February 21, 2022 | Insight

Russia-Georgia 2008: a Blueprint for Russia-Ukraine 2022?

February 21, 2022 Insight

Russia-Georgia 2008: a Blueprint for Russia-Ukraine 2022?

The Olympics were about to start in Beijing. Thousands of miles to the west, Russia was wrapping up a big military exercise in a border region. Across the border, women and children were evacuated from a secessionist area to Russia “for safety.” Citing the safety of thousands of secessionists with Russian passports, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of Moscow’s “responsibility to protect.”

The German chancellor called for diplomacy. Then, secessionist artillery shelling started killing government troops and policemen. Russia’s army exercise ended. But the tanks and armored personnel carriers remained at the Russian border. Mysterious cyberattacks targeted government ministries.

This is not the story of Ukraine this week. Rather, it describes Georgia in the first week of August 2008. With Russia extending its military exercises in Belarus, Russia’s playbook in Georgia may serve as a guide for Ukraine.

On Wednesday, at a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin accused Ukraine of committing “genocide” in southeastern Ukraine. The key to avoiding war, Putin said, is an ironclad guarantee the Ukraine will never join NATO. The Russian-led secessionists in the Donbas later ramped up shelling of Ukrainian government-controlled trenches and villages. Over the weekend, the secessionist leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk went live on local TV to order a mass evacuation of “women, children and the elderly.” The local leaders say they aim to evacuate nearly all the 720,000 residents issued Russian passports over the last two years.

Russia’s Duma voted last Tuesday to ask President Vladimir Putin to recognize the secessionist-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. Today, in a fiery speech broadcast on national television, Putin announced Russia would do just that. He then ordered Russian “peacekeepers” into the occupied territories.

Back in March 2008, largely unnoticed to the outside world, Russia’s Duma approved a similar resolution asking Putin to recognize Georgia’s two breakaway areas — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On April 2, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, President George W. Bush campaigned for offering a Membership Action Plan to Georgia and Ukraine. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany opposed, and the proposal was tabled.

The next week, Russia announced the adoption of “steps of a different nature” to block the two countries from joining NATO. Planning immediately started for a military invasion and “regime change” in Georgia.

That summer, Russia’s Railway Troops upgraded the 90-mile rail line from Russia’s Sochi to Sokhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. As analyst Pavel Felgenhaue observed, “Where Railway Troops go, military action follows.”

In late July, during Russia’s military exercises just north of Georgia, Russian soldiers were given a pamphlet: “Soldier! Know your probable enemy!” The pamphlet described the Georgian Land Forces.

In 2008, Russian military planners knew their window of action would close in October, when snow starts to fall in the Caucasus Mountains, hampering mobility. Today, many analysts believe that Putin’s window closes in mid-March, when Ukraine’s frozen farmland turns into a sea of mud. If the ground is frozen hard, armored personnel carriers can fan out across the countryside, avoiding asphalt roads and roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices.

In August 2008, Russian television aired footage of the evacuation of 20,000 women and children to Russia’s North Ossetia. Although about 90 percent of South Ossetia’s civilian population was bused to safety, Russian journalists began to call the empty streets evidence of “genocide.” Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev charged that Georgian troops committed “genocide” in South Ossetia, killing “thousands.” Many South Ossetians said these accusations prompted them to back the ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages. Five months after the war, the Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation released the death toll: 162 Ossetian civilians.

In early August, the Russian army was moving tanks, trucks, and armored personnel carriers toward the 2.3-mile-long Roki Tunnel, separating Russia and Georgia. Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia and briefly seized its capital. However, they failed to close the tunnel through the mountains. The Russians immediately counter-punched and retook Tskhinvali. They drove down to Gori, cutting Georgia in half. A Russian convoy drove to within 25 miles to Tbilisi, stopping only after frantic mediation by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

On the coast, Russia’s Black Sea fleet saw its first action since 1945, as the Georgian Navy suffered losses. Invading one week after a U.S.-Georgia military exercise, the Russians seized four Humvees and four reinforced inflatable rafts left behind by the 1,000 departing U.S. troops. Russia seized Poti, Georgia’s main Black Sea port.

In Tbilisi, people were blindsided. Russian trucks, tanks, and armored personnel carriers streamed steadily out of the Roki Tunnel. Soon, Russian troops cut Georgia’s central east-west road and rail links. The Russian Air Force then bombed the international airport and at least one military airfield.

Washington was blindsided. Photos show President Bush chatting with President Putin at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. The White House said they talked about Georgia. But Bush did not seem to know that Russia was already starting to pour as many as 10,000 soldiers through the Roki Tunnel into Georgia.

Back in Washington three days later, Bush issued a statement: “Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century.” Bush urged Russia to sign an EU-mediated ceasefire agreement. Otherwise, Russia would “jeopardize” its standing with the West.

In the political aftermath, Putin got his way, shifting Georgia to a more neutralist position and putting NATO membership out of reach. Putin succeeded in weakening Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili. In fact, Saakashvili’s political career never recovered from his military defeat. In the next elections, in 2012, his party was defeated by a movement headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a pro-Russian businessman. Georgia’s richest man, Ivanishvili made his billions during Russia’s wild privatizations of the 1990s.

Today, with an estimated 190,000 Russian troops surrounding Ukraine on three sides, the Georgia debacle may provide signs of what comes next. As Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated last fall, “I hope that even the current Kiev regime won’t follow the path of Mikhail Saakashvili of August 2008.”

Pushback from Ukraine’s northern neighbor, Belarus, is not likely. After barely surviving popular protests two years ago, the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, depends on Putin for political survival. In 2008, after Russia’s blitzkrieg attack on Georgia was over, Lukashenko opined: “Russia acted calmly, wisely and beautifully.”

According to Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin, Lukashenko and Putin have decided that Russia will keep its 30,000 soldiers in Belarus indefinitely. Khrenin said the decision was taken because of “increasing military activity on eastern borders and the worsening situation in the Donbas.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that the situation now could deteriorate into “the biggest war in Europe since 1945.” While there will likely be many surprises, much of the plan appears to mirror the Georgia crisis of 2008.

James Brooke is an adjunct fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). James has held senior reporting and editing positions at The New York Times, Bloomberg, and Voice of America. Until recently, he published a business newsletter about Ukraine. For more analysis from James and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.

Issues:

Military and Political Power Russia