In the first week of August 2008, escalating tensions between Georgia and Russia exploded in a messy battle for Tskhinvali, South Ossetia. The resulting “Five Day War” culminated in the advance of Russian tanks to the suburbs of Tbilisi. A ceasefire was negotiated by then-president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, acting on behalf of the European Union. But the resonance of that war proved to be heavy and lasting. Less than a decade later, Russian tanks similarly rolled over the fields of Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, and Russian planes are still dropping bombs on Syrian towns. Many of the same generals within the Russian General Staff who were involved in the Georgian invasion are today working on plans for new interventions. Collectively, the West effectively opted to treat the 2008 Russian-Georgian war as a minor conflict in the chronically unstable Caucasus. And that failure to deliver an adequate response to Moscow’s breach of international norms paved the way for further conflicts that have damaged the European security system, possibly beyond repair. Russia was energized by the easy victory and intoxicated by its newfound “Great Power” ambitions (Vedomosti, August 2).
Georgia overcame the shock of defeat and continued to push ahead—in fits and starts—with democratic consolidation and economic reforms. The government in Tbilisi still insists on its desire to join both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the EU. Part of the hard work to implement this choice was again undertaken last week (August 1), with the launch of the annual NATO exercise Noble Partner 2018 (which will conclude on August 15), on Georgian soil. More than a thousand United States military personnel and five M1A2 Abrams tanks are involved this year (Kommersant, August 1). Moscow responded with larger exercises, which spread into the quasi-independent but de facto Russian-occupied Abkhazia (RIA Novosti, July 27). Russian propaganda has focused on the “lessons” the 2008 war allegedly taught the “misbehaving” South Caucasus neighbor. At the same time, the media narrative has sought to obscure the ongoing deprivation of Russia’s “protectorates” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 2). New threats of an import ban on Georgian wine are again being invoked, perhaps as a kind of asymmetric response to the sanctions on Russia contemplated by the US Congress (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 22).
Georgia remains an irritant for the Russian leadership. But greater ire is presently focused on Armenia, which has energetically undertaken new reforms following the peaceful “Velvet Revolution” in May (Novaya Gazeta, August 3; see EDM, April 24, May 3, June 25). President Vladimir Putin has positioned himself as a champion in the struggle against the chaos of revolutions, but he took Armenia for granted and mistook the street protests in Yerevan for an insignificant commotion; he then had to pretend that the new Armenian leadership answers Russia’s interests just fine (Moscow Echo, May 31). But as this leadership launched a fierce campaign against corruption, centered on former president Robert Kocharyan, the attitude in Moscow hardened (Carnegie.ru, August 2). Specifically, the Kremlin expressed displeasure with the investigation against Yuri Khachaturov, Armenia’s former chief of the General Staff. Khachaturov presently serves as the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an institution that grants Russia the role of security manager in the post-Soviet space (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, July 31). The firm dominance Moscow seemingly established by punishing Georgia ten years ago is beginning to look ineffectual as Armenia tries to democratize.
The August 2008 war convinced Putin that military force would remain Moscow’s most efficient and directly applicable instrument of policy, so he set Russia on a course of militarization and rearmament. Presiding over the St. Petersburg Naval Parade, on July 29 (see EDM, August 2), he clearly admired the show of rebuilt military might, even if the economic costs of the newly approved 2027 State Armament program are becoming unaffordable (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 30). “Wonder missiles” come with a price, and the Russian economy teeters on the brink of sliding from stagnation to a sudden crisis, as occurred soon after the war with Georgia (Kommersant, August 2). Many of the billionaires in Putin’s court are unhappy about the redistribution of resources in favor of the defense-industrial complex, which generates no profits and produces weapon systems, like the domestically lauded Armata main battle tank, at such expense that the military command is routinely forced to cancel orders (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, July 30). Some of Putin’s oligarchs own yachts much larger than the newly-built Admiral Makarov frigate, which was the star of the naval parade in St. Petersburg; but they cannot sail them into the marinas of Nice or Valetta because of sanctions (Forbes.ru, July 5).
Militarism does not address the interests and lifestyles of the majority of Russian elites. And the general public, harmed by falling incomes, is also growing tired of it (Moscow Echo, August 3). A recent poll shows 68 percent support for expanding ties with the West, with 42 percent of respondents expressing a positive attitude toward the US (Levada.ru, August 2). This could be a short-term swing, caused by the positive coverage of the Helsinki summit between Putin and US President Donald Trump. But Russians’ similarly positive attitude toward Georgia has long been an established trend. Triumphalism over the 2008 victory has largely evaporated. And even the most celebrated achievement of annexing Crimea offers ever-decreasing joy as mundane matters, such as the increase in the retirement age, dominate public attention (Moscow Echo, August 2). The Kremlin needs to find a way to counter the growing perception that the country is hurtling in the wrong direction. The disgruntled oligarchs have little to suggest, but the top brass have plans ready for new exercises in projecting power and “patriotic mobilization” (Republic, August 3).
Despite gleeful reflections in the Russian media on the August 2008 war, easy victories are, in fact, usually quite costly and can result in protracted engagements in places of little material value. Rational choice is, however, a rare exception in Moscow’s decision-making mechanisms, which are closely attuned to the whims of the Kremlin boss. Putin can hardly enjoy a nice summer break: his agenda for developing dialogue with Trump has gone nowhere after Helsinki (see EDM, July 23, 30), while Syria generates new risks and the Caucasus produces endless irritants. The economic mandarins in the government, with their sad forecasts and boring data, can hardly expect to have Putin’s ear in the coming weeks; but the generals might find good opportunities for their proactive propositions. August often brings bad luck for Russia. But ten years ago, Moscow made its own misfortune, from which it still has not escaped.