In 279 BC, Pyrrhus of Epirus defeated Roman forces at Asculum in Apuleia at such a cost that the king observed, according to Plutarch, that yet another such “victory” would utterly destroy him and his cause. Because of that observation, made famous by John Dryden’s classic translation of the Greek historian, the term “Pyrrhic victory” has passed into the language of war and diplomacy.
Typically, it is applied simply for military “victories” that point to military defeats, but it can be usefully extrapolated for those military actions that entail such political or geopolitical consequences. Indeed, there is no clearer example of that in view that Vladimir Putin’s military defeat of Georgia in August 2008, a victory that the Russian president himself in more reflective moments may understand points to Russian defeats in Georgia, in Moscow’s relations with the other parts of the former Soviet empire and the West, and evenin the Russian Federation itself.
This reality has been obscured by the continuing and ultimately fruitless debate over who was responsible for the conflict, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili for actions that Putin saw as a provocation given that they were taken by someone the Russian leader clearly despises or Putin himself who violated international law by sending troops across international borders without any international sanction. But now that Putin is once again Russian president and that Georgia is in the process of choosing a new leader, the Pyrrhic nature of August 2008 for Moscow must be faced and its consequences clearly assessed if there is to be any chance to move forward.
Putin’s Pyrrhic victory in Georgia itself is both the least and the most obvious. It is the least obvious because Russian forces pried from Tbilisi’s control both Abkhazia and South Ossetia and showed themselves capable of moving at will against strategic targets throughout Georgia, including its ports and pipelines. Moreover, the war left Russia with a salient in South Ossetia very close to the Georgian capital.
But the Pyrrhic nature of Putin’s move is most obvious in Georgia as well. On the one hand, it left Georgia more mono-ethnic than at any time in its history, something that reduces the ways in which the Russian leadership can manipulate it. And on the other – and this is vastly more important – the Russian thrust powered a new rise of Georgian nationalism, a development that unfortunately allowed the rise of a new authoritarianism because President Saakashvili could portray any criticism as being in league with Moscow. In addition, Putin’s move won Tbilisi support from the West, and his actions discredited the idea that Russia, at least under Putin, could be a reliable partner for Tblisi. Only by moving beyond the authoritarianism of both sides can there be progress.
That final lesson was not lost either on the other post-Soviet states or on the West. With regard to the former, Putin’s move against Georgia showed that he was a committed revisionist with regard to the 1991 settlement, and that in turn meant that his Georgian adventure instead of winning Moscow friends had the very unintended effect of finishing off the idea of a Russian-led post-Soviet space. All the other countries in the region after August 2008 recommitted themselves to gaining support from outside actors to balance Russia.
Perhaps more important still, Putin’s action undermined his standing with Western leaders. Moscow remains too important to be ignored, but no Western leader will ever view him in the same way after Georgia. At the same time, Western countries instead of being intimidated from providing more support to the non-Russian countries have actually been more willing to do so in the last four years. Putin clearly wanted the reverse, and so even he would call this outcome Pyrrhic.
And finally, Putin’s invasion of Georgia has had unintended consequences for Russia itself as a political system. It has largely obliterated the distinction between the North Caucasus and the South Caucasus, thus providing yet another opening for the peoples of the former that Putin had hoped to close. It has reinforced Russian xenophobia and sense of both encirclement and isolation from the world. And it has shown to the Russian people if not yet clearly to Putin that a democratic Russia can have friends even among old antagonists but that an authoritarian one will not and will achieve its ends only by the use of the kinds of force that will provoke a reaction.
It is clearly time for Georgians and their many friends around the world to move beyond the question “who is guilty?” to the more significant one, “what should be done?” Three steps seem obvious, if none of them is going to be easy. First of all, Georgians and their supporters need to recognize the geopolitical reality that Putin has not won as much as they think, that those who say otherwise are pursuing their own authoritarian agendas, and that even Putin in his third term cannot afford a repetition of August 2008. This is why the current election in Georgia is so important: it opens a window for genuine change.
Second, Georgians need to recognize that Georgians AND Russians each have a vested interest in ending their current isolation from one another. This is an age of geopolitics, geography trumps most other things, and geography is congealed history and culture. That is something the Georgian democratic opposition clearly understands; unfortunately, it is something that the current regime in Tbilisi cannot even acknowledge without threatening its own control. Given the current map, Georgians will probably have to take the first steps in that direction, but at least in the short term, they have the most to gain. What is critical is that in the slightly longer term, Russians if not Putin do as well.
And third, and to that end, Georgians, together with their friends and supporters, need to open as many opportunities for discussion with Russians in general and Putin when possible. The Georgians need to do this not as some suggest to reach agreement on surrender but precisely to make sure that doesn’t happen. Right now, each passing month makes any settlement different from the one established by force less likely until some new explosion resets the calendar and the map.
That is too long for Georgia and indeed for Russia to wait.
Paul A. Goble is an American analyst and columnist.