The 2008 War, a Defining Moment in Relations between Russia and the West

Esteemed US diplomat and former US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Mamozy Khalilzad, shared his insights into the 2008 Russia-Georgia war in an exclusive interview with the Voice of America Georgian bureau.

What could have been done to avert the military confrontation and save innocent lives?

The war between Russia and Georgia, the attack, actually, by Russia, was one of the defining moments in relations between Russia and the West and it will affect bilateral relations for some time to come. We did our best, myself-as a US representative to the UN, to highlight the importance of what was going on and deter Russia from coming into Tbilisi, overthrowing the government and imposing a puppet regime there. We succeeded in part because of the unusual diplomatic steps and the revelations of conversations in which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told US Secretary of State Dr. Rice that Saakashvili must go; also by revealing to the West that Russia was targeting regions beyond Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Today, the occupation continues. Lessons for the West and Georgia- what Georgia could have done in that situation to preclude the war or what the West could have done -are issues that need to be studied by scholars.

What did the intervention by Russia change for the region and for world geopolitics?

I think Georgia was one of the first instances of the implementation of the near abroad policy by President Putin in which it wanted to be the preeminent outside power in the neighborhood. There is a need for better understanding on the part of the West and Russia about the rules of the game in the area where NATO [forces] and former Soviet territories are located. There are two different concepts, but whether or not understanding can be reached, steps must be taken to increase the capabilities of these counties to defend themselves. We have to ask whether NATO should expand to protect these countries or if some other arrangement including Russia needs to be reached. You noted correctly that first there was Georgia, then there was Ukraine and occupation, and integration of Crimea. There is an on-going debate in the US about how to best deal with Vladimir Putin and his design for the areas that were part of the Soviet Union. It looks like Putin wants to dominate these areas and considers them as his spheres of influence. This is an issue for the US, NATO and international community to address.

Why would the international community not impose sanctions against Russia in 2008? How would you assess Western unity against Russia’s annexation?

We now have a sanctions policy in Ukraine and sanctions for Russia’s activities in Crimea. In Georgia, however, right after the invasion in 2008, the US launched a substantial support program and steps were taken against Russia that affected Russia-US relations. I think those and additional steps as tools are available to the US. But something fundamental needs to be thought about given Putin’s strategy. What can be done in the long term about American and Western responses visa-vis Russia’s strategy, especially in these areas? I hope answers will be debated in the US Presidential election campaign to come up with a US, and then Western, strategy towards Russia.

Anna Kalandadze, Voice of America Georgian Service

11 August 2016 19:58