Ten years ago, in August 2008, Russia and Georgia went to war over South Ossetia, a small separatist Georgian region which Moscow would later controversially recognise as independent, in the face of international criticism.
Ten years later, Moscow has still not softened its position towards its neighbours and its rift with the West has only deepened.
Russia launched armed action against Georgia to come to the rescue of South Ossetia, a small pro-Russian separatist region where Tbilisi had begun a military operation. The Russian army rapidly outnumbered the Georgian forces and threatened to take the country’s capital.
A peace treaty was finally hammered out by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy that led to the withdrawal of Russian forces. But Moscow recognised as independent the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where it has stationed a large military presence ever since.
Russia demonstrated its military might over the five days and showed its readiness to defend – by force, if necessary – its interests in the region it considers its sphere of influence.
Six years later in another ex-Soviet country, Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in response to pro-Western politicians taking power in Kiev in the winter of 2014.
Moscow then gave military backing to a pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine which grew into a military conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people.
While the Russian army has not openly invaded, Kiev and Western countries accuse Moscow of giving military and financial assistance to the rebels who set up two separatist republics in the east. Moscow has consistently denied this.
Europe and the United States, which had reacted cautiously to the Russia-Georgia war, this time round vehemently condemned Moscow’s actions and went on to impose harsh economic sanctions on Russia.
Both in Georgia and Ukraine, Moscow’s aim was to stop its neighbours shifting towards NATO by any means. This is an unthinkable prospect for Russia, which since the fall of the Soviet Union has increasingly condemned NATO’s willingness to expand its borders.
“In South Ossetia, Russia taught the ex-Soviet countries a lesson. It showed them that there was no way they could adopt a different model of development,” said analyst Konstantin Kalachev.
Moscow needed “to make clear that its means of action are expanding and that the reaction of Westerners to those actions is not critical.”
The expert said the Georgia war was a “first attempt” that shaped the Kremlin’s future policy. “If it was not for the operation in South Ossetia, the annexation of Crimea could not have happened,” he added.
In 2008, however, Russia opted not to annex the two Georgian separatist regions, but only to recognise their independence, although they found themselves under Moscow’s de facto patronage after the war. This scenario has not always gone exactly according to the Kremlin’s plan.
Even its closest allies Belarus and Kazakhstan have refused to recognise the independence of the two Georgian regions.
This taught Moscow a lesson and in Ukraine it has never recognised the independence of the separatist regions, said Andrei Suzdaltsev, deputy head of the faculty of world economy and international affairs at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
On the other hand, Russia was able to take advantage of divisions in the West, with the only countries virulently opposed to Russia at the time being the newest European Union states, led by Poland and Lithuania.
Losing the media war
Beyond diplomacy and military matters, Russia also drew the conclusion after the conflict with Georgia that it had lost the “media war,” despite its successes on the ground.
Since 2008, the Kremlin has made a great effort to boost its “soft power,” particularly by launching the RT television network (formerly Russia Today), intended to defend its views abroad in numerous foreign languages, as well as a similar news agency called Sputnik.
These have actively covered the conflict in Ukraine and sought to discredit the Western position on the Syria conflict.
While Moscow intended through the wars with Ukraine and Georgia to gain recognition for its interests and sphere of influence, the wars have chiefly contributed to a deep rift with Western countries, experts said.
“Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia annoyed Western countries but there was a feeling this was a situation that would not be repeated and Russia was forgiven. But that was the last time when Russia was forgiven,” said political analyst Alexei Malashenko.
“Relations between Russia and the West cannot be changed any more. That ship has sailed,” he said.
‘Ethnic cleansing’ in Georgia
Following the Russian invasion, Human Rights Watch accused Moscow of overseeing the “wide-scale pillaging and burning of Georgian homes and the killing, beating, rape and threatening of civilians” by South Ossetian forces.
84-year-old farmer Dato Vanishvili is one of the few Georgians to remain in South Ossetia after the bloody conflict, as most of his family and relations were forced to flee in what the EU has described as “ethnic cleansing”.
“Eighty Georgian families lived here before the war, only me and my grandson stayed,” he said. “Ossetians told my grandson that if he tried to cross the border, they will catch him, take him to Russia and throw him in jail.” It’s a threat that appears to be very real.
Authorities in Tbilisi believe 126 ethnic Georgians were detained by separatist forces last year alone. In February, one of the detainees, a 35-year-old vegetable seller Archil Tatunashvili, was tortured to death in a South Ossetian prison. His mutilated body was only returned to his family after weeks of diplomatic negotiations by Western countries.
Turning up the heat
Prosecutors from the International Criminal Court – which in 2016 opened an investigation into war crimes committed during the conflict – estimate that up to 18,500 ethnic Georgians were forcibly displaced from South Ossetia.
Despite fierce opposition from Moscow, the UN General Assembly has adopted 10 resolutions calling for their “safe and dignified return to their homes.”
But a decade after the war, they still live in settlements built for them across Georgia. And they blame Russia for their plight. “Russia invaded Georgia to prevent us from becoming a member of the European Union and NATO, to keep the Caucasus in its claws,” said 54-year-old refugee Gennady Zaridze. He now lives in Tserovani, a windswept settlement built in eastern Georgia for 2,000 families displaced from South Ossetia’s Akhalgori district.
Speaking to AFP, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said he was constantly urging Tbilisi’s Western allies to step up pressure on the Kremlin to “end the occupation of Georgian soil.”
But countless rounds of internationally-mediated talks launched in October 2008 in Switzerland to resolve the conflict have so far brought little, if any, progress. Margvelashvili stressed that Georgians “must not lose hope”. That is “exactly” what Russia wants them to do, he said. “They tell us: ‘Whatever you do, your fate will be decided in Moscow.’ My answer is: this is not the case.”