Five years since the sudden outbreak of war between Georgia and Russia on August 7, 2008, the regional landscape of the South Caucasus has shifted significantly. The direct impact of the Georgia-Russia war was profound, and resulted in the Russian recognition of the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a setback to Georgian aspirations to join the NATO alliance, and a dramatic escalation of tension between Moscow and Tbilisi. Each of these developments came amid the backdrop of both a projection of Russian power and a consolidation of Russian influence throughout much of the South Caucasus..
Over the medium-term, even five years on, there are still serious repercussions from the brief five-day war. Most notably, these include the gradual erosion of Georgia’s position as the regional “center of gravity” for the West, and an increase in domestic tension throughout much of the Saakashvili presidency that only undermined stability and that culminated in the electoral victory of the opposition “Georgian Dream” coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili in October 2012. And rather surprisingly, Armenia gradually replicated Georgia’s strategic Western orientation, although in a much more nuanced and subtle embrace of the EU, designed to prevent a Russian over-reaction.
And over the longer term, the past five years since the war has also been marked by the emergence of the European Union (EU) as one of the more active, and perhaps even more assertive, actors in the region. Utilizing its own role as a “transformative power,” the EU has deepened ties and extended its reach into the South Caucasus, through the Eastern Partnership, and more recently, by offering Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreements with several key countries in the region and beyond.
Yet even five years on, several questions remain unanswered. For example, what has Moscow achieved with its enhanced power and influence in the region? Did the war of August 2008 represent a Russian “line in the sand” to impose firm limits on the countries of the region from moving too close to the West? And more currently, to what degree is the war perceived as a deterrent to greater Western engagement? Finally, was the apparent Western acceptance of Russian power and influence in the South Caucasus an irrevocable recognition of Moscow’s sphere of influence in the so-called near abroad?