Ronald D. Asmus, in his recent book “A Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West”, maintains the basic notion that Mikhail Saakashvili had but only one option – to send Georgian forces into South Ossetia.
He knew that Georgia was unprepared to take on Russia, but in initiating military operations, he pre-empted Russian forces, who had not yet been totally deployed into final positions, from a full attack on Tbilisi. Asmus insists, as do many others, that the actual aggressor was Russia, who had for months been escalating the potential for conflict. Asmus documents how the Kremlin had for some time been aiming at the Georgian president and that Vladimir Putin was prepared to do all that was necessary to halt Georgia’s integration into the West, especially into NATO.
He says that the war probably could have been avoided, had the West, including the USA, been resolute and declared a clear, forceful and values-based position – ideals of which the West constantly reminds others.
Asmus reminds us that Saakashvili, by August of 2008, was forced to accept the Russian occupation of North Ossetia and the ethnic cleansing of Georgians residing there. He also had to defend his own and Georgia’s growing Western orientation from failing. The book counters the Moscow-touted notion that a renegade, irrational Saakashvili irresponsibly provoked a Russian invasion by ordering Georgian troops into South Ossetia and thus drawing out, from the West, the Pavlovian response of blaming the victim.
The book points to Russia as the perpetrator who had been spoiling efforts to resolve the impasse in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and testing the international limits of the international community. Russian intimidation became the norm and the expectation. The necessary Western vigilance was lulled and unconcern for a serious crisis prevailed.
Georgia took an inevitable heavy beating, but Russia was forced into a parallel diplomatic conflict with the West. After five days, frenzied diplomacy brought a tentative halt to battlefield activity.
According to Asmus, the Russians won the battle for Tshinvali, but not the war, for the goals of eliminating Saakashvili and making Georgia into a marionette state of Moscow were not reached.
On the other hand, Asmus finds that Moscow has in essence ignored Barak Obama’s “Russia reset” policy. While Washington claims that it is not abandoning friendship with countries such as Georgia in pursuing close co-operation with Moscow, the book makes clear the lenghts to which the Kremlin will go to halt the westward march of states in its so-called “privileged sphere of influence”.
Russia has dramatically shown that it can ignore internationally-agreed rules of behaviour in dealing on its own terms with its non-NATO neighbours. Any meaningful penalties from the west are not to be expected and in terms of its continuing occupation of Georgian territory, Moscow is unrepentant.
In a refernce to the recent Russia-NATO summit in Lisbon Time magazine put it succintly: it was an event that “neatly glossed over the fact that Russia’s troops have only increased their presence in Georgia’s disputed regions since the war. ... Russia has shown that it will not back down to Western pressure in its backyard.”
(Ronald D. Asmus is the executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center for the German Marshall Fund of the United States.)
The Russia-Georgia war of 2008 still reverberates internationally today