By Michael Davies, MA – Research Assistant, Australian National University, AU
War. According to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, that is the best way to increase Russia’s national happiness. In August 2008, Russia and Georgia fought over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The conflict ended with Russia recognizing the independence of the two breakaway regions after pushing Georgian troops back into Georgia-proper. The situation has remained stable, but tense ever since. Both states are fighting internal problems, and neither can really afford to initiate hostilities again knowing both have much to lose. Nevertheless, President Medvedev declared during a press conferenceon 18 May 2011 that the 2008 conflict “was very important for the country…for making it feel strong.” Thus, if war against a tiny, weak state helps Russia to recover its sense of lost status, is it the harbinger of future conflicts?
The conflict began officially during the night of 07-08 August 2008 after Georgia launched a military offensive into South Ossetia. Georgia claimed it was responding to attacks on its soldiers and native Georgians within the territory. Russia responded by launching its own offensive into both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops came within only a few kilometers of entering the Georgian capital, Tibilsi as the Georgian military crumbled. On 12 August, President Medvedev declared he had ordered the end to all military operations. Two weeks later on 26 August, Russia officially recognized the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. Only Belarus, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru have recognized both states along with Russia, while Vanuatu recently recognized Abkhazia only, though clarification on this has been difficult.
Since the recognition, Russian security forces have remained in the two ‘countries.’ Russian soldiers patrol the administrative borders on Roman;”>land and sea, and maintain precision >weapons systems on ready alert. Because of the number and type of troops in both regions has led US Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) to define that presence as an occupation. Though her use of this term is primarily because of her pro-Georgian stance, it does provide an apt description of the Russian presence as neither state can stand by, nor protect itself.
The 2008 conflict is the first real successful use of Russian military power since the end of the Cold War. The decimation of the Soviet-era military machine holds much of the blame for this, as does the weakness of Russia’s political system. The Russian intervention in the Georgian civil war era after independence achieved little. The First Chechen War of 1994-1996 ended in an ignominious Russian retreat. The Second Chechen War that began in 1999 was only ‘successful’ after the puppet leader Ramzan Kadyrov used his fathers name to take the Presidency and rule at the behest of Russia. Even then, the insurgency in the North Caucasus is not based entirely in Chechnya. Dagestan and Ingushetia suffer daily attacks as well. The insurgency has penetrated so deeply into Kabardino-Balkaria, that political and military parity between the security services and the militants has likely been achieved. All this has occurred as Russian troop presence has increased in the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Strategically, Russia is doing just as poorly. Russia’s ally, Serbia, was forced to relinquish control of Kosovo to NATO peacekeepers in 1999, which led to its declaration of sovereignty in early 2008. The Baltic states joined NATO. Ukraine threw out its pro-Russian leader in the Orange Revolution, and even though the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych is currently President, a strong pro-EU, pro-NATO section still remains in the body politic. China is gaining influence in Central Asiaas its GDP grows ever larger, and as its political weight is used effectively through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Moreover, in an ironic twist of fate, as Russia and its leaders intend to promote the image of a strong Russia, to Western publics, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Medvedev are treated more as Internet memes or sources of humor. Putin is looked upon as the real-life version of a Bond villain. In turn, Medvedev is seen as Putin’s ‘Mini Me.’ Video of either man dancingor singingmakes greater headlines than a statement on the operation currently underway in Libya.
Chris Hedges says that “war is a force that gives us meaning.” His book by the same name stated that “even with its destruction and carnage [war] can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.” Continuing on, Hedges notes that Manichean view created in battle: “[w]ar makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us.” Medvedev’s comments certainly correspond to Hedges’ analysis.
The establishment of meaning and the effective use of military force is likely why Medvedev claimed the 2008 conflict “made the country feel strong.” It was the first time Russia had really defeated an enemy and forced its policy preferences on anyone since the end of the Cold War. The conflict also intended to show how far Russia was willing to go to protect its interests. A message that was clearly aimed at NATO and its expansion plans. This war gave Russia the ability to prove it was a Great Power once again.
It must also be acknowledged that this feeling is not unique to Russia. In the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, the same feelings were expressed within the United States. On 02 March, 1991, US President George H.W. Bush declared that“we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” The statement was an affirmation in support of renewed US engagement with the world. The comment was made to show that the ‘Ghost of Vietnam’ had been exercised for good, and that military force can be used effectively in support of US interests, and above all else, its values. In other words, the Gulf War, as declared by the sitting president, made the country feel good about itself once again.
Medvedev’s comments were not unique, nor surprising. Examples exist across generations of leaders making similar statements. War has always provided meaning to society. As the 2008 Georgian conflict was the first key victory against an ally of NATO and the US, a certain degree of pride would naturally be felt within Russia. What these comments offer is an insight into the nature of Russian foreign policy thinking at the current time. As the comments were made at a press conference, it also suggests that Medvedev wanted the international community to be plainly aware of Russia’s new sense of self. Therefore, if Russia does feel stronger and better about itself, and is already willing to use military power to ensure the security of its interests as well as regain the title of Great Power, it should not be surprising that they will engage in more military operations into the future to achieve that status once again.
Michael Davies is a Research Assistant for the Center for Strategic Research at INSS. He has been awarded a Master in Strategic Affairs from the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University, as well as a BA (International Relations/Political Science), also from ANU. He has previously worked as a media analyst at Media Monitors Australia, and as a Research Intern, Armed Conflict Database at The International Institute for Strategic Studies.