It does not matter who fired the first shot in the Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia in 2008. What does matter is the attempt to improve Russian-Georgian relations and alleviate the tensions at the heart of the conflict.

Georgia's honour guards stand near the monument to Georgian soldiers killed during Georgia's conflict with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, at the memorial cemetery in Tbilisi. Photo: AP

Eight years have passed since the Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia. Although there is no military escalation in the conflict zones, relations between the two countries remain tense.

The August 2008 war lasted only five days, but it had serious geopolitical implications for the South Caucasus. The war placed Russia and Georgia on the brink of further confrontation. And it also created very different outlooks for the future of the troubled region in both Moscow and Tbilisi. 

Russia and Georgia: A love-hate relationship

It is difficult to describe today’s Russian-Georgian relations as friendly. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a series of processes that took place in both countries started fueling mutual tensions.

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On the one hand, there was the emergence of Georgia, a newborn republic, which tried to implement its national project — achieving freedom and independence at any cost — in the early 1990s. On the other hand, there was a new Russia - the same country that regarded the collapse of Soviet Union as the biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. This meant that Russia sought to maintain its influence in the so-called “Near Abroad,” which included Georgia as well. This became a core idea for the Russian national project.

Thus, from the very beginning there was a sort of inherent collision between the Georgian and Russian national projects. This became the major source of conflict between the two states. Georgia viewed Russia as a threat, while Moscow began to question the new contours of Georgian foreign policy.

At the same time, Russia was hesitant in coming up with its official foreign policy toward Georgia. One of the reasons was Georgia’s involvement in ethno-territorial conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Given this situation, there was the serious risk of the total disintegration of Georgia and its disappearance from the world political map.

However, these challenges stem at least partially from the fact that Russia failed to provide the post-Soviet countries with an effective platform of integration and cooperation.

On the one hand, this oversight stems from Russia’s institutional and economic weakness. On the other hand, there were many crises and disputes in other post-Soviet states, including Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Russia tried to maintain control by direct involvement in these crises. In the case of Georgia, Moscow decided to play the role of catalyst by arming the conflicting parties and later supporting separatist movements in the country.

This was the reason why Moscow missed a real chance to maintain influence over Tbilisi - its open support of separatist movements was not well received within Georgia. And this was the case despite the fact that then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze did his best to improve relations with Moscow and endorsed every initiative proposed by Russia, including the deployment of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the peacekeeping mandate of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

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Soon Georgia became a participant of the most important economic project of the region: the construction of the Baku – Tbilisi – Ceyhan pipeline, which would allow Azerbaijan to diversify the transportation routes of its energy resources to the world market and not be dependent on Russia any longer. It was Georgia’s first step to distance itself from Russia.

And Moscow interpreted this stance in such a way and did its best not to let Georgia slip out of its geopolitical orbit. One example is Russia’s attempt to persuade Tbilisi to create the so-called Georgian-Abkhazian confederation in the late 1990s. However, this would ultimately affect Georgian sovereignty. Since military tensions between Georgia and Abkhazia failed to ease, Tbilisi came to the conclusion that Russia was just trying to create an illusion of a peacekeeping process.

So, the harder Russia tried to maintain its influence, the more skeptical Georgia became. Thus, Tbilisi started seeking integration within the EU and NATO. In 1999 Georgia became a member of the European Council. Moreover, the nation’s leadership officially announced their intention for Georgia to become a member of NATO.

Afterwards, the U.S. started the so-called “Train and Equip” program to modernize the Georgian army and make it more compatible with its NATO counterparts. Moreover, Georgian soldiers participated in the controversial NATO mission in Kosovo in 1999. Such moves could hardly please Moscow, which had been looking at NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space with suspicion since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The ‘Rose Revolution’ and its implications

It is impossible to discuss the Russian-Georgian conflict without mentioning the 2003 “Rose Revolution,” which had serious implications for Georgian-Russian relations. Today, a significant number of Georgian and Russian pundits see the “Rose Revolution” as a Western project; however, in fact, Moscow played one of the key roles in the development of events in 2003. As far as Shevardnadze’s regime was equally undesirable for Russia and for Georgia’s Western partners, their strategic interests shifted to the country’s opposition.

In the wake of revolution, then-Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov arrived in Georgia to make a public appearance before protesters in Tbilisi and meet with the opposition leaders — Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze — as well as the Georgian president. Due to the lack of publicly available information, it is difficult to say what exactly was discussed beyond closed doors. However it is likely that Ivanov was trying to find common ground with potential new leaders of the country. Finally, after the meeting, President Shevardnadze publicly announced his resignation.

Today it becomes clear that even though the Russian government was interested in cooperation with the new ruling elite, this interest was hardly altruistic in its nature. After all, in return for Russian support, the Georgian government had to fulfill certain obligations.

In general, the history of Georgia-Russia relations in the post-Soviet era indicates that different interest groups in Russia have been competing for the right to determine Russia’s policy toward Georgia.

On the one hand, there were hardliners, who represented the country’s political and military elite and didn’t want to give up their influence in Georgia. On the other hand, there were less hawkish leaders, who tried to protect Russian interests in the Caucasus by improving relations with Georgia through soft power. In other words, there was competition between the ideas of “hegemony” and “leadership.” Eventually, the competition between these two ideas was over, with victory going to the supporters of hegemony.

However, the Georgian political elite also made a lot of mistakes and contributed to worsening the relations with Russia, given the fact that Tbilisi lacked foreign policy experience and was not ready to respond to some controversial moves from other regional stakeholders. The Georgian government could have negotiated with Russia on the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgian territory. Instead, the two parties agreed to set up a joint anti-terrorist center in Batumi.

This meant that Russian special services would gain an important position near the Turkish border. This would strengthen the clout of Russia’s hardliners, which was unacceptable for the Georgian government. So the deal was cancelled. But, most importantly, Moscow felt cheated and betrayed by the Georgian side.

Moreover, Tbilisi was actively expanding cooperation with the U.S, which only fueled the tensions with Moscow. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush paid a visit to Georgia in 2005, and it was a warning message to Moscow. Georgia tried to show its Western partners that it wanted to be not only the consumer of security (from the Euro-Atlantic security system), but also the producer of security. Thus, Georgian soldiers joined the coalition forces in Iraq as well as NATO’s mission in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF).

So, 2005 was a groundbreaking year for Russian-Georgian relations, which saw a sharp deterioration. The position of the Russian leaders calling for a softer approach to Georgia significantly weakened amidst the country’s integration with the West both politically and militarily. Yet one should keep in mind that this happened because of Russia’s sincere concern that it was losing its influence in Georgia.

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Moscow started strengthening its positions in Georgia’s breakaway regions, while Tbilisi tried to extensively enhance its partnership with the West. Russia provided military equipment to the armed groups of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moreover, it intensified the process of issuing passports to citizens in these republics. At the same time, Russia announced that its army was ready to protect its citizens abroad. So, the first signs of a possible armed conflict between Russia and Georgia became visible in 2005.

Tension between Georgia and Russia grew in 2006-2007 before reaching their apex in 2008, when NATO added the membership action plan (MAP) for Georgia and Ukraine to the NATO agenda. Definitely, this move was not well received in Moscow. After all, if Georgia and Ukraine received the MAP at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Russia’s positions in the South Caucasus, Eastern Europe and the Black Sea basin would become highly vulnerable.

The weakness of Georgian diplomacy also contributed to the increasing tensions with Russia. In particular, after the “Rose Revolution” the Georgian government dedicated all its efforts to intensifying cooperation with the U.S. and didn’t pay enough attention to other important European stakeholders such as Germany and France. This is important to note because both countries were fairly skeptical toward the prospects of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine.

Despite the fact that Georgia and Ukraine didn’t receive the MAP, NATO pledged that both of these post-Soviet countries would become future alliance members. This announcement gave nothing to Georgia and Ukraine, but it was an alarming signal to Russia. It only worsened relations with the Kremlin and strengthened the positions of Russian hardliners.

Thus, the Georgian government, as in 2004, showed a lack of political wisdom and experience. It failed to assess the threat that was coming from Russia and got involved in a confrontation with it, which brought serious damage to the national interests of the country.

Five-Day War between Georgia and Russia

The 2008 Five-Day War between Georgia and Russia marked the nadir in relations between the two countries, which as noted earlier, started worsening shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the years between 1991 and 2008 represent a period of missed opportunities for Russia and Georgia. Instead of cooperating and enhancing trust, they preferred to plunge into the atmosphere of fear and mistrust.

On the one hand, the Georgian-Russian conflict resulted from the incompetence of the Georgian elites. On the other hand, it stemmed from Russia’s attempts to maintain its influence and promote its interests in the post-Soviet space.

Eight years after the Five-Day War between Georgia and Russia, one thing is clear: the “military solution” is counterproductive for both sides. As a result of the war, Russia gained two new allies – the quasi-states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - with their political agendas and problems. Russia could have significantly enhanced its military presence in the region. Instead, Russian policy in the South Caucasus only brought the conflict to the international level.

Today Georgia is politically closer to the West than to Russia despite geographical proximity. Tbilisi has significantly intensified cooperation with Washington and NATO, with new institutions established, including the NATO-Georgian Commission and their joint training center. Likewise, Georgian–European relations advanced to a new level after the signing of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement.

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Moreover, the war had enormous humanitarian implications, including acts of ethnic cleansing committed in Georgian villages and human casualties on both sides. The war brought suffering to everyday people far removed from the political sphere.

The victims of the Russo-Georgian conflict are the ordinary people who wanted to live normal lives. As long as one sees the war as a humanitarian disaster, it does not matter who fired the first shot. What does matter is that those who are responsible for the tragedy become accountable for their actions before present and future generations.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.