When is War Civil?
Earlier this year I wrote an article titled “Washington Mulls Arming Ukrainian Government.” That piece somewhat nonchalantly referred to the conflict as a “civil war.” The semantic choice drew the ire of several readers, including some better versed in regional politics than I am myself.
One criticism came in the form of a simple question: Would I refer to the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia as a “civil war”? To which, the critic and I both knew, I certainly would not. I was tempted to dismiss this as a bad comparison, a false parallel like Russian claims that the annexation of Crimea is, from a legal standpoint, no different from Kosovo’s US-sponsored independence from Serbia. But after mulling it over, I admitted that this inconvenient question deserved a real response.
So, what is really happening in Ukraine, and how closely does it resemble Russian actions in Georgia? Both are clear cases of a great power (Russia) manipulating local ethnic politics for its own ends. But at what point does the great power become the key player in the conflict? When do Russian forces seize the initiative from “Russian-backed separatists?” And when do those “Russian-backed separatists” become “Russian puppets?” When does a civil war become, well … just a war?
To answer that question, we must return to the August War of 2008. The relationship between Russia and Georgia hit a low point by the spring of that year, when Russia lifted its embargo on trade with the breakaway region of Abkhazia. Two weeks later, the Russian Duma passed a resolution urging the Kremlin to protect Russian citizens in the “conflict zones” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The ranks of Russian citizens were increasing due to the Kremlin’s insidious policy of issuing passports to residents of the breakaway regions (which to this day most of the world recognizes as Georgia’s sovereign territory).
By summer the separatist conflict was escalating, and bodies were piling up on both sides of the de facto Georgia–South Ossetia border. On Aug. 7 Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili announced a ceasefire, albeit after having increased the number of government troops stationed along the border. Almost immediately following the announcement, Abkhaz leader Sergej Bagapsh revealed that troops from Russia’s North Caucasus military district had crossed into South Ossetia, joining the “peacekeepers” already stationed there.
Several hours later, Georgian intelligence reported that a second, larger, Russian convoy had crossed the border. After deliberating, Saakashvili gave the now-infamous instruction to the Minister of Defense: order troops to enter South Ossetia and seize the capital city of Tskhinvali. Their ostensible goal was not to permanently reassert government control over the region but to stop the Russian troops’ advance, which had violated Georgia’s sovereignty by crossing the border. But rather than deter the Russians, the offensive merely gave the Kremlin the pretext it needed to justify a full-scale invasion of Georgia. On Aug. 8 Russian planes bombed targets in western Georgia while ground forces routed the Georgian army in South Ossetia, forcing it to withdraw across the de facto border and spurring Saakashvili to submit a formal request for a ceasefire. Rather than accept Georgia’s peace offering, the Kremlin doubled down. It opened a second front in Abkhazia, assaulted Georgia proper by land and by air and seized the cities of Gori, Senaki and Zugdidi.
By the time a French-brokered ceasefire went into effect on Aug. 12, hundreds lay dead and more than 100,000 civilians were displaced from their homes. The war’s first shots had been exchanged by Georgian government troops and ethnic Ossetian separatists, but the Russian army ultimately did the bulk of the fighting. It later became apparent that the Kremlin had been planning an invasion of Georgia for some time, a claim corroborated by the swift and organized manner of the Russian invasion. In this geopolitical theater, the Russian military took center stage while the separatists played a peripheral role.
How does that contrast with the ongoing war in Ukraine? There are obvious parallels. In both cases Russia seized an opportunity to serve its own state interests, intervening only after a local conflict had escalated. Although in the Ukrainian case, it appears the Kremlin did more to foment separatism in the first place. In both instances Russia blatantly violated the sovereignty of a neighboring state by invading without legal justification. But in 2008 it made no attempt to conceal its operations, claiming that the invasion was motivated by humanitarian concerns, and that Georgia’s assault on Tskhinvali was provocation enough.
That’s where differences begin to arise. Fast forward to Ukraine, where Russia has been careful to hide the depth of its actions. It claims that Russian citizens fighting in Ukraine are “volunteers” unaffiliated with the Kremlin, and denies assertions that it has provided separatist forces with heavy equipment and air support. While such statements are absurd, the fact that the Kremlin is making them at all is an important departure from 2008.
NATO has branded the Russian actions in Ukraine “hybrid warfare,” a strategy that is “combining kinetic operations with subversive efforts.” In lay terms, that means relying on proxies to do most of the fighting while leading from the rear and fighting only in the shadows. Still, that certainly sounds like war. But it’s a different kind of war than the one we saw in 2008.
The real question is whether these conflicts are so different that one can be called “war” and the other “civil war.” The August War is referred to as such primarily because Russian army troops led the charge against Georgian government forces, advancing far beyond the separatist regions. In Ukraine, Russian forces are playing an important but supporting role in combat operations, and are confining their activities to a limited geographic space. But is that difference enough to define these two conflicts using entirely different terms? Considering that both wars involve Russian encroachment on sovereign territory and primarily serve the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests, one has to conclude: No.