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Guessing Game

What we still don't know about the Russian-Georgian War.

Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Russian-Georgian War. Last summer, battles were fought, lives were lost, and land was destroyed. Yet one year out, what is most striking is how little the politics related to the war seem to have changed and how many questions surrounding the conflict remain unanswered.

Let’s go back in time to early last August. In Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili was under attack from a hostile opposition that often took to the streets, accusing him of “hoarding and abusing power,” according to The New York Times. But he looked likely to stay in power until the end of his term. In Russia, Dmitri Medvedev had recently ascended to the presidency, sparking speculation about who was really in charge--Medvedev or his predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Russian-Georgian relations were frosty, and rumors flew that conflict could break out at any time. Russian-U.S. relations were also relatively chilly, with points of conflict including U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Central Europe and the question of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, but the two nations were cooperating on some issues of common interest, such as containing terrorist threats.

While much about what triggered the war remains in dispute, late in the evening of August 7, Georgian forces entered South Ossetia, one of two breakaway Georgian republics. The following day, Russia responded by ordering troops into South Ossetia and, eventually, Georgia proper. After five days of fighting, the sides agreed to a truce, brokered by the French. However, Russian troops remained in and around South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the other breakaway republic.

Fast forward to early August 2009. Despite the war (or maybe because of it), Saakashvili is still in power. He continues to face frequent calls for his resignation but will probably survive until the end of his term. We are no closer than we were a year ago to understanding where power really lies between Putin and Medvedev, despite claims that the war demonstrated that Putin pulls all the strings. Russian-Georgian relations are extremely tense, with rumors surfacing in recent days of new between Georgia and its breakaway republics. (Tensions have apparently increased sufficiently that Obama and Medvedev spoke about the matter by phone last Tuesday.) And, while the overall tone of Russian-U.S. relations has improved somewhat since Obama took office--the issues of missile defense and new NATO members are being addressed with a bit more tact now--the two countries essentially remain what Daniel Korski, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, called “frienemies,” cooperating on some issues and conflicting on others.

So what has changed in the past year? Most seriously, the price of oil, which was skyrocketing up toward $147 per barrel at this time last summer, has only recently returned to about half that level. Not coincidentally, the Russian economy has suffered mightily from the global economic crisis. (Georgia’s economy has also suffered, both from the war and international economic developments.) Only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent. (Noticeably missing from this list is China, which one can only assume was not pleased to see Russia stoking the aspirations of separatist regions). Russian troops are still in the republics--despite complaints from Georgia about both their actions and locations, their number is fairly low--along with some EU monitors. Georgia has asked for U.S. monitors as well, but Russia has resisted the move.

In short, little related to this war has changed; despite the Russian military victory, neither side can really claim to have gained much. So what are we to make of the conflict? Four explanations for why the war occurred seem plausible. First, it may have been a “mistake” on Georgia’s part. It’s possible Saakashvili guessed wrong, thinking he could grab South Ossetia and get back under the West’s protection before Russia did anything. Second, the war may have been a “mistake” on the part of a Russia determined to remove Saakashvili from power. Perhaps Moscow underestimated what the international community’s reaction would be and/or overestimated the capabilities of the Georgian opposition to Saakashvili. Third, as I have suggested previously on this website, the war may have been an attempt by the Russians to send a costly “signal” about its concern with growing Western influence in the former Soviet republics--in particular, vis a vis Georgian or Ukrainian NATO membership. Finally, the war may have been the start of a series of aggressive moves by Russia to reclaim parts of its former empire by force, as John McCain seemed to suggest last fall.

With regard to this fourth possibility, however, nothing we’ve seen since the conclusion of the war suggests that the Russia-on-the-march explanation is remotely likely. Moreover, forthcoming research in the journal Post-Soviet Affairs by University of Michigan professor William Zimmerman suggests that Russian foreign policy elites' conception of Russia’s appropriate sphere of influence is sensitive to the price of oil. Put another way, if Russia restrained itself from going all the way to Tbilisi last summer with oil at $147 per barrel, it seems unlikely we’ll see Russian troops in Ukraine anytime soon.

The other three explanations for the war all seem potentially credible, but we currently lack the evidence to distinguish among them. There is an international fact-finding report under the direction of a Swiss diplomat due out in September; perhaps we will learn more then.

And what comes next for Russian-Georgian relations depends largely on which explanation for the war turns out to be right. For instance, the status quo seems likely to persist if the war was a mistake on Georgia’s part--even Saakashvili is unlikely to repeat that blunder--or if the war was a signal that Moscow believes the West has heard. (Which, perhaps, it has. See, for example, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s somber comments about the possibility of Georgia joining NATO.) This could also be the outcome if the war was a first step in renewed Russian aggression. But, even if that doubtful situation is the case, Russia has been sufficiently weakened by the economic crisis that it would have put such plans on hold.

More troubling is the possibility that we could witness a second Russian-Georgian War. Although a less likely outcome, this could follow if last year's war was a failed attempt on Russia’s part to remove Saakashvili from power and it's still itching to get the job done, or if it was a signal that Moscow does not believe the West has yet heard. (We still don’t know what the Russians have made of Obama’s comments in Moscow last month about states like Georgia having a right to their own foreign policies.) And, while theoretically a gradual improvement in Russian-Georgian relations is always a possibility, as long as South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain out of Georgia's sovereign control, this is highly unlikely.

Perhaps it should not be surprising, though, that a war no one really seems to have won would yield so few definitive legacies.

Joshua A. Tucker is Associate Professor of Politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the political science and policy blog The Monkey Cage.

By Joshua A. Tucker