MOSCOW – In the summer of 2008, the Russia’ army intervened militarily in an independent state for the first time since the Soviet Union’s disastrous campaign in Afghanistan.
Ten years later, Moscow has still not softened its position toward its neighbors 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 recognized as independent the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where it has maintained 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 that 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 neighbors shifting toward 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 recognize 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 recognize the independence of the two Georgian regions.
This taught Moscow a lesson, and in Ukraine it has never recognized 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.
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 anymore. That ship has sailed,” he said.