At the end of July 2008, I took a vacation and travelled to Israel for 10 days. I returned to Georgia in the early morning of 8 August. Before that, on 7 August, when still in Israel, a fellow Georgian tourist had talked with her relatives in Georgia on the phone and expressed extreme concern about rising tensions in the Tskhinvali region. I knew that there had been gunfire there in June and July and thus tried to calm her down by saying that shooting would not necessarily degrade into war.
In late February 2014, a Facebook user commented there was the possibility of a second Crimean War breaking out. I responded to this post by saying that an attack on Ukraine would be tantamount to suicide for Putin and it would, therefore, be unlikely that he would resort to that.
On both occasions my assumptions were proven incorrect. Although what Putin is doing in Ukraine may eventually prove to be suicidal for his regime, he is still doing that – that is the fact that matters.
People often find it difficult to realize when something will radically change, even when confronted with serious signs of the likelihood of that and regardless of any knowledge that such monumental events happen in history from time to time. Before the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008, it was obvious that Russia had deemed it unacceptable for Georgia to have pursued its own independent foreign policy, to have refused to be a Russian satellite, and to have expressed a firm determination to recover its territorial integrity. It was clear that Russia would take steps to counter this. From February 2008 Russian politics towards Georgia had become extremely aggressive. That was soon followed by Russian military units advancing towards the Georgian border and making infrastructural preparations for a military assault. Nevertheless, very few people actually believed that Russia would resort to the use of a direct and full-scale military attack against Georgia; even today some cannot understand that that was precisely what the Kremlin had been planning from the very beginning.
If the military resistance of the Georgian Army is overcome within three days of the start of an attack, Russia will be able to hold their accomplishments up to the West and the West will then be incapable of quickly changing the situation.
After the victory of the Ukrainian revolution in February 2014, it also became crystal clear that Putin deemed it unacceptable for Ukraine to be free from his control, capable of pursuing the path towards European integration. It was evident that Russian economic and political pressure on the new government would no longer produce the same result as it had with Yanukovych's government and that, in future, having freed itself from Russia, Ukraine would be able to gradually rise to its feet and become stronger. Rather than allow all this, Putin sought to disintegrate the country, to fragment it. Nonetheless, there were only a few people who believed that Russia would actually launch an open military attack against Ukraine.
The fact that one scenario or another seems radical does not mean that it is less likely. The important thing here is the aims that an actor has set and the means it has to achieve them. In the current case of Russia, one of its clear aims is to prevent the independent existence of Ukraine and Georgia by installing proxy regimes in Kiev and Tbilisi in order to disintegrate these states. The current inhabitants of the Kremlin view the achievement of this goal as being of vital importance and they will thus do everything they can to this effect.
It is important that we do not deceive ourselves into thinking that the Kremlin has already achieved its main goals in Georgia. It has not. For the time being, we still do not acknowledge the legitimacy of the Russian occupation of our territories; we refuse to fall under Russian control by not agreeing to join the Eurasian Union – the institutional manifestation of this control; and we dare to interact with other countries, including the USA and the European Union, without seeking permission from Russia. All of this, alongside other factors – or, to put it more bluntly, our national independence – means that Georgia continues (and will continue) to actively perform the role of a bridge between Europe and Turkey, on the one hand, and between Azerbaijan and the countries of Central Asia on the other. It also means that Armenia, which caved in to Russian pressure and agreed to join the Eurasian Union, is now geographically "isolated" from the other territories of this project. Russia will necessarily try to rectify this situation and we must thus be prepared for its further application of radical methods in such an attempt.
One such method could be the gradual enhancement and the stepping up of the activities of the fifth column. This will become manifested in internal unrest that will then offer Russia various options – ranging from managing the crisis from outside to bringing in military forces – to finalize their plan. Another method could be the direct use of military force, on almost any premise, without first triggering internal unrest. Of these two options, the former is more likely. The threat of this scenario occurring will significantly increase if the internal stability of Georgia is found to be struggling as a result of economic problems, political repressions and violence, wide-scale hate-filled propaganda, an increase in organized crime, and the unrestricted activity of forces serving Russia's interests.
In any case, it is a fact that in recent years there has been the threat of Russia once again applying military force against Georgia. If Russia decides to take this risky and expensive step, it will necessarily try to achieve a decisive result – the installment of a proxy regime in Tbilisi. This will be followed by the rigid repression of those active supporters of Georgian sovereignty and, perhaps, by the further disintegration of Georgia's territory.
The case of Ukraine has proved yet again that the use of force by Russia is an absolutely realistic scenario should the Kremlin view this to be necessary for the achievement of its goals. It may use any justification for such an assault, including artificially invented reasons. In August 2008, the Kremlin invented a fairytale about "two thousand civilians killed by Georgian troops." In the case of Ukraine, it even did not bother going to the effort. Russia merely sent its special forces to occupy administrative buildings in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and then started deploying its army in the territory of sovereign Ukraine. They did so without any premise, acting just because they physically could, thanks to their capacity to plan operations and their sufficient military and intelligence resources. It would be a very big mistake to assume that similar things cannot happen in Georgia.
Given this realistic threat, the state of the Georgian Army is of the utmost importance. While it is true that Georgia cannot defeat Russia in a war, the key question in the event of an attack by Russia thus becomes: how long can we stand? In such a scenario, our political elite pins hope on the involvement of the West. However, for the West to get involved we will at least need to give it some time. If the military resistance of the Georgian Army is overcome within three days of the start of an attack, Russia will be able to hold their accomplishments up to the West and the West will then be incapable of quickly changing the situation. The picture would be absolutely different if Georgia were able to succeed in resisting for at least a week or two. In such a case, there is a realistic chance that the West will be able to stop Russia.
The regular army of Georgia is very small and cannot be made much larger because of our scarce financial resources. Given this simple fact, in order to offer strong resistance, Georgia must be able to mobilize additional forces in the event of war. For this to happen, there is a need for organized reserve forces. Unfortunately, after the August 2008 war the country has failed to establish an effective reserve system. Work on this issue began in the second half of 2011, but after the October 2012 parliamentary elections this was suspended.
There is a poor attitude towards the army in Georgian society. The war of 2008 changed an overly optimistic attitude into an overly pessimistic one. The adequate attitude, however, will come with having realistic expectations. This means achieving the state where we will be able to repel Russian aggression for a reasonable period of time. There is nothing impossible in that. Only in this case will our hopes for the West's involvement have a chance of being realistic.
In this regard, the fate of Georgia, and every one of us personally, may depend, along with diplomatic activity, on the state of the army and the reserve forces, the latter of which do not actually exist now. Diplomatic efforts and the strengthening of defense do not interfere with each other. Quite the contrary, they are mutually supportive. The problem, however, is that one cannot observe any evidence of the understanding of this fact in current social and political discourse.
Putin has clearly demonstrated that any legal or other norms mean absolutely nothing to him when it comes to achieving his geostrategic goals. At the end of the day, this will probably cost him, as well the rest of Russia, dear. But now, in the short-term perspective, the only thing absolutely clear is that Georgia is in a dangerous situation. Today, in our region, international norms alone cannot ensure the security of the state. Keeping this in mind, we must acknowledge the fact that declaring our readiness to seriously defend Georgia's independence – and ensuring that this fact is apparent for everyone – will increase our chances of successfully overcoming this difficult ongoing period.