Russian Invasion of Ukraine: We've Seen Putin Do This Before in Georgia & Crimea

Instigating separatism in a region, and then recognising its independence, seems to be Moscow's favourite tactic.

4 min read

After all the speculation, warnings, and all the negotiations, Russia has invaded Ukraine.

At this very moment, Russian troops and tanks are storming the capital, Kyiv, after President Vladimir Putin asked the Ukrainian military on 25 February to seize power from the democratically-elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The strange part is that the early stages of the invasion seem to be all too familiar – especially Russia's recognition of "independent" Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Putin's moves during the Georgian War in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 were eerily similar to what he is doing in Ukraine in 2022.

In this article, we take a look at the Georgia and Crimea playbooks, and how Russia's rivals may have prevented the invasion of Ukraine, had they given a strong response to Russian incursions in the aforementioned regions.


Separatism in Georgia

In August 2008, a five-day war was fought over two regions in Georgia called South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

During Soviet rule, both were allowed a significant degree of autonomy, in the form of the Socialist Soviet Republic of Abkhazia and the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast.

Georgian nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was the first democratically elected President of post-Soviet Georgia, tried to reunite South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Georgia.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia resisted and a civil war erupted, strengthening the separatist movement.

Abkhazia suffered a genocide by Georgian forces.

Gamsakhurdia's successor, Eduard Shevardnadze signed a ceasefire with the South Ossetian government, and the area remained stable until 2004.

Mikheil Saakashvili, who was an extremely popular president elected in 2004, started reforming Georgia and started getting close to the United States.

More importantly, Georgia showed intentions to integrate itself with Europe and of joining NATO.

The Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, opened in 2005, passed through Georgia (whose capital is Tbilisi), allowing Russian economic influence to reduce in the region.

Not only was Tbilisi standing up to Moscow, it was allying with states that had been Russia's enemies for the past few decades.

Finally, Saakashvili, like Gamsakhurdia, tried uniting South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Georgia.

That is when Russia decided that it had tolerated enough.

The Russian government in 2008, led by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, supported both the regions, claiming that the people there needed to be 'saved' from the Georgian government.

It even distributed Russian passports to hundreds of Ossetians.

Russian troops (not in uniform) moved into Abkhazia and airstrikes were conducted in South Ossetia.

They even advanced into and occupied Gori on 13 August 2008, withdrawing 9 days later.

Negotiations led to ceasefires and Russia recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that is, the Republic of South Ossetia and the Republic of Abkhazia. Tbilisi and Moscow cut ties.

The violence and the recognitions were followed by weak international condemnations, but nothing else besides that.

Both "republics" heavily rely on Russia for their economy and their defence, and are essentially satellite states of the Russian federation.

Russia regained influence in the region, and the "republics" could be used as invasion routes if Moscow ever wants to send its troops into Tbilisi.

If the chain of events in Georgia in August 2008 reminds of you what happened in Donetsk and Luhansk, it's because Russia has literally used the same trick in eastern Ukraine in February 2022.


'Free Expression of Will' in Crimea

Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, which was and is still internationally recognised to be a part of sovereign Ukraine, in February 2014, after the Euromaidan protests ousted the pro-Moscow government in Kyiv, led by Viktor Yanukovych.

Putin, who after four years of serving as prime minister, was elected as president in 2012, announced that Russia was not going to occupy Crimea.

He added, however, that "only citizens themselves, in conditions of free expression of will and their security can determine their future."

The Supreme Council of Crimea voted for a referendum, even though a Ukrainian court (well within its powers) deemed it illegal.

The Crimean status referendum was held on 16 March, and 97 percent of the population voted in favour of integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation.

Most of the international community did not recognise the referendum.

Nevertheless, following the referendum, the "Republic of Crimea" declared itself independent of Ukraine, while Russia recognised it to be sovereign state.

It continued to be a de-facto federal subject of Russia.

Putin has done in the same thing in Donbas in 2022.

He has recognised the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine to be independent of Kyiv as Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic, which will de-facto exist as satellite republics of the Russian Federation.

This is the third time in the last 15 years that Russia has eaten away a sovereign country's territory through its militarily and diplomatic moves.

Talking about Georgia and Crimea, Max Fras, a fellow at the London School of Economics' European Institute, said that Russia's actions in Crimea could have been prevented if the West had punished Russia adequately in 2008.

Even the 2014 annexation of Crimea was followed only by international condemnations, and sanctions – which Russia has been able to deal with.

In Georgia, "Russia showed that it can break international law, invade other countries and get away with it, something it repeated in Ukraine with much greater consequences," Fras said, as quoted in Euronews.

As Russian troops march into Kyiv, it remains to be seem what Western Europe and the US will do to punish Russia in order to deter it from further expansionism.

Sanctions and condemnations alone, as Georgia and Crimea show, may not work.


Putin Not Hiding Anymore, Ukraine Playbook Shows Deviation

During the Georgia War, while Russian troops occupied Gori, they didn't march towards Tbilisi.

Additionally, during the annexation of Crimea, Putin continuously denied sending in Russian troops, claiming that "local self-defence forces" in Crimea were taking over government buildings, and Russia was only part of a "humanitarian mission."

Putin's attack on Ukraine has deviated from both aspects.

At the moment of this article's publishing, Kyiv is being breached, and Putin has not even tried to deny the presence of Russian troops across Ukraine.

He is not hiding anymore. He has moved beyond the hybrid-warfare model consisting of cyberattacks and his "little green men."

An emboldened Putin is blatantly violating Ukraine's sovereignty, with the likely endgame being replacing the Zelenskyy government with a pro-Moscow puppet regime.

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