At the time it happened and shortly after its conclusion, the brief war between Georgia, the breakaway republics, and Russia, has had relatively limited international political consequences, commensurate with the conflict’s brevity and comparatively low level of violence which can hardly be compared with the prolonged and far bloodier wars in Libya, Syria, or even the NATO quagmire in Afghanistan which continues to claim far more lives every year. In retrospect, it proved to be a preview of far worse things to come, in the process also illustrating the respective roles played by Western governments and local “political entrepreneurs” of countries around Russia’s periphery in the forming of West-Russia relations.
Before the West Went Insane
The single most striking feature of the war is the aforementioned limited international consequences. Today, cases like the MH17 shoot-down, chemical attacks in Syria, elections “meddling”, or the alleged UK poisonings, where Russia’s responsibility has not been plausibly demonstrated and which likely were perpetrated by other actors, are sufficient to provoke major sanctions, expulsions of diplomats, and even military action that on more than one occasion brought the world to the brink of a shooting war among nuclear powers. In stark contrast with the current state of affairs, US and European reaction was actually pretty balanced and based on objective facts rather than on a desire to impose on Russia a certain set of political solutions by force. For starters, the European Union’s investigation of the conflict actually and correctly attributed the blame for the aggression to Georgia, faulting Russia only in excessively reacting to the Georgian attack even though, in actuality, Russian forces could have occupied a far greater part of the country and inflicted irreparable damage to vital infrastructure like international pipelines. Similarly, the United States, in the final year of the “lame duck” George W. Bush administration, did not opt for a military or political confrontation with Russia, and the theme of the war was barely broached during the US presidential campaign whose main figures were Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton (Obama’s tenacious opponent for the Democratic Party’s nomination), and John McCain, all of whom have since become ardent “Russia hawks” promoting confrontation at every turn. And once Obama soundly defeated John McCain and won the presidency in the wake of 2008 financial crash, his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Moscow where she presented her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov with the now-infamous “reset button” which represented a symbol of the Obama administration’s desire to improve the actually not that bad US-Russia relations. Moreover, the later-controversial contract Mistral amphibious assault/command ships signed between France and Russia was signed in 2010, or two years after the alleged “Russian aggression”. So, what happened?
Snakes in the Grass
The main reason for this remarkably restraint was the lack of coordination between the local political entrepreneurs of the Russian periphery and the leadership of Western powers. These entrepreneurs include not only Georgia’s Saakashvili but also Ukraine’s Maidan leaders, Poland’s political elite, and most of the Baltic States’ key leaders. What unites them is the desire to use the West to accomplish their own political objectives, ranging from the achievement and maintenance of domestic political power (which can be done by accusing all opponents of being Russian agents) to re-establishing regional hegemony (as in the case of Poland, which still views the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Belarus as parts of its 17th century Commonwealth). But Saakashvili clearly jumped the proverbial gun, as the West at that point evidently has not formed a consensus that a confrontation with Russia would be beneficial to its interests. The only clear-cut support he received came from countries like Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltics, who were the first to proclaim the war in Georgia a case of “Russian aggression”, a label rather few others adopted at the time. But even in Poland it was a minority view, since the wave of Russophobia that would sweep that country was still two years in the future—it was only in 2010 that the now-ruling Law and Justice party leaders decided to transform the Smolensk aviation tragedy into another case of “Russian aggression”, a view that, incidentally, is actually not shared among NATO members, presumably because giving it that label implies triggering NATO’s Article 5 provisions on collective defense, potentially leading to a world war.
“It’s the Economy, Stupid”
The reason, in turn, for the West’s disinterest in elevating the Georgia war was prosaic—the financial crisis has only just begun and at that time everyone felt it could be easily contained and overcome simply by monetary policy alone. The monetary stimulus and bailouts by US and EU central banks were only then getting under way, and the architects of these measures falsely promised they would deliver a full recovery.
By the time of the 2014 “Maidan Revolution” the sense of complacency was gone, as the massive monetary stimulus merely succeeded in inflating a new investment bubble—the record-breaking US stock markets touted by Donald Trump are not a reflection of US economy’s health but rather of the post-2008 oversupply of liquidity. Therefore Western policies have grown increasingly more desperate, Poroshenko found understanding where Saakashvili found nearly none, and Georgia retroactively became the original “act of Russian aggression”, although it was not treated like one when it actually happened.
Donald Trump’s willingness to risk trade war with virtually the entire world is merely the continuation of the policy pioneered during the Obama era, which aim at rescuing Western economies by opening new markets, reducing costs of raw materials, and eliminating economic competitors, by force if need be. But whereas Obama’s foreign policy team aimed only at Russia, Trump is far less discriminate. It is noteworthy that the economic measures imposed by the US on China, the European Union, and now also NATO ally Turkey are strikingly similar in their ultimate impact—clearing out the field of unwanted competition to the US—even though the rationale is different in every case.
Forewarned is Forearmed
It seems unlikely Western leaders in 2008 already knew what they would do in 2014—Hillary’s “reset button” makes no sense in that scenario, and neither does the EU report exonerating Russia from the charge of aggression. But the war did prove to be an early warning to the Kremlin, in the sense that it revealed the hollowness and widespread obsolescence of the Russian military and the dangers lurking in the “near abroad”. Prior to the Georgia war, Russia was clearly pursuing a course toward political and economic integration with the West, one that has not been fully abandoned even today, a decade later. But after 2008, the Kremlin became more circumspect in its dealings with the West and cognizant of the need to modernize its military so it could effectively deal with similar crises on its borders, launched under similar circumstances. Had it not been for the 2008 war, the Russian military likely would not have been as prepared to react to the Maidan Revolution or to rescue Syria, and the Russian economy would have had to suffer a far greater shock from sanctions, not unlike the more West-integrated Turkish economy is suffering.
Thus in the end Western strategies have been undermined by a loose-cannon proxy actor who acted before the West was ready to adopt a more aggressive strategy toward Russia. When that strategy finally materialized, the intended target, Russia, was more prepared to meet the threat than she would have been otherwise.