Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia Still Has Options, Ten Years after the August War

Even a decade later, Tbilisi and its allies can strengthen their deterrence and resilience.
By Zviad Adzinbaia
  • A man returns to his village of Ergneti, bordering Tskhinvali, to find his house destroyed. (Photo:Giorgi Abdaladze)
    A man returns to his village of Ergneti, bordering Tskhinvali, to find his house destroyed. (Photo:Giorgi Abdaladze)
  • Zviad Adzinbaia, a former visiting fellow at the NATO defence college. (Photo courtesy of Z. Adzinbaia)
    Zviad Adzinbaia, a former visiting fellow at the NATO defence college. (Photo courtesy of Z. Adzinbaia)

I was a teenager in August 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. I remember seeing Russian tanks rolling into my hometown of Zugdidi, adjacent to Abkhazia.

My family is originally from Abkhazia, and we had already been displaced in 1993 in fighting initiated by Russia that forced around 300,000 Georgians out of their homes.

Moving again was not an option. So, we stayed and witnessed the shocking events of the five-day war in Zugdidi; the daily bombings and how thousands of people fled the area.

The war left more than 400 Georgians dead and over 2,200 wounded. Some 27,000 people were internally displaced, meaning that nearly every one in ten citizens of Georgia became victims of forced migration in their own country. All these crimes have so far gone unpunished.

In 2008, Moscow acted illegally by entering Georgia’s Tskhinvali region. Troops also came from Abkhazia, where Russia had been supposed to act as a peacekeeping force after clashes back in 1990s, when Georgia lost de-facto control over its capital Sokhumi. By invading Georgia, all previously held pretence that Russia could be an honest broker between Georgia and its two separatist provinces swiftly vanished. Moscow proved itself to be an occupation force on foreign soil.

Today, while hostilities with Georgia have formally stopped, Moscow’s hybrid warfare continues to attack and undermine the country’s security, territorial integrity and democracy through disinformation campaigns as well as other overt and covert means.

Tens of thousands of Georgian nationals in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali are still deprived of their fundamental rights. In my family’s original hometown of Gali in Abkhazia, for instance - where my grandparents still live - the separatist regime continues to forbid the teaching of the Georgian language in schools. Barbed wire fences still separate territories and local Georgians from the rest of the country.

Russia’s 2008 actions in Georgia– where it acted illegally and with highly disproportionate force - have serious ramifications for the West. The Kremlin’s asymmetric warfare against the Euro-Atlantic community has only grown. In the last four years alone, Russia has meddled in the home affairs of countries all the way from the US, the UK, France and Germany to Montenegro, and most aggressively in Syria and Ukraine. 

This summer, at a European Parliament conference on the tenthh anniversary of the war, former US deputy assistant secretary of state Matthew Bryza said that “we failed to think strategically at the time, while Putin did and tested the Western allies how deep could Russia go”.

I agree wholeheartedly. In Georgia, Moscow was not made to pay any substantial price for attacking a sovereign nation.  But even a decade later, there are several single and joint efforts Georgia and its allies could make to strengthen their deterrence and own resilience.

The first of these would be for Tbilisi to work hard and act smart, and make it near-impossible for the West to say no to Georgia’s NATO membership. A key challenge will be for Georgia to make itself increasingly attractive to the Alliance through substantial and rapid economic growth, exemplary reforms and all-sector collaboration to strengthen democracy and solidify the country’s international standing.

Such a strategy, coupled with proactive traditional and public diplomacy as well as robust support from Georgia’s allies, can greatly help the country’s accelerated accession to NATO. An economically advanced and NATO-member Georgia would impact positively on both the lives of people living in the occupied regions and any prospect of peaceful settlement.

The West also needs to reject Russian occupation in no uncertain terms, no matter where it occurs. The language people use matters. Describing Russia’s illegal presence in Georgia as occupation means acknowledging an objective truth and the security threat it poses to the rest of Europe and NATO. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long tried to avoid the term “occupation” but ultimately used it during a visit to Tbilisi in August this year. This was a positive step and on this issue, the West should be united.

In addition, since Russia’s war against Ukraine and occupation in Georgia both represent Moscow’s forceful redrawing of borders in Europe, concerted efforts to deter the Kremlin’s expansionism are essential. One way to act upon this threat could be to tie the sanctions already imposed on Russia over Crimea to the occupation in Georgia. By so doing, the Euro-Atlantic community would recognize the complexity of Russia’s hostile actions and forge sufficient resources to eliminate it.

And then there is Tbilisi’s relationship with Washington. US approval rating in Georgia is one of the highest in the world, and means the time is ripe to explore more bilateral opportunities, from security to economic and political cooperation. Enhanced US-Georgia partnership could entail strengthening military and intelligence collaboration, improving Georgia’s air-defence capabilities as well as joining efforts to advance Black Sea security and counter-terrorism cooperation. Georgia has proven a dependable ally for the United States in many instances, having contributed thousands of troops to US-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Strengthening the existing partnership will feed into Georgia’s strategic NATO path, increase the country’s defensive capabilities, its economy and political sustainability. Such a Georgia would be a strong ally in a turbulent region.

It’s also vital to look at innovative ways to counter Russia’s hybrid warfare. The Kremlin has become a master at disinformation, propaganda and cyberwarfare.  Moscow is trying to discredit democracy, disrupt objective truth and promote its own alternative realities. The West should employ its overwhelmingly superior economic resources and technology to defend itself and ensure long term collective resilience toward hostile actors like Russia.

This can be done by identifying, exposing and fighting Moscow’s disinformation, enhancing election security and defending critical infrastructure from cyber-enabled attacks. Additional efforts may entail checking the free flow of Russian money throughout elections and political systems in the wider West. Georgia is a frontline country for Russia’s hybrid warfare and could bring a great deal of value to the table with expertise, human resource and civil-military infrastructure.

Finally, we should remember that showing strength and unity to Russia has proven successful in the past. For instance, Moscow never embraced previous NATO enlargements in 1998, 2004 or earlier. During those times, some did and still do hold that bold actions may provoke Russia; however, I would argue the opposite. No NATO enlargement has ever resulted in a conflict with Russia. The Kremlin is emboldened only when it sees us divided and lacking a coherent strategy, as is the case today. Only a rigorous approach can deter Russia, increase our security and prevent the repeat of deadly conflicts on the Euro-Atlantic theatre such as the August 2008 war.

Zviad Adzinbaia is a former visiting fellow at the NATO defence college and a graduate of the Fletcher school of law and diplomacy at Tufts University.

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.