The August War, Ten Years On: A Retrospective on the Russo-Georgian War
The Russo-Georgian War, the August War, or for some simply the “five-day war,” was an important departure point in U.S.-Russian relations, and in European security. Although few understood it at the time, this war heralded an important transition in international politics. This brief conflict presaged the return of great-power politics and the end of the post-Cold War period. In 2008, Moscow demonstrated the will and ability to actively contest the U.S. vision for European security, veto NATO expansion in its neighborhood, and challenge Washington’s design for a normative international order where small states can determine their own affairs independent of the interests of great powers. Simply put, the historical significance of the Russo-Georgian War has been underrated.
Another war is still being fought over what really happened in the August War. Whereas the first war lasted mere days, this one is a decade old and still raging. Its most recent battle was launched by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post, where he treated readers to an ideological and ahistorical account of this conflict. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice quickly counter-attacked in an effort to set the record straight, at least on the policies of the Bush administration. Today’s context of U.S.-Russian confrontation over everything from Ukraine to Syria, to assassinations, to election meddling, adds even more heat to the debate. Questions over whom to blame, the chain of events leading up to open hostilities on August 7, and what the U.S. response should have been to Russia afterwards are not simply factual or historical. They are saturated with political and ideological concerns. This war remains the stuff of lively political debates as it is deeply intertwined with arguments on current Russia policy, the political ideology of leading Washington elites, and, of course, the careers of senior officials who were in charge at the time of this conflict.
As Thomas de Waal explains, “Many people are busy rewriting the history of 2008 in light of Ukraine.” The story that Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili was simply reckless in ordering an attack on South Ossetia, and the Russian peacekeeper contingent isn’t true, but he certainly miscalculated and bears considerable blame for the conflict. Neither is the prevailing simplistic narrative that “Russia invaded Georgia” as though Georgia, and its political leadership, were an empty outline on a map with no role to play in starting this war. The conversation is demonstrative of a line from George Orwell’s 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” It’s important to recapture that history from the trenches of the current political debate, because the Russo-Georgian War holds lessons for future potential conflicts with Russia, and enduring ones for the U.S. practice of statecraft in foreign policy.
The road to war — a tale of deliberate escalation, miscalculation, revanchist ambitions, geopolitical traps and America’s inability to stop events from unraveling — offers insights into how a conflict may someday start between Russia and NATO. Today, a similar situation could lead to a much more cataclysmic result, especially if handled the same way from Washington.
A Conflict Remembered, or Misremembered?
In August 2008, the conflict spiral between Russia and Georgia initially centered on Georgia’s enclave of Abkhazia, but the actual war broke out in and around the separatist region of South Ossetia. Tbilisi’s plan was to recapture South Ossetia with its capital Tskhinvali, reintegrating what had by then become a Russian dependency and outpost of Russian influence back into Georgia proper. The course of the war, and Georgian military preparations, reflected the fact that Georgia did not expect to defend against a major Russian offensive. Georgia hoped to deter Russian intervention, not fight it. Tbilisi spent four years reforming, expanding, and modernizing the Georgian armed forces such that it had a viable operational plan to restore Georgian territorial integrity. How Georgia planned to solve the issue of Russian peacekeepers, a tripwire force present in both separatist regions, remains a quandary and a subject of continued dispute. Russia had no intention of allowing Georgia to retake the regions by force, and began working in 2006 on its own military options against a Georgian operation.
U.S.-Russian relations had changed considerably from 2006 onward, but in 2008 there were important catalyzing events with the recognition of the independence of Kosovo by the United States and most E.U. states, and NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit, where the alliance promised that Ukraine and Georgia would someday become members of NATO. For Moscow, both of these decisions crossed red lines. By 2008, Russia had fleshed out plans for a military operation to impose its will on Georgia. The strategic aim was to give Moscow plausible deniability when it came to whom to blame for the conflict while preventing Georgia from being able to choose its own strategic direction. Moscow actively sought the war, and hoped it might result in regime change in Tbilisi.
Russia set up Georgia’s leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, into initiating hostilities against its proxy forces in South Ossetia, and then crushed the Georgian military in a brief conventional conflict. Saakashvili walked down that path, despite U.S. warnings, because of his own ambitions. Yet Moscow was also surprised by the timing of the Georgian attack, which somewhat pre-empted Russian plans. NATO’s declaration added a broader geostrategic dimension to a war that was already well on its way to happening given Georgia’s ambitions to retake lost territory, and Russia’s intent to deal Saakashvili a major defeat. Putin was not going to let Saakashvili take the territories back, but after NATO’s declaration at the Bucharest Summit he resolved to teach the West a lesson about Russia’s ability to veto further NATO expansion eastward. Indeed, as I discuss later in this article, the indicators were there in advance in Russian statements that this was going to happen. It was meant as a clear warning to other governments about integrating with NATO. Even today Russia’s Prime Minister Medvedev warns that bringing Georgia into the alliance “could provoke a horrible conflict.”
The Russian military operation itself was disjointed, but its strategic goals were met. Saakashvili stepped into a trap designed by Putin to take advantage of the Georgian leader’s ambitions, fears, and inexperience. The dominant story is that Georgia opened hostilities, but Russia bears overall blame for the conflict. As Robert M. Gates, then the U.S. secretary of defense, recalled, “The Russians had baited a trap, and the impetuous Saakashvili walked right into it.” Though true, that is not the full story. Both sides made structural choices responsible for this conflict, and the escalation of events on August 7, 2008, did not go to either’s expectations.
The ‘baited trap’ is not a perfect story, but it is the one supported by a preponderance of the evidence. Since the war, Moscow has recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, integrating them into Russia in most ways. The enclaves host an entrenched Russian military presence, bases, and Russian-backed militias. And NATO was chastened on expanding any further along Russia’s borders, to say nothing of the Russian war with Ukraine, and intervention in Syria.
The Georgian Road to War
As the Soviet Union grew weak at the end of the 1980s, nationalism re-emerged across the multiethnic empire, rekindling historic tensions and raising hard questions about which groups would get self-determination and the possibility of separation from the Soviet republics seeking to maintain territorial integrity. South Ossetia, populated by an ethnically distinct minority group, had engaged in an armed struggle for secession against newly independent Georgia from 1989 to 1992. They were backed by Russia politically and militarily, as were Abkhazians in a separate conflict from 1992 to 1993. Forced displacement of Georgians by Abkhazian militias, often described as ethnic cleansing, was particularly prevalent during the war in Abkhazia.
The agreements that ended these conflicts cemented Russia’s role as the security guarantor for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with several hundred Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, and up to a limit of 3,000 in Abkhazia. But Georgia never stopped viewing the two as renegade provinces who separated due to Russia’s help. Prior to the events of the Russo-Georgian War, Russia formally recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as part of Georgia, but at the same time entrenched its influence, which eventually resulted in the regions becoming Russian economic and political dependencies. Many Ossetians and Abkhazians also became Russian citizens with Russian passports, a Russian compatriot policy known as passportization.
The conflicts remained largely frozen until 2003 when the bloodless Rose Revolution in Georgia unsettled the status quo. Mikheil Saakashvili became president in January 2004 and he immediately prioritized the return of all breakaway regions, including Abkahzia and South Ossetia, as well as Adjara. Unlike the other two enclaves, shaped by war, Adjara was the private fiefdom of Aslan Abashidze, a smuggling and criminal haven. Ten years on, the conventional story of how this war began revolves mostly around Putin, and revanchist Russia’s geopolitical pursuits, but Saakashvili’s ambitions to regain the three provinces were no less important.
In 2004, Georgia took back Adjara with ease. Abashidze resigned and went into exile in Russia. Saakashvili’s coercive diplomacy worked and success left him emboldened. He then began to place pressure on South Ossetia, remilitarized the frozen conflict by ordering Interior Ministry forces and police into the region, officially to “combat smugglers operating from Russia.” Fighting broke out between Georgian forces and Ossetians around Tskihnvali, but the Georgian military found that it was in no condition to take the region by force. In August 2004, in some of the worst fighting that year, Georgian Interior Ministry troops seized strategic heights around a bypass road, but subsequently withdrew. Saaskashvili embarked on a transformative program to expand, modernize, and arm the Georgian military so as to change the military balance in Georgia’s favor.
Georgian military expenditures grew dramatically from 2004 to 2008. SIPRI data, using constant U.S. dollars (2016) places it at $74 million in 2003, before Saakashvili’s arrival, to a peak of $923 million in 2007, and $876 million in 2008. The share of GDP spent on defense went from 1.1 percent in 2003 to 9.2 percent in 2007. Georgia imported a host of weaponry from Israel, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Ukraine, as well as small arms and enabling technologies from various other countries. U.S. financial assistance, focused on counter-terrorism and stability operations, also expanded once Saakashvili came to power.
In 2008, before his fortunes entered terminal descent, Saakashvili was the head of the most rapidly expanding military in the former Soviet space, a force capable of not only seizing Georgia’s breakaway regions, but potentially deterring Russia from intervention. According to Vyacheslav Tseluiko’s account from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, “The Tanks of August,” Georgian forces procured self-propelled artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, attack helicopters, light armored vehicles, grenade launchers, mortars, sniper rifles, and all sorts of kit. Some of the larger items on this shopping list included 180 T-72 main battle tanks, Mi-24 helicopters, and a large number of anti-tank guided missiles such as Konkurs, Fagot, and Shturm. With little access to Western arms, a lot of technology came from Israel, including drones, multiple-launch rocket systems, and tank upgrades. By 2008, the older T-72B1s and T-62Ms fielded by Russian units in the North Caucasus were qualitatively inferior to the improvements offered by Israeli upgrades. To counter the Russian air force, Georgia bought radars from Ukraine, Buk-M1 and Osa-AK surface-to-air missile systems, Israel’s Rafael Spyder-SR surface-to-air missiles, and Polish Grom MANPADS. Georgia had made the investments necessary to impose costs on Russia in the event of a war.
On the political side, the Rose Revolution was branded as a success for promotion of liberty and democracy in the post-Soviet space, and the man behind it became a cause celebre, particularly in Washington. Saakashvili worked hard and successfully to brand himself as a scion of Washington’s freedom agenda. He was a genuine reformer, and with the help of Kakha Bendukidze tackled corruption, downsized the bureaucracy, and worked to improve the economy. But he had strong autocratic impulses, and little patience for pluralism. Press freedom declined, he violently suppressed anti-government demonstrations in early 2007, corruption charges seemed to be used to get rid of rivals, and eventually many of the original members of the 2003 Rose Revolution broke with him.
The problem between Saakashvili and Putin was not one of ideology, or democracy per se, but that the latter was taking Georgia in a strategic direction fundamentally inimical to Russian interests. After the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Russian elites saw Saakashvili as part of an American project to expand NATO and encircle Russia, a strategy to fragment remaining Russian influence in the former Soviet space. Putin wanted Russia’s sphere of influence back as much as Saakashvili wanted those separatist territories.
Saakashvili himself was a populist with grandiose ambitions, but he eventually indulged the return of kleptocratic tendencies in the country. His own political career as a leading figure in this conflict is no less interesting, Adrian Karatnycky offers a recent account of the rise and fall of his political fortunes. Today Saakashvili is a wanted man in Georgia, sentenced in absentia to three years, with other charges pending for abuse of power and corruption. Georgians very much want to see him again, but in prison. He is a very much unwanted man in Ukraine, having sought to revive his political fortunes as governor there. After numerous fights and scandals in Ukrainian politics, Petro Poroshenko’s government deported him to Poland in early 2018 and revoked his Ukrainian citizenship (their second attempt to boot him from the country).
Why David Thought He Had a Shot at Goliath
Georgia was no great military power, but for a tiny nation it was well-armed, far beyond anything currently fielded by the Baltic states. Whether or not the Georgian military had the leadership and experience to make good use of this gear is another story. The perpetual dream of such states is to become the Israel of their region. The problem with small states is that they think they can be David, but outside of the Book of Samuel, most of the time David gets crushed by Goliath. By 2008, Saakashvili bragged that Georgia had 33,000 professional service members, 100,000 reservists, the number of tanks had increased by a factor of ten and combat helicopters by a factor of three. Georgia’s build-up was sold as an effort at achieving “NATO standards” and “interoperability.” In reality Georgia’s armed forces kept expanding in size and capability in defiance of NATO recommendations to reduce the force and make it affordable. Most of the heavy equipment Georgia procured was actually Soviet gear, with Ukrainian and Israeli upgrades, not meaningfully interoperable with NATO forces.
The Georgian vision was straightforward. Saakashvili thought he could establish conventional overmatch, retake the separatist territories one at a time, deter or pre-empt a Russian intervention, and then cut the military and the Ministry of Interior special units back down to size because they were unaffordable. The correlation of forces vis-a-vis the separatist enclaves clearly favored Georgia, as long as a large-scale Russian response could be deterred. The Russian peacekeeping forces in both enclaves posed a real problem for this plan. Some thought Georgians might seek a fait accompli, and then offer safe passage to the Russian units. There is evidence in U.S. recollections that Georgians doubted how fast Russian forces could respond in the event of a conflict, and overestimated the relevance of U.S. political support. However, Moscow could not be deterred, because it was planning to make an example of Saakashvili.
Those dealing with the region in Washington foresaw what would happen. The problem in Washington was not that anyone encouraged Georgia towards recklessness, or offered mixed signals of support, perhaps beyond members of the traditional ideological circles. The issue was more that they believed the United States could sufficiently control Georgian behavior in a crisis. As Rice herself recently explained, “I told Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili — privately — that the Russians would try to provoke him and that, given the circumstances on the ground, he could not count on a military response from NATO.” Some of my colleagues who served in government during this time still recall their fear that warnings from the State Department wouldn’t deter anyone, and that the U.S. government wasn’t doing enough to get ahead of the problem. For my own part, I doubt any messaging would have been sufficient to avert war between these two countries. The August War is a cautionary tale not just about a revanchist Russia, but also the fears and ambitions of small states, and the delusions of patrons who think they can control their partners.
Goliath’s Plan Was Better
As David Mamet once said, “Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.” Vladimir Putin’s experience starts in the late days of the Cold War, rising through Russia’s political ranks during the tumultuous 1990s in St. Petersburg, launching the Second Chechen War, and dealing with numerous terrorism crises that shook Russia throughout the early 2000s. By 2008, he was comfortable with ordering combat operations and not at all timid at the costs one has to pay in pursuit of geopolitical interests. The Russian General Staff began visibly preparing for a military contingency with Georgia in 2006, beginning with large-scale military exercises in the North Caucasus. These included Caucasus Frontier 2006, Caucasus Frontier 2007, and Caucasus Frontier 2008, along with numerous smaller training events.
The exercises brought together air and ground forces and the Russian Black Sea fleet. According to Anton Lavrov, one of the better experts on the military details of this conflict, “The scale of the exercises was increasing every year. The Caucasus 2008 event involved 10,000 servicemen, and hundreds of tanks and piece of armor.” The Russian exercises simulated a situation where Russian forces would reinforce their peacekeeping units, secure entry points for the main body of forces, and conduct a military operation.
Russia’s North Caucasus Military District was host to one of the most combat-experienced groupings of the Russian armed forces. Ground and air units stationed in the North Caucasus had fought in both Chechen Wars, and had the largest share of contract service members relative to conscripts. The 42nd Motorized Rifle Division, the only division in the Russian military at full-time manning strength, was based there. The force was reinforced with the addition of two new mountain motorized rifle brigades, and regiments were manned such that they could immediately field a battalion tactical group.
However, the units had aging equipment; most of the best gear in the Russian armed forces was assigned elsewhere, indicative of the Russian General Staff’s belief that the military district could handle Georgia largely on its own. Indeed, much of the Russian military at this point was an aging legacy Soviet force. The Russian military was still based mostly around a mass mobilization concept, and units were manned at only partial strength. The Russian armed forces were no longer starved of cash, but they were dealing with the inertia of more than a decade of divestment. In terms of combat effectiveness, the whole of the Russian military was less than the sum of the parts, and the August War would demonstrate these weaknesses in spades.
That said, the Russian military grouping in the North Caucasus was far superior in numbers and firepower to the Georgian forces, assuming they could get there in time to be decisive. The 58th Combined Arms Army, together with the 4th Air and Air Defense Army, units from two airborne divisions, and elements of the Black Sea Fleet represented a much larger force. This is not including various proxies, militia units in the separatist enclaves, and other irregular forces that the Russian state could mobilize in a time of crisis.
From 2006 to 2008, the two sides were clearly on a path to war. In 2006, Georgian security forces remilitarized the Kodori Valley region of Abkhazia in response to trouble with a local militia leader. In 2007, Saakashvili sought to set up an alternative provisional administration for South Ossetia under Dmitry Sanakoyev. That fall, speaking to internally displaced Georgians from Abkhazia, Saakashvili promised them that by next winter they would be able to return to their homes. As tensions rose in 2008, Russian aircraft began shooting down Georgian reconnaissance drones over Abkhazia, and the Russian peacekeeping contingent was reinforced in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Two Spetsnaz companies, Russian special purpose forces, were sent to the peacekeeping contingents, and some controversy centers on their potential role in operations to engage Georgian forces in the decisive days of August 1 to 7, together with Ossetian militia forces and other Russian proxies. That history will remain contested.
By late May, Russian railway troops were sent in to repair the rail links to Abkhazia, which would enable large-scale force flow into the separatist enclave in the event of conflict. This was a fairly bright indicator of Russian preparations to move large numbers of forces quickly in the event of hostilities with Georgia. Exchanges of gun fire and sporadic attacks intensified considerably in the months leading up to the outbreak of war. But much of the focus was on Abkhazia as the likely point of conflict, until events escalated in South Ossetia.
On July 3, a bomb killed an Ossetian militia leader. Immediately after an attempt was made on Sanakoyev’s life, killing several Georgian special forces soldiers. South Ossetia ordered a general mobilization as Georgian forces seized a strategic mountain location. Russian fighters also overflew Ossetian airspace ahead of Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Georgia. Russia and the United States began separate military exercises in the region in July: The Russian military exercise, Caucasus Frontier 2008, put the last pieces in place in a rehearsal for conflict with Georgia. The U.S. joint exercise with Georgia, Immediate Response 2008, was ironically named given the events that would follow.
Why Did Georgia Step in the Bear Trap?
As Aeschylus wrote, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” There is no sole truth behind how hostilities began, but a preponderance of evidence supports one story more than others. On August 1, an improvised explosive device on a road blew up a Georgian police vehicle. Georgian Ministry of Interior snipers retaliated against South Ossetian checkpoints, leading to exchanges of gunfire all along the “administrative border.” The South Ossetian government, which for all intents and purposes was Russian-controlled, ordered a general evacuation of civilians toward the border and into Russia.
By August 2, Russia’s Caucasus 2008 exercise concluded, with the units involved withdrawing towards their bases. However, a task force of two reinforced battalion tactical groups remained in a field camp on the Russian side of the Roki tunnel — which straddles the border between Russia and South Ossetia in Georgia — belonging to the 135th Motorized Rifle Regiment and the 693rd Motorized Rifle Regiment of the 19th Motorized Rifle Division. According to Lavrov, “Its total strength was 1,500 servicemen, fourteen T-72B main battle tanks, and sixteen 2S3 Akatsiya 152 mm self-propelled howitzers.” They were encamped within 30 kilometers of the tunnel, and another artillery unit with several BM-21 Grad MLR systems was setting up even closer.
Russia’s narrative holds that the United States somehow gave Saakashvili a green light, with promises of support. This is false. Russian elites hold a rather classical great-power view of the international system in which small states don’t have full sovereignty. Hence, they genuinely believe there is no way Georgia could have acted on its own without American promises of support. U.S. officials also have an unfortunate tendency to place themselves at the center of things, bolstering the Russian narrative. As Rice herself writes, “I personally negotiated the final agreement that ended the war. Sitting in Saakashvili’s office — working from the French draft — we made important changes.” In fact, Georgia was one of those rare cases of fairly consistent messaging by both the State Department and the Department of Defense, with both seeking to dissuade Saakashvili from opening hostilities. Saakashvili was told in no uncertain terms that if he launched a war the cavalry was not coming.
Putin was invited to attend the end of the NATO Bucharest Summit, in April 2008, where he stated that he viewed the “appearance of a powerful military bloc” on Russia’s borders as a “direct threat” to its security, and that “the claim that this process is not directed against Russia will not suffice. … National security is not based on promises.” The marked change in the Russian position was insufficiently appreciated in Western capitals. The Russian military response in August 2008 would go far beyond that necessary to restore the status quo in Ossetia. Moscow also sought regime change in Tbilisi, as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov famously told Rice during the war, “Misha Saakashvili has to go.” Eventually, Putin would get what he wanted.
The Western recognition of Kosovo as an independent state in February was a more important factor on the road to war than typically recognized. Saakashvili’s decision to open hostilities, during an escalating cycle of violence, seems reckless when considered without that context. Russia was positioning itself to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in retaliation for the recognition of Kosovo. The events that unfolded in the early days of August in South Ossetia, a deliberate escalation of violence in the run-up to the conflict, had the appearance of a Russian effort to establish facts on the ground and potentially annex the breakaway regions. At the very least, it requires no stretch of the imagination to see how Georgian officials would believe that the clock was ticking, and if they did not risk military action, then Russia would annex the separatist enclaves and cement the frozen conflict on their territory with which they had lived since the early 1990s. This meant they would have no hope of retaking the separatist regions, and potentially, no hope of getting into NATO either. Facing what he thought to be an imminent political defeat, Saakashvili rolled the dice, and in his limited experience taking risks had worked out in the past. It wouldn’t this time.
Accounts suggest that Georgian leadership did not believe it was facing full-scale invasion, but were more concerned with something akin to a slow-moving annexation, though afterwards Saakashvili would claim he thought Georgia was being invaded. Too many op-eds, like Robert Kagan’s, echo his justification of a miscalculation. The Council of the European Union Independent Fact-Finding Mission, led by Heidi Tagliavini, concluded that it was “not in a position to consider as sufficiently substantiated the Georgian claim concerning a large-scale Russian military incursion into South Ossetia before 8 August 2008.” That mission’s report ultimately placed the beginning of the war on Georgia’s attack, with the caveat that the Georgian assault was the “culminating point of a long period of increasing tensions, provocations, and incidents.”
Gerard Toal, in his more recent account of this conflict in Near Abroad, makes a strong case that Georgian claims alleging a Russian invasion through the Roki tunnel prior to the August 7th assault by their forces were a post-hoc attempt to reverse-engineer the timeline of the conflict. As Thomas de Waal wrote, emphasizing the importance of Tagliavini’s fact-finding mission, the report details “Russia’s multiple violations of international law before, during and after the conflict,” but that Saakashvili’s government did fire the first shot, and briefly “captured much of South Ossetia.” Russia’s war in Ukraine casts a backward shadow on this conflict; as de Waal rightly remarks, “some Georgians have now used the Ukraine crisis to gild their own version of history.”
From my own perspective, details of Russian troop movements during that final week remain somewhat murky, as there appeared to be a Russian troop rotation at the end of the Caucasus 2008 exercise, but before the events of August 7. The Tagliavini report also cites an influx of volunteers, irregulars, and potentially mercenaries from Russia in early August, which may have been an important factor triggering Georgia’s decision. I’ve heard unconfirmed accounts that a Russian company may have moved through the tunnel early to secure the southern entrance, but rumors don’t add up to an established fact. However, the main body of Russia’s 58th Army was clearly on the Russian side of the Roki tunnel awaiting orders, and their plan of operations remained unchanged. With the exception of a rapid-response force, Russian units had gone back to their bases in Russia, not expecting the Georgian attack to come so soon after the Caucasus 2008 exercise. Senior U.S. official accounts from people like Robert Gates do not support the proposition that Russian forces began invading Georgia prior to the Georgian assault on South Ossetia on August 7.
On August 6, heavy fighting broke out between the two sides. The number of Russian proxies, auxiliary fighters, and so forth, that were operating among Ossetian militias is difficult to discern. Arguments also continue over whether the Ossetians had agency of their own in escalating the fighting. What is clear is that at this stage Georgia set up an operational command, began pulling most of the available units to the South Ossetian border, and ordered a partial mobilization of reserves. Even the infantry brigade covering Abkhazia was detached to send elements towards the Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. That evening Saakashvili made a televised address announcing a unilateral ceasefire as Georgian units continued moving to take up positions on the Ossetian border. Around 11 p.m. that night Georgian artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems opened fire across the line, and Georgian forces began an assault on the South Ossetian capital. A few hours later Russia’s two battalion tactical groups, who had been waiting for the cue to intervene, came out of the Roki tunnel to reinforce the peacekeeper units in Tskhinvali.
On August 8, lead elements of Russian battalion tactical groups engaged Georgian forces in Tskhinvali, while Russia’s air force began conducting air raids through the depth of the country. The 58th Army was on the road, as airborne units began moving towards rail and sea embarkation points. Combat was intense the first three days, and Georgian forces had some successes in ambushing Russian troops, but missed key opportunities to destroy infrastructure that might have slowed the Russian advance. Although uncoordinated, with terrible reconnaissance, and a fairly disjointed fight, the Russian forces maintained contact and pushed Georgia’s brigades out of the city. Russian units opened a second front from Abkhazia, towards Poti and Senaki, expanding their attack far beyond the immediate conflict zone into Georgia.
The story that the entire Russian military juggernaut crushed Georgia, or that Georgia attacked Russia, isn’t true. Russian peacekeepers were engaged by Georgian forces early on, which Moscow later used as the casus belli, but this was mostly a fight between the Georgian army and the North Caucasus Military District. At the outset, the correlation of forces, perhaps 12,000 Georgian regulars and 4,000 Interior Ministry units, favored Georgia. However, Georgia’s base plan was not to seize access to the Roki tunnel, or defeat Russian forces, instead hoping to encircle and assault Tskhinvali. On August 8, Georgia still had the advantage, and tried to assault Tskhinvali again on the 9th, as main elements of Russia’s 58th Army were entering South Ossetia. Between the 58th in Ossetia, and a large influx of airborne troops in Abkhazia, which had opened a second front, Georgian forces were in a no-win scenario. Georgian units retreated and eventually a ceasefire and withdrawal agreement for Russian troops was brokered with U.S. involvement.
The violence did not end there, as looting, forced displacement, and further tragedy followed after combat operations ended. Putin didn’t destroy Georgian democracy, though he did seek regime change in Tbilisi. Myths about what the United States could have or should have done persist. For one, some fault U.S. military training for focusing on Georgia’s internal security and counter-terrorism. In reality there was no secret wellspring of knowledge on how to fight Russia within the Department of Defense in those years, especially given the focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, and according to colleagues, the enterprise simply wasn’t setup to train for missions outside of counter-terrorism. More to the point, how the United States was supposed to train Georgians to do combined arms maneuver with a hodgepodge of Ukrainian, Czech, Israeli, and Turkish equipment is a mystery. Georgia did not lose for lack of arms or instruction, nor was it especially short of anti-tank guided missiles. The weapons Georgia bought were more than suitable to inflict costs on the vehicles and armor thrown at them by the 58th Army, and they did, although such gear certainly might not be effective today.
There’s little evidence behind the narrative that the United States somehow encouraged Russia with insufficient support for Georgia, or that the United States possessed a weapon capable of deterring the Russian military and was unwilling to share it with the Georgians. There is no evidence that it does now. More importantly, Georgia attacked Tskhinvali and faced Russian forces in a meeting engagement rather than mounting an organized defense. The Georgian military assaulted Tskhinvali more than once, and eventually retreated, with much of its equipment captured. U.S. military transports returned Georgia’s 1st Brigade from Iraq to help aid with the defense of the capital, raised financial aid for Georgia, and levied sanctions on the separatist regions. The U.S. failure was one of strategic negligence, in the perpetual battle between the normative aspects of U.S. foreign policy and objective realities of international politics. The Bucharest Summit left Georgia exposed with a promise of eventual NATO membership at a time when Russia made clear it was likely to use force to prevent further NATO expansion.
What was lost on that battlefield was the idealistic belief that Russia would eventually come to accept the security framework Washington had established in Europe, and NATO’s role as the principal security agent in the region. The normative slogans that underwrote much of U.S. post-Cold War foreign policy, such as the vision for a Europe “whole, free, and at peace,” were brutally mugged by the empirical realities of great-power politics.
Michael Kofman is a Senior Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as program manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.