The August 2008 War Ten Years Later

History is full of short wars that are quickly forgotten. The five-day war between Georgia and Russia war a decade ago this week felt significant at the time but faded from the headlines quickly as a severe financial crisis unfolded. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, however, brought renewed attention to the war as a crucial moment in the emergence of Russian revanchism. Ten years later, what is the real significance of the August 2008 war?

The war began when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili launched a military offensive against Russian backed separatists in the small breakaway region of South Ossetia. When Russia responded forcefully, Saakashvili re-cast his actions as defensive, as little Georgia fighting the invading Russian bear.

The truth was more complicated and revealed in a subsequent investigative report led by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini. Saakashvili’s government initiated what the report tactfully termed “open hostilities” on the evening of August 7, hours after unilaterally declaring a ceasefire. Civilians, defenders and some Russian peacekeepers died in Georgia’s initial military barrage against Tskhinvali (Tskhinval to Ossetians), the ‘capital’ of South Ossetia.

Already primed for trouble, Russian troops on the border mobilized in response and were in the Roki tunnel in the early hours of August 8. Their progress to Tskhinvali, where street fighting raged, was slow. It took the lumbering Soviet era tanks three days to finally arrive from the Russian border, a distance of only 37 miles. Russian airplanes attacked Georgian positions both inside and beyond the contested regions of the country. Russian troops pushed beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia, occupying large parts of Georgia, and menacing the capital Tbilisi.

Though Saakashvili had miscalculated and Georgia was soon defeated, it won the public relations battle in Washington DC. Saakashvili’s fluent English, media entrepreneurship and ties on Capitol Hill proved crucial. Instead of a distant skirmish in a faraway region of the Caucasus mountains, the war was framed as a globally significant harbinger of a new Cold War.

Senator Joseph Biden rushed to Tbilisi and declared upon return that the war was the most significant in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Senator John McCain, running as the Republican candidate for president, agreed. He admired the hard-charging Saakashvili and had even visited South Ossetia in 2006.

Condemning Russian aggression at a campaign rally in York Pennsylvania, McCain solemnly pronounced that “today, we’re all Georgians.” The line garnered modest respectful applause. (His declaration that “it’s time we got serious about our energy crisis and stop sending $700bn a year overseas to countries that don’t like us very much” brought loud applause and cheers, a sign of things to come for the Republican Party).

Lost amidst this geopolitical emotion was the complicated situation on the ground within South Ossetia. Saakashvili’s ill-judged offensive was disastrous for the ethnic Georgians living in the area and nearby, to say nothing of Ossetian and other victims. Thousands lived in a cluster of villages to the north of Tskhinvali, an enclave within territory unevenly controlled by separatists. When war came, these villagers were forced to depart suddenly, abandoning homes, land and property that would soon be ravaged by irregular militias from all over the Caucasus. The same held for villagers in other parts of South Ossetia and beyond.

Travelling on the road to Tskhinvali into March 2010, I witnessed the scale of the subsequent destruction. Village after village along the Transcaucasian highway lay in ruins, a panorama of once thriving settlements reduced to rubble and ruin. The thoroughness of the destruction reminded me of Bosnia, a charred and gutted landscape produced less by fighting than plunder afterwards. As in Bosnia, there was also a logic at work, a claiming of territory by negation, by destroying it as a meaningful place for those who once lived there. Geographers have a word for this: domicide, the killing of place.

Travelling further into the town revealed how Ossetians also had homes, apartment buildings and community centers destroyed by the war. For them, the war was a trauma of exposure before welcome rescue by the Russian military. The overwhelming majority of Ossetians today want to join Russia.

Many Atlanticist officials today see the August War as a warning that was ignored. One analogized it as a ‘Rhineland moment’ that was later followed by Crimea as a ‘Sudetenland moment.’ Analysts point out that Russia not only invaded a sovereign country for the first time but used new weapons, cyberwar and Russia Today, to aggressively further its aims. Hybrid warfare, they argue, found its first kinetic expression during the August War.

The problem with these interpretations is that they are forms of ‘thin geopolitics.’ They present a one-sided account of the war as the unfolding of Russian expansionist desire rather than a competitive geopolitical game of expansion and reaction, with significant localized dimensions. The August War was the first violent clash between two very different ‘imperial’ formations, an EU/NATO with expansionist aspirations, and a Russian state reviving old imperial practices and attitudes. Just prior to the August War, it was the EU/NATO states that initiated revisionist policies. The first was the recognition of Kosovo, the first time a secessionist territory within a post-communist independent state was recognized as an independent state. The second was NATO’s Bucharest Declaration that Georgia and Ukraine would become members. Border change and geopolitical re-alignment was the EU/NATO’s first move in 2008; the August War of 2008 and subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states was Russia’s response. Local actors jockeyed for position within this geopolitical tussle.

‘Thicker’ forms of geopolitics inevitably paint a more complicated and less theological picture of conflicts. They study the game of geopolitics rather than support one side, right or wrong. But they are vital if policy-making is to rest on geographic facticity not theological discourse. The August 2008 war was a co-created conflict across multiple scales. Making the war into another citation of sin in a New Cold War theology of complaint against Putin does not make that complexity go away.

Dr Gerard Toal is professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech National Capital Region. He is the co-author of Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and its Reversal (Oxford, 2011). His latest book is Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus (Oxford, 2017). @Toal_CritGeo

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CORRECTIONS: Near Abroad

The following is a working correction list for Near Abroad: Putin, the West, and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus. Oxford University Press have this list and the next print run of the book will incorporate these corrections (some are already fixed). If you’ve spotted an error not listed please let me know about it: toalg@vt.edu.

P. 125: Line 7; believes –> believed

P. 147: Mikheil Mikheilovich –> Mikheil Nikolozovich

P. 163: Israeli military contractors. [missing ‘r’]

P. 169: Remove redundant ‘later’ from sentence starting: “Subsequently Russian military…”

P. 192: ‘stephen’ should be Stephen [2 last line]

P. 194: “written by campaign aide Ben Rhodes.” [missing ‘e’]

P. 205: 2nd paragraph, first line: ‘to advanced’ should be ‘to advance’

P. 211: Last paragraph, first line: ‘greatest difficulty‘ [missing ‘y’]

P. 229: “Slava Rossiya!” –> ‘Slava Rossii!”

P. 236: “the three problems… facing Ukraine” should be “facing Crimea”

P. 243: First mention of Akhmetov so should have his first name listed: Rinat (this name cite is absent from the index)

P. 247: Line 16; Change to: Igor Bezler (another military veteran) [remove GRU]

P. 258: Change to: “Girkin, the FSB veteran”

P. 259: Change: “Bezler, yet another veteran” [remove GRU]

P. 264: Line 29; Delete: ‘along with’

P. 265: Change “both retired GRU agents” to “both retired Russian agents”

P. 266: Debeltseve –> Debaltseve.

P. 274: Year 2014 –> 2015.

P. 283: 7th line: remove “In 2014” since it is discordant with February 2015.

P. 285: Column six, row 3: “Russian region” –> Russian Republic”

P. 294: Change ‘on the heels of’ –> ‘before’

P. 296: First line, first full paragraph: 2015 –> 2016.

p. 302: Second last line: is –> are

P. 340: Note 15: Should read: Marat Kulahmetov

P. 361: Note 64, add year: 2014.

Back of the Book Jacket.

Murphy blurb:
mis-spacing ‘the’
Add ‘these’ after “selected conflicts.”

Mitchell blurb:
answers –> answer
his –> its

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Near Abroad Book Launch in Washington DC

Click here for a video of the Near Abroad Book Discussion with Gerard Toal, 7 March 2017

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Work in Progress

Near Abroad was published in January and there’ll be a book launch event in the next month in Washington D.C.. In the meantime, I’ve been collaborating with John O’Loughlin and others to get a few research papers wrapped up based on our 2014 data. Three are in various forms of completion:

  • A Russkii Mir paper that examines this geopolitical frame and who identifies with it the contested territories in Russia’s Near Abroad. This triple authored paper will be out soon in Eurasian Geography and Economics.
  • A paper on the evolution of attitudes in Southeast Ukraine’s year of living dangerously. This compares KIIS survey data April (Mirror Weekly survey of SE8) with our NSF-sponsored survey from December of SE6. I’ve written the first part which contextualizes the survey work, and JohnO is refining the survey data analysis based on feedback received from Henry Hale and others at ASEEES 2016.
  • A paper on blame attribution and conspiracy theorizing, using the MH-17 case. This re-visits and deepens the data we first published in a piece on the Monkey Cage blog.
  • A “Lenin is Falling” paper that combines event data of monument destruction in Ukraine in 2014 with survey data on attitudes towards this destruction. We’re happy to be working with Volodymyr Ishchenko and his protest event database on this project.

All going well, I expect to be working on a different research project by this summer.

 

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Near Abroad

Near Abroad cover

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, it invaded Georgia. Both states are part of Russia’s “near abroad”—former Soviet republics that are now independent states neighboring Russia. While the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 faded from the headlines, the geopolitical contest that created it did not end. Six years later, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, once part of Russia but part of independent Ukraine since the Soviet collapse. Crimea’s annexation and subsequent war in eastern Ukraine have produced the greatest geopolitical crisis on the European continent since the end of the Cold War.

In Near Abroad, the eminent political geographer Gerard Toal moves beyond the polemical rhetoric that surrounds Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine to study the underlying territorial conflicts and geopolitical struggles. Central to understanding are legacies of the Soviet Union collapse: unresolved territorial issues, weak states and a conflicted geopolitical culture in Russia over the new territorial order. The West’s desire to expand NATO contributed to a growing geopolitical contest in Russia’s near abroad. This found expression in a 2008 NATO proclamation that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO, a ‘red line’ issue for Russia. The road to invasion and war in Georgia and Ukraine, thereafter, is explained in Near Abroad.

Geopolitics is often though of as a game of chess. Near Abroad provides an account of real life geopolitics, one that emphasizes changing spatial relationships, geopolitical cultures and embodied dispositions. Rather than a cold game of deliberation, geopolitics is often driven by emotions and ambitions, by desires for freedom and greatness, by clashing personalities and reckless acts. Not only a penetrating analysis of Russia’s relationships with its neighbors, Near Abroad also offers a critique of how US geopolitical culture frames Russia and the territories it sustains beyond its borders.

Reviews 

Near Abroad is a brilliant and indispensable contribution to our understanding of post-Soviet politics and the hidden power of geopolitical culture. Examining the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine, Toal convincingly shows that geopolitical practice is neither inherently rational nor driven by objective external pressures, but is rather infused with deep normative assumptions about the legitimate boundaries of political spaces, shared discourses and flows among transnational political communities, and highly stylized emotional appeals.” — Alexander Cooley, Director, Harriman Institute, Columbia University; author of Logics of Hierarchy and Great Games, Local Rules.

“Gerard Toal is one of the smartest and most interesting thinkers working on post-Soviet politics today and his incisive new book, Near Abroad, does not disappoint. Toal sheds new light on how Russians think about their neighbors, with major implications for regional stability and the West more generally.” — Henry Hale, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University; author of Patronal Politics.

“Cutting through the overarching narratives that dominate discussion of Russia’s engagement with its ‘near abroad,’ Toal offers telling insights into the underlying geopolitical conceptions and arrangements that are at the heart of the territorial struggles that have unfolded in Ukraine and Georgia. The book is not just a contribution to understanding selected conflict, however. It will help audiences beyond the academy appreciate the nature and value of the ‘critical geopolitics’ project that Toal himself has played such an important role in advancing.” — Alexander Murphy, Professor of Geography, University of Oregon, and former President, Association of American Geographers.

“In this valuable work, Gerard Toal attempts to answers the question, ‘Why does Russia invade his neighbors?’ Toal performs the deft and essential balancing act of recognizing both that Russia poses significant threats to its region and that events and leaders outside of Moscow have also played a role in the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the US. This book is an extremely important contribution for those of us looking for a deeper, more thoughtful and challenging analysis of the dynamic between Russia, its neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia, and the US.” — Lincoln Mitchell, author of The Democracy Promotion Paradox.

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Srebrenica After Twenty Years

Twenty years ago I was in northern Italy, enjoying that wonderful country and the hospitality of a good family. On the TV news, we saw pictures from the fall of Srebrenica. I remember  being struck by the phrase ‘Musulmani’ during the broadcasts (with its echoes of Primo Levi). Having spent the previous three years in the US closely following the Bosnian war, and the painfully slow and inept international response to it, I was exasperated that nothing substantive had been done to protect this manifestly vulnerable UN ‘safe haven.’ Readers of Critical Geopolitics (1996) will know that the second last chapter is an attempt to grapple with the US debate over Bosnia and geographies of moral proximity and responsibility.

The horror of Srebrenica eventually came to light thanks to the intrepid reporting of David Rohde and others. In 1998 I wrote an essay on what was known about Srebrenica then (link below) for the book Geography and Ethics: Journeys in a Moral Terrain, edited by James D. Proctor and David M. Smith (Routledge, 1999). Toal_EthnicCleansingSafeArea_Srebrenica1999

AB014My first visit to Srebrenica was for the memorial in 2002. It was still an open field with only the foundations for what would become the Potocari Memorial Center and Cemetery (pictured). The previous year there had been some stoning so there was a strong Republika Srpska police presence along the road, a disturbing site to those returning to grieve. I returned in 2004 and there met Sarah Wagner, whose ethnographic work with the Srebrenica victim families and ICMP I admire tremendously.

A few weeks ago the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina asked if I would make a few remarks at a Capitol Hill event to support H. Res 310 which affirms Srebrenica as a genocide. The Rayburn Building room was full of Bosnian families, including some survivors of Srebrenica. I spoke and then Michael MacQueen, who does amazing work for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) investigating suspected war criminals in the United States, spoke. Finally Semir Osmanovic, a student in Finance at Virginia Commonwealth University spoke. He looks like an all-American kid, blonde haired, well dressed, good looking. He is from a small village outside Srebrenica and he told the story of his happy childhood until the day came when the VRS attacked and burned down their home, driving the family into Srebrenica to seek shelter. There he was close to starvation for two years until 11 July 1995 when the VRS and Mladic came, his father fled and his grandfather was taken off the bus they were being transported out on. There were many tears in the audience.

Academics are generally privileged in this world relative to most: certainly I am. If we study conflict, we have responsibilities to those who are suffering from injustices and wanton cruelty in what we study. We can use our professional training and skills to do some simple things: present the facts, contextualize, seek understanding and employ judgement (listening this summer to Tony Judt’s spoken book with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, has been helpful and inspiring). I do believe we are off track when we treat Bosnia or Syria in abstracted and usually de-contextualized social science terms as “civil war case studies” or as data labs. But that is a larger debate…

I am grateful to Josh Tucker and the Monkey Cage team for publishing a considerably revised version of my comments at Srebrenica Genocide event on 9 July 2015. Subsequently, Bruce Hitchner drew my attention to an educational resource — sponsored by the British Embassy, Sarajevo (kudos to them and the work of the British government at the UNSC) — I really should have known about but didn’t at the time: Srebrenica: Mapping Genocide. It is worth viewing the 38 minute video for what it achieves — a sense of the arc of the genocide — but also for where it could have been more precise in its geo-locational presentation and graphic imagery. An accessible and concise yet comprehensive geographic and geopolitical analysis of the Srebrenica genocide remains to be written.

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Post Post-Soviet Space

IMG_7960It is a commonplace today to speak of the “map of Europe being re-written” and point to the actions of Russia in Crimea and the Donbas. But the process of ‘re-writing’ the world political map is perpetual. A key question is to determine significant moments of rupture and break, when we transition (to stick with a textual metaphor that has its limits) from one chapter to the next. Currently, geopolitical commentary is trashing about for a new language to describe the current moment, with memes like the ‘return of geopolitics’ and ‘revisionist geopolitics’ (re)appearing. Both are unhelpful, the first particularly so as it delimits geopolitics to a certain approach to international affairs rather than the innate condition of international affairs. Our world is always already situated geopolitically, within geopolitical fields (spaces), within geopolitical cultures, and a geopolitical condition (order of time/space compression shaping how we experience international events). The second has its blindness to the last two decades of US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Today, it is more helpful to think historically about the rupture in the fields of Eurasian space and post-Soviet space. The key data (as I’m arguing in my manuscript in progress) is 2008, Kosovo’s UDI and recognition, the Bucharest summit, and then the Georgian-Ossetian-Russian August War. The key moment defining post post-Soviet space is the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

IMG_7973In our recent Monkey Cage blog piece JohnO and I argued against the current practice of seeing the Donbas as another ‘frozen conflict’ scenario (Nial Ferguson does it, like so many others, today in the FT, debunking ‘fairy tales’ while implicitly seeding another if only we hadn’t ‘strategic patience’ aka ‘dithering’). This misses the key rupture of 2008, and also the crucial fact that Crimea was outright annexed while any new Novorossiya in the Donbas will be unlike anything we’ve seen before with the existing de facto. This statelet will be the first true post post-Soviet de facto state, and its uniqueness should be appreciated by all.

Thanks to all at the Kennan Institute yesterday (esp Mattison Brady for these photos) for hosting JohnO and I as we presented preliminary results from our RAPID grant work. We’ll be publishing future pieces in the next few months, and academic papers as soon as our schedules allow. Let me leave with a quote from George Kennan (younger twice removed diplomat cousin of the showman popularizer George Kennan after whom the Institute is named) that is (Am Diplomacy, p. 97) relevant to our times: “We tend to underestimate the violence of national maladjustments and discontents elsewhere in the world if we think that they would always appear to other people as less important than the preservation of the judicial tidiness of international life.” The world political map is messy and we should never expect it to be judicially tidy.

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