President Dmitry Medvedev made a remarkable statement during a speech to military officers in southern Russia early this week. Regarding the August 2008 war between Russian and Georgia, he said, “For some of our partners, including NATO, it was a signal that they must think about geopolitical stability before making a decision to expand the alliance.”
This is the first time a Russian official has acknowledged that its conflict with Georgia was not only about “protecting compatriots,” but also about the need to forestall strategic changes on Russia’s border. Georgia pounced, claiming that Medvedev’s statement amounts to an admission that Russia bears responsibility for starting the war.
It’s debatable whether Medvedev should have spoken on the issue publicly at all. His statements on the conflict in South Ossetia have gotten him into trouble before. Shortly after that war, he said that Russia has a “zone of privileged interests” which it will protect by any means necessary. This set off a media uproar, as it was interpreted as an admission of Russia’s undying expansionary ambitions. The president is still reminded about it from time to time.
Medvedev clearly understands that he chose his words poorly, as he has never repeated that claim and has even tried to backtrack. However, his new statement is of the same kind, i.e. excessively candid, which is not always welcome in international politics. Vladimir Putin has been known to make similar mistakes.
Overall, Russia has not learned to present its actions in an attractive and politically correct way. It attempted to use Western-style arguments about the 2008 conflict, even describing the hostilities as humanitarian intervention. But Moscow cannot sustain this kind of rhetoric and its geopolitical rationale ultimately becomes apparent, especially since it is a common feature of all countries’ military operations.
In fact, Medvedev spoke a truth that was apparent to everyone; the real cause of the five-day war was tensions that had been accumulating in the region for several years. In the mid-2000s, the U.S. administration decided to expand NATO into the post-Soviet space. Ukraine and Georgia hoped to join but were eventually denied membership. Washington and several European capitals disregarded Moscow’s warning that this would be interpreted as crossing the line. They argued that Russia has always been against the alliance’s expansion but ultimately accepts the inevitable. Moscow failed to convince its partners that there is a major difference between Poland, or even Estonia, and Ukraine. Ultimately, tensions came to a head and the pretext for Russia’s invasion came in the form of the attack ordered by Mikheil Saakashvili to “restore constitutional order.”
Looking back on the five-day war, it is clear that it was a major turning point for all sides involved.
For Russia, it was psychological revenge after 20-year-long geopolitical retreat. It was proof that Moscow can say no. The United States and its allies were shown that Moscow was serious about drawing a line in the sand. They accepted the signal.
Whatever Russia’s critics and the advocates of modern theories say, military force remains a major political argument and the willingness to use it will be the decisive factor in the 21st century. Objectively speaking, the Russian army did not demonstrate outstanding military capability during that war (it is telling that comprehensive military reform was launched two months later) but what little it had to show proved enough to reaffirm and even strengthen its standing. Russia was not isolated (although it had no political allies either) and advocating NATO’s eastward expansion has become taboo.
But the results of that war were not all positive for Russia. The feeling of satisfaction from revenge soon gave way to awareness of the country’s capabilities and limitations. It was very important psychologically to draw that line but it was equally important to start reassessing the country’s goals and targets. The 2008 war marked the end of the post-Soviet era in Russia’s foreign policy, during which Moscow was focused on restoring its status and proving that it remained a great power. After August 2008, it started working on a new approach in which the collapse of the former superpower is not the point of departure.