Explainer: Russia’s Georgia, Crimea invasions set precedent

Ash Kline

5 min read
This handout picture released by the Russian Defence Ministry on April 22, 2021, shows Russia's forces during a military drill not far from the town of Kerch, on the Kerch Peninsula in the east of the Crimea.
Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defence Ministry/AFPThis handout picture released by the Russian Defence Ministry on April 22, 2021, shows Russia's forces during a military drill not far from the town of Kerch, on the Kerch Peninsula in the east of the Crimea.

From Georgia in 2008 to Crimea in 2014, Russia's prior invasions still hold relevance today

As tensions rise between Washington and Moscow over a possible invasion of Ukraine, we look at notable past instances of Russia’s incursions against its neighbors.

 

Crimea

A large amount of relational strain between Kyiv and Moscow can be traced back to Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, a region which was transferred to what is now Ukraine by the Soviet Union back in 1954.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin maintains that Ukraine is a part of Russia due to its historic, linguistic, and cultural ties to Moscow, though Kyiv has since departed from its sphere of influence in a number of ways.

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In 2014, protestors in Ukraine ousted the country’s then-president, the pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych - which prompted Russia to intervene by inciting a separatist rebellion against Kyiv in Ukraine’s east, an area that is home to a large Russian ethnic group.

It was also during this tumultuous period that Crimea was invaded by troops bearing no identifiable insignia to associate them with any state, referred to as the “little green men.”

The West said that these forces were linked to Russia and charged that Moscow mobilized its military to seize Crimea.

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While Putin initially disputed this, arguing that the unmarked troops were just residents of Crimea, he later admitted that the unidentified servicemen were part of Russia’s military.

He said that Moscow’s forces were deployed in order to maintain stability in the area while locals voted in a referendum to decide whether they would become a part of Russia.

On March 16, the results of this disputed vote - which received international backlash - indicated that an overwhelming majority of those in Crimea favored uniting with Russia.

Since it’s 2014 inception, the conflict in the east between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian troops has killed over 13,000 people - civilians and soldiers alike - according to The New York Times.

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Georgia

The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 - another instance where Moscow backed a separatist movement within a neighboring state - is often considered a precursor to the annexation of Crimea.

Following Georgia’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of pro-Moscow separatist movements established control over the areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

These two regions, which together account for around 20 percent of Georgia’s landmass, are home to the Ossetian and the Abkhazian ethnic groups.

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The separatist factions situated in these areas sought to reestablish the autonomy they held following the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the movements received support in this endeavor from Moscow.

At the start of August 2008, Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili sent troops to the separatist-held area of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, intending to bring these lands back under Georgia’s control.

In response, Russia launched a series of airstrikes on Georgian targets in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, before engaging with ground forces.

Over the course of five days, Moscow’s troops pushed back Tbilisi’s forces all the way into Georgia - until Russia’s military stood 30 miles from the country’s capital.

The conflict displaced 35,000 Georgians and killed almost 850 people, according to a 2009 independent fact-finding report from the European Union.

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