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Russia Is Reenacting Its Georgia Playbook in Ukraine

False claims of military withdrawal followed by recognition of breakaway regions is a tried and tested Kremlin strategy.

By , an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
Russian army trucks are pictured on a riverbank in Nar, near the border between Russia and Georgia, on Aug. 15, 2008.
Russian army trucks are pictured on a riverbank in Nar, near the border between Russia and Georgia, on Aug. 15, 2008.
Russian army trucks are pictured on a riverbank in Nar, near the border between Russia and Georgia, on Aug. 15, 2008. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images

Despite two months of diplomatic efforts and European leaders’ endless visits to Moscow, the Kremlin has shown no intention of engaging in meaningful discussions. By amassing around 190,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, Moscow is attempting to create a hostage situation in Ukraine so it can gain major concessions. Compared to the 2008 war with Georgia and 2014 annexation of Crimea, the West now seems to acknowledge the costs of appeasement and has avoided falling into the Russian trap so far. Still, the current force posture on the ground and recognition of the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories’ independence clearly indicate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aim to embark on another military adventure in Ukraine.

Since Moscow’s gamble for concessions has failed so far, the Kremlin now seems to be orchestrating coordinated disinformation campaigns. Russia has deployed 45,000 troops and military equipment to Belarus for joint drills. Putin recently announced a partial withdrawal of troops to their permanent bases, sending false signals of de-escalation.

Russia’s behavior today bears a chilling resemblance to its approach to Georgia in 2008. Five days prior to launching its military operation, the Kremlin concluded the large-scale Kavkaz-2008 exercise and announced a pullback. The Georgian example clearly shows that Russian rhetoric cannot be trusted.

Despite two months of diplomatic efforts and European leaders’ endless visits to Moscow, the Kremlin has shown no intention of engaging in meaningful discussions. By amassing around 190,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, Moscow is attempting to create a hostage situation in Ukraine so it can gain major concessions. Compared to the 2008 war with Georgia and 2014 annexation of Crimea, the West now seems to acknowledge the costs of appeasement and has avoided falling into the Russian trap so far. Still, the current force posture on the ground and recognition of the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories’ independence clearly indicate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aim to embark on another military adventure in Ukraine.

Since Moscow’s gamble for concessions has failed so far, the Kremlin now seems to be orchestrating coordinated disinformation campaigns. Russia has deployed 45,000 troops and military equipment to Belarus for joint drills. Putin recently announced a partial withdrawal of troops to their permanent bases, sending false signals of de-escalation.

Russia’s behavior today bears a chilling resemblance to its approach to Georgia in 2008. Five days prior to launching its military operation, the Kremlin concluded the large-scale Kavkaz-2008 exercise and announced a pullback. The Georgian example clearly shows that Russian rhetoric cannot be trusted.

Apart from heavy military mobilization, the Russian side is increasingly seeking to construct a casus belli by spreading disinformation and accusing Ukraine of planning military provocations in the eastern Donbass region. Throughout eight years of ongoing war, the Ukrainian government has never attempted to escalate the situation and retake control of the occupied parts of the Donbass region. It is hardly believable that Kyiv would take such a risk at a time when Russia is launching its largest military mobilization in decades.

Putin has gone further, issuing “genocide” claims regarding killings allegedly taking place in the Donbass region. Russia is following its well-known playbook. In 2014, the Kremlin justified its military offensive by claiming ethnic Russians were being threatened in eastern Ukraine. Similar accusations were also at the forefront of Russian information warfare in 2008, when the Kremlin blamed Tbilisi for committing ethnic cleansing—a charge later dismissed by a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights.


It has been a while since Russia stopped caring about abiding by international law. What Putin really cares about is Russia’s internal audience and how his actions will be portrayed at home. At a time when the Russian population does not seem too enthusiastic about the prospect of another war, the Russian calculus for waging war has to be justified by noble goals. Over the years, Russia has promoted its role as a humanitarian actor. Despite the authoritarian nature of Putin’s regime, having a decent excuse—that will easily be embellished by Russian propaganda—still matters.

Nothing discloses the Kremlin’s plans as clearly as the state-owned, pro-Kremlin media. Since tensions began to rise, the Kremlin has denied any intentions of invading Ukraine. The Russian media has been preoccupied with portraying Western countries, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, as paranoid warmongers willing to twist reality and portray Russia as an aggressor, whereas truthfully, it is Moscow that has been threatened by NATO enlargement.

Following the shelling of Ukraine’s Donbass region and the use of heavy weapons, Russian media immediately placed the blame on the Ukrainian military. In the meantime, Kremlin-backed separatists have used these provocations to evacuate civilians residing in the separatist-controlled areas to Russia. However, this time, technology betrayed Russia’s plans. Fabricated videos released by separatist forces announcing the immediate evacuation of local inhabitants have easily been detected as part of Russia’s false flag operation. Metadata embedded in the videos showed that files were recorded two days before Moscow even voiced allegations against Ukraine.

Just like in Georgia’s occupied territories, Russia has illegally distributed passports to the residents of occupied parts of eastern Ukraine. In 2008, prior to the eruption of hostilities, Russian forces started evacuating the civilian population of the Tskhinvali region (which Russia calls South Ossetia), followed by the Kremlin justifying its aggression by arguing it was protecting its citizens. It is highly likely that Moscow may follow its well-tested scenario until significant concessions are offered.

Simultaneously, Putin is creating several options for future maneuvering. The recent approval of the draft resolution recognizing the independence of the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics by the State Duma, accepted by Putin this week, is hardly a coincidence. Vyacheslav Volodin, the Duma’s speaker, was fully in line with the well-orchestrated narrative and explained the decision by claiming Moscow needed to support Russian compatriots in the Donbass.

By violating international law once more through violence and preparing a pretext for an invasion, Moscow is signaling it has no intention to simply walk away with modest or no gains.

Putin’s decision to recognize the independence of Ukraine’s Russian-occupied territories effectively kills the Minsk agreement—a 2015 peace plan that aimed to stop fighting in Ukraine’s Donbass region—and lays the groundwork for a formal military presence in these territories. Yet, this is the initial part of his bigger plan to end Ukrainian sovereignty and provoke a regime change that would grant the Kremlin leverage to return Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence.

The Ukrainian government’s refusal to embark on a suicide mission by fulfilling Russia’s interpretation of the agreement—which would have granted the Donbass special status, hence a veto power to Russia over Ukraine’s foreign-policy decisions—is being used by the Kremlin as a justification for its claim that Russia has tried all diplomatic means. In his dark and extraordinary speech on Monday, prior to announcing the decision, Putin gave a revisionist history lesson claiming Ukraine was created by Russia. By violating international law once more through violence and preparing a pretext for an invasion, Moscow is signaling it has no intention to simply walk away with modest or no gains.

In the meantime, the West has still not enacted heavy and comprehensive sanctions against Russia. By employing cyber and information warfare tools as well as orchestrating a number of provocations in the Donbass region, the Kremlin has been waging a war below the anticipated, powerful Western sanctions’ threshold. However, by recognizing the independence of Ukraine’s Russian-occupied territories and immediately sending the so-called peacekeepers into the area, Russia has crossed a red line.

The current scenario is a repetition of the Georgian playbook in many ways. Back then, the West failed to respond to the Russian threat; today, if the West is serious about imposing the toughest sanctions, it is time to act as Russia constructs a pretext for a full-scale invasion. Otherwise, it will soon be too late to deter Moscow.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 print issue. Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to FP.

Natia Seskuria is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Twitter: @nseskuria

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