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August 7, 2009
Five-day Russia-Georgia war has lasting political fallout

A man overlooks damage in Gori, Georgia. Photo: Onnik Krikorian

On Friday, Russia and Georgia marked the first anniversary of the war that erupted a year ago.

Last summer, Georgia launched an attack on the breakaway republic of South Ossetia to drive out Russian-backed separatists. Russia responded with a massive counterattack, pushing deep into Georgian territory.

The five-day war killed at least 390 people, displaced tens of thousands and left fear that more fighting could erupt. Tensions between the countries are still running high, with both sides making accusations about the other.

Ivan Krastev is based in Sofia, Bulgaria, and is the editor-in-chief of the Bulgarian edition of Foreign Policy. He writes at OpenDemocracy about the lasting political fallout from the brief conflict for Russia, Georgia, Europe and the U.S.

It took less than a hundred days for the Russia-Georgia war of 8-12 August 2008 to be eclipsed as a history-shaping event. The guns of August were silenced by the thunders on Wall Street. A war that seemed momentous at the time became subject to instant amnesia: a non-event. But it was a non-event with consequences.

A year on, a measure of these consequences seems appropriate. The post-war balance-sheets of the leading actors – Georgia and Russia themselves, but also the United States and the European Union – in many respects resemble those of the Wall Street financial institutions hit by the global economic crisis: undeclared losses and inflated profits.

Indeed, amid the fallout of this toxic conflict it is easier to see losers than victors. In August 2008, Georgia lost its dreams, the Kremlin lost its complexes, Washington lost its nerves and the European Union lost its sleep. But as the poet said, there’s no success like failure; and the messy aftermath also reveals collateral benefits for some of these and other powers.

Russia is at the centre of every calculation. The war was the occasion of Moscow’s first large-scale military operation outside the territory of the Russian Federation since the end of the cold war. The Kremlin’s subsequent recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was the first revision of inter-state borders on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Russia emerged from the war as a revisionist power and broke the illusion of the existence of European order.

[…] In assessing the consequences of the Russia-Georgia war the real question is: does the post-August 2008 world giving us a better chance for negotiating a legitimate and just European order, or is it making such a order even less likely?

Two answers are possible: the desperately pessimistic or the moderately optimistic.

Pessimists will claim that by turning the Russia-Georgia war into a non-event the west has encouraged the Kremlin to repeat its “success” in other parts of the post-Soviet space – thus making European order an illusion.

Optimists tend to believe that the Russia-Georgia war marks the simultaneous failure of two projects: Russia’s for reviving sphere-of-influence politics in Europe, and the west’s for constructing Europe without Russia.

If the pessimists are right, these are the early stages of a long night. If the optimists are correct, the death of these two projects means that now is a proper time to start thinking about the gestation of a third.

To read more, see the original post.

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Did Saakashvili even bother to think: “What will the Russians do when I attack?” The obvious answer should have been, they will not be humiliated by Georgia and will use this provocation as a reason to get more of what they want; and they’ll end up humiliating the Georgian Army. How hard is that reasoning? The use of U.S. aircraft to fly back Georgian troops from Iraq was a U.S. blunder as well. The level of skill and savvy among our leaders is challenged at best. We live in an unsafe world because we’re ruled by people who can’t think through the easiest of problems.

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