Eleven years after Russian tanks rolled through a mountain tunnel in the Greater Caucasus mountains to invade neighboring Georgia, State Department officials say the U.S. underestimated the geopolitical implications for all of Western Europe.
"What happened 11 years ago today, when Russia invaded Georgia, is that actual war came back to Europe in ways that none of us anticipated," George P. Kent, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, told reporters from VOA's Eurasia division.
"Russia, a member of the U.N. Security Council, invaded its neighbor. It did so in Georgia in 2008 and, as many Georgians warned, did so in Ukraine in 2014," he said. "In retrospect, the events in Georgia 11 years ago today changed the geostrategic realities in Europe and across the Eurasian continent."
Russian forces swept into Georgia on Aug. 8, 2008, bombing targets and occupying large swaths of territory. In a battle that lasted five days, Russia defeated Georgia's small military, and the hostilities ended with a cease-fire mediated by France's then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who at the time held the European Union's rotating presidency.
After the war, Moscow recognized South Ossetia and another separatist enclave, Abkhazia, as independent states, where it then stationed permanent military bases.
Attending a Georgian Embassy event marking the 11th anniversary of the invasion, Kent also suggested that it is not too late to apply those lessons to the ongoing battle between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists, but that the onus is also on Russia.
Lessons for Ukraine
His host, Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine's outgoing ambassador in Washington, said the Russian invasion of 2008 presaged a new era in international relations where diplomatic strategy would become secondary to military strength.
"We Ukrainians understood that," he told VOA. "When Georgia was attacked ... we supplied our equipment, because we understand that if Georgia was first, we are the second. And it happened.
"All the world will wait for compromise, wait for some change in behavior, but nothing changes," he said, adding that Ukraine has drawn two lessons from witnessing the attack on its eastern European neighbor.
"What you should do are two things," he said. "Find a diplomatic solution, but base it on strength, on capabilities of your military forces — navy, army and air force. And then prepare to fight for your freedom, for independence."
Earlier this year, five years after annexing Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree simplifying the procedure for people living in parts of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists to obtain Russian citizenship.
While the Kremlin says the decree serves to "protect human and civil rights" in the spirit of "universal principles and norms of international law," Ukraine and the West have decried it as an illegal attempt to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.
U.S. official optimistic
Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, said he remains optimistic that the U.S. and Ukraine have absorbed lessons of the last decade.
"Georgia was the first step, Ukraine was the second step, but it did fundamentally change perceptions of how Putin is acting in the world and what the U.S. needs to do in response," he said.
Both Kent and Volker said the U.S. is resolved to restore Ukraine's territorial integrity.
"Our commitment to Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty is unwavering, and we believe that Donbass is entirely a part of Ukraine, as is Crimea," said Kent. "And that will remain our policy."
Despite dark lessons of the 2008 invasion, Volker said Georgia in 2019 offers a valuable lesson of its own.
"Right now, the story in Georgia is that Georgia's thriving. Georgia is a democracy, it's a prosperous economy. They've made great progress against corruption. They've developed a very strong relationship with Europe, with NATO, with the United States," he said.
"So, even though Russia occupies 20% of the territory, Georgia as a country is thriving," he said. "And I think that's the real lesson — that a country like this can make it."