Ten years after the Russian-Georgian war: the Kremlin’s unlearned lessons

A street in Gori after a Russian air raid. Photo: radiosvoboda.org 

Op-ed

Article by: Andrey Zubov

Russian history professor Andrey Zubov, who was fired from his position of at the Moscow State University of International Affairs for criticizing Russia’s occupation of Crimea, recalls the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 and the lessons the Kremlin should have learned but has not. We offer you an English-language translation of his post.

Andrey Zubov speaking at the Kyiv Security Forum in 2017

This war which lasted a week took hundreds of lives of Georgians, Ossetians, and Russians, soldiers and civilians. Hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to leave their homes in South Ossetia and, before that, in Abkhazia. This war created the unrecognized state “South Ossetia” and strengthened another unrecognized state – Abkhazia. Both these states, created on the territory of Georgia, are poor, far from democracy and, in fact, are completely controlled by the Russian FSB and Army.

Since that time, diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia have been severed. Russian taxpayers were burdened with two subsidized areas and the maintenance of troops necessary to retain the occupied land. For some reason, citizens of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were issued Russian passports and, accordingly, for some reason, the Russian Federation took responsibility for these people.

Why was this all done?

The USSR left many unresolved ethnic problems after its death. The Bolsheviks drew internal borders without accounting for either ethnic or cultural factors. By destroying all the national elites, from those of the Russians to the Ossetians, Abkhazians, and Georgians, the communist leaders sought to control the USSR’s territory, resources, and its brainwashed intimidated population. They succeeded in this until the late 1980s. But here, long-standing ethnic contradictions and cultural discrepancies reappeared with full force in Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Chechnya, and Central Asia.

Over the years of communist rule, all the citizens of the USSR got used to the fact that man is the least of all values. Battles were fought for land, not for the happiness of all people living on earth. The battles were fought for the happiness of our own against strangers, as in the years of the [1917 – Ed] Revolution the peasants fought for land against the landowners. Strangers can be disposed of, expelled, and then perfect happiness will come. The principle “do to others as you would have them do to you” was firmly forgotten over seventy years of totalitarianism, when kids were taught about the class struggle from kindergarten – in reality, the war of all against all. The simple idea that by taking away from another human being you won’t become happier, but only doom yourself to the same fate and even worse, did not come to mind at all.

The Caucasus, both in the South and North, is one of the most complex ethnic and cultural regions of the world. As in other mountainous countries, for example, in the Balkans, entirely different peoples live in neighboring valleys, having found shelter here at different times. There isn’t much land here, and livestock is herded to pastures through the fields of farmers.

Photo: geocurrents

Interethnic and intercultural conflicts are unavoidable here, and the best skills of political engineering plus the strongest goodwill are needed so that after the death of a totalitarian power, under democracy and self-government, such a complex region does not collapse into the fire of wars, genocide, and mass exodus of refugees.

Unfortunately, Mr.Putin used these natural weaknesses of the Caucasus region to expand Russia’s influence in it. He did not heal, and could not heal the wounds of the Caucasus, he exacerbated them, generating more suffering for many people. It’s not the fault of Putin and Medvedev that they do not know how to reconcile ethnic conflicts. This was not taught to them, nor their other compatriots. Their fault is that they try to use the illnesses of their neighbors in their own interests, indulging in the imperial flames that consume them from within.

For the happy life of its people, Russia had absolutely no need to divorce Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia: any separation of land leads to age-old conflicts. What is needed is that all residents of Abkhazia and Ossetia – Ossetians, Abkhazians, and Georgians – live peacefully and be recognized as part of the world political community. If we, the Russians, have not yet mastered the art of peacemaking, it is better to place this burden on the shoulders of other countries, on the shoulders of the UN.

But Putin really wanted to have his “own” military base in Gudauta, his tanks in Tskhinvali, and to have Georgia under his heel. These empire games cost everyone very dearly and restoring the destroyed destinies of people and the collapsed trust of the nations to Russia will be much more difficult for us than healing the wounds of the earth, building houses, roads, and factories destroyed by these conflicts.

Nothing has been understood, no lessons learned

When Mr.Medvedev recently attacked Georgia again for its desire to join NATO, as well as NATO for its readiness to accept Georgia, he was being simply ridiculous. In the early 2000s, Putin talked about Russia’s accession to NATO and it is unlikely that he would care about Georgia, Iran, or China, who believed that such an alliance threatened their national interests. Why is what is permissible for Russia is not permissible for Georgia?

And when Mr. Medvedev began to threaten the world with Russian military bases in Abkhazia, he completed the ten-year circle – not NATO bases, the Russian bases, and we will not give up what is ours – that was the meaning of his words. It was for the sake of this that everything was done. It is for the sake of this that Putin took the weight of the fates of tens of thousands of Georgians who fled Abkhazia and Ossetia and the blood of the dead onto his soul. For the sake of the bases and the land. Very Stalinesque, very Bolshevik-esque, but totally inhumane.

What’s ahead?

Battalion of Russian army on its way to Georgia, 9 August 2008

Of course, after the end of the Putin regime, Russia will have to withdraw from Abkhazia and Ossetia. Its troops must be replaced by UN peacekeepers, and under their control, strictly observing the principles of restitution of property rights; refugees must return to these areas. International control should minimize potential new conflicts on national grounds, and when peace is restored (I’m afraid this will take 10-15 years), the international peacekeeping contingent can be withdrawn from these areas of Georgia.

Russia has lost the moral right to participate in this contingent. The most that it should do is help with money. The accounts of Putin, Roldugin, Prigozhin would be very helpful for this. And, of course, the territorial integrity of Georgia cannot be questioned, and the status of the now-torn off lands is the subject of benevolent multilateral negotiations, on which Russia should be given only an advisory vote.

Such is the price of that shameful victory in August 2008. I hope that these steps and this “forcing Russia to peace” will become the pledge of future good relations between my country and the states of the South Caucasus.

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