Georgia’s lessons for Ukraine

| November 11, 2023

When contemplating various scenarios for how the conflict with Russia might end, Ukraine’s leaders can take clear lessons from Moscow’s brutal military campaign against another one-time Soviet state, Georgia.

The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 marked a significant moment in the geopolitical landscape of the South Caucasus, with far-reaching implications for Georgia’s territorial integrity and regional stability. But, in reality, that conflict did not start in 2008. The initial stage of the war between two nations occurred in 1992–93.

Although Russia wasn’t directly involved and Georgia was fighting against separatism, the war was instigated by Russia-backed militias in Georgian regions of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia through an infamous toolkit of Russian hybrid warfare.

Here, I examine the impact of Russia’s 2008 war on Georgia, the enduring hostilities in the region, the reasons behind Russia’s continued occupation of two large chunks of Georgian territory, and how the Georgian scenario influences the decisions of Ukraine’s leaders when considering a ceasefire with Russia.

The Russo-Georgian War was a watershed in the post-Soviet era, reconfiguring the political landscape of the region and reshaping its dynamics. Fifteen years later, its consequences continue to reverberate, offering critical insights into the enduring complexities of international relations.

The roots of the 2008 war can be traced back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new, independent states including Georgia. Russian meddling in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia had been ominous precursors long before 2008. These Georgian regions had historically been used first by the Soviet and then by the Russian regimes to pressure Georgia and influence its policy choices by fuelling disputes and hostilities within the country.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 war, Georgia lost control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with the Kremlin recognising these regions as ‘independent states’. That dealt a severe blow to Georgia’s territorial integrity and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis that had been building since the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands people were internally displaced, predominantly Georgians subjected to ethnic cleansing.

The conflict had profound and lasting consequences for Georgia. In response to the war, it pursued a path of political and economic reform while seeking closer ties with Western institutions, particularly NATO and the European Union. The unresolved conflict with Russia continues to shape Georgia’s national identity, its geopolitical orientation and its domestic politics.

Hostilities persist in the South Caucasus. Frequent skirmishes and tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh underscore the fragile peace in the region. Despite Azerbaijan’s claimed total control of the disputed territory, tensions between these two states remain active. The unresolved conflicts in Georgia play a crucial role in these regional dynamics, influencing the behaviour of neighbouring states.

Russia’s continued occupation of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia serves various strategic purposes and is emblematic of its revisionist agenda in the post-Soviet era. Progressive annexation continues daily, pushing the so-called border towards the very centre of Georgia. It gives Moscow leverage over Georgia and enables Russia to project power and influence in the South Caucasus.

Ukraine, another post-Soviet state, has closely watched the situation in Georgia. The 2008 war served as a stark reminder of the threat an assertive Russia poses. Ukraine had its own experience with Russian aggression, particularly in the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in the nation’s east.

The Georgian experience holds relevance for Ukraine when considering ceasefire negotiations with Russia. Ukrainian leaders must navigate complex terrain, balancing their commitment to preserving national sovereignty with the practical challenges of negotiating with a powerful and determined adversary. But as the conflict rages, neither side has sufficient tactical advantage to make ceasefire negotiations work.

Australia is a key actor in global security issues and politics and closely monitors developments in Eastern Europe, where it’s concerned about the potential spillover effects of Russian aggression and the broader implications for international security.

As a distant but engaged actor, Australia sees the Ukraine crisis as an example of unprovoked aggression by a powerful country against a less powerful neighbour and notes that Russia invaded Ukraine after multiple assurances that it would not do so.

Russia’s 2008 war on Georgia, unresolved conflict and Russian occupation have cast long shadows.  For Australia, the current Ukraine crisis has demonstrated the need for strong networks of alliances and sufficient levels of military capability to deter potential adversaries.

This article was published by The Strategist.