Ten years have passed since the end of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. This five-day conflict (August 7 - August 12) is considered the first European war of the 21st century. The war did not alter the general regional equilibrium but strengthened the balance between the Southern Caucasian republics and extra-regional players (especially the US). However, the crisis militarised relations in the region and allowed the US to take the “Russian seat” in Georgia. Indeed, the August war had two major consequences for Moscow: first, Russia was locked out of Georgia. Second, the war catalysed the reform of military forces in Russia and the region at large. Also, Georgia’s NATO membership was postponed for ten years, preserving this as an ostensible threat for Russia.
It is fair to say that the roots of this war stemmed from the painful period of the USSR’s collapse. Modern Georgia grew out of the struggle for independence (from the USSR), where Russia was (and still is) its opponent. In 1990, Georgia formally renounced recognition of the major legal norms relating to its status within the USSR (adopted after 1921). South Ossetia, in turn, took advantage of the situation and declared sovereignty for the fact that its territory was not part of Georgia until 1922. The conflict’s harbinger was evident during the 1992-1993 Georgian-Abkhaz war. However, the argument referring to the USSR’s collapse as the only reason for the initiation of hostilities in 2008 does not hold water. By 2008 Georgia had overcome post-Soviet struggles and was able to take political steps without Moscow, but with Western support.
The 2008 war a kind of watershed in relations between Russia and the states of the South Caucasus. The war led to the severing of Russian-Georgian diplomatic relations, with the US replacing Russia as a presence and influence in Georgia. As argued above, one of the most important consequences of the five-day war for Moscow was that Russia found itself entirely locked out of Georgia, providing an opportunity for Tbilisi to have extensive military cooperation with the United States.
Russia’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was a move to cement the status quo following the August hostilities. Disappointed by the role of international observers in the region, Russia took regional security matters into its own hands, which contributed to the preservation of conflict potential on the border with the South Caucasus.
Russia's withdrawal from Georgia left Tbilisi no alternative except to cooperate with the US and be integrated into the Atlantic Alliance. Georgia actively and openly declared its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. However, its membership in NATO is currently frozen, as Lebanidze stresses in his contribution to this dossier. More importantly, the 2008 crisis postponed the process of Georgia’s accession to NATO for a long time.
The looming threat of Georgia's membership in NATO triggered the militarisation of Russian relations with the Transcaucasian states. Moscow designated its arguably only priority in this zone – a permanent military presence on the South Caucasian border. Following the joint operation of Russian and Abkhaz forces in the Kodori Gorge in 2008, Moscow decided to establish the 7th Russian military base in Gudauta. In South Ossetia, the 4th unified military base of the Russian Armed Forces (in the cities of Tskhinval and Java) has been deployed since 2009. In both Georgia and Russia (as well as in Azerbaijan), the 2008 war was a catalyst for reforming their respective armies. The August conflict pinpointed all the weak points of the military-technical equipment of the Russian troops. The anything but airtight actions of the Russian military in Georgia became a wake-up call for Moscow. They pointed to the urgent need to stop the decline of the Russian armed forces after the fall of the USSR. In 2008 Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed the loss of four aircraft: three Su-25 attack planes and one long-range Tu-22 bomber, making Moscow implement a large-scale military reform until 2020. Thus, the nature of modern warfare was finally changed. Henceforth, this is a battle of aviation and providing communication electronics. It is not by chance that the only Russian military base in Armenia has permanent aviation forces.
On its part, the Georgian army significantly reduced its number of heavy tanks and motorised infantry units, as well as combat aircraft. Air defence costs (including the purchase of modern air defence and radar systems from France in the summer of 2015) for light infantry, special operations troops and helicopter divisions have increased.
The five-day war forced Baku to proceed with caution and avoid any undue haste with Moscow. Azerbaijan decided to independently verify its military capabilities within the borders of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. During the "April war" (a four-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016), Azerbaijan showed that it has modern technology much better than Armenia’s. The strengthening of Azerbaijan triggered a response from Russia, which had been increasing supplies to Armenia since 2013. In February 2016, Armenia received a $ 200 million loan for the purchase of arms.
At the moment of writing, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova mentioned the restoration of good-neighbourly relations with Georgia. In spite of their mutual willingness to repair ties with each other, the relations between the Transcaucasian countries and Russia are hostage to interactions amongst other actors (mainly the US, Turkey, and the EU). The tide would turn if Russia could demonstrate a positive example of ethnic conflict (as well as territorial dispute) settlement and were not seen by neighbours as an unappealing, muscle-flexing partner. But in this regard, Moscow can hardly dare to change the balanced network of relations that has developed in the Southern Caucasus despite calling for restoration of Russian-Georgian relations. In Moscow’s eyes, the Georgian government is not ready for direct dialogue with Russia because of fears of being perceived as pro-Russian and getting a negative response from Western partners.
 Simons G., “Security Sector Reform and Georgia: the European Union's challenge in the Southern Caucasus”. European security. 2012. Vol. 21 (2). Pp. 272-293.
Photo: Giorgi Rodionov
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