Ilves: Russo-Georgian War exposed Western misconceptions about Russia

Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves wrote on social media on Wednesday that the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 shook up many principal assumptions of the West, and that what has happened since is forcing countries to take another look at their foreign and security policy.

"The war between Georgia and Russia that started ten years ago today marked the end of an era, of a paradigm," Ilves wrote. The post-1991 settlement, or rather the principle dating back to the Helsinki Accords of 1975 that no state in Europe would use military force to change national borders, was shaken to the core.

Russia's aggression against Georgia had shown that the assumption of the international community that Russia would stick to the rules is wrong, Ilves added.

This fundamentally changed the international security situation. The rules in force until that point now don't apply anymore—or at least, they don't apply equally for everyone. The West had to get used to a new world.

"And it didn't manage," Ilves wrote. The hope that what happened to Georgia is little more than a sideshow, and that time will take care of it, has turned out to be wishful thinking.

The years of denial that followed suddenly made way for a harsh new reality when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. "The annexation of Crimea brought the realisation that what happened in Georgia in August 2008 wasn't a random violation, but a sign of a new reality," Ilves pointed out.

A new reality no less that has since forced the West to revisit its approach to security, its underlying principles, and the cooperation of Western states with Russia.

"Now we've learned a lesson. Rules only apply as long as their violation has consequences. Sanctions may not convince Russia to change its behaviour, but they are a confirmation that the West values these rules and won't give them up," President Ilves said in his comment.

To Estonia, what happened in Georgia and a few years later in Ukraine also confirms the importance of alliances, Ilves wrote. Its membership in the European Union and NATO defends the country, among other things also against a potential new world order in which the weak are at the mercy of the strong.

Politically, the last decade made it necessary for several Western countries to question their "pragmatic foreign policy" and made it very clear that what may be pragmatism in the eyes of one country can easily undermine efforts elsewhere that are based on principles and international law.

The West has also seen Russia's approach to its military means, hybrid warfare that doesn't only focus on ground and air, but also extends into cyberspace and information channels. Russia's actions brought with them the realisation as well that where politicians are forced to make decisions because of someone else's military actions, it is sensible to seek the advice of one's own military as well.

Ilves recalled his own trip to Tbilisi on 12 August 2008 along with his Polish and Lithuanian counterparts and Latvian Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis. They met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to express their support of Georgia.

"I told thousands who came: I am a Georgian. Georgia isn't alone in this struggle. This is all our fight for a world order built on rules, where all states, big and small, have the right to decide themselves about their future, without outside interference," Ilves wrote.

Today, ten years later, the need to stress this is just as urgent as it was then, he added: perhaps even more so.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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