Georgia and Russia trade blame on 10th anniversary of war
Moscow says Georgian accession to Nato could spark ‘terrible conflict’
Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili, Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz, Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevicius, Latvia’s foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics and other officials meet in Tbilisi on Tuesday. Photograph: Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images
Georgia and its allies have traded accusations with Russia 10 years after the Kremlin sent troops into the Black Sea state, for a five-day war that showed how far Moscow would go to retain its grip on neighbours who sought closer ties with the West.
After weeks of skirmishes between government troops and Russian-backed militia in Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region, then Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili launched an attack on the separatists’ capital Tskhinvali on the night of August 7th, 2008.
Russian troops poured into South Ossetia to support their proxies – Saakashvili says their arrival prompted him to order the assault – and crushed Georgia’s army in fighting that killed about 850 people and drove some 200,000 from their homes.
Moscow’s forces went far beyond South Ossetia, bombing and entering several Georgian cities and threatening the capital, Tbilisi, from positions about 40km away, until a French-brokered ceasefire was agreed on August 12th.
Just a fortnight later, however, Russia recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist-run region of Georgia, and stationed thousands of troops on their territory.
Sphere of influence
A decade on, Moscow insists it only acted to defend Russian citizens in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but the invasion showed that Russia would not let any more ex-Soviet neighbours escape its sphere of influence and seek Nato membership – a lesson the Kremlin has reiterated in Ukraine since its 2014 pro-western revolution.
Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was president in 2008, on Tuesday blamed the war on the “irresponsible, amoral, criminal behaviour of Saakashvili and his cronies” and suggested the White House of President George W Bush had led him to believe the US “would support him in any situation”.
Medvedev also made clear that Russia’s position on Georgia’s bid for Nato membership had not softened over the last decade.
“It could provoke a terrible conflict,” he told Kommersant newspaper.
“It could lead to potential conflict, without any doubt, because for us Abkhazia and South Ossetia are independent states with which we have friendly relations . . . and in which our military bases are located,” he said.
“We understand that if another country views them as its own territory, then that could lead to very serious consequences. Therefore, I hope the Nato leadership will be smart enough not to do anything in this direction.”
Georgia and Nato insist that one day it will join the alliance, however, and the country is now hosting war games involving about 3,000 troops from member states and partner nations including Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan; at the same time, Russia is conducting exercises along the Black Sea coastline of Abkhazia.
Amid nationwide commemoration events, Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili denounced Russia’s “occupation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – which make up one-fifth of his country’s land – and an invasion that was “triggered by Georgia’s decision to become an independent and free country”.
In response to Russian aggression, he vowed that Georgia would not abandon its “development, nor the advancement of democracy, nor EU and Nato integration”, he said.
Margvelashvili also criticised the West’s meek response to the Russian invasion, saying that “speaking submissively to Russia has not brought anything good for those countries that try to calm Russia down”.
That view was echoed by Poland, whose foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz was in Tbilisi on Tuesday with counterparts from Latvia and Lithuania and a deputy prime minister from Ukraine, who jointly urged Russia to withdraw its troops from Georgia and reverse its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence.
Leaders from Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states visited Georgia during the war, and the Polish foreign ministry noted that the words of its then president, Lech Kaczynski, “are still topical 10 years on”.
“Today it is Georgia, tomorrow it will be Ukraine, the day after tomorrow the Baltic states, and perhaps the next one in line will be my country, Poland,” Kaczynski warned in August 2008.
The EU hailed Georgia and its 3.7 million people for overcoming the economic shock and destabilisation of the war, and for signing a landmark trade and political deal with the bloc that came into force in 2016.
“In these 10 years, Georgia has strengthened its democratic institutions and undertaken reforms in the rule of law . . . It now represents a model of democratic stability in the region,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Saakashvili, whose presidency ended in acrimony in 2013 and led to a brief and tumultuous political career in Ukraine, said he would do only a couple of things differently if he could return to 2008.
“Firstly, I would bring our most battle-hardened units back from Iraq earlier,” he wrote on Facebook.
“And secondly, I would try to scream even louder, so the international community would understand more quickly the predatory nature of Russia (but I’m not sure it would help).”