Echoes of annexation
By remaining silent on Georgia, the West made it easy for Russia to invade Ukraine.
By NATALIE SABANADZE 8/7/15, 5:30 AM CET Updated 8/7/15, 4:03 PM CET
Seven years ago, on August 8, 2008, Russian troops crossed national borders and attacked another sovereign state. Not many saw it coming. To the
contrary, signs of escalation were ignored and warnings dismissed as groundless paranoia.
The five-day war between Russia and Georgia sent shock waves across the international community at the time. However, many of its members were all too
keen to forgive and forget. The policy of the so-called reset followed as the West tried to mend its relations with Russia, even if consequences of
that ill-fated five-day war remained unaddressed.
Today, as yet another war is being waged between Russia and one of its neighbors, it is ever so important to remember 2008 and analyze its
consequences with the gift of hindsight.
It was in 2008 that the post-Cold War peaceful order, which rested upon the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Accords, was challenged for the first
time — and irreversibly — by Moscow. Russia attacked another state and moved on to redraw internationally recognized boundaries.
The EU brokered a ceasefire, which ended the hostilities but not the aggression against Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It
continues to this very day as Russia has been refusing to comply fully with the ceasefire agreement, massing its military in Georgia’s regions of
Abkhazia and Tskhinvali and fencing them off with barbed wire from the rest of Georgia.
No international observers are allowed; the ethnic Georgian population that has been expelled cannot return; and the prospects for finding a
negotiated settlement to the conflict are looking increasingly bleak. Tbilisi has characterized the situation in the conflict-affected regions as
creeping annexation, but generating considerable international attention has been difficult since the world’s focus now is elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the crisis in Ukraine has revived memories of 2008 — and for a good reason. The conclusions that one can draw from Georgia’s
experience are relevant for today’s Ukraine as well as for the broader international community. The nature of the international system is such that
bad precedents, unless contained, will be repeated elsewhere.
The Georgian experience also demonstrates that the freezing of a conflict is not the same as solving it.
It is clear today that international response to the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 was not proportional to the wider challenge it represented, partly
because many chose to believe that this was a one-off event that would not be repeated. Such a response defined the calculus of Moscow in its actions
Russia learned from the Georgia experience that the use of military power can be effective in achieving its foreign policy objectives. With its 2008
adventure, Russia put Georgia’s NATO membership on indefinite hold, and with its intervention in Ukraine it may have achieved the same result with
respect to the EU membership for both Georgia and Ukraine.
The Georgian experience also demonstrates that the freezing of a conflict is not the same as solving it. The unresolved status of the so-called frozen
conflicts becomes entrenched with time and increasingly difficult to undo. Ceasefire agreements, even if partially implemented, save lives and thus
are indispensable, but their violations cripple states and can easily go unnoticed once headline-grabbing hostilities are over. Consequently, frozen
conflicts become effective pressure-mechanisms, undermining the normal development of any sovereign state and limiting its foreign policy choices.
In the case of Georgia’s ceasefire agreement, no enforcement mechanism was foreseen and the result is the occupation and potential annexation of two
of Georgia’s regions. International response to the crisis in Ukraine has been more robust and includes economic sanctions. It is worth remembering,
however, that a lifting of the sanctions should not be linked to the implementation of the Minsk agreement, which effectively freezes the conflict,
but rather to the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Before 2008, inter-state war in wider Europe seemed unthinkable. Today it is no longer surprising. This represents a dramatic deterioration in
In this context, many began to reflect critically on Western — and especially the EU’s — policies, arguing that the latter had grossly
underestimated the importance Russia attached to the domination of its neighborhood. In this view, world peace is better preserved by respecting the
interests of big powers rather than contesting them.
This line of reasoning invites leaders of the EU to negotiate with Moscow about the future of the shared neighborhood, while downplaying the extent to
which affected states in this very neighborhood may have a say. Such an approach is not only morally flawed but also politically misguided.
First, there is no evidence to suggest that such ‘dealings’ can effectively contain Russia’s expansionist tendencies. To the contrary, these may
be inadvertently encouraged and serve as bad precedents that are better avoided. Second, nothing in the experience of Georgia (and of Ukraine for that
matter) shows that Georgia will easily accept Russia’s hegemony even if the rest of the world does. Russia may have won the war in 2008 and occupied
Georgia’s regions, but it did not succeed in bringing Georgia to submission. Going against the will of the people invites resistance, hardly a
recipe for peace and stability.
Natalie Sabanadze is Georgia’s Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, and the head of the Georgian mission to the European Union.