On February 28th, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine. The west watched dumbfounded and two weeks later has still been unable to form a coherent response. One country, however, was not in the least bit surprised by the Russian invasion or by the west’s feebleness. They’ve seen it all before.
About a month after hostilities between Georgians and Russians had ended in 2008, I was standing in an orchard about a kilometer from the Georgian village of Eredvi watching the glow of its remaining homes burn in the dusk. South Ossetians backed by the Russian army were in the process or erasing the evidence of Georgian existence in the territory they now controlled. Five and a half years later, Eredvi is a Russian military post while a fence delineates a new South Ossetian border right through the orchard I was standing in.
In Soviet times, South Ossetia was an autonomous oblast within Georgia. The line you see on a map meant very little on the ground, even after Georgia lost control of the region following the first war in 1992, when South Ossetia became de facto independent. South Ossetians controlled the capital Tskhinvali, the Roki Tunnel, which links the region to the Russian Federation, and a several villages scattered throughout the territory. An actual map would have looked like a gnawed piece of Swiss Cheese.
In 2012, a new Georgian government was elected that made a point of toning down its belligerent rhetoric towards Russia in an effort to improve relations. Russia responded by lifting a 6 year embargo on Georgian products and by establishing a South Ossetian border with fencing, razor wire and surveillance cameras. They took some liberties with the original coordinates and in some cases moved the border a hundred meters or more deeper into Georgian territory and quite literally sliced Georgian villages in half. While some speculate the Russians are only holding the extra land hostage for future negotiating purposes, the arbitrary border is permanent. Russian President Dmitri Medvev had signed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 6-point peace plan in August 2008, which stipulated their troops must return to the prewar positions, but Russia quashed that agreement by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who then asked the Russian army for protection. Georgia has effectively lost 20% of its territory and Russian missiles are pointed at Tbilisi, 50 kilometers away. The Russians are here to stay.
While its widely accepted that the Georgians got suckered into the war, it is also acknowledged that the Russians had been preparing the scenario months in advance. They had been passing out Russian passports to Abkhaz and Ossetians, warning they would protect their citizens if attacked. In addition, the Vladikavkaz-based 58th Army had been staging war games near the Georgian border just before Georgia launched its attack on Tskhinvali.
Western response to the conflict was slow. The general line was Georgians started it and the Russians over-reacted. Game over. Nobody, except perhaps Washington’s cold warrior Senator John McCain, is concerned that the Russians have reneged on the peace agreement.
The Baltic nations, however, have long understood that Russia is a threatening bully and that if it doesn’t have a pretense, it creates one. And if the bully goes unpunished, he’ll do it again. You have to be Russia’s neighbor to know this – like the Ukraine.
In 2004, Europe’s largest country tried to cut its Russian umbilical cord when a massive democratic movement protested rigged presidential elections in favor of Viktor Yanukovych and thrust a pro-western coalition into power. But the coalition was doomed by its infighting and Russia’s meddling and it fell apart in September 2008, partly due to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s backing of Georgia. He believed Ukraine was hostage to “Russia’s war” and worried over the fragile nature of the Crimea, particularly since the Russian Black Sea Fleet was stationed there. Yushchenko pressed for the Russian fleet’s withdrawal when its agreement agreement expires in 2017. He also actively pursued a course to forge a partnership agreement with the EU and sought NATO membership. He really should have known better than to try to buck Putin.
Yushchenko’s fate was sealed in the first round of elections in 2010 when all he managed to get was 5.4 percent of the vote. His former ally Yulia Tymoshenko, had broken away and formed a coalition with the communists and allegedly made a deal with the Russians. She ran against the ex-con Viktor Yanukovych and lost.
“It’s so easy to easy to understand that what happened in Georgia was a prelude to what is happening in the Ukraine,” says Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation For Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.
Putin does not tolerate countries in his sphere of influence looking west. This is what it is all about.
First Russia pressured Armenia to withdraw from the west-east cooperation treaty, the European Union Association Agreement. Then Yanukovych backed out. Georgia and Moldova, however, initialed it and aim to sign the agreement in the summer. Many in Georgia expect the Kremlin will try to prevent that. But in Georgia’s case, Russia is already occupying one-fifth of Georgian territory and is fencing off South Ossetia. Georgia has proven it can survive a Russian embargo and unlike Ukraine, a large majority of the population favors European integration, so what leverage does Russia really have?
“Lots,” says Giorgi Tabagari, a coordinator at European Alumni Association Georgia. Reinstating the embargo would hurt significantly he says, as Georgia is suffering from an economic downturn. And Russia can influence people through the Georgian Orthodox Church, which has close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Georgian Church has shown how much power it can wield when Georgian clergy led tens of thousands of people on a violent attack against LGBT rights activists. And Russia continues to provoke Georgia by violating its airspace.
This is why all Georgian eyes are on Ukraine. Nobody in Tbilisi thinks Putin will walk away from the Crimea. It’s well-understood that he is trying to rebuild an empire.
“If they get away with it in Ukraine, then they’ll do it again,” Rondeli asserts. “And Georgians hope that this time the west will wake up.”
*From Beacon Reader March 12, 2014