It seems not to be a widely marked anniversary, but today is ten years since the outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia – a short but decisive conflict that led to official Russian recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
It was the first open use of Russian troops against a neighboring state since the fall of the Soviet Union.
It’s easy to say (as Santayana did) that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The problem is, however, that most historical events do not wear their lessons on their face. They require interpretation, and the Russo-Georgian war is no exception.
There is an obvious narrative according to which the war was the first sign of a more aggressive, imperialist Russian policy, and that the west’s failure to side decisively with Georgia encouraged Russia in its ambitions, leading in turn to further aggression in Ukraine.
But there is an alternative narrative, according to which Russia’s actions were a natural and predictable reaction to Georgia’s prospective NATO membership, and Russian suspicions were confirmed by the Georgian advance into South Ossetia – which met with a proportionate response.
Both narratives are plausible, but if we are trying to learn lessons from the war, they pull us in opposite directions.
My view is that there is more truth in the second narrative than the first. While there was clearly Russian provocation, full-scale hostilities originated with Georgia. Russia’s response had the support of the South Ossetian population, and although Russian troops penetrated into Georgia proper, they promptly withdrew, as promised, to their starting lines, where they have remained ever since.
The war showed that Russia had the capacity to destroy Georgian independence, but it chose not to. Georgia remains a functioning democracy, as it demonstrated four years later when voters threw out the government responsible for the war.
South Ossetia, on the other hand, is a basket case, as a BBC report today illustrates. But neither there nor in Abkhazia (which is somewhat better placed) is there any inclination to return to the Georgian fold.
The other thing to remember is that history, even at its best, can only guide us on what to do if a similar situation arises again. It can’t tell us how to deal with the consequences of bad decisions made in the past.
So even if we were to embrace the pro-Russian narrative wholesale (which I do not suggest), and say that a more sympathetic attitude by the west in 2008 would have avoided a lot of subsequent problems, that doesn’t help much now.
Russian assertiveness and distrust of the west are now firmly established, and Vladimir Putin has had great success with his strategy of sowing division by partnering with far-right parties and politicians.
As a result, we have to deal with the situation as it is – not as we might hope it would have been if different decisions had been made ten years ago.