Part I of III-Part Series of News, Review & Analysis
by Miceál O’Hurley
TIBILISI – The 1900s were marked by almost constant conflict which inflicted devastating toll on civilian populations around the globe. With two World Wars, proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, violence in Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli Conflicts, Cambodia, Chechnya, Colombia, the Congo, Cuba, El Salvador, the Indonesian Confrontation, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Nicaragua, Rwanda, the Yangtze incident… the list is as tiring as it is tragic. However, for one, brief, shining moment, as the 20th Century drew to a close, the world nurtured optimism and hope that humanity had, at last, learned the lessons of the past.
In dialogue both prophetic and poetic, diplomats spoke on the floor of the United Nation’s Assembly Hall warning of the toll future conflicts would cause if not averted and espousing the rewards of peace – peace itself. Pledged not to repeat humanity’s recent history of perpetual conflicts (both large and small), that august sorority of nations, forged out of necessity in the aftermath of World War II, spoke eloquently of peace and prosperity offered by the 21st Century.
Russia, as it turns out, had other plans.
The Necessity of Revisiting Recent History
Many of today’s world leaders had yet to enter political life when Russia first began to undermine Georgia’s independence 30 years ago. Likewise, many of today’s diplomats had yet to, or were only beginning their foreign service careers when Russian commenced its full-fledged invasion and occupation of Georgia 13 years ago.
As with all things, time gives perspective. The rush to judgments in the midst or aftermath of crisis often results decision-making or understanding bereft of essential facts that remain clouded or uncovered by the moment. Inevitably, this leads to less than ideal policy determinations. Moreover, further events tend to unveil patterns that may not have been apparent to all at the moment of action. These revelations illuminate truths that too often are never incorporated into policy reconsideration as we are all prone to the human tendency towards ‘group think’ whereby once an understanding is reached, rarely is there a deviation from it. Finally, our propensity towards ‘crisis fatigue’ that is reinforced by 24 hour news cycles of disasters (created or natural in occurrence), often overwhelm our senses, causing us to over-focus on the immediate without the perspective time and history allow us. In short, in this manic pace of the information age we are flooded with information and the past too often remains just that – the past – and with it lessons remain un-learned. Information, even in abundance, no substitute for knowledge.
This week marks the 13th Anniversary of Russia’s Invasion of Georgia and Occupations of almost 20% of its sovereign territory. To be clear, there is no stalemate. This continues to be an active conflict even if casualties are not recorded daily or the events that transpire don’t appear on our daily newsfeed. For the people of Georgia, and the Government in Tbilisi, Russia’s occupation is real, ever-present and brutal. The longer it endures the more difficult it will be to recover.
A review of the events and motivations that led up to Russia’s decision to invade one of its neighbours is therefore worthwhile. The lessons the world should have learned from Russia’s invasion of Georgia went unheeded. Unsurprisingly, the same was repeated, with renewed brutality and deadly effectiveness in Ukraine only a few short years later. The world, be it the United Nations, the European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe or major world powers simply failed to draw the right conclusions from Russia’s invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia and thereby allowed it to be repeated in Ukraine.
Today, the Baltic nations, Poland and Eastern European States share legitimate concerns that Russia is actively pursuing the same policies and practices that proved so effective in destabilising Georgia and Ukraine and adding new, evolving ‘hybrid warfare’ techniques to their arsenal of weapons. The question is no longer “when” the West will again have to stand-up to Putin’s Russia but “how” it can do so without sacrificing the sovereignty of nations for decades who will suffer enduring problems long after they regain their freedom (and they will regain their freedom).
Equally pressing is the default position of civilised nations allowing Russia to effectively dictate each nation, or assembly of nations’, inalienable right to self-determination. Should the world continue to countenance Russia destabilise nations by seeding dissent, destabilising their neighbours or occupying their neighbours’ sovereign territory following lethal invasions, the bold experiment in European, or I dare say, universal commitment to independence and democratic decision-making will ultimately prove bankrupt and unworthy of our stated goals and values.
We must do better. Doing so depends on an enhanced understanding of Russia’s enduring hostility towards its neighbours, beginning with their invasion and occupation of Georgian territory 13 years ago.
Three Decades of Independence and Democracy Under Russian Threat
Vladamir Putin, the once self-professed lover of democracy turned kleptocrat, now unabashed dictator, once decried the demise of the Soviet Union proclaiming, “The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Putin’s every action, policy and rhetoric thereafter was directed at a singular goal – reestablish the Russia’s hegemonic control of each and every free and independent State that once was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
So obsessed is Putin with this goal that he has spared no effort to see it realised. Be it the murder of a dissenter by polonium, poisoning a defector and his daughter with an internationally banned nerve agent, gunning down an asylum-seeker in broad daylight in a Berlin park where families played with their children, imprisoning artists and activists who question his regime, or sending an opposition leader to a Russian concentration camp after several attempts to poison him left him physically damaged but still breathing, Putin’s thirst for unquestioned domination is seemingly unquenchable.
Putin and Russia are as synonymous as was Stalin and Russia in the midst of the last century. Nothing happens in Russia without their knowledge or consent. Both Stalin and Putin have relished in their ability to substitute a good story where facts should prevail. Each harboured enduring vendettas, no matter how petty. Both Putin and Stalin saw their will and that of the State (or its people) as being one and indivisible. Each coveted their neighbours lands and prosperity with both Putin and Stalin having demonstrated their willingness launch wars, employ assassination, use propaganda and the gun interchangeably to undermine foreign governments upon whom they have set their sights. Putin has demonstrated his penchant for doing so with an unrelenting energy that surpasses passion and dwells in the dark realm of obsession.
Because Stalin and Putin are strikingly interchangeable (they are) the lessons of the past should have easily predicted the outcomes of the present. And, just like the Allies discovered at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945, the ilk of Stalin and Putin only understand the subjugation of their neighbours. The mistaken belief of world leaders in 1945 that Russia could be relied upon as a partner for peace and prosperity came full circle when, speaking of Putin at the Slovenia Summit in 2001, United States President George W. Bush went ‘off-script’ during a press conference proclaiming (to the visible horror on the face of his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) “I was able to get a sense of [Putin’s] soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that’s the beginning of a very constructive relationship.” Not since Molotov was duped by von Ribbentrop into believing Nazi Germany and Russia would be reliable allies has anyone been so foreseeably wrong as was Bush.
Since then, Russia has wrought havoc on the world, through its policies, aggression, dispatch of its mercenary ‘Wagner’ group, use of computer hacking and assassinations. Russia has caused the United Nations Security Council to come to a screeching halt, using its Permanent Member status to ensure that pressing matters are constantly deferred, no matter the consequences. Be it Turkey’s incursion into Syria, the ongoing debacle that is Venezuela, the outbreaks of violence in Yemen, the perpetual Kashmir crisis, or any other meaningful conflict that puts civilian populations at risk, Russia is willing to use human suffering as though it were a piece on a chessboard to be moved strategically to obstruct peace. Under Putin’s reign, Russia has revolutionised hybrid warfare to keep its neighbours and enemies destabilised and doing so has proven frightening in its depth and breadth.
From the Solar Winds software breaches effecting the United States government’s most sophisticated networks to undermining banks and utility company operations in the Baltic States, to eavesdropping on the German parliament to running an incredibly sophisticated disinformation campaign in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, Russia has proven adept at asymmetric, non-traditional warfare. Its sophisticated apparatus for interfering in foreign elections is relentless in its efforts. From the commencement of the 21st century, Russia has constantly and consistently proven itself a threat to others and a reliable partner to none.
This is not the view of a ‘Russophobe’ but rather the natural conclusion based on the assemblage of a litany of facts that cannot be denied any more than they can be ignored.
Putin’s Domestic Political and Economic Woes Propel Russia’s Need to Exploit Its Neighbours
Beginning in 1992, Russia began to re-assert its colonial/communist-era geographic domination by masquerading as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. Russian-nurtured, financed and supported aggression against the newly independent Georgia was quickly marked by mass murders and the ethnic cleansing of the civilian Georgian population. Russia repeated their heinous criminality again in 1998 in the Abkhazia region and Gali district of Georgia. Ultimately, Russia abandoning its role as Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) peacekeepers and renewed the hostility they had covertly instigated in the Tskhinvali, South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia.
Scapegoating is an essential part of the Russian survival manual. Under Putin’s thumb, Russia has repeatedly failed to build a real economy and address its social ills. The lack of economic development has been offset by Russia’s exploitation of natural resources, albeit the environmental damage caused by it is devastating and unsustainable. The average lifespan of the Russian citizen has dropped by 3 1/2 years on average under Putin’s reign. The retirement age has none-the-less risen under Putin to the point that a Russian can be expected to reach their mortality before reaching a pensionable age. Outside of Moscow or St. Petersburg or a handful of other metropolitan centres Russian infrastructure appears pre-industrial, with roads almost impassible, hospitals providing substandard care, schools lacking in essential supplies and water sources often dangerous for consumption. Putin invariably resorts to the same game-plan Donald Trump attempted by dazzling the country with military parades that harken to a bygone age of Soviet military might, blaming dissenters and using mass arrests and prosecutions to try to re-instill a sense of stability, assassinating an opponent (and getting away with it despite public knowledge of culpability) or invading a neighbour and attempting to fulfil his pledge of rebuilding a Russian empire.
Putin’s resort to employing Russia’s time-tested game plan of destabilising and exploiting their neighbours, stealing their resources and quashing functional democracies at their borders has sustained him. Russia, after all, is a failed State by any reasonable measure. Co-opting the Russian people into accepting that a strong and functional Russian State requires deflecting domestic turmoil by contrasting Russia with its neighbours is time-tested. Putin resolved long ago that creating the appearance that neighbouring States are so failed that its citizens must rise-up in order to rejoin ‘Mother Russia’ is a successful propaganda tool.
The history is indelible. Putin has repeated this cycle as a substitute for sound domestic economic development and political stability in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, maintains it by controlling Belarus and threatening the Baltic States on a constant basis. As assuredly as the Russian economy falters, as it is every apt to do in endless, short-cycles, Putin authorizes aggression against a neighbouring State. The populist surge of support amongst the Russian people who are habituated into celebrating military victories as a way of deflecting from the dysfunction that is and remains ‘Mother Russia’ has proven reliable. Putin is an astute student of history who learned long ago that the diversion of ‘Bread and Circus’, or as Russia has practiced it, ‘Blood and Circus’, works on a people for whom democratic values are un-developed and alien.
Given Georgia’s declaration of independence and startlingly successful transition into a fledgling democracy posed a significant threat for Putin. If Georgia was allowed to succeed, eventually entering the European Union as is her telos, the folks at home in Russia would finally see the ‘Emperor has no clothes.’ For Putin, destroying the success of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, whose populations increasingly identify as European, replete with European values, became a Kantian imperative.
Seeding Dissention with ‘Passportisation’ – A Precursor to Armed Aggression
To undermine Georgia and its other neighbours, Russia repeatedly defied international law by weaponising the issuance of Russian passports into the sovereign territory of other States. History has revealed that this is a precursor to Russia’s inevitable invasion and aggression usually done under the guise of protecting ‘Russian citizens.’ Passportisation also serves to force assimilation in illegally Russian-occupied territories of their neighbours. By denying essential services to occupied peoples who do not ‘voluntarily’ accept a Russia passport it forces people to self-identify as patriots of their homelands and therefore, enemies of the Russian State – the result of which is frequently persecution and prosecution if not murder or disappearance.
This dynamic of forced citizenship through ‘passportisation’ was well documented in the 2009 Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, Report (‘Tagliavini Report’), at vol. II, Chapter 3). “The clearest demonstration of this Russian policy of integrating separatist entities of neighbouring states into its own legal jurisdiction”, according to the Tagliavini Report, “was ‘passportisation’, the awarding of Russian passports and citizenship of the Russian Federation to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”.
Russia employs the coercive acceptance of its passports for the triune purposes of sewing dissention, undermining the autonomy of neighbouring States and fostering the assimilation of populations in occupied territories. Russia doesn’t always wait until their invasion and occupations plans are finalised – they provide liberalised passport applications in most former Soviet States. Beyond Georgia, Russia has breached the prohibitions of international law by issuing easy-to-obtain passports for inhabitants of Moldova’s Transnistria region and the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine’s Donetsk region and Crimea. Passportisation has become an essential tool in the ‘Russian Playbook’ in attempting to re-absorb independent States like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine back into their sphere of a ‘Greater Russia’. Russia has made no secret of their designs on the Baltic States where they continue to menace Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Given Georgia’s experience with Russia flooding their homeland with Russian passports in 2002, it remains a conundrum as to why Europe and the United Nations seemed so ill-prepared to confront the issue when it arose in Moldova and then again in Ukraine. Passportisation is simply another instrument of hybrid warfare. Today, all former Soviet States express concerns about Russia’s use of citizenship to undermine their sovereignty.
The cultivation of populations by force, coercion and enculturation is an ancient practice. In his chronicles of his Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar and his contemporary historians did not refrain from acknowledging the encouragement of rape by its military forces in occupied territories. Rape resulting in childbirth furthered the hopes that conquered women who bore a Roman child were less likely to rebel against the authority of Rome with whom their child now shared an identity. Russia has seized on this barbaric idea and uses passportisation to engender identity assimilation for the same purpose – hoping inhabitants of Russian occupied territories would be less likely to rebel against the Kremlin if they too came to identify themselves at some level as Russians (despite being ethnically non-Russian). Sadly, rape remained a tool of Russia’s invasion and occupation of Georgia as evidenced by numerous reports by human rights organisations.
Beyond passportisation, Russia has employed a re-settlement strategy in occupied territories. With encouragement and incentives from Moscow, ethnic Russians were re-settled into occupied Georgia as a way of ‘tipping-the-scales’ of ethnic population mix to further Russia’s goals of consolidating control over these territories. The strategy was employed in Georgia and has reached new heights of perfection in temporarily occupied Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region and Crimea (despite being a gross violation of international law). This duplicitous practice not only seeks to change the ethnic make-up of the local population in Russia’s favour but relies on occupied people either fleeing for their safety, being displaced by illegal Russian immigrants or being liquidated through the heinous ethnic cleansing of Georgians that has be subsidised, if not explicitly authorised, during the long, brutal years following Russia’s invasion and occupation of Georgia.
Russia Converted a Peace-Keeping Operation into a Full-Scale Invasion of Georgia
History has a tendency to repeat itself. Having first collaborated with Nazi Germany to divide Poland with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Russia invaded Poland for its own territorial expansion of the Soviet Union. Of course, as with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Moscow attempts to re-write history by shifting the blame to the victims in Georgia in the aftermath. Here it is worth recalling the words of Russian Corps Commissar S. Kozhevnikov, writing in the Soviet military newspaper Red Star about Russia coming to the aid of the neighbouring States in 1939, “The Red Army stretched out the hand of fraternal assistance to the workers of Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia freeing them forever from social and national bondage” (the Ukrainian and Belarus people tell a remarkably different story about a repressive bondage to Russia).
Even Russia’s operational name for their invasion of Russia is instructive in the practice of propaganda – it was euphemistically called “Operation to Force Georgia to Peace.” According to the Russian publication Life.ru, Russia pre-positioned its 58th Army on the Georgian frontier near the Roki Tunnel that was bored through mountains to connect Russia to Georgia on 2-3 August 2008, writing, “The deployment of the Russian military hardware near the Roki tunnel will allow as soon as possible to move troops to help the peacemaking forces.” Russia’s plans were never about forcing Georgia to peace – it was always about forcing Georgia into submission.
Predictably, Russia commenced the military invasion of Georgia for which they had well prepared on 7 August 2008 all while claiming it was an emergency operation to protect the people of Ossetia. The world once again witnessed Russia’s hallmark, ethnic cleansing of their Georgian neighbours reach new levels of atrocity. As Ukrainians, Syrians and others later learned, Russian rapine, pillage and destruction of entire villages resulted in entire villages either being left in ruins to memorialise the devastation or disappearing altogether. As evidenced by comparison of Google Maps images prior to Russia’s invasion of Georgia and now, anyone with a computer can see where entire towns were simply wiped from the face of the Earth as though they, and their Georgian inhabitants, had never existed. For Russia, it was not enough to take territory or to drive-out the Georgians from their own homeland – Putin tried to erase any physical proof they were ever there.
Russia Attempts to Blame Tbilisi for their Invasion of Georgia to Cloak Their Ambitions
After their invasion of Georgia, Russia attempted to shift responsibility for their aggression by blaming Tbilisi. Russia, who pre-positioned the 58th Army at the mouth of the Roki Tunnel on the night of 2-3 August, as admitted by their commanders in the Russian media, had the sheer audacity to later claim they were responding to an emergency arising from Tbilisi over-reacting to a local insurgency in Ossetia on 7 August. Owing in large part to Russia’s masterful use of propaganda and media manipulation Georgia’s resort to facts was drowned-out by the Kremlin’s media contacts.
As with Russia’s interference in the United States elections, or the Russian hacking of Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) computers using ransom software deployed from Saint Petersburg (following Ireland’s Ministerial Order for Russia to stop further develop of their Embassy in Dublin into an intelligence gathering centre), Russia deployed an effective media campaign that mixed enough truth with their lies that people could not decide at the time who was to blame for the invasion. For some, both Georgia and Russia were blamed for the conflict. Russia orchestrated the invasion and manipulated events to give them ‘plausible deniability’ for being the aggressor. With the passage of time and gathering of facts, however, a more sober analysis now clearly demonstrates this that Russia was the instigator.
Russian Fear of Georgia and Region’s Embrace of Independence, Democracy and Reform Agendas
As if out of a criminal investigation, facts prove that Russia had the means, motive and opportunity to invade Georgia. They manufactured the evidence, they lied to avoid detection and then claimed adverse possession in a failed attempt to cover-up their crime.
Putin made no secret of his desire to rebuild what was the Soviet Empire, even if by force, as he has been wanton to demonstrate in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Georgia’s commitment to independence, democracy and its pursuit of an aggressive reform agenda stood as a beacon of light for other former Soviet States. This deeply alarmed Putin as he considered both a challenge and a threat to his view of governance in a rebuilt Russian empire which in his mind, required him as its head. As integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was clearly on Georgia’s trajectory, Putin was determined to stop it, by subterfuge if possible and by force if necessary. It is worth noting the 2011 speech given by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Russian soldiers at Vladikavkaz, “If you… had faltered back in 2008, the geopolitical situation would be different now.”
Quashing Georgia’s continued democratic development, undermining its independence, repressing the democratic will of the Georgian people and thwarting NATO and European Union integration were of paramount importance to Putin, and therefore, Russia. The scale of the invasion and duration of the occupation, the ferocity of the fighting, the use of horrific aerial munitions against civilian population centres as well as the ethnic cleansing of Georgians followed quickly by the relocation of Russians onto sovereign Georgia soil occupied by Russia was always designed to be a cruel lesson to Russia’s neighbours. As time would tell, Russia’s neighbours weren’t deterred. Following the footsteps of Moldova, Ukraine was still determined to pursue integration with the European Union and NATO. Russia’s neighbours remained heroic, un-cowed by the lesson Russia tried to teach former Soviet States through their brutal invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia.
By 2014, with Ukraine decidedly determined to continue to embrace independence and democracy like their Georgian brothers and sisters, Putin decided to further instruct Kyiv in the ways of State sponsored terror, brutality, dispossession, ethnic cleansing, displacement, imprisonment, murder and occupation using the same tools and strategies he had previously deployed in Georgia. The world, meanwhile, remained un-prepared to counter Putin’s Russia despite the sacrifice made by Georgia only a few years previously which should have served to prepare them for it to happen again.
The question remains, will the world finally change the way it deals with Russia or will it continue to placate Putin by offering up sacrifices like the wealth of revenues the Nord Stream 2 will deliver into Putin’s hands?