In Part 1 of this series – ‘The West Marches East’ – I examined the circumstance that while Russia has received the majority of the blame for the more than six-month-crisis in Ukraine, these events did not take place in a vacuum, and, in fact, the Western powers and institutions – notably the United States, NATO and the European Union – have broke promises made at the end of the Cold War to expand NATO – a Western military alliance that was created in opposition to the Soviet Union – to Russia’s borders. Simultaneously, the European Union has expanded eastwards, bringing Eastern and Central European countries within its orbit and in adherence to its economic orthodoxy. Further, many NATO powers had worked together to promote ‘colour revolutions’ across much of Eastern Europe over the previous decade or so, helping to overthrow pro-Russian leaders and replace them with pro-Western leaders.
After nearly a quarter-century of Western expansion – militarily, politically, economically – to Russia’s borders, Russia has had enough. But Ukraine was not the first instance in which Russia has been provoked by the West into a response that the West subsequently declared as an act of imperial “aggression.” In 2008, the small Caucasus nation and former Soviet republic of Georgia started a war with Russia, leading to Russia’s invasion of the tiny country, effectively ending nearly two decades of NATO and Western expansion. This report examines the 2008 war in Georgia and the roles played by Russia and the NATO powers.
Setting the Stage
As documented in Part 1, Georgia was – in 2003 – subjected to a NATO sponsored ‘Colour Revolution’ which removed the previous leader and replaced him with a pro-Western (and Western-educated) politician, Mikeil Saakashvili. In December of 2003, Georgian defense officials met with the U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to discuss enhancing military cooperation between the two countries. The US had sent roughly 60 military trainers to Georgia in 2002, but the Georgians had been lobbying for a US military base in their country.
Instead, the Pentagon decided to “privatize its military presence in Georgia” through a security contractor, Cubic, which signed a three-year $15 million contract with the Pentagon to support the Georgian ministry of defense. The team from Cubic would engage in training and equipping the Georgian military, as well as protection for the oil pipeline that was to take oil from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Turkey through Georgia. Western diplomats suggested that the country could become a “forward operations area” for the US military, “similar to support structures in the Gulf.” In return for the program, Georgia agreed to send 500 soldiers to Iraq.
As the BBC reported in 2006, Georgia was discarding its ties with Moscow and instead, leading “westwards – towards NATO, and perhaps eventually the European Union.” US military instructors were in the country “to drive that change,” training Georgian soldiers to manage checkpoints in US-occupied Iraq. Georgia was largely uneasy with Russia due to the fact that Moscow provided – since the early 1990s – moral and material support to the country’s two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A Georgian corporal deployed in Iraq was quoted in the New York Times in 2007 saying, “As soldiers here [in Iraq], we help the American soldiers… Then America as a country will help our country.” This reflected the implicit thinking within Georgia up until the 2008 war.
In early April of 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush said he “strongly supported” Ukraine and Georgia’s bids to join NATO, despite the enormous objections from Russia, which would then see NATO powers located directly on its borders. Bush made the comments following a NATO meeting, where France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg all opposed the U.S. position of fast-tracking Georgian and Ukrainian membership into NATO, seeing it as “an unnecessary offense to Russia.” Shortly after Bush made his announcement, a former Russian armed forces chief of staff said that Russia would “take military and other steps along its borders if ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia join NATO,” claiming that “such a move would pose a direct threat to its security and endanger the fragile balance of forces in Europe.”
Within Georgia and its separatist regions, which were home to Russian soldiers, tensions were increasingly flaring over the summer months of 2008. With both sides undertaking provocative measures, there was a growing awareness that war could break out. In July of 2008, following her visit to the Czech Republic where she signed an agreement to base part of a new U.S. missile defense system in the country, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Georgia to meet with the country’s leadership. At that time, U.S. military forces in the region had begun joint exercises with soldiers from Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. The exercises were taking place less than 100km from Russia’s border, with roughly 1,000 U.S. soldiers and an equal number of Georgian troops. As Rice arrived in Georgia, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement accusing Georgia “of pushing the region towards war through actions openly supported by the United States.”
Then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev later explained that as tensions escalated into July of 2008, he was in contact with his Georgian counterparts. However, following Secretary Rice’s July 2008 visit to Georgia, he claimed, “my Georgian colleague simply dropped all communication with us. He simply stopped talking to us, he stopped writing letters and making phone calls. It was apparent that he had new plans now. And those plans were implemented later.”
Indeed, as the New York Times noted, when Rice went to Georgia, she had two different goals, one private, and one public. Privately, she reportedly told the Georgians “not to get into a military conflict with Russia that Georgia could not win.” However, in public, standing alongside the Georgian president, Rice spoke defiantly against Russia and in support of Georgia and its “territorial integrity” in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Standing next to the president, Rice declared that Russia “needs to be a part of resolving the problem… and not contributing to it.” The NYT claimed that these public statements of support for Georgia – and antagonism toward Russia – not to mention the fact that the US was engaging in large-scale military exercises with Georgians, expanding military installations all across Eastern Europe and providing Georgia with military advisers, had the combined effect of sending the small country “mixed messages” about U.S. support for a war with Russia.
No doubt contributing to these ‘mixed messages’ was when – at the very same news conference with President Saakashvili – Rice was asked a question about a potential conflict with Iran, to which she replied that, “We will defend our interests and defend our allies… We take very, very strongly our obligations to defend our allies and no one should be confused of that.” Apparently, Georgia was a little confused.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and Georgia declared independence, the two regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia gained de facto independence in the early 1990s following conflict between the breakaway regions and the central state. Following this brief period of fighting, tensions were largely reduced, though Russian ‘peacekeepers’ were on the ground monitoring the fragile balance. That balance was upset when Saakashvili became president in 2004, making one of his pledges “national unification.” By 2008, when tensions were reaching a breaking point, there were over 2,000 American civilians in Georgia, according to the Pentagon, with over 130 U.S. military trainers and 30 Defense Department civilians.
Another facet to the increased tensions was the fact that Georgia was an important conduit for a major pipeline, bringing oil from Baku in Azerbaijan through Georgia and to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. When the pipeline was completed in 2006, it was the second-longest pipeline in the world, and its construction and use was specifically designed to “bypass Russia, denying Moscow leverage over a key resource and a potential source of pressure.” As Jonathan Steele wrote in the Guardian, the resulting war was about more than pipeline politics, however, as it represented “an attempt, sponsored largely by the United States but eagerly subscribed to by several of its new ex-Soviet allies, to reduce every aspect of Russian influence throughout the region, whether it be economic, political, diplomatic or military.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was built by a consortium of major Western energy corporations, and was “the first pipeline on former Soviet territory that bypasse[d] Russia,” which “was strongly backed by the US as a way of loosening Moscow’s grip on the Caspian’s oil wealth.”
When War Broke Out
On August 7, 2008, war broke out. Georgia claimed that it was responding to an attack on the country by separatists in South Ossetia and Russian aggressors. However, independent military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who were deployed in the region refuted the Georgian government’s claim, and instead reported that, “Georgia’s inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist [South Ossetian] capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.” While Georgian President Saakashvili presented the Georgian military actions as “defensive,” in response to separatist and Russian shelling of Georgian villages, the OSCE monitors were unable to confirm that such villages had been attacked, with no shelling heard in the villages prior to the Georgian bombardment of Tskhinvali. Two senior Western military officials who were stationed in Georgia, working with the Georgian military, told the New York Times that, “whatever Russia’s behaviour or intentions for the enclave, once Georgia’s artillery or rockets struck Russian positions, conflict with Russia was all but inevitable.”
A year after the war, an EU-commissioned report which took nine months to compile concluded that despite much of the blame at the time of – and since – the war being directed at ‘Russian aggression,’ the conflict began “with a massive Georgian artillery attack.” The “damning indictment” of Georgia, however, blamed both Georgia and Russia for committing war crimes during the conflict, and noted that the conflict resulted from months and years of growing conflict. However, the report flatly stated: “There was no ongoing armed attack by Russia before the start of the Georgian operation… Georgian claims of a large-scale presence of Russian armed forces in South Ossetia prior to the Georgian offensive could not be substantiated… It could also not be verified that Russia was on the verge of such a major attack.” However, Vladimir Putin stated in 2012 that Russia had drawn up plans to counter a Georgian attack as far back as 2006 and 2007, when he was president. Still, while the Russians were clearly aware – and preparing – for a war, it was ultimately Georgia that fired the first shots.
Months before the war broke out, according to documents and interviews obtained by the Financial Times, senior U.S. military officials and U.S. military contractors were inside Georgia training special forces commandos. The two contractors, MPRI and American Systems, both of which are based in Virginia, were responsible for training the Georgian special forces as part of a program run by the Pentagon. The Pentagon had previously hired MPRI to train the Croatian military in 1995, just prior to the Croatian military’s invasion of the ethnically-Serbian region of Krajina, “which led to the displacement of 200,000 refugees and was one of the worst incidents of ethnic cleansing in the Balkan wars.” MPRI, of course – in both cases – denied “any wrongdoing.” The first phase of the training in Georgia took place between January and April of 2008, and the second phase was due to begin on August 11, with the trainers arriving in Georgia on August 3, four days before the war broke out.
Just prior to the outbreak of war, as U.S. diplomatic cables showed, the U.S. Embassy in Georgia knew and reported about the fact that Georgian forces were concentrating their forces near South Ossetia, “either as part of a show of force or readiness, or both.” The U.S. ambassador reportedly told Georgian officials “to remain calm, not overreact, and to de-escalate the situation.” As the diplomatic cables from Georgia revealed, unlike in neighboring countries, U.S. diplomats in Georgia “relied heavily on the Saakashvili government’s accounts of its own behavior” and embraced the “Georgian versions of important and disputed events.” Whereas in other regional countries, U.S. diplomats would report to Washington on their “private misgivings” about their host countries’ claims, in Georgia, the Saakashvili government’s “versions of events were passed to Washington largely unchallenged.”
The five-day war between Russia and Georgia lasted from August 7 – 12, leading to a decisive Russian victory and a humiliating defeat for the US-puppet regime in Georgia. Months of ‘mixed messages’ and indecision and divisions within the Bush administration directly led to the conflict, inflaming internal confrontations within the Bush administration itself. A New York Times article tells this brief story based upon interviews with diplomats and senior officials in the US, EU, Russia and Georgia. Five months before Georgia started the war – in March of 2008 – President Saakashvili had gone to Washington to lobby for NATO membership at Congress, the State Department and the Pentagon. Bush promised the Georgian president “to push hard for Georgia’s acceptance into NATO.”
In early April, President Bush flew to the Russian resort city of Sochi where he met with President Putin. Putin delivered Bush a message: “the push to offer Ukraine and Georgia NATO membership was crossing Russia’s ‘red lines’.” The United States, however, clearly underestimated Russia and Putin’s determination to adhere to those ‘red lines’. Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney saw Georgia as a “model” for the administration’s “democracy promotion campaign,” and continued to push for selling Georgia more arms and military equipment “so that it could defend itself against possible Russian aggression.” Opposing Cheney were Secretary of State Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns, who were arguing that “such a sale would provoke Russia, which would see it as arrogant meddling in its turf.”
While the official line of the Bush administration after the war broke out was to blame Russia, quietly and internally, top U.S. officials noted that Georgia was largely to blame, and that U.S. officials had contributed to that process by sending confused messages. Indeed, as some administration officials reported, the Georgian military had created a “concept of operations” plan for a military operation in South Ossetia which “called for its army units to sweep across the region and rapidly establish such firm control that a Russian response could be pre-empted.” As early as January of 2008, Georgia’s Ministry of Defense laid out plans in a “strategic defense review” which “set out goals for the Georgian armed forces and refers specifically to the threat of conflict in the separatist regions.” U.S. officials had reportedly warned the Georgians that, “the plan had little chance of success.”
Indeed, as the war was under way, debates were raging within the Bush administration regarding the possible US response. In particular, tensions started to erupt between Bush and Cheney, as Cheney’s office felt that when Bush had previously met Putin in April, his silent response to Putin’s warning “inadvertently gave Russia the all-clear to attack.” There was discussion within the administration (from Cheney’s side of the debate) of launching air strikes to halt the Russian invasion. After four days of talks with the National Security Council (NSC), George Bush “cut off the discussion,” siding with his somewhat more rational advisers, as there was “a clear sense around the table that any military steps could lead to a confrontation with Moscow.”
Putin had also spoken with Georgian president Saakashvili in February of 2008, where he warned the Georgian president: “You think you can trust the Americans, and they will rush to assist you?” Putin then reportedly claimed that, “Nobody can be trusted! Except me.” Interestingly, in this respect, Putin happened to be correct.
European governments were not big fans of Saakashvili, either, seeing him as “an American-backed hothead who spelled trouble.” During the five-day war, French President Nicolas Sarkozy shuttled between Russia and Georgia attempting to negotiate a ceasefire. Sarkozy reportedly told the Georgians: “Where is Bush? Where are the Americans?… They are not coming to save you. No Europeans are coming, either. You are alone. If you don’t sign [the ceasefire], the Russian tanks will be here soon.”
The day after the war began, the Russians called an emergency session at the United Nations to find a resolution to the conflict. The Russian’s proposed a short, three-paragraph draft resolution calling on all parties to “renounce the use of force.” This phrase ran into opposition from the United States, France and Britain, who claimed the phrase was “unbalanced” because it “would have undermined Georgia’s ability to defend itself.” The US, British and French opposition to “renounce the use of force” led to a collapse of diplomatic attempts at the UN to end the fighting, according to the New York Times. When the French President eventually negotiated a ceasefire on August 12, at least one senior U.S. official (presumably Cheney) was reportedly “appalled” by the ceasefire text.
Erosi Kitsmarishvili, a former Georgian diplomat and ambassador to Moscow (and confidante of President Saakashvili) caused controversy within Georgia when he testified at a parliamentary hearing in Georgia in November of 2008 that Georgian officials were responsible for starting the war. He said that he was told by Georgian officials in April of 2008 that they had “planned to start a war in Abkhazia,” saying that they “had received a green light from the United States government to do so.” However, he added, the officials later decided to start the war in South Ossetia instead, believing that “United States officials had given their approval.” He discussed the July 2008 meeting between Georgian officials and Secretary of State Rice, saying, “Some people who attended the meeting between Condoleezza Rice and Saakashvili were saying that Condoleezza Rice gave them the green light for military action,” though U.S. and Georgian officials “categorically denied this information.”
When the war broke out, the United States military airlifted Georgian troops from Iraq back to Georgia to participate in the fighting against Russia. In the Pentagon, a 28-year-old junior staffer, Mark Simakovsky, “almost overnight… became a key policy adviser” to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other top administration officials. Serving as the Pentagon’s country director for Georgia, he “used his expert knowledge and contacts throughout the government and in Georgia to quickly gather information about developments on the ground.” He was pivotal in shaping the Pentagon’s response to the crisis, including the coordination of airlifting 2,000 Georgian soldiers from Iraq back to Georgia.
Within a week of the Georgian war ending on August 12, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that the United States “would not push for Georgia to be allowed into NATO” during an upcoming emergency meeting of the NATO countries in Brussels, in what the New York Times reported as, “a tacit admission that America and its European allies lack the stomach for a military fight with Russia.”
However, NATO foreign ministers were expected to reaffirm that they would eventually like to see both Georgia and Ukraine join NATO, but not to fast-track the process through the Membership Action Plan (MAP), for which Georgia and the US had previously been lobbying. In November of 2008, Rice affirmed that the US was no longer attempting to fast-track Georgian and Ukrainian membership into NATO, largely due to opposition from France and Germany . In 2011, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev stated that if Russia hadn’t invaded Georgia in 2008, NATO would have expanded already to include Georgia as a member.
In late August, Russian commanders were reportedly “growing alarmed at the number of NATO warships sailing into the Black Sea.” The U.S. said it was delivering “humanitarian aid on military transport planes and ships,” though the Russians suspected that the Pentagon was shipping in weapons and military equipment “under the guise” of humanitarian assistance.
Weeks following Georgia’s defeat, officials at the White House, Pentagon and State Department were “examining what would be required to rebuild Georgia’s military.” The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, stated during a news conference that Georgia was “a very important country to us” and that the U.S. would continue to pursue a “military-to-military relationship.” Both Democrats and Republicans proclaimed their unyielding support for Georgia, as both the John McCain and Barack Obama presidential campaigns had “cultivated close ties” to President Saakashvili. John McCain’s wife and Senator Joe Biden (who would become Obama’s Vice President) had gone to visit Georgia in August of 2008, just following the end of the war.
In early September, President Bush promised $1 billion in “humanitarian and economic assistance” to help rebuild the country following the war, making Georgia one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel, Egypt and Iraq. Comparatively, in the previous 17 years, the United States had provided a total of $1.8 billion in aid to the country. The European Union also pledged to contribute funds to Georgia, as did the International Monetary Fund (IMF), declaring its intention to provide the country with a $750 million loan.
In September of 2008, Vice President Dick Cheney flew to Georgia “to deliver a forceful American pledge to rebuild Georgia and its economy, to preserve its sovereignty and its territory and to bring it into the NATO alliance in defiance of Russia.” Cheney, who arrived in Georgia a day after the U.S. announced a $1 billion rescue package to help the country, then flew to Ukraine to deliver a similar message. Russia, meanwhile, was entrenching its control over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, recognizing their independence from Georgia and keeping military units stationed within them.
Cheney’s visit, which began in Azerbaijan, then to Georgia and Ukraine, was orchestrated to confirm that the U.S. had “a deep and abiding interest” in the region, and notably in terms of ensuring that these and neighboring countries remained “free from a new era of Russian domination.” Cheney was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Azerbaijan since it gained independence in 1991. Underscoring the importance of the BP-led pipeline transporting oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, Cheney’s first meetings in Azerbaijan were not with political officials, but with representatives from BP and Chevron.
In the last weeks of the Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice and the Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs signed the U.S.-Georgian Charter on Strategic Partnership. This was followed up by the Obama administration, holding the first meeting of the Strategic Partnership Commission meeting in Washington on June 22, 2009, marking the launch of four bilateral working groups on “democracy, defense and security, economic, trade and energy issues, and people-to-people cultural exchanges.” The Strategic Partnership reflected U.S. commitment “to deepening Georgia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions and enhancing security cooperation,” including eventual membership into NATO.
The Obama administration sent Vice President Joe Biden to Georgia in July of 2009, with Saakashvili lobbying for the U.S. to sell the country weapons, which Russia strongly opposed, considering the rearmament of Georgia to be “more serious than whether Georgia enters NATO.”
In 2010, Georgia began a “serious push” to lobby the U.S. for “defensive weapons,” notably air defense and anti-tank systems. To help achieve this objective, Georgia spent roughly $1.5 million at four top Washington, D.C. lobbying firms over the course of the year. Meanwhile, Russia had been “intimidating” many of Georgia’s past arms suppliers, including Israel and other Eastern European nations, not to resume arms sales to the country.
In 2010, the United States also resumed its military training exercises in Georgia, which have continued in recent years, much to Russia’s displeasure. However, Saakashvili lost the 2012 elections and was replaced with a billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who had made his fortune in Russia, leading to slightly improved relations with Putin. In 2013, Russia accused the U.S. of “putting peace at risk” by holding joint military exercises in Georgia.
Bidzina Ivanishvili was the Georgian Prime Minister from 2012 to 2013, during which time Saakashvili was still president. As the Economist reported in October of 2013, weeks before the Georgian presidential elections to replace him, Saakashvili, who came to power through the U.S.-sponsored ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003, had, in the following decade, “fought and lost a war with Russia, cracked down on the opposition, dominated the media, interfered with justice and monopolized power .” No wonder Cheney saw him as an ideal representation of America’s “democracy promotion” project.
The billionaire oligarch prime minister, Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, had put his weight behind a presidential candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili, who subsequently won the October 2013 elections. Under reforms implemented by Saakashvili, the role of president would become “largely ceremonial, with the bulk of power resting with the prime minister.” Ivanishvili proclaimed his intention to turn Georgia into a “perfect European democracy.”
In May of 2014, months into the Ukrainian conflict, NATO announced its intentions to find ways of bringing Georgia ” even closer” to the military alliance. Just days earlier, both France and Germany “assured Georgia that a deal bringing it closer to the European Union would be sealed soon.”
Georgian officials were holding “extensive discussions” with US and German and other NATO members seeking ways to accelerate the country’s membership into NATO. Whereas previously, the US and NATO powers had decided to put Georgia’s NATO membership on the backburner, the conflict in Ukraine had changed the situation. Georgia’s Defense Minister stated: “Clearly, what’s happening in Ukraine impacts the thinking in Europe… Now it’s very different.” The Defense Minister went to Washington in May 2014 to visit with Vice President Biden and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
And so, in the more than ten years since Georgia’s U.S. and NATO-supported colour revolution, the West – particularly the United States – have increased Georgia’s military capabilities, armed and trained its forces, all the while aggravating Russia as NATO and Western military, political and economic influence spread ever-closer to its borders.
This ultimately resulted in a war. Though, since then – and with the recent conflict in Ukraine – it is clear that rearming Georgia and further aggravating Russia is back on the agenda.
The hypocrisy and imperious expansionism of the West in Georgia is but a minor reflection of a similar process which has been taking place across much of Eastern Europe, and most especially in Ukraine. Thus, despite the never-ending proclamations of “Russian aggression,” it is once again the Western powers, NATO, the EU, the IMF and especially the United States that are the most to blame for the current conflict in Ukraine.
The 2008 war in Georgia had seemingly put an end – or a halt – on NATO’s eastward expansion. Russia had – after 18 years of NATO expansion – finally drawn a line in the sand over how much it was willing to put up with. It was clear, then, that a similar process with Ukraine, a much larger and more strategically significant country than Georgia, was sure to incur a military response from Russia. If anything, the only surprise is that Russia’s military response has been so minimal, comparatively speaking; at least, for the time being. But as this process continues in response to Ukraine’s crisis, and as NATO and the U.S. military, the EU and the IMF accelerate their advance eastward, future conflict is seemingly all but inevitable.
No doubt, when that conflict comes, we will once again hear the amnesic proclamations of “Russian aggression” and Western benevolence.
• Read Part 1 here
• This article was first published in the Hampton Institute.