Comparing the Crimea conflict with the Georgia-Russia situation of 2008

March 2

The Crimea crisis has brought back memories of 2008, when Russia went to war with Georgia over break-away territory. In that case, two regions — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — had been functioning for 15 years outside Georgian control, their de facto independence guaranteed by Russian peacekeeping troops.

Tensions grew high that summer and, perhaps after some provocations, Georgia attacked posts in South Ossetia. Russia threw its troops into the fight, and in five days they were approaching Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. French mediation brought the conflict to an end. The two regions are now virtual sections of Russia.

A key factor in that conflict is that Georgia moved first. Ukraine has been careful so far not to give the Russians any excuse to open fire.

Georgia had also been flirting with NATO, which drew the ire of Vladimir Putin, who was at that time prime minister of Russia, but the real leader of the country. For him, it was a victory against NATO almost as much as one against Georgia.

Later assessments suggested that the Russian military did not acquit itself well at all against a tiny Georgian army. That led to sweeping reforms in the Russian defense establishment, which have greatly angered Russian generals but have gone over well with junior officers. Analysts believe that the Russian military is in better shape than it was six years ago, but Ukraine’s army is considerably more of a factor to be reckoned with than Georgia’s was.

The war against Georgia broke out while Putin was at the Olympics — in Beijing. This war, if it comes, follows on the heels of the Sochi Games.

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