Georgia is an Eastern European country that contains three politically and ethnically divided ethnic enclaves: Abkhazia in the northwest, South Ossetia in the north and Ajaria in the southwest. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the ex-Soviet state “became a ‘hot zone’ where polar ideologies and economic interests of major powers collided.” Within these enclaves, most pro-Russian citizens resided in Abkhazia and South Ossetia while Georgian Nationalists were mainly concentrated in Ajaria.
At the same time, the eastward expansion of NATO, which the West viewed as integral to safeguarding peace and establishing a buffer zone, is perceived by Russia as “an existential threat to national security.” Particularly, Russia is most concerned recently with NATO expansion as more and more countries are joining the organization. At the Bucharest summit in April 2008, both Georgia and Ukraine were promised to eventually join the Western defense alliance. Four months later, Georgia attacked Russia, killing at least ten Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, to which Russia responded with a full-scale offensive — marking the beginning of the Russo-Georgian war. Although the nature of this conflict is multifaceted, its predominant causes can still be analyzed. These causes can be broken down to the personal interests of Russian President Valdimir Putin, the desires of the Kremlin and NATO’s involvement.
In the context of the Russo-Georgian war, an individual to analyze is Putin, who (despite not officially being president) still had full control over the country as Dmitry Medvedev, the leader at the time, was Putin’s protégé and aligned his policies through regular consultations with Putin. This effectively made him Putin’s proxy. For Putin, his interest was to ensure the survival of the Russian state and, within that, to maintain his own power.
The color revolutions, particularly the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in the subsequent year, collapsed pro-Kremlin leaders in neighboring countries, which increased Western influence by Russia’s borders. Preservation of the Kremlin became Putin’s priority during that period, which might have been a contributing factor to the war. Indeed, Putin sought constitutional changes as a means to reclaim power and pursue a more aggressive role in the region which could explain the asymmetrical escalation in 2008 — launching a full scale invasion after just a few casualties. This revisionist sentiment remains even today, where Putin continues to abide by incrementalism in his foreign policy rather than drastic actions — resorting to cyberattacks to undermine NATO solidarity, exploiting international institutions (i.e. UNSC, IMF, APEC) to stifle liberal internationalism, and propagating misinformation to disrupt free elections. All of these efforts are to destabilize Western institutions and democratic systems around the world.
For the short-term leading up to the invasion, Putin was faced with a triple-challenge: low oil prices from the Great Recession, a stalled constitutional process and socio-economic hardships. The war in Georgia was a diversionary tactic employed to distract from these domestic failures. By ‘rallying around the flag’ against NATO, which over 88% of Russians held unfavourable views towards, Putin increased his approval rating by eight percentage points directly after the intervention and re-consolidated his regime’s legitimacy. This parallels the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, where Putin’s approval rating jumped by 22 percentage points from a historic low post-invasion.
More broadly, the Kremlin sought to revise the status quo and bring back Soviet glory. The disintegration of the USSR was seen as a humiliating defeat because Russia/USSR lost a third of its territory and half of its population and GDP. The Kremlin has long desired to rebuild the once-great Soviet Union (also known as revisionism) and feels it has the right to “take something back” such as reuniting the ethnic Russians in South Ossetia and Abkhazia with their motherland. Yet, revisionism also can only be a secondary component because it does not explain why Russia chose Georgia to go to war with instead of other ex-Soviet states, which all possess ethnic Russians in varying quantities. Specifically, Kazakhstan and Moldova both have comparatively larger populations of ethnic Russians compared to Georgia. This means that while revision can be a contributing factor to the war, it is not a leading factor because there is no justification for Georgia specifically compared to every other ex-Soviet state. The only difference is Western involvement in the country, which suggests that to be a decisive factor.
NATO’s involvement in Georgia impacted both Russia’s and Georgia’s decision-making calculus when it promised that Georgia would one day join the alliance. Instead of disbanding after the collapse of the USSR, NATO extended membership to 15 additional countries in Eastern Europe as a means to ‘deter Russian aggression’ through the creation of a buffer zone. Russia on the other hand, has vehemently opposed NATO expansion, perceiving its only goal to be villainizing and containing Russia.
Furthermore, “NATO expansion broke a promise that various American officials [including Bush and Clinton]had given to various Russian and Soviet officials [such as Gorbachev and Yeltsinthat]that NATO would not expand.” NATO’s hubristic expansion tipped the balance of power in Eastern Europe and was considered an existential threat by the Kremlin, which compelled it to retaliate to seek survival. In this case, Russia felt forced to destabilize the region in an effort to block NATO membership for Georgia, which was promised at the Bucharest summit. Indeed, the war effectively vetoed membership for Georgia because NATO would not accept new members with open territorial disputes. Overall, it’s arguable that Putin has been “protecting legitimate security interests” by destabilizing the region to veto NATO membership.
By contrast, NATO involvement also emboldened Georgia to become overconfident through moral hazard — the concept that Georgia engaged in risky behavior (behavior which they wouldn’t otherwise engage in) because they believed they had the full support of NATO. NATO’s open-door policy emboldened Georgia to act arrogantly after verbally pledging membership in 2008. Soon after, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili launched an offensive against pro-Russian separatists and Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia as he believed the “West had his back, but he miscalculated and overreached,” confirming that the pledge made by NATO was misinterpreted by Georgia as a blank cheque. In Georgia, sporadic fighting against separatists has been ongoing for years, but it was not until after the Bucharest summit that President Saakashvili decided to strike. In this paradigmatic plight of moral hazard, NATO involvement encouraged Georgia to provoke Russia, confident that NATO would save them in the end. Critically, this was not the case with the invasion of Ukraine, as there were no indications that Ukraine would be part of NATO anytime soon.
Today, Russo-Georgian relations are in shambles despite the war only lasting five days. After Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, Georgia completely severed all diplomatic relations with Russia. Russia eventually withdrew their troops from Georgia after a month. In its entirety, the war displaced nearly 200,000 people, many of whom were unable to return even today.
Importantly, many of the issues and patterns in the Russo-Georgian war can still be seen today: the unresolved ethnic tensions in the Donbas and Luhansk regions, the revisionist sentiments of the Kremlin and the antagonistic stance of NATO. Moving forward, it is vital to consider pre-existing conditions within regions, the intention of each state and the impact of the involvement of international institutions.