It's been a decade since Russia made its dramatic return to the world stage with the invasion of Georgia. Russian troops crossed into the disputed territory of South Ossetia in August 2008 — their first major deployment since the Soviet Union's demise — destroying much of Georgia's infrastructure and military over the course of just five days. But if the war itself was short-lived, its effects have been far more enduring.
Even 10 years later, the specific impetus for the war remains the subject of fierce debate. Russia blamed Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's president at the time, for ordering forces to attack civilians in South Ossetia. Georgia, on the other hand, claimed that separatists in the breakaway region had shelled nearby villages to provoke a response from Russia — which arrived, sure enough, swiftly and decisively. Either way, the message was clear to Saakashvili's government, and to its supporters in Europe and the United States: After nearly two decades of political and economic turmoil, Russia was back.
For several years after the fall of the Soviet Union, chaos reigned in Russia. The tricky transition to capitalism gave rise to powerful oligarchs at the expense of the state and plunged the economy into crisis. Two bloody separatist conflicts in Chechnya had left Russians demoralized and fearful. Just beyond Russia's borders, meanwhile, NATO was expanding into Central and Eastern Europe. At the turn of the millennium, Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power and started to pull his country together. He reined in the oligarchs, consolidated power, brought the second Chechen war to an end and put the economy back on track. By 2008, Russia was thriving, thanks in no small part to years of high global prices for oil and natural gas. (The West, by contrast, was in the throes of financial crisis and mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Although he couldn't undo NATO's expansion, Putin was determined to keep it from spreading farther. And so, just a few months after NATO officially recognized Georgia's aspirations (and those of Ukraine) to join the bloc, Russia invaded the country, established a military presence in its separatist territories and began recognizing their independence.
The conflict, though brief, was enough to bring Russia back to global prominence. From there, it used its newly recovered might to reassert its influence throughout the former Soviet Union. Ukrainian voters elected pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovich to the presidency in 2010, the same year that Moscow established a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan that would eventually become the Eurasian Economic Union. In Europe, too, Russia made inroads, buying up assets, swaying political parties and sowing discord in the European Union. Its international campaign hit a snag in 2014, when global oil prices tanked, taking the Russian economy down with them, and when protesters in Ukraine overthrew Yanukovich in favor of an anti-Russian government. But Russia fought back, first by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and then by supporting a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.
In response, the United States and European Union imposed sanctions on Russia while ramping up their support for Ukraine and other countries nearby, including Georgia. The state has since made significant strides in its effort to integrate with the West, signing a free trade agreement with the European Union in the summer of 2014 and opening a NATO training center a year later. Georgia realizing its goal of joining NATO is probably a long way off; the military bloc has no desire to admit a country in direct conflict with Russia. Nevertheless, it receives far more backing from the West today than it did even during the 2008 invasion. In fact, Georgian and NATO forces — including more than 1,000 U.S. troops — will conduct large-scale joint exercises known as Noble Partner throughout the next two weeks.
Georgia is still far from securing itself from Russia, but it has come a long way since the 2008 war. The same, of course, goes for Russia. The 2008 war demonstrated that it had regained its status as a world power and forced the West to treat it as such. The continuing hostility between Russia and the West, along with the many conflicts and military buildups it has inspired, is a testament to the gambit's efficacy.