March 14th, 2014
05:49 PM ET

Deja Vu About Georgia in Ukraine? Not Exactly

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:

What's similar? 

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.”

Vice President Joe Biden pushed the same message in multiple phone calls to his Russian counterpart. 

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.

What's different? 

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.

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soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. David

    Rcap goes on some crazy rant about Cuba and Mexico, etc. Stick to the topic. The EU investigation confirmed Russia's account as true? Which report did you read? The one covered on state sponsored/censored Russian Media? The author of this article has the link to EU fact finding mission. Take a good look at it. It says Georgia might have provoked Russia but Russia’s response was overblown and was in violation of international law. It also says that there was no ethnic cleansing of Russians in South Ossetia but there was ethnic cleaning of Georgians during and after the war. If you would read the article carefully, you would have noticed this part. You must have selective reading abilities. It is easy to cite EU report when it advances your version of truth and ignore it when it does not.

    So Putin is the guardian angel of ethnic Russians all over the world and where he sees the threat, he just goes and invades those lands? Would he be going to claim Alaska next? There might still be some ethnic Russians living there, threatened by “hostile” Americans. We get it. Putin does not want NATO on its border and he wants to restore the glory days of USSR. After all, this is the guy who called the collapse of the Soviet Union “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” I don’t need to go on, this quote summarizes it all.

    March 18, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  2. Rkap

    Good to see some CNN articles now getting a bit more balanced. The one on Ukraine and the vote in Ukraine is OK.
    The above though is the normal crap we expect from CNN. The Georgian crisis. It is a repeat of the lies and propaganda of the Bush Admin tamely pushed by most US media at the time. Mostly blatant lies. Why keep it up. The rest of the world does not accept that bullshit story. The EU investigation confirmed Russia's account as true. There observers on the ground there confirmed it. As usual the USA using threats stopped all there US military advisers there from telling the truth. They must have known the Georgians were about to attack Ossetia etc. You bring up the Gas one as usual and twist it. Russia never cut Gas to Europe as you imply. The Pro West Gov. of Ukraine did that. When Russia cut back there Gas to Ukraine because of unpaid bills along with Russia saying it is time you pay world parity pricing Ukraine stole gas intended for Europe. Russia never cut back the supplies enough to hurt people in the cold weather. You also leave out Russia had been trying to negotiate with them for at least 6 months. All Ukraine had to do was pay there bill or cut back on there heavily subsidized internal Gas prices or more to the point why didn't the USA and the EU help out Ukraine with some aide and investment and trade deals with a Pro West Gov. in power. What twisted logic do you rely on inferring Russia should have kept subsidizing them to the tune of about $4 billion a year and supplying Gas when they were well behind in there payments. What subsidies does the US give Mexico? Stuff all and it was not until about a decade ago you dropped your vicious trade barriers against Mexico. Typical US – one rule for the US and another for everybody else. Once the USA and Britain in the main had the Pro West Gov. [Eastern Ukraine Gov.] they wanted and agitated for in power why did the US and the EU do nothing to help Ukraine? A grand total of $47 million over 6 years was what I heard. No trade deals and no investment. Unless you want to see Ukraine turn back to Russia in a few years you had better finally put some $ where your mouth is this time. Ukraine is no longer Russia's responsibility unless the Eastern States get really pissed off with an Western Ukraine Dominated Gov. Entirely possible since the East of Ukraine did not act in a very honorable way in WW2. Same in Georgia also. Continually failed to pay there Gas and Electricity bill and continually threw abuse at Russia and provoked Russia. [That was a two way street started by the less than Democratic fool the USA backed in Georgia.] What did you expect Russia to do? Keep supplying Gas and Electricity and accept not being paid and also take the abuse Georgia continually threw at them without giving some back. Again about 99% of people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia thank the Russians for coming in and saving them from US backed Georgia. The great preacher of Democracy.
    I will not go on. What is the point. The US unless something changes will still probably be lying about this in another 50 years. Very similar to the Cuban Missile crisis. Most US media still does not tell the truth. All in the main caused by an arrogant US putting Nuclear Missiles on the USSR border in Turkey. Of course the USSR did not like it just as the USA did not like it when the USSR did it back to them in Cuba. A humiliating back-down there by an arrogant sanctimonious USA. Not a victory against the evil USSR as the US still plays it. USA Documentaries to this day twist it all. The facts are the USA caused it and the USA had to withdraw there missiles and guarantee not to try to kill Castro again. [What was it 49 failed attempts? US Government sanctioned murder.] Also guarantee not to try to invade Cuba again. A great victory? I do admire Kennedy though for having the courage to go against all the idiot hawks that CNN in those days would have backed. To stand up to them and back down and talk to the USSR and resolve that issue took a lot of guts. Australian 5th Generation.

    March 18, 2014 at 10:26 am | Reply
  3. David

    Very well written article documenting Putin's pattern of behavior in regards to post soviet countries. Current situation is Ukraine is a direct result of inaction by the world leaders in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. Had the the world reacted differently, Putin would have be discouraged to invade Ukraine. The author makes very accurate comparisons.

    March 17, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Reply
    • Rkap

      All crap.Where do you get your info? US media? That will explain it.
      Yes I remember the Georgian crisis.
      Three days of US media pushing the line Russia invades Georgia. Then some of our own reporters get there and they can't find anyone in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that is not welcoming the Russians as liberators. They also noted as they struggled to get there thousands of civilians fleeing North to Russia to escape the US backed Georgians.
      They also noted there were very few US reporters there. Virtually none thank God or they stood a fair chance of being shot. The crap put up by US media and even CNN at that time was simply a repeat of the lies fed to them by the Bush Admin. Australian.

      March 18, 2014 at 10:45 am | Reply
      • rubber

        Thats is because US media cant match high standards of Russia Today i guess

        March 19, 2014 at 3:38 pm |
  4. T. Li

    I can't imagine anybody in his (her) righteous mind would choose to align with Russia. If they do, let them. Sooner or later, they are going to find out how terrible a choice they had made.

    March 17, 2014 at 2:31 am | Reply
    • rubber

      Both Osetia and Abkhazia are in limbo today. They became something similar to Russian privy, no law, abundance of criminals from all over Russia, drag trafficking, destitution and absolute isolation, they cant even complain because who can they complain to?, certainly not to Russians, but in their case it really can be said they got what they wished for- sarcasm intended

      March 19, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Reply
    • rubber

      Both Osetia and Abkhazia are in limbo today. They became something similar to Russian privy, no law, abundance of criminals from all over Russia, drag trafficking, destitution and absolute isolation, they cant even complain because who can they complain to?, certainly not to Russians, but from the other hand it can be said they got what they wished for- sarcasm intended

      March 19, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  5. nikolay

    i like the us point of view. you think that something is legal only if it is profitable or good for US. but now Russia thinks the same way. wat's wrong?

    March 16, 2014 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  6. Sergey

    If it was OK for Georgia to separate from Russia, by the same principle it should be OK for Abkhazia to separate from Georgia.
    and if it was OK for Ukraine to separate from Russia, it should be OK for Crimea to separate from Ukraine.

    March 16, 2014 at 5:07 pm | Reply
    • Rkap

      If you are Russian as your name implies rest assured not all in the West think like these biased people here. There are many who can see Russia's point of view. The big problem of course is the USA thought once the USSR fell they could control the world. It has come as a shock to them a revived Russia will not tolerate that. Also most are envious of the sheer Intellect and Pragmatic style of Putin. If only we had more Politicians in the world who dealt with facts like him. Not push there own often flawed dogma. I as an Australian welcome the balance Russia and an emerging China bring to the world. Two nations big enough to stop the USA going on too many equivalents of the Crusades of the middle ages. Trying to force there often bent and flawed dogma on others.

      March 18, 2014 at 10:54 am | Reply
  7. Mike J.

    Error in in the article: "until President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in 2004" should be 2014. Yanukovych was elected for the first time in 2010.

    March 16, 2014 at 4:08 pm | Reply
    • TeamCNNCNN

      Thank you, Mike. This has been corrected.

      Happy #NewDay!
      Lola / CNN VCM

      March 17, 2014 at 7:28 am | Reply
  8. Tychi

    Not exactly like Georgia but just like Nazis. Going into a country and daring the world to act, and the world does nothing. So now the USSR is going to try to take all of Ukraine. The world will just threaten and nothing else. The world needs to go in and make their stand now.

    March 16, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Reply
    • rubber

      No one will make a stand. Weakness of the west is that it thinks it lives in 21-st century on another planet, when the real world comes to wake them up it'll be too late for "stands".

      March 19, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  9. Kay, Maia

    Excellent article. Very good points, especially on differences among these two conflicts. Most of the experts have missed them.

    March 14, 2014 at 9:23 pm | Reply

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