Revisiting the 2008 Russo-Georgian War can offer lessons for today
An interview with Ekaterina Tkeshelashvili, Georgia’s former minister of foreign affairs, deputy prime minister and state minister for reintegration. Interviewer: Jakub Bornio
JAKUB BORNIO: I would like to start with the NATO Summits in Bucharest (2008) and Strasbourg/Kehl (2009). Back then, the Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Georgia and Ukraine was rejected. At the same time, both countries were promised that they could become members of the Alliance at some point in the future. Do you interpret these events as a success or rather a failure?
EKATERINA TKESHELASHVILI: Bucharest was a crossroads. The decisions made at Bucharest were not simple ones and have to be looked at from various perspectives. A coin always has two sides. Two aspects are particularly important. First is timing. This was the first time when, in a consolidated way, the government of the United States really pushed for a Membership Action Plan for both Georgia and Ukraine. This generated and strengthened support from the allies. However, this was not true for all, particularly those concerned with the deterioration of relations with Russia.
It can be argued that the fact that the George W. Bush administration in the US was reaching its end could have had an impact on the outcome. Second was the fact that the Bucharest decision set Georgia and Ukraine on a firm path towards membership. Some had argued that the decision meant more than the MAP, since it affirmed both Georgia and Ukraine’s membership in the future. Yet, the decision, and even more so the preceding discussions, showed that the Alliance was not ready to commit to Georgia and Ukraine. The group had to consider the concerns of some members regarding relations with Russia.
It needs to be noted that Georgia, at that time, had very active diplomatic relations with all members of the Alliance. We had successful bilateral negotiations with the US and, at the same time, ongoing negotiations on a very active basis with all NATO members. The plan was not solely focused on the US, or any view that this leading actor could have made the decision for the whole Alliance. We never had that perception and we never acted with that idea in mind. We did have an understanding, however, of which countries had negative perceptions of the MAP for Georgia. The reasons were mostly connected with Russia and its presence in Georgia in the two regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is in contrast to anything related to Georgia’s internal situation, or its commitment to make even more progress when it comes to the membership requirements of the Alliance.
The way we see it, the Bucharest Summit was a watershed moment regarding Russia, as it revealed its claim for influence in the region. This went as far as questioning the statehood of Ukraine. Of course, it was also no secret to anybody that Russia was adamantly against Georgia’s MAP. Our assessment was that Moscow took this decision as a sign that the Alliance was not yet ready to make any commitment to the security and future of Georgia and Ukraine, but that this moment would eventually come. The promise of membership was made as such and the chance was still there. Russia took this as a window of opportunity, to act on the weakness – or indecisiveness – of the West and claim its sphere of influence. We all know what happened after this. Unfortunately, this led to the Russian war against Georgia in 2008.
Would you say that if a Membership Action Plan was granted, Russia would have behaved differently?
I am convinced that the MAP would have sent a signal to Russia that NATO had ultimately reached a consensus on the importance of Georgia and Ukraine to its security. The agreement would have offered clarity on their membership and sealed it through a concrete pathway. I am convinced that a clear commitment to Georgia and Ukraine’s security would have altered Russia’s calculations. This would have shown NATO’s determination not to accept Russia’s claim on an exclusive sphere of influence in its neighbourhood. I must make it clear that the decision on the MAP would not have meant that NATO forces were ready to go to war with Russia for actions affecting non-member states. However, it would have been a strong enough move to showcase that such actions would have consequences.
Radosław Sikorski, then foreign minister of Poland, revealed some of the context to talks behind the scenes in his recently published book. He wrote that Germany was the greatest opponent of the MAP for Ukraine and Georgia. He also believes that Germany already promised Russia that a MAP would not be granted prior to the summit. Why do you think Germany was so tough when it comes to Georgia and Ukraine’s co-operation with NATO?
I do not have any evidence or information on whether or not such a promise was made to Russia. However, it would not surprise me. It is no secret that Germany was the strongest opponent, maybe the only real strong opponent, that made the decision on the MAP impossible. France could have agreed to the plan if Germany did, but that didn’t happen. I do not want to speculate about the different layers of German reasoning, but as we see now with the ongoing debacle with Nord Stream 2, it is a reflection of Berlin’s strategic short-sightedness vis-à-vis Russia.
You said that the US was one of the greatest supporters of NATO’s co-operation with Georgia. Back then your military co-operation was intense, with joint exercises and even some US forces deployed in Georgia. Did this have any impact on your self-perception and your role in international relations? Or to put it in other words, did it improve your self-confidence?
Well, when it comes to cooperation with the US and NATO – not solely the US – it was developing very strongly throughout those years. We were participating in joint operations in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. Georgian troops per capita represented the largest non-member state presence in Afghanistan. We had our troops participating with no caveats in the operation and in the most dangerous areas like Helmand. Our co-operation was not ad hoc. It was very systematic when it came to our troops’ interoperability and the development of our military forces in line with NATO standards.
Such a pro-western orientation was obviously not in line with Russian interests. Shortly before the war, Russia was undertaking actions that I believe must have concerned you, such as military manoeuvres, infrastructural developments, and the deployment of soldiers under the umbrella of peacekeeping missions, just to name a few. How did you interpret these developments?
These developments were very systematic and aligned with Russia’s clear strategic vision. Moscow never acts in a hasty manner, unprepared or spontaneously. It calculates, tests the ground, analyses results and acts accordingly. Russia violates a number of pink lines before violating the red ones. In that regard, the country persistently pushes the boundaries. Most of the time this is done right at the limits of international law, as Russia seizes opportunities as they emerge by capitalising on the weakness and vulnerabilities of its adversaries. In other words, huge offensive actions, like in 2008 and 2014, never happen out of the blue. There are prior actions that pave the way for such decisive offensives. We were very proactive and transparent in sharing information with our partners and the international community in general. By documenting and analysing Russia’s actions preceding the war, its early large-scale military operations never went unnoticed. The problem was that no solution was ever offered that could actually deter Russian advancement. While we were waiting for our partners to propose a new negotiating plan, Moscow continued to build up a framework for military operations. The result of the renewed negotiating process was the so-called Steinmeier plan, since the Germans took a leading role in shaping this proposal. The plan was not ideal. It had several concerning elements, but we were extremely committed to de-escalation and to reversing the potential for military operations. So we agreed to participate in negotiations in Berlin with the Russian delegation. However, Russia ultimately said “no” to another negotiating round.
What happened shortly before the operation, and what was your policy in the days preceding the war?
What preceded the operations were large-scale military provocations in the South Ossetia region, where we did not have a clear line of separation. These incidents were properly recorded, and we communicated them to the OSCE monitoring mission. We organised numerous “tours” for foreign representatives to the region so that they could observe the results of the bombings. In many of these incidents we published diplomatic statements. Yet, there were no real consequences for Russia. At the end of the day, Russia knew that it had to use this window of opportunity in 2008 given the outgoing administration in the US and the momentum that it had on the ground.
Did you expect Russia to pursue such a large-scale offensive against Georgia?
We always knew that Russia would not allow us to be free, and that was clear. Russia interfered in our internal politics continuously while we were building our democracy. We knew how the situation was escalating on the ground. We tried adamantly to de-escalate the situation, including direct negotiations with the Russians that many forget about. When President Dmitry Medvedev was elected we immediately organised meetings and presented new proposals even if they were politically very risky for us. The plan was to start de-escalation step by step and to rebuild the communities on the ground. Nothing was acceptable for Russia and it was clear that they were not even faking interest in the process of direct negotiations.
When it comes to expectations, we always had the fear and expectation that Russia would go to the extreme. But to be honest, at some point even for us it was very hard to believe that Russia would actually start a full-scale war. We did not believe this until the end of July and the beginning of August, when we witnessed the constant shelling of Georgian villages and the Roki Tunnel was filled with advancing Russian tanks. So the invasion started well before August 8th.
I have asked you whether you expected large-scale Russian engagement because I’m trying to understand the reasoning behind your further steps…
Prior to these days leading up to the war, we announced a unilateral ceasefire. Yet, the Russians started to withdraw their own civilians because they were preparing for military operations. So if you have the impression that we ordered something and then Russia interfered after that, that’s not correct. When we declared the end of the unilateral ceasefire – Russia continued shelling throughout that time – we pursued defensive actions as we had to defend our citizens. Russian troops were en masse coming through the Roki Tunnel. That was the moment when hope was gone.
Was there any attempt to open a communication channel with Moscow?
And what was the reaction from the Russian side?
The Russian foreign affairs ministry was completely closed. One of our deputy foreign ministers was personally assigned to that task because I was active on other fronts. All the attempts that we made to speak at the presidential and ministerial levels were futile.
Did you ask for any external assistance, including military assistance from other partners and NATO, when the war erupted?
We never asked for any military assistance and we would have never asked because we knew that it would be futile. After the war started, we asked for an expedited permit for our troops in Iraq – 2,500 of our best soldiers – so they could come back home. They arrived when the war was almost over. So we couldn’t even count on our best division since they were in Iraq.
Did you try to engage other countries in the region regarding a “conflict resolution”?
When you have a conflict with Russia, it is very hard to have any expectation that you can ask your neighbours to share the burden of finding a resolution to the conflict. This is especially true regarding Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have their own conflict. We interacted with them continuously at different strategic levels, including information sharing. As you very well know, Georgia has good relations and strategic partnerships with all of our neighbours, except for Russia.
You talk about Germany’s role in the Steinmeier peace talks, which you expected to take place in Berlin. But so far, we haven’t discussed France’s role in the conflict, and President Nicolas Sarkozy’s contribution was quite important…
Just to clarify, the Steinmeier plan was named after the German foreign minister. It doesn’t mean that it was a German plan… the initiative was the work of the whole Friends of Georgia UN group…
Did you have any influence on Sarkozy and his position during his mission to Moscow?
When it comes to his mission, it came at a critical time. We were raising the question of whether or not the statehood of Georgia would be maintained. Russian troops were advancing. They had already passed Gori, so it was quite clear that they were determined to get to the capital as well. We prepared for guerrilla warfare. The country was split in two. The biggest highway connecting western and eastern Georgia was already cut off. Western Georgia was largely occupied by Russian forces. We managed to hold the ground up to the moment of these negotiations. The ceasefire agreement that was reached by Sarkozy wasn’t perfect. It was a short and ad hoc ceasefire rather than a peace resolution. Russia planned to introduce two very dangerous components into the agreement. They were related mostly to the status of the breakaway regions, which we stressed we would not agree to and we didn’t. In that sense, the French delegation was forced to negotiate those with the Russians and then the provisions were taken out. So yes, with our diplomatic position in negotiating this agreement, we were able to remove the provisions that were the most dangerous for us.
How do you evaluate this agreement?
Did this agreement propose a conflict resolution? No, because the conflict resolution required much more action. And that never actually took place. What we have now is a ceasefire agreement that is still not observed. The war is not in an active phase. But there was no withdrawal of Russian troops as called for in the ceasefire agreement. Russia recognised both regions (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) in order to create the fictitious premise that it did not have a military presence on the ground. In my opinion, it was not the problem of the agreement. Instead, it was the problem of what happened in terms of not setting any consequences for Russia’s actions. Russia understood that no matter what it did there would be no consequences. So why would Russia implement the full agreement? The same could be seen with the Budapest Memorandum, which Ukraine signed in 1994. It is quite clear that the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine should have been guaranteed. However, nothing was done when Russia violated Ukraine’s territory.
Bearing in mind all that happened in 2008, how did you react to the famous reset in relations between Russia and the US under the Barack Obama administration?
With fear and not with hope…
I understand this move myself through the prism of a wider geopolitical context, with the rising power of China being its most crucial element…
I understand that, but if there is a focus on Europe, Russia is a huge component of that. In other words, how much of a threat is Russia for the whole of Europe as a continent? It cannot be downplayed as a minor actor in this case. If relations are reset, it needs to be clear what the carrots and sticks are. If one makes positive steps, that results in positive developments. But if any positive developments are challenged, what are the consequences? The problem with the reset was that it bet almost entirely on the Kremlin’s readiness to build more stable and constructive relations with the West. This disregarded Russia’s actions, which should have prompted the preparation of a Plan B in order to deter Russian revisionism. Moscow understood that and used it to its advantage. I hope, however, that history will show that this was a short-term gain. Russia will hopefully lose strategically in the long run by not being able to fragment and weaken what otherwise should be a “Europe whole and free” that includes Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.
Ekaterina Tkeshelashvili is a Georgian politician and lawyer. She has seved in public office as as the minister of justice, secretary of the national security council, deputy prime minister and state minister for reintegration of Georgia. In 2008, under President Mikheil Saakashvili, she was the minister of foreign affairs.
Jakub Bornio is an assistant professor at the Department of European Studies at the University of Wrocław.