Today is the ten year anniversary of the South Ossetian War of 2008, in which the Georgian hothead President Mikheil Saakashvili – acting on muddled signals from the US Embassy – attacked the breakaway province, killing a dozen Russian peacekeepers in the process.
Here in turn are some of my muddled recollections about that distant time.
1. At the time, Russia’s soft power instruments were still in their infancy. Many of them seemed to take a break in the decisive first hours and even days of the conflict, even as the BBC churned out propaganda showing “Russians” (actually Georgians) attacking the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali with Grad missiles.
Interesting enough, this meant that much of the pro-Russian response in the English-language came from marginal blogs such as Patrick Armstrong (see his excellent analysis on its timing), Sharon Tennyson and Co’s Russia: Other Points of View, Charles Ganske’s and Yury Mamchur’s Russia Blog, and for that matter, me at “Da Russophile” (I had started blogging in January 2008).
Incidentally, as Egor Kholmogorov points out, there was a delayed reaction even the Russian domestic information front. The Georgians having attacked on Friday night, the journalists were all going off work – leaving the field to the Moscow opposition “intelligentsia” larping as Georgians.
For instance, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin’s performance was brilliant:
But it was Kholmogorov, who at the time ran a minor website, who provided its first transcript – not any of the Russian media giants.
The internal Russian propaganda machine is a lot more streamlined for this to happen today. And Russia’s English-language info ecosystem is now too well developed to allow a repeat of that travesty.
2. I had been increasingly aware that the Western media was run by dissimulating drones, at least on Russia but probably on many other topics too, since becoming politically aware in the mid-2000s.
Still, its behavior during that period marked new lows of deception and disassembly. It was “fake news” before there was fake news.
Putin himself put it very succinctly: “The very scale of this cynicism is astonishing — the attempt to turn white into black, black into white and to adeptly portray victims of aggression as aggressors and place the responsibility for the consequences of the aggression on the victims.”
3. Although the Russian military performed adequately, they did reveal many problems in the Russian Armed Forces (see CAST’s Tanks of August) and provoked a major round of reforms and funding upgrades.
For his part, Saakashvili seems to have taken the “rusting tanks” rhetoric about Russia’s atrophied military capabilities a bit too literally, thinking that his lavish funding of the Army and US training could make up for the fact that Georgia remained a military pygmy relative to Russia whatever he did.
He also seemed to genuinely believe that the US would come to his aid, having contributed the third largest contingent of troops to Iraq after the US and Britain (Georgia’s population as of their last Census: 3.7 million).
To be fair, it seems to have been a more common view in the US as well.
There were serious speculations about Americans blowing up the Roki Tunnel into South Ossetia, or even intervening in the conflict outright. But six years later, despite continued deterioration in West-Russia relations, there were no serious discussions about physically helping out the Ukraine. My impression is that despite Russia’s mediocre military performance, it was still vastly better than what many of the American neocon types had deluded themselves into thinking, and consequently restored Russian military credibility after Chechnya had shattered it in 1994-96.
The Russian Army that took Crimea, helped destroy the Ukrainian formations at the Battle of Ilovaysk, and intervened in Syria was a qualitatively different force.
Moreover, Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia demonstrated that Putin’s Munich speech was not just talk, and that it would not be forever tied down by the questionable Belavezha Accords.
The post-Soviet taboo about the inviolability of Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s borders was at least in this minor way now broken.
4. That downturn in relations, unlike in 2014, was only temporary. Unfortunately, the Russian elites do not seem to have drawn the correct lessons back then.
Consequently, the events of 2013-14 still came as a rude shock to many of them, despite a further minor warning in the form of the Libyan attack. They did not prepare as they should have.
Western cargo cultism dies hard.
5. Realistically speaking, I have to commend Georgia for its performance in the consequent decade.
* It has dropped the goal of recovering territories drawn up under Stalin whose inhabitants do not want them for a more opportune day, should it come (e.g. another Russian collapse).
* In the meantime, it has re-established okay relations with Russia, and Georgia is now a favored tourist destination of Moscow hipsters. Overpriced saperavi wine is sold in every Russian supermarket. Russians have had a net positive view of Georgia since 2012.
* It might have dropped loud pretensions to NATO membership as unrealistic and needlessly provocative. However, it has acquired what Bershidsky calls a “NATO of the mind.” Its firm public and political bipartisan stance in support of NATO limits Russian influence within Georgia proper as well as the real thing.
* The Georgian Paradox: Although it is poor and subject to massive brain drain, and its human capital is nothing to write home about, it managed to develop well-functioning institutions for its region. It has also offloaded most of its organized criminals onto Russia.
* It also seems to be one of the few White Christian countries to have recovered above replacement level fertility rates.
EDIT: Couple of corrections based on the comments.