Americans may have been surprised by the war between Russia and Georgia, which unfolded a year ago this week, but there were early signs of trouble. In fact, the decisions that led to the war date back to 1999, wrote Quentin Peel in the Financial Times today, citing the work of Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin. In an essay in the recently published book The Guns of August 2008, Illarionov described how Russians attempted to “weaken, undermine and destroy the Georgian side through non-military means” for several years, until last August when they sent in tanks. (The Russians also apparently engaged in cyberwar, striking at Georgian government websites, as I read in TheTerrorWonk Plus.)
Yet long before the war broke out, Georgian leaders had been “asking for trouble,” wrote Peel. “I have never heard another leader talk to the Russian president with such a lack of respect,” said one senior Russian official, describing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Indeed, a senior Georgian official, speaking off the record recently with a small group of people in Washington, railed against Moscow officials, calling them “gangsters” and sounded more like a thuggish underworld figure than a foreign dignitary. A moment later, an American entrepreneur who was promoting business interests in Georgia leaned toward me and said in a low tone that, when it came to human rights, the situation in Georgia was “much improved,” which made one wonder what things had been like before and what improvements had actually taken place.
Today, it is not clear to what extent the Russians had been planning an invasion for their own reasons, independent of what Saakashvili and the Georgians were saying, and to what extent the Georgians had baited the Russians. The full story will take years to unravel, but Illarionov has shed some light on the question and has also shown that the war was hardly a spontaneous event. Over the past year, things have improved gradually for the people of Georgia: They lost the war, but “American and European aid has flooded in,” Peel wrote, and they are “winning the peace.”