Year later, Russia win over Georgia cuts both ways


Last August, fresh off a swift, decisive military victory over U.S.-backed Georgia, the Kremlin basked in newfound international power and domestic prestige: Oil was booming. Anti-Western taunts and propaganda crammed state media. A dramatic message about resurgent Russian strength had been unequivocally delivered.

One year later, the euphoria has evaporated. The war is still discussed in tones of righteousness, but the military victory left Russia isolated, made formerly compliant neighbors reluctant to do Moscow’s bidding, and sparked a foreign capital flight that dovetailed with the global financial crisis.

Most crushing, the war has done serious damage to what is plainly Russia’s top foreign policy priority: the reestablishment of what the president has called a “privileged” sphere of influence in former Soviet states.


Today is the first anniversary of the war’s outbreak, when an overwhelming wave of Russian tanks and warplanes crossed the border and roared to within 30 miles of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The exact circumstances of the war’s onset remain in dispute, but the most commonly held version of events is that Georgia launched a military operation to reassert control over the rebel province of South Ossetia, and Russia invaded, fighting on the side of the separatists.

Threats and accusations of renewed fighting are flying thick and ominously this week, and there is concern that new battles could erupt.

Some analysts say Russia’s postwar isolation is fueling instability. In Moscow, they say, there is a lingering discomfort over the war’s failure to unseat Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is openly loathed by Russian leaders.

“Many in Moscow believe this is the result of indecisiveness, that we should have marched all the way to Tbilisi and finished the job,” said Pavel Felgengauer, a Moscow-based military analyst with the Jamestown Foundation. “There’s a strong opinion here that a serious mistake was made and that the answer is regime change. The situation is very dangerous.”

In Georgia, the U.S.-backed leadership has been left to grapple with the painful reality of lost lands and shattered military infrastructure. Political instability intensified this year as massive demonstrations demanded Saakashvili’s resignation, pointing to the war as evidence of his insufficiency.

But if Russia’s plan was to show its might, to strike a crushing blow that would frighten former Soviet countries into greater compliance, it backfired. The sight of Russian tanks crossing into a neighboring country stirred dark memories of the Soviet past, and, analysts say, shifted the psychology in the region.


Instead of being intimidated into submission, the neighboring states have become defiant and have begun to buck Moscow. Resistance has been bolstered by the global financial crisis and tumbling oil prices, which abruptly dried up Moscow’s cash flow.

Signs of Moscow’s waning regional influence are coming at a furious pace.

In July, five leaders of neighboring countries -- nearly half the invited luminaries -- failed to show up at horse races hosted by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the Moscow hippodrome. The races are seen as an unofficial summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the regional confederation of post-Soviet countries. A year ago, many analysts agree, such a snub would have been unimaginable.

Kremlin efforts to create a “rapid reaction force” among former Soviet countries to counter North Atlantic Treaty Organization military strength have also met with surprisingly stiff opposition. Both Belarus and Uzbekistan have refused to sign the agreements needed to create the force. This week, Uzbekistan warned that a planned Russian base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan would destabilize Central Asia.

Armenia, once Russia’s most stalwart ally in the Caucasus, has also been distancing itself. This summer, to the intense irritation of Moscow, Saakashvili was presented with Armenia’s Medal of Honor during a visit to Yerevan, the Armenian capital.

Even impoverished Tajikistan is striving quietly for independence, preparing to ban the use of the Russian language in government offices and documents.

But nothing has so starkly crystallized Russia’s isolation as the question of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both breakaway republics inside Georgia’s internationally recognized borders. Russia had been building ties with the two republics for years, including passing out Russian passports to residents and taking on payment of pensions.

After the war, Moscow quickly recognized them as independent states and dispatched heavy deployments of Russian troops to defend them -- presumably from Georgia’s central government.

Yet not even Belarus, a country whose policy has closely twinned that of Russia, was willing to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In fact, only Nicaragua joined Russia in acknowledging their independence.

Since the war in Georgia, sparring between Moscow and Belarus has repeatedly erupted over trade and circumstances in Georgia. Analysts say the sight of Russia’s invasion of a neighbor and onetime ally threw a chill over Belarus’ relationship with Moscow.

“The Belarusian leadership does not want to see itself in Georgia’s shoes,” said Leonid Zlotnikov, an analyst with the Belarusian Market newspaper in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Moscow’s “idea of pressure by force does not appeal at all.”

As regional resistance mounts, some analysts are beginning to question the conventional wisdom of Russia, as the government likes to put it, “rising from its knees” under its longtime leader, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. With the pro-Western inclinations in Ukraine and Georgia, the moves by China to build better relations with Central Asian states, and recent ripples of political rebellion across the former Soviet Union, Russia’s power is badly diminished, they say.

“We always say that in the 1990s Russia was weak and now it’s strong, but actually, if you look at it, its sphere of influence and interests has shrunk dramatically,” said Felgengauer, who gained prominence after predicting last summer’s war. “Russian power is shrinking. It’s huffing and puffing under Putin, but it’s shrinking.”

Sergei Markov, a ruling party lawmaker and political analyst seen as close to the Kremlin, agreed that Russia’s regional standing had suffered because of the war in Georgia.

“It’s true that Russian behavior during that period in August was, you know, I wouldn’t say aggressive, I’d say maximum-style,” Markov said. “I think what neighboring countries are afraid of is exactly this maximum style and unpredictability.”

But he argued that any international loss had been offset by the cohesion of popular support within Russia.

The line from state media is that only Russia had the moral rectitude to step in to save the South Ossetians from the central Georgian government. Russian television viewers were fed a drastically exaggerated version of Georgia’s assault on South Ossetia, and many Russians still believe the long-discounted Russian allegations that Moscow intervened to stop a “genocide” that killed thousands.

“Russia gained the consolidation of society and the confidence that the political leadership is ready to protect all Russian interests,” Markov said. “And Russia got respect from the international community, which understands that Russia is ready to take risks.”