oDR: Opinion

The wars that changed the South Caucasus

Comparing the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh to the 2008 Georgia-Russian War shows a pattern of receding western influence, offensives at key US elections and the need for independent investigation of war crimes.

Vicken Cheterian
7 December 2020, 9.59am
Azerbaijani military equipment near Fizuli, December 2020
(c) Aleksandr Kazakov/Kommersant/Sipa USA. All rights reserved

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the first ethno-territorial conflict to emerge in the Soviet Union. Coming at the height of Gorbachev’s reforms, this war in the South Caucasus symbolises the rapid disintegration of what was once a military superpower and the world’s second largest economy. Karabakh and similar conflicts in the early 1990s were the result of state collapse – the state being the USSR.

The recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, now known as the Second Karabakh War, is a clash between two newly established nation-states, and has a number of similarities with the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. Indeed, comparing the Second Karabakh War and the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia could help us draw conclusions on some of the consequences and identify broader trends in the Caucasus, a major theatre of instability that emerged in the debris of Soviet collapse.

Both Georgia in 2008 and Armenia in 2020 were post-revolution societies. The political leadership that emerged from Georgia’s revolution in 2003 and Armenia’s in 2018 enjoyed total hegemony over political institutions. Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president in January 2004 with 96% of the vote, while Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance party won the December 2018 parliamentary elections with 88 out of 132 seats. Both leaders came to power under slogans of democratisation and fighting corruption. How then did they fall into the trap of ethno-territorial conflicts? Moreover, how might the influence of the 2008 war on Georgia’s internal developments help us conceptualise possible developments in Armenia?

First, it is necessary to bear in mind certain differences between Georgia and Armenia. Georgia faced two counts of ethnic separatism – in two provinces that enjoyed autonomous status in Soviet times. Tbilisi also faced the challenge of central control over the peripheries, including the rich province of Ajaria, as well as mountainous districts controlled by armed groups such as Kodori Valley or Pankisi. Armenia, on the other hand, faced the problem of securing its co-ethnics in Nagorno Karabakh, which were engaged in a struggle for autonomy against the central authorities of Azerbaijan. Therefore, while Tbilisi supported the principle of territorial integrity of states, Armenia backed self-determination.

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Another important difference between the two is that Georgia in 2008 was actively seeking to join NATO, and Saakashvili chose close association with Washington. Armenia had no such ambitions, and was part of Russia’s military alliance. Georgia in 2008 and Armenia in 2020 had essentially opposing security vectors. Finally, while it was the Georgian leadership that took the military initiative by sending its forces into battle to capture Tskhinvali, Armenia was not the side that started the Second Karabakh War. It was the Azerbaijani leadership that was consistently in favour of military solution of the conflict, and it was Baku that started the military aggression on 27 September. While Saakashvili aimed to change the status quo, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan wished to preserve it.

Initiating wars

The timing of both wars was well chosen, with both the 2008 and 2020 conflicts started under cover of double international events.

Both started prior to American presidential elections, but for different reasons. Saakashvili was worried that an eventual defeat of the US Republican Party would lead to losing the support of Washington. Therefore, the months before the US presidential elections of 2008 was a final window of opportunity to launch a military challenge while hoping for US military backing. For Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, the US presidential elections, as well as the global Covid-19 pandemic, were diversions that could keep international actors away from the Karabakh war - and the global media busy. The 2008 war, which started with the Georgian military operation towards the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on 7 August, coincided with another global event that was to serve as a smokescreen: the opening of the Beijing Olympics on 8 August.

One of the most important elements to retain is that neither of the “protectors” came to the rescue of their protégés by effectively stopping the war. The 2008 war coincided with the end of joint US-Georgian military manoeuvres; US military personnel were still in Georgia as the war erupted. Yet the US administration, even led by neo-conservatives, was not going to risk a war with Russia, a nuclear power.

In 2020, Russia had all the means to decisively intervene and stop the joint Azerbaijani-Turkish attack against its ally, Armenia. The Azerbaijani attack started one day after Russia had ended a major war games exercise in the North Caucasus, Kavkaz-2020, in which some 80,000 troops took part. Russia was evidently annoyed to see Turkish military intervention in the South Caucasus, and the presence of several thousand Syrian mercenaries in the conflict zone. But Russia still made cost-benefit calculations and chose not to intervene.

The West did not choose to help Nikol Pashinyan after the 2018 revolution, and does not seem to be changing course after the destructive war. Nor is Moscow very keen to save the political career of Pashinyan, who came to power on a wave of popular protests

Eventually, both the West – the US and France, which acted as mediator in 2008 - and Russia intervened to stop the wars and save their protégés from total defeat. In 2008, this was done after less than five days of war. In 2020, it was done after 44 days of war, and after Armenia was forced to sign a humiliating agreement. This document saw Armenia lose the remaining Azerbaijani territories still under its control (it did not receive Karabakh Armenian localities under Azeri control in return), and no promises on the final status of Karabakh – the essence of the conflict.

The fact that the 2008 war lasted only five days meant that it was less destructive, with relatively low casualties as Georgian military losses were less than 200. The Georgian authorities also followed a policy of censoring anti-Russian xenophobia– for example, censoring a song considered to be anti-Russian from being aired on local TV channels. On the other hand, the Second Karabakh War was much more deadly, not so much among civilians – who were evacuated from war zones– but the military. The war also led to the emergence of a new wave of inter-ethnic hatred, as images of war propaganda invaded screens of both sides.

Stepanakert and other Armenian localities came under intense bombardment throughout the war, while the Azerbaijani towns of Barda and Ganja came under missile attacks. Large number of videos filmed by Azerbaijani elite soldiers torturing and murdering Armenian prisoners of war circulated on social media, suggesting a systematic policy. Similar videos of abuse of Azerbaijani POWs also emerged on the Armenian side, although with much lower numbers. The Azerbaijani public’s support for war was unconditional, and the pro-war demonstrations of July this year are probably one of the triggers of the Second Karabakh War.

Following the 2008 war, the EU established an “Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia”, headed by experienced Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini. A similar independent fact-finding mission is necessary to clarify the responsibility for the Second Karabakh War and the crimes committed during the 44 days. In fact, it is necessary to establish a second historical commission that goes back to the emergence of the conflict in 1988 and investigates a number of taboos that continue to fuel antagonism, including Sumgait and a chain of other anti-Armenian pogroms in Soviet Azerbaijan, ethnic cleansing in Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan, Khojalu and other massacres during the first Karabakh War, among others. Without an independent truth commission and clarification, polarised narratives will continue to fuel hatred. This kind of commission might help the parties to finally distinguish crimes from justice, and take a different future course.


The 2008 war was a turning point in international politics. After nearly two decades of Russian military retreat, 2008 marked a radical shift in Russian policies. Moscow not only stopped the Georgian challenge to oust its forces from South Ossetia, but also put an end to Georgian ambitions to join NATO. In 2020, this trend was re-confirmed: Russia’s last-minute intervention not only saved what remains of Karabakh from the risk of being annihilated by Azerbaijani forces, but also imposed its peacekeepers inside Azerbaijan - something that successive leaders in Baku had rejected in the past. Now Moscow has a foothold inside Azerbaijan that it could use against any challenges defying its influence in the Karabakh conflict zone. Russia also succeeded in marginalising Turkey from both the 9 November ceasefire agreement, and the military dimensions of peacekeeping. In the end, Russia came out winning in a conflict where it had invested little.

The trend of decreasing Western influence over the South Caucasus, which started in 2008, has been confirmed once again in 2020. The OSCE Minsk Group – a structure created to manage the Karabakh conflict, but not necessarily to resolve it – has been marginalised by Moscow. In the future, Russia might be interested to see a certain role of France or the US in the Karabakh area, as long as this new role does not cross the limits of the new Russian influence there - namely, its military domination.

Mikheil Saakashvili managed to stay in power to continue his second presidential mandate after the 2008 defeat, only thanks to massive European and American financial aid of up to $4 billion USD. The West did not choose to help Pashinyan after the 2018 revolution, and does not seem to be changing course after the destructive war. Nor is Moscow very keen to save the political career of Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power on a wave of popular protests – something the Russian elite has dreaded since the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. It is difficult to imagine what force could save Pashinyan now.

This does not mean that Armenia will go back to the old days. True, Georgia could not continue its political transformation following 2008, but it did not return to its pre-2003 conditions of a weak state and chaotic reality. Most important, the United National Movement, the political party founded by Saakasvhili, survived Georgia’s next elections, constituting a parliamentary opposition. The best that could happen to Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance is to survive its inevitable fall from power and become a real opposition.

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