The 2008 war around South Ossetia constituted a turning point for the international relations system born from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Such a global impact stemmed from the fact that the unipolar order that the United States had been attempting to enforce in the previous two decades was first put decisively into question. Following the chain of US-led interventions in Iraq and the Balkans and the parallel advancement of NATO, the Russian Federation was the international player least satisfied with this state of things. The 1999 Kosovo crisis had a particularly negative effect as Moscow saw in it a local conflict turned into a war against an ally, in disregard of the accepted rule of international relations. This dangerous trend for Moscow was further exacerbated by the policy followed by the Bush administration after 9/11. Russia was particularly upset by the US reinforcement of its democracy promotion activities, resulting in attempts to modify its immediate regional environment by way of sponsored “colour revolutions” aimed at regime change in Russia’s neighbours. In 2008, as a country starting to get back on its feet after a severe economic crisis in the 90s and anxious about the possibility of NATO reaching its borders (ventilated at the Bucharest Summit that year), Russia saw in Georgia’s reckless decision to liquidate South Ossetian separatism an occasion for revenge.
Thus, tensions accumulated over the years suddenly exploded in a “sovereign war”, a symmetric answer to the “cosmopolitan wars” previously conducted by the USA. Indeed, Russia first justified its action using Western categories such as the “right of humanitarian intervention” and the “responsibility to protect”, then directly cited the Kosovo precedent, recognising the independence of the Georgian separatist regions with the claim that the war produced “new realities”. By positioning itself as a source of international rules, Russia claimed its “great power” status, meaning being able to deny the US’ unilateral definition of such rules and act to protect its own definition of national security interests.
From Washington’s perspective, the war was first of all a wake-up call for its foreign policy. After a decade of universalist projection, the crisis suddenly brought the complexities of geography and history onto the agenda, showing the limits of the US’ ability to address problems far beyond its borders. In fact, challenged on what was previously discounted as a minor territorial conflict, the US proved unable to react. The war immediately activated a serious quarrel among members of the US establishment with “a return of longstanding tensions within the administration between active interventionism and cautious realism.” Overall, August 2008 put to the fore the general crisis in US capacity to exert a positive influence on world affairs and stability. Russia actively exploited such circumstances, advancing its concept for a new European Security Treaty, arguing that the August War showed that NATO was “incapable of managing the European security architecture by itself”.
At the regional level, the war proved the importance of minor theatres in defining relations at the global level. As a result of the renewed confrontation resulting from the war, the regional systems of the Baltic, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Black Sea and then the Middle East became more interconnected and relevant in the global balance of power. In the following years, Russia consequently acted in these theatres through the lessons learnt from the 2008 crisis. On the one hand, it boosted its military capacity to be able to further exploit the superpower’s weaknesses at the local level, as shown in the Syrian crisis. On the other, coherently with a neorealist approach, Moscow worked to develop a centralised regional security complex in the former Soviet area by means of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Also, from the standpoint of its new posture, Moscow renewed bilateral relations with key regional powers like Iran and Turkey.
These attempts produced mixed results. Russia became a power more respected by a number of local actors and regional powers and increased its capacity to create counterbalancing architectures with other players wary of US behaviour. But in many other respects Russian strategy has backfired. First of all, the methods used against Georgia and then reiterated in Ukraine six years later, dealt a deadly blow to Moscow’s soft power. Supporting separatisms, Moscow considerably changed its position within the former Soviet area, shifting from a strict adherence to the principle of internal non-interference and inviolability of the Soviet-inherited borders to the principle of self-determination, subsequently applied also against Ukraine. Such a shift reinforced the determination of the post-Soviet state to resist Russian influence, thus preventing its aim of de-securitising the immediate regional environment, one of the key prerequisites for great power status. Hence, the new posture has been costly for Moscow, in terms of sponsoring new client states and also internally, giving excessive room for manoeuvre to federal subjects like Kadyrov’s Chechnya.
Overall, ten years after the war we witness a much worse international environment. The pervasive “New Cold War” rhetoric frames Russian behaviour simplistically and ideologically, preventing an adequate understanding of the realities shaping the world in the 21st century that could foresee developments in the security environment, as occurred, again, in Ukraine in 2014. Attempts to enlarge NATO continue, keeping military polarisation high within the region. After a renewed attempt to enhance its regional role, the EU effort is grinding to a halt because of the absence of leadership, internal difficulties and the rift in trans-Atlantic relations provoked by the Trump administration. The only player improving its position appears to be China, whose interests penetrate the Eurasian region in depth.
The main lesson from the five-day War is a call for all players to overcome sterile ideological confrontations and recalibrate their regional policies, recognising the reasons of the others and the realities in the post-Soviet space.
 In a realist perspective, more than from the general diffusion of the liberal model, exactly these wars, as “constitutional wars” shaped the post-Cold War global order. On the concept see: Ordine internazionale: Luigi Bonanate, Fondamenti di relazioni internazionali, Milan, Jaca Book, 1995.
 N. Guilhot, The Democracy Makers. Human Rights and the Politics of Global Order, Columbia University Press, New York, 2005.
 According to the defintion of Danilo Zolo, who elaborated it on the basis of the first Gulf War in 1991, in what he calls the "crucible of the New World Order", he sees in this and the other wars unleashed by the United States since 1991 attempts to fix its hegemony under the covers of international law and “humanitarian” interventionism. See: Cosmopolis. La prospettiva del governo mondiale, Feltrinelli, Milan, 1998.
 D. Trenin, Despite the Helsinki Summit, the Hybrid War Is Here to Stay, 4.07.2018
 Analyzing this impact, Gerard Toal speaks about a US strategic thinking divided between the dichotomy of thin and thick geopolitics, the first being based on moral and universal abstractions without geographical understanding, the second giving a central place to spatial relationships and in-depth knowledge of places and peoples. See: Near Abroad. Putin, the West, and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus, Oxford UP, 2017, pp. 278-79.
 Ivi, p. 192.
 Assessing the Obama administration’s attempt to overcome the political and military disasters of the Bush era, Alessandro Colombo speaks of ‘a country-leadership that for at least fourteen years has been incapable of leading, and on proof of fact is not up to the power and prestige it enjoyed uncontested from the end of bipolarism up to today’. See: A. Colombo, La crisi generale dell’ordine internazionale, in A. Colombo, P. Magri (eds.), Rapporto 2015. In mezzo al guado. Scenari globali e l’Italia, Novi Ligure: ISPI/Edizioni Epoké, 2015, p. 29.
 Richard Weitz. The Rise and Fall of Medvedev’s European Security Treaty, Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program, Washington DC, May 2012, p.5
 This was already noted in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 war by E. Luttwak, ‘Georgia conflict: Moscow has blown away soft power’, The Daily Telegraph, 16.08.2008.
 See on this the reflection of B. Buzan, The United States and the Great Powers: World Politics in the Twenty-First Century, 2004; (tr. it.), Il gioco delle potenze, EGEA Bocconi Editore, Milan, 2006, p. 167.
 A. Monaghan, A ‘New Cold War’? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia, Research Paper, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatman House, May 2015;
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)