WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Aug. 11, 2015) — Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 took the West by surprise in its rapidity and intensity, said Col. Bob Hamilton, who was there as chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation from 2006 to 2008.
“You can’t look at Ukraine today in isolation from what happened in Georgia in 2008,” he said. It’s a classic example of Russian meddling in areas it believes to be within its own geopolitical sphere and areas it considers to be of strategic military importance.
Hamilton, who is now a professor at the U.S. Army War College, was interviewed by Anna Kalandadze, from Voice of America, Aug. 7. The interview, timed to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the 2008 war, will air in Georgia at a later date.
Had Western governments been paying more attention to the situation in Georgia, they might have anticipated the crisis and not been taken aback by it, a condition he termed “strategic surprise.”
Hamilton had a front-row seat to events leading up to the crisis though.
The conflict involved two large portions of Georgia, Abkhazia in the far west and South Ossetia, north of the capital of Tbilisi, where Hamilton was stationed.
Both areas had fought brief wars of secession in the early 1990s, resulting in their declarations of autonomy from Georgia by separatists. Russia recognized the autonomy, while Georgia and most of the rest of the world did not.
A series of violent acts by the separatists and a response by Georgian forces resulted in all-out war in August 2008. Russia sent troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, claiming Georgian atrocities against the local inhabitants. Today, both areas are de facto independent from Georgia’s control, according to Hamilton.
DISSECTING RUSSIAN INVOLVEMENT
There’s no question that Russian involvement led to the conflict, Hamilton said.
One of the factors that most likely led to the crisis was Russia felt itself provoked by Kosovo’s declaration of independence in early 2008 from Serbia. Serbia and Russia were close and the move sparked retaliatory action in Georgia, he said.
Another factor was Georgia’s efforts to join the European Union and NATO. That would put Georgia outside Russia’s sphere of influence and it was considered unacceptable. Adding to Russia’s concern in this regard was NATO’s declaration at its March 2008 NATO summit, which stated that Georgia and Ukraine would become NATO members, but declined to fix a date for their membership. This made it clear to Russia that although Georgia was currently not protected by NATO, it would be at some time in the future.
There are a lot of moving parts to the Russian involvement that would not be readily apparent to uninformed outsiders, he said.
One of Russia’s goals was to make Georgia appear unattractive to the West as a NATO ally by pointing out that it has an unstable government and would be an unreliable partner, he said. In the years prior to the crisis, the Georgian government accused Russia on several occasions of attempting to subvert it.
Another point the Russians wanted to make, he said, was to demonstrate that Georgia is small and geographically close to Russia and therefore is indefensible, should forces from countries other than Russia try to bolster its security.
A third tactic the Russians use, he said, is to heighten distinctions between the various ethnic minority groups to create political divisions and social unrest. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has intervened militarily on behalf of separatist minorities several times.
Besides Georgia, this pattern of behavior by Russia has been evident in Ukraine, Hamilton said, as well as in the Transnistria breakaway state of Moldova and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Azerbaijan, he said.
These patterns of behavior are often subtle and do not make the nightly news, which is unfortunate, Hamilton said.
FUTURE OF GEORGIA
Hamilton declined to predict the future of Georgia, but offered some hope.
Following the 2008 crisis, Georgia has been patient in dealing with the two occupied areas, avoiding military confrontation and inflammatory rhetoric that would undoubtedly make the situation worse, he said.
Although the West was surprised strategically, it quickly came to the aid of Georgia, providing humanitarian aid to the tens of thousands of displaced persons. Military aid was also provided. The U.S. offered a good measure of both types of assistance, Hamilton added.
Going forward, Georgia needs to continue its efforts to integrate with the West and increase trade. “That integration will raise the economic and social prospects of all Georgians,” he said.
Once Georgia develops its “soft power” and is seen as attractive from a political, social and economic standpoint someday, maybe decades later, those two breakaway provinces might rethink their decision and agree to rejoin Georgia, perhaps in some sort of a confederation arrangement, Hamilton said.
The West can’t impose a political solution. This will be a long-term issue, he said. Any future arrangement or agreement would, realistically, have to include Russia.
Hamilton noted that Georgia has been an important ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, contributing a considerable number of troops, relative to its population.
Hamilton continues to follow events in Georgia closely and visits the country. He didn’t make it this year because of the severe flooding, however.
Exercise Noble Partner took place in Georgia in May. The two-week exercise involved Georgian forces as well as Soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade and 3rd Infantry Division.
“The name of today’s exercise is not a coincidence,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Mark Loeben, U.S. European Command’s director of exercises and assessments. “The name Noble Partner was deliberately chosen. It is a name that the Georgian armed forces have earned. It is a name that they demonstrate through every contribution, every commitment and every sacrifice. They have demonstrated time and again a level of commitment that is worthy of the exercise that we have named on their behalf, here today.”
“Regional safety comes from the Soldiers here, who are wearing the uniform,” said Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. “This training was an explicit step forward for Euro-Atlantic integration.”
“This exercise was another opportunity for Georgian and U.S. Soldiers to work alongside each other,” said Maj. Gen. William K. Gayler, deputy commanding general, U.S. Army Europe. “We came together, overcame language barriers, developed training invested in our forces, and most importantly, strengthened the relationship between our countries.”
Gayler added, “U.S. Army Europe is committed to training with our partners and allies. Noble Partner is a reflection on that commitment and it is part of our engagement through Europe. We’ve made that commitment as we share the same security concerns as the countries with whom we train . . . to increase interoperability so that we can respond quickly and effectively wherever needed.”
The 27,000-square-mile republic is less than half the size of the U.S. state of Georgia. It has a population of about 3,730,000 people. More than 80 percent are ethnic Georgian with Azerbaijani and Armenian making up most of the remaining balance. Only about 1.5 percent of the residents are ethnic Russian.
Georgia is in the Caucasus region, with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan to its south and Russia on the north.
The Soviets occupied Georgia in 1921. The nation gained its independence, along with other former Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991.