Below is part one of a three-part series examining the effects of the Rose Revolution of 2003, Georgia’s effort to modernize its military, the government’s subsequent defining of new national defense strategy priorities, and how the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 represented the first test of those aforementioned efforts under former President Mikheil Saakashvili. In the first article of this series, I outline the purpose behind Georgia’s effort to modernize its military after the Rose Revolution and explain how a confluence of factors contributed to a failure of the government to successfully defend its territory against external attack in the 2008 war against Russia.
Thank you for reading.
On November 23, 2003, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned his office in amidst the calls for his removal. The Rose Revolution, a bloodless addition to a series of rebellions against authoritarian regimes largely since the breakup of the Soviet Union, has been hailed as a watershed moment in the history of The Color Revolutions. Shevardnadze, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs under soviet Premier Mikeil Gorbachev, assumed the office of President in Georgia 1995 following the former Soviet republic’s independence and statehood. In the years that followed the Rose revolution, insecurity over the capability of the Tbilisi government to repel an attack from outside its borders was compounded by Russian efforts to assert control over its near abroad states. These issues worked to catalyze the 2008 war between the two states. Consequently, Georgia’s inability to defend its borders and ensure the integrity of its territory scuttled efforts by the regime of President Mikheil Saakashvili to ensure integration of Georgia as a member state in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Saakashvili’s pursuit of membership in the Atlantic Alliance was largely borne of a latent insecurity with regard to its northern neighbor, Russia. This insecurity was exacerbated by unresolved separatist conflicts in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia and led to the 2008 war.
The crux of the insecurity for the Tbilisi regime and their motivation for urgent pursuit of NATO membership lay in the unresolved nature of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the relationship of those two conflicts with Russian military aggression. Georgia’s former patron in Moscow, concerned with influence over the internal policies of its near abroad (especially the former Soviet republics) was in a period of resurgent imperialism under Putin for the years immediately following the Rose Revolution. As Moscow intensified its efforts to assert control over the policies of its near abroad, issues of internal political network dynamics, regime strength, and economic restructuring in the post-Soviet era conflated to inspire insecurity in Tbilisi.
While the Rose Revolution catalyzed a modernization of the Georgian military for purposes of national defense and in order to meet basic requirements for integration to NATO, that military modernization effort failed due to factors in the execution of the reform policies. In its major test, the war fought in August 2008 against an invading Russian military force, the Georgian military proved incapable of defending the territorial integrity of the country against a large-scale invasion force. The primary causes of this failure will be researched, examined, and analyzed in an effort to place the failure of Georgian military modernization into the proper context and to provide understanding as to what led to the dramatic failure of the force in defending the country against the invasion by Russia.
The failure of the government in its effort to modernize the Georgian military, protect its territorial integrity, and provide for basic defense against invasion from its aggressive neighbor to the north was a pivotal moment in the post-revolution history of Georgia. The dramatic failure of the Georgian military in the war against Russia reflected an inability to provide for the country’s basic defense, reignited border conflicts, and did lasting damage to the government’s ability to ensure the legitimization of its pursuit for membership in NATO.
Due largely to President Saakashvili’s policy priorities including a fast track position for NATO membership, the Georgian army was insufficiently prepared to execute its basic missions in its first major test, the August 2008 war against Russia. Prior to the invasion, a series of events transpired to encourage distrust between Russia and Georgia. Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin and his successor Dmitry Medvedev, was inspired through Georgia’s pursuit of integration into the European community to pursue an intensified resurgence of influence in the Caucasus. This confluence of circumstances catalyzed distrust between the governments of Tbilisi and Moscow and created a fissure in communication which was exacerbated by the unresolved conflicts in separatist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia These two separatist conflicts, unresolved from previous wars, were later used as pawns by Moscow in an effort to ensure maximization of influence and power over the Caucasus region. External influencers included other conflicts such as that which wreaked havoc throughout the previous decade in neighboring Chechnya, an ongoing insurgency battle that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chechens and Russians. While pursuit of the security engendered by prospective NATO membership was based upon a need for security against Russia, that pursuit facilitated the environment upon which Russia eventually invaded the country. In this three-part series, I will examine and explain the variables that led to the insecurity, which in turn catalyzed the conflict in Georgia culminating in the August war in 2008. Georgia’s failure to effectively execute the priorities for modernization laid out by Saakashvili following the Rose Revolution was the cause for the failure of the war in 2008 and not a failure in identifying the correct priorities.
Revolution: the Changing of the Guard
The Rose Revolution was a watershed moment in the history of the post-Soviet space. In many ways, the revolution represented the most successful popular uprising against the domination of old Soviet guard in the bureaucracies and political networks that controlled most of the new states comprised of former Soviet republics. For many across the post-Soviet space of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, the Rose Revolution represented an epochal change and a shifting of an old paradigm. For those who suffered through decades of Soviet domination and the years of independent statehood marked by political corruption, failed economic policies, and a struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of their prospective foreign investment partners in Europe and Asia, the Rose Revolution signified a changing of the guard. Specifically, the revolution was perceived by many Georgians as an essential moment in the effort to unchain Georgia from the old Soviet and communist bureaucratic leadership structure while moving to modernize the country with representative governance. It was believed that this evolution towards democratic governance would build international legitimacy and lend credence to Georgia’s efforts to join important supra-national political organizations such as the European Union (EU). The revolution was believed to be the best opportunity to facilitate the integration of the newly independent country into Western security organizations such as NATO. Membership in NATO was assessed in the years following the Rose Revolution to be the best option for ensuring the security of Georgia. This is largely due to multiple factors, among the most prominent of which was the clear inability of the Georgian military to unilaterally defend the country from external attack by Russia.
Facing border disputes in breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia, unrest to the north in the form of Russian military conflict in restive Chechnya, and sharing a border with both Armenia and Azerbaijan as the two former Soviet republics continued to fight a war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgian security was a paramount priority for post-revolution government of newly elected President Saakashvili.
Following the revolution, the Saakashvili regime in Tbilisi embarked on an elaborate, complex, and difficult process of democratizing its government. In the years that followed the upheaval that dislodged the government of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and the rise of successor Saakashvili, Georgians found that the government that emerged in the wake of the revolution would ultimately prove incapable of institutionalizing reforms that could improve economic infrastructure and quality of life for the nation’s citizens. Accompanying the failure of the Saakashvili regime to qualitatively improve the standard of living for Georgian citizens was a proportionately reductive scale of trust in his leadership and the transparency of his government throughout the period between 2004 and 2008.
As society continued to fracture between 2004 and 2008, the frozen conflicts in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia threatened to destroy Tbilisi’s assertive control over the entirety of its territorial integrity. The conflicts in the two separatist regions were further exacerbated by Russian interference, most notably in the form of military and intelligence support for insurrectionist elements. Russia’s interest in fomenting dissent and exacerbating the growing fissures between the governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia was borne of a latent fear of European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansionism that threatened to absorb Georgia and place it permanently underneath the protective security and economic umbrella of the European community. Russia’s geopolitical interest in ensuring that Georgia did not join the EU or the Atlantic Alliance was rooted solidly in a fear that a permanent NATO base on its southern border would represent a significant threat to the future of Russian military modernization and the sustainability of an improving Russian economy. Russian policymakers and strategists simply could not allow a permanent NATO presence on its southern flank, especially in the context of the integration of the former Soviet states of the Baltic nations into NATO. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were made official members of NATO on March 29, 2004. Like the first post-Soviet breakup iteration of NATO enlargement on March 12,1999, the inclusion of the Baltic states further calcified the fears of Russian strategists that the Atlantic Alliance was encircling the faltering Russian state.
Russia’s support for separatist regimes in the two breakaway regions culminated in a five-day war in August 2008. In the aftermath of the conflict, Georgia’s military was operationally annihilated. Throughout the short duration of the war, the Georgian armed forces proved incapable of providing basic defense for the borders of the country. The reflection of incompetence in command, the failure of ground forces to hold territory and repel attacks, and the government’s inability to demonstrate effective defense and maintain territorial integrity reflected, in very vivid fashion, that Georgia had not met the fundamental requirements for membership in the NATO alliance. In defeating the Georgian military in such a decisive and quick manner, Russian strategists and policymakers demonstrated that Georgia was incapable of meeting the basic measurements in the evaluation process of a prospective member of NATO. Particularly egregious were the Georgian government’s failure to secure its territorial integrity, resolve border disputes, and demonstrate that its security structure could adequately defend itself against an external threat. This external threat materialized in August 2008. As Ronald Asmus writes in his book A Little War That Shook the World:
The Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 lasted a mere five days. Casualties were modest. By the standards of modern warfare, it was a little war. It was nevertheless a little war that shook the world. It sparked the greatest crisis in European security since Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic unleashed the dogs of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s and brought Russia and the West to the edge of a new cold war… It broke the cardinal rule of post-Cold War European security that borders in Europe would never again be changed by force of arms. In August 2008, Russia showed an ugly neo-imperialist side of its policy that many in the West had hoped was gone.” (Ronald Asmus, A Little War That Shook the World)
In Part Two, I will explain how NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) and the Atlantic Alliance’s integration protocols inspired a re-prioritization of national security goals. Saakhashvili’s pursuit of NATO membership and the security umbrella of the West catalyzed new national security strategies but ultimately failed to prepare Georgia militarily for defense against the external threat of Russian aggressive policy and military action.
(Featured photo courtesy of Kober and Wikimedia Commons)
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