, but the extent to which that succeeded isn’t clear. “As it undergoes this reform process, the Russian military is in a state of flux. It is weaker,” two British analysts concluded flatly in 2012. “There are many senior figures in Moscow now who appear to lack confidence in the armed forces’ ability to deter aggression.”

The Ukrainian military, while also plagued by aging Soviet equipment, is significantly stronger than its Georgian counterpart: among other things, Ukraine has ten times as many troops. A real war with Ukraine would be painful for Moscow, and far from enhancing Moscow’s strategic position, could actually hurt it.