Author: David Batashvili, Research Fellow of Rondeli Foundation
There is some confusion about the date of the start of the August war of 2008. People tend to name August 7 and August 8 interchangeably, as if there were no difference between the two dates. As it happens, there is a crucial difference. August 7, 2008 is the day when the Russian army actually invaded Georgia and started the war. Meanwhile, Moscow is lying that it started its military operation against Georgia on August 8, not before.
This lie has a very important political function. Russia uses it to claim that its attack on Georgia started only after Tbilisi had launched its military operation in Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia. For some Georgians to follow Moscow in mentioning August 8 as they day the war started is an unbelievably foolish carelessness. Superficial treatment of history and facts that we too frequently indulge in, in this case directly harms Georgia’s interests, and supports the Russian disinformation.
As Vladimir Putin stated in 2012, the Russian General Staff prepared its plan of a war with Georgia in the late 2006 and early 2007. Moscow decided to implement that plan in 2008. Georgia’s developing relationship with the West meant that soon it would become extremely difficult to return it into the Russian sphere of influence. Such outcome was unacceptable for the Kremlin. Its key strategic goal is to restore its control over the former Soviet countries, in some form. The military attack against Georgia in 2008 became an effective strike that Moscow used to slow down Georgia’s permanent escape from its grasp.
In the morning of August 7, 2008, the regular non-peacekeeping Russian military forces violated Georgia’s border through the Roki Tunnel and invaded the country. This fact is confirmed by numerous sources, among them: information that got through the filter of the Kremlin’s official position and was published in various Russian media outlets; an official Russian criminal investigation of a Russian soldier’s death in Georgia’s Java District in the early morning of August 7; a statement made on August 7, 2008 by the leader of the Russian proxy regime in Sokhumi- Sergei Bagapsh; and the Georgian intelligence intercepts of the telephone conversations between Tskhinvali regime’s “border guards” concerning the Russian military column that crossed into Georgia through the Roki Tunnel in the early morning of August 7, 2008. For details and references regarding all these facts see my paper about the start of the Russo-Georgian War of 2008.
The Roki Tunnel, through which the Russian army launched its attack against Georgia on August 7
According to the international law, an invasion by the armed forces of one nation into the territory of another, without the consent of the latter, constitutes an act of aggression. According to the same international law, the nation against which such aggression is being performed has a right to self-defence. Georgia used this right in the late evening of August 7, when it started its military operation in Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia in response to the Russian aggression. Russian armed forces had invaded Georgia at least 19-20 hours prior to the start of this Georgian operation.
The people who do not fully appreciate the significance of August 7 as the date the war started, point out sometimes that Russian troops had been present in Georgia illegally even during the days before August 7. This is probably true. However, there are several factors that make August 7 stand out.
One is the fact that numerous publically accessible sources, which are both quite different from and independent of each other, point at the presence of the Russian army in Georgia on August 7 specifically, removing any reasonable doubt about such presence. We cannot say the same about the days prior to August 7. Then there is the fact that the Georgian government received confirmed information about the invading Russian troops on August 7, deciding to launch a military operation in response. Also, the Russian troops that invaded Georgia on August 7 launched a military operation against it that continued ceaselessly during the following days of the Russo-Georgian War. On the basis of all this, the day the war started is not August 2 or August 5, but August 7.
Another opinion voiced sometimes is that Georgia in any case had the right to re-establish sovereignty on all of its territory. This is true, but what theoretical rights Georgia had has nothing to do with the actual historical facts that took place in August 2008. And these facts are that Tbilisi started its military operation only after repeatedly receiving information during August 7 about the Russian troops that had invaded Georgia.
Since the war of 2008, Russia has been consistently and purposefully portraying August 8 as the day the war started. It has been constantly pushing the narrative that the Russian military operation against Georgia was launched only after the start of the Georgian operation and not before, as actually happened. All the Russian disinformation, propaganda and diplomatic effort regarding the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 is built on this lie. The actual historical date – August 7 – smashes this whole construct that Russia has built for the sole purpose of the victim-blaming of Georgia.
Through the well-resourced information warfare, during the period after the war of 2008 Russia has partially succeeded in spreading the lie that its invasion of Georgia had been launched after the start of the Georgian operation and not before. A lot has changed during the last few years, however. One the one hand, new facts about the Russian aggression of 2008 have emerged. On another, as a result of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, attacks against political systems of the western states, and many other aggressive actions, today Russia’s foreign policy is getting a more adequate appraisal in the West than it used to.
At such time, Georgians need to be speaking their truth clearly and firmly. This should be easy when the objective historical facts are as clearly in their favor as is they are in this case. But to use this properly, one has to fully understand these historical facts. Unfortunately, this is not our strongest area, a very rich example of which is the confusion about the date the war started, with people naming various dates without understanding the key difference between them.
The Georgian government, and the whole political elite, has the primary responsibility not to make mistakes about such an obvious matter. This responsibility, however, rests on the whole of the society as well. We are not talking about something confusing or unclear here. 7 August, as they day the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 started, is an objective historical fact which happens to destroy the Kremlin’s false version about the start of the war. Meanwhile, the start of the war on August 8 is a lie employed against Georgia by Moscow’s propaganda and diplomatic machine as a political weapon. The choice between the two is not really so difficult.