The Five-Day War

Managing Moscow After the Georgia Crisis

On August 8, as world leaders gathered in Beijing to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, Russian tanks rolled across the border into Georgia. The night before, Georgian forces had responded to attacks by secessionists in South Ossetia, an ethnic enclave in northern Georgia, by pummeling civilian areas in the region's capital, Tskhinvali, and seeking to retake the territory by force. Moscow, which had supported the province's secessionist government for more than a decade, retaliated with a full-scale invasion, sending aircraft and armored columns into South Ossetia and targeting key military and transport centers inside Georgia proper. Russia also beefed up its military presence in Abkhazia, another secessionist province, in the northwestern corner of the country. Russian troops had been present in both enclaves as peacekeepers, deployed with Georgia's consent 15 years earlier. When the Georgian attack on South Ossetia killed Russian soldiers and threatened the fragile status quo, Moscow intervened with lightning speed. At first glance, the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 seemed little more than the stuff of adventure-book fantasy: a reawakened empire going to battle against an old viceroyalty over a mountainous principality of negligible strategic value to either side. But it has had momentous consequences.

The five-day war killed hundreds, left thousands of refugees in temporary shelters, and brought relations between Russia and the United States to their lowest point since the dark days of the Cold War. For some of Russia's neighbors, such as Poland and the Baltic states, the war symbolized the return of the old NATO -- a traditional alliance providing security guarantees in order to deter external aggression rather than a postmodern club promoting democracy and good governance. For Georgia, the Russian tanks that scarred the lush countryside were an affront to all that had been achieved since the Rose Revolution of 2003, including the creation of passably democratic institutions and the implementation of an unwaveringly pro-U.S. foreign policy. For Russia, the war was a firm rejoinder to a reckless Georgian leadership and a chance to stand up to U.S. influence in Moscow's backyard.

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