Five years ago Thursday, Russian tanks crossed the Roki Tunnel from the Russian republic of North Ossetia into South Ossetia in Georgian territory. In the course of the full-scale war that lasted the next five days, Russia destroyed much of Georgia's military and dismantled its vital supply lines and transport infrastructure. Moscow also established a military presence in the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and recognized the territories as independent states. The Russian army did not venture farther into Georgia proper but stopped within striking distance — a little more than 45 kilometers (about 30 miles) away — of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
Today, the Russian military remains in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Only a handful of countries in Latin America and Oceania have joined Russia in recognizing the republics as independent states; not even Moscow's closest allies in the former Soviet space have granted their recognition. But that is effectively irrelevant. The message that Russia intended to send, that Western support for Georgia was hollow and that Russia was back as a regional power, was received and reverberates to this day.
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The root of the Georgian conflict can be found not in South Ossetia but rather in Europe. The expansion of the European Union and NATO into Eastern and Central Europe beginning in the late 1990s and going well into the 2000s entrenched Western influence in the former Soviet periphery while undermining the influence of Moscow. It was the West's recognition of Kosovo's independence from Serbia, a traditional ally of Russia, in early 2008 that set the process of war in motion. Despite Moscow's opposition to Kosovar independence, much of the West, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, proceeded with the recognition anyway. Only a few months later, at a NATO summit in Bucharest, the military bloc promised Georgia and fellow former Soviet state Ukraine that they would eventually become members.
These actions came at a time when many in the West still saw Russia as the weak and chaotic state of the 1990s that was barely held together by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. But Russian President Vladimir Putin was not Boris Yeltsin. By 2008, Putin had consolidated much of the bureaucracy and oligarchs under his control, and the Russian economy had been buoyed by years of high energy prices. In Putin's view, the West had repeatedly taken actions that undermined Russia's national interests, and now was the time to react.
The message that Western support for Georgia was hollow and that Russia was back as a regional power, was received and reverberates to this day.
Georgia was the perfect setting for Russia's response. Under the leadership of President Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia had become firmly oriented toward the West, and although it sought accession into the European Union and NATO, it had not yet gained admission and was not automatically subject to Article 5, NATO's collective defense treaty. In addition, because of its small size and strategic location immediately adjacent to Russia's North Caucasus region and far from mainland Europe, Georgia served as an excellent platform for Russia to project military power. A war with Georgia provided Russia with three opportunities: to degrade Georgia's military capabilities, to demonstrate that its own military was still very effective and, most important, to make the West appear weak in its commitment to its partners in the Russian periphery. In August 2008, Russia accomplished all three.
The consequences of the war extended well beyond Georgia. NATO, not Russia, was now seen by many as impotent and indecisive, while Moscow was looked at as a strong and effectual military power. Regardless of the realities of their actual capabilities, this was the popular perception, especially in the former Soviet states; the war changed their thinking about relations with Russia.
In the years since the war, this perception has been a major factor in the behavior of the states in the former Soviet periphery. Ukraine has officially dropped its NATO ambitions and outlawed membership in any military bloc. Countries that were already aligned with Russia, such as Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, have only increased their security ties with Moscow. Even Georgia has changed; the emergence of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who defeated Saakashvili's camp in the 2012 parliamentary elections, has led the country to modify its stance toward Russia. Ivanishvili has sought to build closer economic ties with the Russians, and although he has officially maintained his commitment to integration with the West, the national attitude in Georgia has taken on a more pragmatic view of Russia.
The consequences of the five-day war are very visible even five years later. Russia will not return to superpower status on par with the United States as it was during the Soviet era. But even its staunchest opponents cannot deny its role as a substantial, though flawed, regional power, particularly at a time when the European Union is going through a deep political and economic crisis and alignment with the West is no longer as attractive as it was a decade ago. In this way, the Russo-Georgian war is more than just an event to reflect upon; it is a source of guidance for the countries of the region when it comes to planning ways of dealing with Moscow in the future.