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A convoy of Russian troops advancing towards Tskhinvali. August 8, 2023.

‘Putin realized there wouldn’t be any punishment’ What Russia’s elites learned from the 2008 invasion of Georgia

Source: Meduza
A convoy of Russian troops advancing towards Tskhinvali. August 8, 2023.
A convoy of Russian troops advancing towards Tskhinvali. August 8, 2023.
Musa Sadulayev / AP / Scanpix / LETA

15 years ago, in August 2008, the Russian military entered into open conflict with Georgia. Moscow launched an offensive deep into the country before securing a favorable peace treaty and avoiding international isolation. Meduza’s special correspondent Andrey Pertsev spoke with officials who were part of Moscow’s “power vertical” at the time to learn how that invasion differed, in Russian elites’ view, from the invasion of Ukraine.

At the moment, our peacekeepers and the units attached to them are conducting an operation to force the Georgian side to peace. They also bear the responsibility of protecting the local population. We’re working on all of this now.

This is how then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev described the invasion of Georgia by Russian forces on August 9, 2008. It was on that day that Russian troops entered Tskhinvali, the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia. From there, they pushed deeper into Georgia, stopping just a few dozen kilometers short of Tbilisi.

Then, on August 12, Medvedev announced the end of the “operation,” and four days later, Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia signed a plan to settle the conflict — one that was very favorable to the Russian authorities. It provided for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of troops, and international security guarantees for the self-proclaimed republics.

Despite being the first war on European territory since the start of the 21st century, the conflict didn’t lead to any serious international sanctions against Russia. The E.U. and the U.S. strongly condemned the invasion of Georgia but opted not to impose any significant economic restrictions.

There were a number of reasons for this lack of consequences. The first was that Russia ultimately refrained from attacking Georgia’s capital. Secondly, an independent fact-finding commission set up by the E.U. to investigate the conflict concluded that the war was started by Georgia when it fired on Tskhinvali (though the commission’s report also noted that Russia had committed “provocations” in the preceding months). Thirdly, the invasion soon found itself competing for attention with a global economic crisis that severely impacted the U.S. and many other Western countries.

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Dmitry Medvedev would later reference this last factor explicitly: “Even with George Bush, we had a completely normal relationship after that (Note from Meduza: In reality, relations between the U.S. and Russia became markedly more complicated after the invasion). He and I met right at the end of 2008. During our last conversation (when the global crisis was starting, so our whole conversation was mostly about the economy), he didn’t even mention the situation in Georgia and the problems of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”

At the same time, Russia really did increase its influence in the self-proclaimed republics; among other things, the top positions in their governments began to fill up with officials who had previously served in Russia. In 2008, for example, Aslanbek Bulatsev, the former head of the tax service in Russia’s Republic of North Ossetia, became the Prime Minister of South Ossetia.

A source close to the Putin administration’s political bloc, however, told Meduza that the war in Georgia stayed “on the periphery of [the country’s] attention”: “The events were seen as something far away. They weren’t being monitored in real time every minute and every second.”

One reason for this, according to the source, was that the elites were skeptical of the Russian army’s overall combat ability — so much so that they didn’t believe the invasion would be a success. Russia’s defense minister at the time was Anatoly Serdyukov, a former civilian official, and most people associated the army with hazing and corruption.

After Russia’s armed forces began advancing through Georgia with considerable speed, however, that attitude changed — as did the tone in which Russia’s state-owned and pro-government media covered the conflict. “It turns out that we’re capable after all,” said Meduza’s source close to the Putin administration, describing the shift.

“You might say it was their first attempt at pro-war triumphalist propaganda,” the person added. “It was modest, but it was there. [Media reports] emphasized the role of Medvedev: the new president had proven himself quickly, making a good and firm decision under the conditions of a difficult international crisis.”

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Medvedev was indeed the conflict’s main “face.” His predecessor in office, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was at an academic competition in Beijing at the time and did little more than threatening to “retaliate” against Georgia. Russia’s propaganda media initially portrayed Medvedev as a decisive “hawk” who wasn’t afraid to start a war, and once the war was over, dubbed him an “effective peacekeeper” who prevented the “genocide of the Ossetians.”

“The goal wasn’t to destroy Georgia or execute [the country’s then-president, Mikheil] Saakashvili. I believe I did the right thing when I made the decision to show restraint, rather than to force further actions,” Medvedev said.

Russian political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky gave a simpler explanation for Medvedev’s “restraint”: in his view, he told Meduza, Russia’s leaders had “a certain fear — like the first time you misbehave [as a child], when you don’t know if you’ll get a slap on the wrist or not.” At the same time, he said, the Russian authorities (and their propaganda) managed to portray the invasion in such a way that the public was ultimately left with a sense that their country was in the right: “It wasn’t seen as a war of aggression.”

Survey data supports Preobrazhensky’s account. A decade after the war, in 2018, for example, only 5 percent of respondents in a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center said the Russian government was responsible for the conflict.

Still, the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus was unable to turn this “success” into popularity for the country’s leaders. At the end of the invasion, Putin’s and Medvedev’s approval ratings began to wane. Political scientist Kirill Shamiev pointed to the “short-term anti-Georgian, anti-American, anti-European sentiments” that the Kremlin failed to “capitalize on to transform the patriotic upsurge.”

Medvedev at an awards ceremony for soldiers who took part in the war with Georgia. August 2009.

In Shamiev’s view, at the time of the Georgia invasion, the Russian authorities weren’t interested in a long-term confrontation with the West: “[In the period immediately following the war,] there was a policy of rapprochement, a reset of relations, so the patriotic upsurge wasn’t artificially fueled the way it was after 2014.”

Sources from Russia’s federal and regional governments, as well as from the ruling United Russia party, agree that the topic of the war with Georgia ultimately “faded into the periphery.” They cited the “rebuilding of territory” as one example: while Russia’s regions are now being required to finance restoration operations in occupied Ukrainian territories, the situation in 2008 was completely different. Some regions did announce efforts to assist South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but there were no orders from the federal government. “Nobody [from the Kremlin] bothered us about it, and we didn’t participate,” said one high-ranking official from a region in Russia’s Central Federal District.

Another source from a Central Federal District region even recounted to Meduza how he spoke out against the “persecution of Georgians” back in 2008 — and how the federal government didn’t even push back.

It was a different time; everyone didn’t have to toe the party line like they do now. The power vertical had begun forming, but it wasn’t so rigid. There were two centers of influence again: Medvedev, at least by virtue of his position, and Putin. Things are always more free when there’s competition. Plus there were certain hopes with Medvedev; he was young, modern, and seemed likely to go on to a second term. These days, that wouldn’t even be possible.

Dmitry Medvedev did indeed consider running for a second term in 2012, but his presidency ultimately ended with his and Putin’s infamous “castling” move. According to a source close to the Kremlin, Russia’s propaganda media “started downplaying [the war with Georgia]” in order to “take Medvedev down a peg.”

15 years later

‘They’re coming here and telling us we’re the occupiers’ A protest against Russian tourists in a Georgian coastal city ended with their cruise ship leaving ahead of schedule

15 years later

‘They’re coming here and telling us we’re the occupiers’ A protest against Russian tourists in a Georgian coastal city ended with their cruise ship leaving ahead of schedule

Moreover, that same year saw the release of a documentary called “August 8, 2008: A Lost Day,” which was commissioned by an unknown party. The film includes interviews with high-ranking senior military officers in which they criticize Medvedev for his indecision and praise Putin for his decisiveness. Russian General Staff Chief Yury Baluevsky, for example, says that the military command led by Medvedev hesitated “until they got a kick in the you-know-what from Mr. Putin.” Additionally, Putin himself said that he spoke to Medvedev on the phone on August 7 and again on August 8, 2008, implying that he was the one who made the decision to launch the war. Medvedev has denied that these conversations took place.

“By virtue of his position, Putin was no longer the central figure; the supreme commander was Medvedev. And Putin doesn’t like being in the background,” a source who was close to the Russian presidential administration at that time told Meduza.

Meduza’s sources from Russia’s “power vertical” were unable to say how the war with Georgia affected Putin and Medvedev personally, but they did emphasize that the conflict spurred the country’s leadership to start paying close attention to the army. One source close to the Kremlin said that “everyone who was paying attention realized that it was ill-prepared; its equipment was breaking down. The victory wasn’t exactly a clean one; it was a weak party defeating an even weaker one.”

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“Our army is in a terrible state when it comes to communication equipment, intelligence, navigation, and night vision devices. We don’t have drones, for example. And another sad thing came to light — or, more precisely, was confirmed: the Russian army has no infantry, or it has a lot of them, but they don’t know how to fight. As a result, since the first day of the war, we’ve been hammering in nails with microscopes, meaning that we’ve used airborne troops and special forces as our infantry,” military analyst Alexander Khramchikhin wrote at the time.

Shortly after that, Serdyukov announced large-scale reforms, and the army began receiving new equipment. Today, however, the defense minister is remembered less for transforming the military than for his high-profile corruption scandal and high-profile resignation in 2012.

“By that time, Putin had already given his Munich speech. For him, whether Russia should oppose the West was no longer a question. The question was how it should be done. And Georgia showed him he could do it through military strength — he just had to have some first,” Ivan Preobrazhensky told Meduza. After the war with Georgia, he said, Putin made a decision: “[He realized that] you could do this and that there wouldn’t be any punishment.”

Kirill Shamiev agrees. According to him, the lack of any serious sanctions after the invasion of Georgia showed Putin that the West was “weak.” Nonetheless, both experts said they don’t believe Russia’s war in Georgia was comparable to its invasion of Ukraine.

“Back then, propaganda hadn’t prepared people for war and didn’t advertise the accomplishments of the war; there weren’t even any to speak of. There were no new conquests and no territory was annexed. The hybrid nature of the war was clear to everyone,” said Preobrazhensky.

Shamiev emphasized that it would have been a lot simpler for Russians “not to notice” the invasion of Georgia. “The war in Georgia lasted five days,” he said. “Russians could simply not read the news and then learn afterwards that their country had gone to war with someone.”

Life on the edge of occupied territory

‘Zone of Fear’ A Meduza photo report on the territory bordering South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia’s Russian-occupied regions

Life on the edge of occupied territory

‘Zone of Fear’ A Meduza photo report on the territory bordering South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia’s Russian-occupied regions

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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