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Taking stock:  Ten years after the Russian invasion of Georgia

Tblisi from the top. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

It is hard to put the last decade into perspective. I have begged the words to come. That war, that day, August 8, 2008 — when Russian troops poured in droves through the Roki tunnel into a sovereign Georgia — has reverberated through my life for better and for worse. For it, I am who I am. As I look back on those days, I think of the choices that were made. I wonder if Saakashvili took the bait. I wonder if he had any choice at all. I wonder the same of my own choices, before and since.

I also remember the chilling screenshot that our intrepid intern, Maggie Stuart (now Siegler), saved from our newspaper’s Mac, which we printed in the next edition. The photo, which we first saw on the Georgian government’s own website, suddenly appeared on our briefly hacked website with President Saakashvili morphing into Adolf Hitler; we and Gene Poteat read it as a warning from Putin but never backed away from our reporting.

Yet what I know to be true is that a tyrant invaded this country of Georgia and then, several years later, invaded Ukraine (and don’t forget the digital invasion of Estonia in 2007). One could argue that in the political minds of many Americans — Democrat and Republican — there has also been a kind of Russian invasion. As all journalists do, there are times that I grow bitter and think: Why the hell didn’t they listen?

But then I remember the Mercury, our adventure here before that war, Otto von Habsburg’s prediction of a Russian invasion that was a mere days away. I think of the Mercury and I smile. Because we called it. We at the Mercury followed the story, and we got it right.

And the support we had from a confused and yet interested readership is something invaluable. It is something to be cherished and never taken for granted because you DID listen. And in the end, that is what matters most.

And now from Tbilisi, ten years later, I look back on that decade and it swallows me once again. How could it have not?

Recently, the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs put it better than I can:

“In August 2008 Georgia fell victim to open military aggression by the Russian Federation that resulted in [the] illegal occupation of Georgian regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia. Russia’s large-scale military invasion in Georgia in blatant violation of fundamental norms and principles of international law served as a direct attack on European security and the international order. Few years later the same pattern was used against Ukraine. These events have made it crucial to duly assess the challenges emanating from Russia and the unresolved conflicts with the aim to think of the ways for lasting peace and security.”

Crucial is the operative word here. There is much that this country disagrees upon, as any fine and great democracy should, but there are a few truths on which they do not disagree. And in these truths rest the delicate future of not only Georgia but also the entire region. The embassy continues:

“Russian aggression against Georgia was premeditated and thoroughly calculated. Moscow had started preparation long before the actual war. In 2006 Russia built a military base in Java in the North of Tskhinvali.

“Later in the beginning of 2008 Moscow unilaterally lifted CIS arms and economic embargo on two Georgian regions and established the formal ties with the illegal regimes. In May-June 2008, Kremlin started sending railroad troops, deploying military forces and offensive weaponry in Abkhazia region. These developments sharply escalated the situation on the ground. In the period right before the invasion, in July 2008 Russia conduced a large-scale military exercise ‘Caucasus 2008’ near the Georgian border with involvement of 8,000 troops and 700 armored fighting vehicles. Russian troops did not leave the area after the exercise was finished. Vladimir Putin himself did not try to hide the fact that the plan for military invasion existed about two years before the war: ‘There was a plan in place, and I think it is no secret that Russian forces acted in accordance with it. The general staff drew up this plan somewhere in late 2006 or early 2007. I approved it,’ said Putin.”

We at the Mercury covered all of this, beginning with front-page articles on the escalation of that war as early as 2007. And now today, “[Ten] years since its military aggression, Russia still continues the illegal occupation of 20 percent of Georgian territory. Moreover, Russia has intensified the steps towards factual annexation of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, seeking full incorporation of Georgia’s indivisible regions into its military, political and economic systems in full disregard for the international law.”

In an August 23, 2008 interview by Kate Weinberg with Daniel Kunin, Saakashvili’s American right-hand man who spent much of the war on the phone with President Bush and Condoleezza Rice, Kunin said, “The response so far has been good, but they have to come up with answers soon or else their own credibility is at stake. If Russia takes the wrong message from this then why on earth do we think this behavior is going to stop?”

“It’s a rhetorical question, but Mr. Kunin is quick to supply an answer: ‘Crimea is next.’”

Unfortunately, if not eerily, Kunin was proven right.

In the words of a longtime regional analyst and friend, Mark Mullen, “Ten years ago Russia invaded Georgia. [Here are] a few impressions: Tbilisi was not bombed but there were Russian bombers flying over bombing military sites nearby. It is terrifying, particularly, when your kids are asleep in the next room. Any country that uses bombs should think about the toll it takes on the civilians on the receiving end. By the way, I can’t think of many countries that drop more bombs than the United States.

“The Kremlin set a trap and Misha [President Saakashvili] walked into it. Was the Georgian response to the Russian invasion smart? Probably not. Was it fair? Absolutely. If you say a country does not have the RIGHT to respond when it is invaded because it is small or that is a bad idea, then you are telling those with less power in this world that there are no rules, and their only hope is terrorism. Be very careful making this argument.”

Mullen continues, “After the war, the Kremlin realized that they largely lost the international discussion about the war [The Mercury found itself at the forefront of that discussion]. That is when they decided to really focus on international propaganda in several different languages and they have done it since very well. They also realized the power of digital sabotage and that was when they really began investing heavily in that. And finally they realized that they could actually invade a neighbor and get away with it if the timing was good, for example during the Olympics [in Bejing] and if everybody else is on vacation. And if they spread around enough excuses quickly enough to be used by those who didn’t want to respond. And if they would be sure to refuse a fair ceasefire until the news cycle had moved on they would be allowed an unfair agreement, one vague enough that they could ignore it. Sarkosy wanted something quick so he agreed to a ceasefire agreement that was vague enough that it could be ignored. Nobody cares about Sarkosy anymore but the consequences are enormous for Georgia.

“[Tragically] ethnic cleansing works if you can wait long enough. Everybody should go look at ethnic cleansing some time and see what it looks like. You can sure see it on the drive to Kutaisi. It is happening right now in different places in the world. Those doing the displacing want everybody to forget, those who have been displaced fight against that by remembering and encouraging their children to remember. But that is not easy to do. Who remembers the Ruthinians? South Ossetia was a multiethnic place ten years ago. Not anymore.

“What the Kremlin does now is harass. Like the bully who pushes and spits at the smaller kids on the school bus. The Russian army moves the fence on the ceasefire line further into Georgia, in different places, by different amounts, often quite big amounts. They do it constantly in the hopes that Georgia will lose its temper. So far Georgia hasn’t, saving the rest of the world the trouble of having to deal with it. But the rest of the world doesn’t appreciate the patience and strength of the Georgian people as much as they should. Now would be a good time to start.”

Tonight I walk the streets of a peaceful and free Tbilisi. I walk by new cafés in ancient buildings full of bright young minds. It almost doesn’t matter that bitter over-sized neo-colonialist Russian soldiers wait 40 klicks away — ready to cut Georgia’s geopolitically crucial Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline and the East-West highway that connects the country as if it is a spinal cord — like brain-washed giants in Soviet-era tanks that might as well be wheelbarrows hauled by the blind and relentless strength of fascism and that genetic urge to destroy something beautiful, Western and free.

Here in Tbilisi the grocery stores aren’t closed and nor will they be. The city does not sleep in fear, but on nights like this, the city is closed, all but for linoleum grids below rows of canned tomatoes and a roost of frozen chickens glowing from a florescence box. The television tower, which was a massive glorified antenna upon the ridgeline of the city, sparkles all night as if it is trying to be the Eiffel Tower — as if it is crying, “Pick me, pick me I’m European,” while below a darkness sleeps that is both more European than Europe and that will forever be something far different.

There is a shadow just around each corner and up each hill — a ghost that beacons eastward. In the end, the city will always follow that shadow with intentions neither right nor wrong, east nor west but those of simply of moving forward. It will only lead to a trap, as it always has. But gravity pulls it eastward ceaselessly. And the greatest divide between East and West will never be a wall or even an ideology; it will be a people. The Georgians were born in a vast fault line of humanity. If they as humans forget the elastic resilience of peace and hope, then this world will be one of sheer destruction and unheard despair.

Will Cathcart, a son of the Lowcountry pluff mud, was the managing editor of the Charleston Mercury from 2006-2010; he was a media advisor to President Mikheil Saakashvili from 2010 to 2011. He is currently a freelance writer living in Tbilisi.

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