By NuNu Japaridze, CNN Producer
(CNN) - Russia’s neighboring post-Soviet country initiates democratic reforms in order to establish closer ties with Europe and U.S. It takes concrete steps to join the NATO alliance.
That doesn’t sit well with the Russian president, who warns NATO against allowing it. Russia then mounts political and economic pressure on the country in order to bring it back into the Russian sphere of influence. When that doesn’t work, Russia eventually invades the neighboring country under the pretext of defending ethnic Russians living there.
If you think that summarizes the current situation in Ukraine, you are mistaken – this all took place five years ago when Russia invaded Georgia, another post-Soviet state.
While it certainly feels like history repeating itself, here are five similarities and five differences between what happened in 2008 and what is currently taking place in Ukraine:
1. Georgia and Ukraine seek NATO membership: Georgia and Ukraine both regained independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved. While both countries pushed for independence, they faced a multitude of economic, political and social problems right after the breakup.
Georgia changed governments several times before Mikheil Sakashvili came to power in 2003 as a result of the bloodless "Rose Revolution" triggered by allegations of rigged parliamentary elections.
Ukraine also saw its share of political upheaval until the winner of 2004 presidential elections, incumbent Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych was ousted in a bloodless revolution similar to the one in Georgia. Demonstrators accused Yanukovych of rigged presidential elections. The election results were subsequently annulled by the Supreme Court of Ukraine.
Both countries initiated democratic reforms to seek closer ties with Europe and U.S. The ultimate goal for both was to join NATO. That did not sit well with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who considered both countries to be in the sphere of Russian influence. "When the military structure of NATO comes close to our borders, we react," Putin declared.
Georgia and Ukraine expected NATO to offer them Membership Action Plan (MAP) status during its 2008 summit, but despite strong support from the U.S., both countries failed to receive that status but were promised eventual membership.
2. Georgia and Ukraine face economic pressure from Russia: While the relationship between Russia and Georgia has been strained since the breakup of the Soviet Union, it reached a peak in 2006 when Russia cut off its gas supply to Georgia during one of the coldest winters, banned import of Georgian products, cut transport links and deported hundreds of Georgians from Russia.
Russia applied similar tactics in Ukraine. In 2006, it briefly cut the gas supply to Ukraine as a result of a disagreement over prices. Moscow said its reasons were economic but Kiev insisted they were political. In 2009, Russia again stopped all gas supplies to Ukraine over a payment dispute which lead to painful shortages in most of Europe. In 2013, Russia banned imports of various Ukrainian products, citing safety concerns.
3. Russia conducts large-scale military drills: In July 2008, a few days before Russia moved its troops into Georgian proper, Russia conducted a large-scale military drill code named Caucasus 2008. According to Russian state media reports, it involved 8,000 Russian troops, about 700 combat vehicles and more than 30 aircraft. To this day, Russia insists the drill had nothing to do with the military conflict in Georgia, which took place just a few days later.
A similar scenario unfolded before the crisis in Ukraine. Right before pro-Russian gunmen seized key buildings in the autonomous Ukrainian region of Crimea, Russia conducted its biggest military drill since Soviet times, with 160,000 troops, 130 planes, 70 ships and thousands of tanks and armored vehicles participating, according to Russian media reports.
Russia's deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, said the games were designed to "enhance the army's combat readiness" and were not directed against any specific nations, the BBC reported. The Ukrainian interim government alleged that while the military exercises were ongoing, Russia started moving a small number of troops into Crimea.
4. The Olympics and military action: The situation got really heated between Russia and Georgia during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Putin, then the prime minister, was in Beijing for the opening ceremony when what was characterized as "lower-level clashes" took place in South Ossetia, an internationally recognized region of Georgia, which declared de facto independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While Georgia and Russia both blamed each other for "provocations," the Georgian government reacted with an “artillery attack" to regain control of the region, according to a European Union fact-finding mission’s report.
Immediately after, Russia moved military units to South Ossetia in order to protect ethnic Russians residing there, as stated by Russian government officials. Russia proceeded to push forces deep into Georgia, bombing several major cities including the capital of Georgia.
The Georgian military was no match for the much larger Russian forces and was easily defeated after five days of intense fighting. While who fired first is still debated, the EU investigation into the matter concluded that Georgia triggered the conflict by its "offensive in South Ossetia" but that Moscow acted "in violation of international law" when it moved its troops further into Georgia, far beyond the administrative boundary of South Ossetia.
The report also concluded there was no “ethnic cleaning” of Russian nationals in South Ossetia, as alleged by Russia, but "that ethnic cleansing was indeed practiced against ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia both during and after the August 2008 conflict.”
The situation in Ukraine also escalated during Olympics. This time it was the Winter Games conducted in the Russian town of Sochi. Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych, who was reelected in 2010, fled his country to Russia a few days before the closing ceremony in Sochi. Before that, he had faced months of intense protests fueled by his last-minute decision to decline a trade deal with Europe in favor of closer economic ties with Russia. Protests eventually turned violent when the government used deadly force against the demonstrators. After Yanikovych fled, a new government was formed in Kiev but it was not recognized as legitimate by Putin.
Not long after the after new government took office, armed men in unidentified military uniforms seized the parliament building in Crimea. Ukraine’s new prime minister accused Russia of invading his country. Putin denied the accusation as well as the presence of Russian troops in Crimea. He said the unidentified troops were "local self-defense units."
Putin asked the Russian parliament to approve military intervention in Ukraine “due to the threats to the lives of Russian citizens” there. International journalists on the ground, including CNN reporters, were not able to confirm such threats but the request was promptly approved by parliament. Meanwhile, pro-Russian Crimean leadership scheduled a referendum to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.
5. U.S. reaction to Georgia and Ukraine: The U.S. took a strong stand in support of Georgia and then-President George W. Bush urged Putin to immediately halt the military offensive. “We strongly condemn the bombing,” Bush said in an interview with NBC.
Vice President Dick Cheney echoed the president’s words: “Russian aggression must not go unanswered… its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States, as well as the broader international community," read a statement released by the vice president’s office.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was promptly dispatched to Georgia to meet with president Saakashvili, arriving as Russian jets were still conducting military maneuvers over Georgian territory.
A French-brokered cease fire agreement ended Russia’s offensive. It called for the Russian military to “withdraw to positions held prior to the conflict.” Russia and Georgia both agreed to the deal.
While Russia withdrew from most Georgian territories, they remained in the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Georgia, the U.S and France said was in violation of the agreement.
Shortly after the fighting ended, 38 countries pledged close to $5 billion to aid Georgia in economic recovery following the conflict. There was also some talk of sanctions against Russia, but those never materialized.
When Russia moved troops into Crimea, the reaction from the U.S. was very similar, even though a Democrat was now in the White House. The U.S. was quick to condemn Russia’s action and President Barak Obama warned Russia during an impromptu televised address that “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
As in Georgia, Secretary of State John Kerry was sent to Ukraine to “indicate our support for the Ukrainian people.” Around the same time, the U.S. announced that it would give Ukraine $1 billion in loan guarantees to help insulate the Ukrainian economy from the effects of reduced energy subsidies from Russia. The U.S. went a step further in Ukraine than it had in Georgia.
Obama signed an executive order allowing the U.S. government to impose a host of sanctions on both individuals and entities deemed to be violating Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Europe also threatened a similar action if the matter couldn’t be resolved diplomatically.
1. Russian troop movements: In 2008, Russian forces pushed far into Georgia, beyond the disputed regions. Russia resorted to air strikes and bombed several targets throughout the country including the capital Tblisi.
Unlike Georgia, Russian troops have not pushed beyond the Crimean peninsula as of now. They have seized numerous strategic targets in Crimea such as the parliament building, airports and some Ukrainian military bases. Experts fear Russian troop movements deep into eastern Ukraine.
2. Massive casualties in Georgia: About 1,000 people were killed as a result of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia and more than 100,000 civilians fled their homes, according to the EU fact-finding mission report.
Even though shots have been fired in Ukraine, so far there have not been any deaths. The military buildup continues in Crimea with more Russian troops entering the territory, but the situation remains calm largely due to the restraint shown by the Ukrainian military.
3. Russia admitted presence of its troops in Georgia, not the case in Ukraine: In 2008, Russia made it perfectly clear that it was behind the military operation in Georgia. President Putin denies a Russian military presence in Crimea, claiming that troops in unidentified military uniforms are “self-defense” forces.
4. No sanctions over Georgia: Although several countries threatened Russia with sanctions after the Georgia conflict, none delivered.
In Ukraine’s case, the U.S did not waste any time putting sanctions on the table. Obama followed up on the threat and signed an executive order only a few days after his first warning.
5. Russia declared contested territories independent: After the 2008 conflict, Moscow formally recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The rest of the world, excluding Nicaragua, Venezuela and some small Pacific island states, consider the regions part of the sovereign territory of Georgia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia represent 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory.
But Russia considers the regions independent and maintains permanent military bases there and interferes in their political processes.
Russia took a slightly different stand on Crimea. Instead of encouraging a push for independence, the Russian parliament announced it would debate whether to accept Crimea as part of the country on March 21, a few days after the scheduled referendum there.
It is expected that the Russian parliament will clear a way for Crimea to become part of Russia. It is also expected that the international community will declare such a move illegal.