Russia-Georgia War, 8-16 August 2008

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Date: 2017
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 1,631 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1330L

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Russia goes to war with its former Soviet satellite Georgia, over the independence of two of Georgia's breakaway provinces

Key Figures

President Mikheil Saakashvili (1967- ), swept in as president of Georgia during its Rose Revolution, he was president during the 2008 war with Russia.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (1952- ), former KGB agent in the Soviet Union and president of Russia, he was its prime minister during the 2008 war with Georgia.

President Dmitry Medvedev (1965- ), hand-picked successor to Vladimir Putin, he was Russia's president during the 2008 war with Georgia.

President Eduard Kokoity (1964- ), head of South Ossetia during the Russo-Georgia war of 2008.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (1954- ), served as President George W. Bush's secretary of state from 2005 to 2009, she was the first African-American woman to hold that position.

Summary of Event

From August 8 to 16, 2008, Russia and its former satellite Georgia were engaged in the first major war on the European continent since the Serbian and Balkan wars of the early 1990s. Georgia became entangled in military skirmishes against its break-away province South Ossetia, which received strong support from Russia; South Ossetia quickly gained the former empire's active military backing in the conflict against Georgia. The struggle led to direct military confrontation between Georgia and Russia, seemingly over whether South Ossetia and its neighboring province of Abkhazia were independent nations rather than part of Georgia; however, the conflict was equally predicated on Georgia's and Russia's competing political agendas for their region.

The foundations of the 2008 war began during the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Ossetians, Abkhazians, Russians, and Georgians are all distinct ethnic identities, yet South Ossetia and Abkhazia were both forced under Georgian control by Joseph Stalin, himself an ethnic Georgian. By 1918, Georgia itself was able to extricate itself from the Soviet Empire, if only for three short years. During this time, the South Ossetians were trying to break-away. However, once Georgia was forced back into the Soviet Union in 1921, the issue was moot for the next 70 years. After the USSR dissolved, a number of wars broke out among former satellites, including a war between South Ossetia and Georgia. As of 1992, their war ended without resolving their diverging claims. Russia mediated the ceasefire between them and some Russian soldiers were kept in South Ossetia along with Ossetian and Georgian soldiers. South Ossetia was considered part of Georgia as a matter of international law. In fact, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia were de facto independent states by 1992 due to active Russian support. Russia issued passports to most residents in both provinces, which also quickly became controlled by Russian security forces and criminal gangs. Because these provinces could not have survived as quasi-independent states without Russian involvement and protection, the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia had now became a conflict between Georgia and Russia. This status quo remained, often referred to as one of the "frozen conflicts," until armed tensions began rising again after Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003.

In 2003, Georgians began mass protesting what they considered corrupt parliamentary elections, eventually forcing out then president, Eduard Shevardnadze. He was replaced by democratic reformer Mikhail Saakashvili who was officially elected Georgia's president the following year. Saakashvili was an ardently pro-Western leader who sought NATO membership for Georgia; this made him a target of Russian leaders who did not want NATO on its border. After Saakashvili's election, Russia made clear to him that any efforts by him to forge closer ties with the West, most grievously trying to join NATO, would be met by rising tensions in these two provinces. Russia began increasing its contacts and activities in South Ossetia, including illegally bringing in more of its troops and arms. Saakashvili also increased pressure on South Ossetia by going after the Russian smuggling rings, enforcing border controls, and sending additional Georgian troops and police into the region. In April 2008, at a meeting of NATO nations, both Georgia and the Ukraine were both offered membership, although without a clear timeline identified. Even so, Russia considered this evidence of closer ties between former Soviet satellites and the West a challenge to Russia's neo-imperialist intentions with its "near abroad."

Saakashvili tried to negotiate a settlement by offering a peace plan in 2005. The leader of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, rejected the plan, announcing that the South Ossetians were Russians and committed to Russia. Saakashvili created a commission in 2007 to address the issue, but Russia stymied the discussions. In July 2008, Russia conducted military exercises along its border with Georgia, including flying warplanes over South Ossetia. Georgia formally protested these actions as a threat of invasion. Meanwhile, Georgia and South Ossetia had started engaging in low-grade actions. By the end of July, both sides were trading artillery fire, with particularly fierce fighting from 2-4 August. During this period, Kokoity claimed he would force all Georgian troops out of South Ossetia.

Fighting intensified on 7 August, but Saakashvili called for a unilateral ceasefire, asking South Ossetia to do the same. It did not, and within hours, Georgia sent troops into South Ossetia. The war between Georgia and Russia began the following day when Russia sent troops into South Ossetia. According to newly elected Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, Russia had a humanitarian duty to intervene since Russian citizens were being killed. However, he also made clear that Russia was not going to let geopolitical decisions be made in the region without Russia's involvement, declaring Russia a protector of security for all people in the Caucasus. Georgian forces were no match for the former superpower's military, and Russia quickly took control of South Ossetia and moved into undisputed Georgian territory by 10 August. Russia destroyed some Georgian airfields, retook the Ossetian capital, started bombing the Georgian town of Gori, and captured the Georgian military base in Senaki.

Russia also increased the pressure on Georgia by igniting the tensions between Georgia and Abkhazia. With Russian encouragement, the Abkhaz leader started threatening to push out Georgian soldiers located on its territory. The Russian soldiers in Abkhazia already disarmed those Georgian soldiers. Russia was also starting to bring its naval assets into the war by placing warships in the Black Sea along the Georgian coast, including taking the key Georgian port city of Poti and using the ships to deliver more soldiers into Abkhazia. By 12 August, Georgia had withdrawn its troops back to its own capital, but Russia continued its offensive within Georgia. On the same day, both sides also agreed to accept a French proposed ceasefire plan. Russia signed the plan on 14 August, with Georgia following a day later. On paper, the war was over, but Russian military action and the main grievances of all remained.

Impact of Event

When the war began, the United States and many European countries were highly critical of Russia. They rejected a Russian sponsored UN resolution that singled out Georgia for criticism and seemed to reject Georgia's right to self-defense. France, as holder of the rotating EU presidency at the time, was the key sponsor of the peace plan and sent diplomats to both warring capitals. However, Saakashvili only agreed to sign after a personal visit from U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Saakashvili was upset with the West for not being more active in its defense. Two key points of the plan were that both sides would cease hostilities and withdraw their troops to the positions they held before this conflict began. Despite this, Russia continued bombing Gori and seemed to go on an organized campaign to destroy Georgian military assets within Georgia. It claimed that it had the right to remain in a self-declared buffer zone around South Ossetia (thus on Georgia's territory) for the region's protection. Russian actions in its self-styled "mopping up operations" included planting mines on Georgian territory, detaining Georgians, looting, and destroying basic infrastructure. World condemnation for these actions came down on Russia to no real effect. It was not until 22 August that journalists could report that Russian troops were starting to withdraw. Russia continued to withdraw, but kept troops in its buffer zone. On 25 August, Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent republics, although only three small countries followed suit.

On 8 September 2008, Russia signed a follow-up accord, with France, to the original peace plan. This agreement required Russia to withdraw entirely back to border areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while allowing Georgian troops to return to their original positions by mid-October. It also called for EU, UN and OSCE observers to be put in place. One day after signing the accord, Russia declared that its recognition of the provinces's independence was irrevocable and that it would continue to keep its troops stationed in numbers that far exceeded what they had been prior to the conflict. The end result was that while most of the world did not recognize either province as an independent state, Russia remains in de facto control of the areas. The extraordinary level of its military presence in both regions inspired the withdrawal by UN and OSCE missions. Multi-lateral talks held shortly after the conflict led to no result, mostly due to Russia's complete control over the Abkhazian and Ossetian delegations.

Russia can be said to have achieved many of its goals: it increased its presence and control over both regions, forced the withdrawal of international observers, and successfully warned other states in the region not to lean too far westward. Through the entire conflict, Russia had not been so interested in making these regions independent from Georgia as much as it wanted to validate its continuing dominance over former Soviet states, its "near abroad." With the underlying claims still unresolved, the situation remained a frozen conflict.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2359070801