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Will Russia Go to War? Putin Has Dusted off His 2008 Playbook for Ukraine

Russia T-72 Tank
Russia's T-72 tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Western eyes are understandably focused on the 100,000+ Russian troops poised within striking range of the Ukrainian border, wondering if the flurry of high-level diplomacy in Europe will be able to prevent war. But a check back to what happened in eastern Europe 14 yeas ago offers some interesting – and troubling – indicators of what may be brewing in Moscow today: the playbook Putin used to launch a limited-objective war into Georgia in 2008 is, in large measure, being reprised with Ukraine.

The good news is that until the bullets start flying, it remains possible to avert war. The bad news is that unless the West in general (and the U.S. in particular) change their negotiating strategy, war becomes likely.

It needs to be said upfront that if war comes, it will be Putin who starts it and Putin who will be responsible for the death and destruction that ensues. Yet it is also true that evidence suggests Putin does not desire war per se, and if he can obtain a sufficient degree of his core objectives without fighting, there is a reasonable chance he won’t launch a war.

For the past three decades, the West has had the luxury of making policy primarily based on its preferences, being able to ignore opposing positions from weaker states, including Russia up through at least 2004. That is no longer the case, as both Russia and China are now demonstrating they have reached a near-peer status with the West, at least on a regional basis.

To resolve this crisis short of war, the United States and Europe on the one side, and Russia on the other, will each have to make some concessions and be willing to accept outcomes less than their maximalist preferences.

The West won’t make any concessions, however, if it thinks Putin is bluffing and won’t ultimately launch a war. A look at the Putin playbook of 2008, however, in combination with how he has been orchestrating events of the present, makes clear that despite anything Russian leaders say, they are unequivocally laying the groundwork for a new conflict.

The Seeds for the 2008 War are Planted

The wheels towards the Russia/Georgia conflict started turning in November 2002 when then-President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze spoke at the NATO summit in Prague and officially requested alliance membership. The next year, with private Kremlin encouragement, Russian-backed separatists in the Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia petitioned Moscow to recognize them as independent states. By 2004, Moscow began fast-tracking Russian passports to the residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, making them effectively Russian citizens.

On April 3, 2008, NATO officially declared both Ukraine and Georgia would eventually be granted membership. The reaction from Moscow was swift. The next day, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grusko warned that “Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake which would have most serious consequences for pan-European security.”

Just one month later, Russia started taking actions to back up its warnings, as Moscow began sending more “peacekeeping troops” to Georgia and increased its troop mobilization for the large-scale Kavkaz 2008 exercise – planned for near the Georgian border from July through August. Meanwhile, South Ossetian leaders began claiming they were being attacked by Georgian troops and asked Russia to send more “peacekeeping” troops. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, international diplomacy was being conducted at a fevered pitch.

Andrei Illarionov, writing in the compendium The Guns of August 2008, explained that throughout “the summer (of 2008), there were numerous proposals for bilateral and multilateral negotiations to seek a peaceful settlement of the conflicts (p.71).” These discussions included more than 12 diplomatic engagements spread throughout the two months prior to the outbreak of war. These meetings included the participation of Georgia, the United States, Germany, the EU, the OSCE, and Finland. The efforts would prove to have been in vain.

War Breaks Out in August 2008

Timed almost exactly to the end of the Kavkaz 2008 exercises, Russia alleged on 7 August that Georgian troops attacked both its peacekeepers and Russian citizens in South Ossetia and invaded. Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation Vitaly Churkin called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council the next day and claimed that Georgian forces had launched a “treacherous and massive” attack against Russian peacekeepers in Georgia, later adding a “targeted massive assault was launched on the Russian peacekeeping contingent,” by Georgian armed forces in South Ossetia.

Then-president Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia had no choice but to intervene. “In accordance with the constitution and our federal laws,” Medvedev claimed, “as the president of the Russian Federation I am obliged to protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are.” After years of preparation and careful diplomatic stage-setting, Russia launched its war with Georgia, effectively removing any possibility Tbilisi may have had in being admitted to NATO. It now appears that Putin has been for years reprising the entire sequence that culminated in the 2008 Georgian war, to Ukraine.

Late-Stage Preparation for a 2022 War in Ukraine

Putin has expended considerable effort since 2014 to keep Ukraine out of NATO. He annexed Ukrainian territory (Crimea) in 2014, began an aggressive “passportization” process whereby he gave citizenship to Russian-speaking residents in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine, and has repeatedly warned that NATO membership for Kyiv is a red line he won’t allow to be crossed.

In just the past few months, Russia has built up not only about 130,000 troops within striking distance of the Ukraine border, but also mobilized thousands of airmen, sailors, and special forces troops to a level not seen since the USSR collapsed in 1991. All branches of Russia’s armed forces are undergoing or will soon begin massive training exercises near the Ukrainian border, near the seas on its coast, and near Ukrainian airspace, all culminating by 20 February.

Meanwhile, leaders of the separatist enclaves in Ukraine have been making increasingly dire warnings of imminent Ukrainian attack against Russian citizens in the Donbass, and the highest ranking Russian leaders and major media outlets increase their warnings that any Ukrainian or Western attempts to, “resolve the Ukrainian conflict by force would carry extremely serious consequences,” and Russia may again claim the need to intervene to protect Russian citizens.

Last Chance to Avert War?

By all objective measures, Putin is in the latter stages of a meticulously orchestrated multi-year preparation to launch a war into eastern Ukraine. Until Russian troops or missiles cross the border and begin attacking Ukrainian targets, however, war remains a potential and not a certainty. At this point, it would be unwise the extreme to believe that Putin is only bluffing and that the West can simply refuse to give Putin any of his core demands and still preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Putin is making a major ask: no more eastward expansion of NATO, a rollback to the 1997 NATO line, and limits on offensive weapons near Russia’s border. Even Putin has to understand that the 1997 rollback will never happen, but on the other two points NATO has flexibility to find a compromise.

The unvarnished truth is that the last thing NATO should even want is to have Ukraine in NATO. Kyiv is suffering through a civil war between its eastern and western populations, remains a corrupt nation, and has a major dispute on its eastern border with Russia; the very definition of long-term instability. It would be in the interests of all 30 members of NATO to avoid extending Article 5 guarantees to a nation that could later suck the entire alliance into a war with a nuclear-armed adversary.

Further, it is also very low cost to the Alliance to agree to a verifiable regime of mutual distancing of short-range missiles between NATO and Russia. Doing so makes NATO’s eastern flank less vulnerable. As important, the U.S. and our Western allies have no shortage of long-range missiles and sufficient air power to project power anywhere on the globe should that someday become necessary. If limiting NATO to its current eastern boundaries and engaging in mutually distancing of short-range missiles prevents Ukraine from being invaded – as well as enable a return to stability to East-West relations – we should do it.

This may be our last chance to avert war in eastern Europe. Russia’s massive exercises will conclude near the 20th of this month. The weather conditions will be optimal for armored attack and the Russian armed forces will be close to fully mobilized and positioned for invasion. Refusing to budge on issues that could benefit NATO because it would be perceived as good for Putin is a lousy reason to reject principled compromises with Moscow. The objective needs to be what’s best for U.S. national security and NATO solidarity.

Now is the time to eat our pride and do what’s necessary to preserve our strength. Putin showed the world his playbook to war in 2008. It’s clear he’s following it again for Ukraine in 2022. We dare not stand passively by and watch while Ukraine is engulfed in war, hoping for a different outcome. It would be unconscionable if the West failed to take necessary action and condemned thousands of Ukrainians to a violent death.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him Twitter: @DanielLDavis1.

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.