Russia started the August war a decade ago and time has come to believe its intervention was evil and immoral

Rubric: Ethics of War

Protest outside the former Russian embassy in Tbilisi, 7 August 2018

“Those wars are peaceful that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” [1] The wars, unfortunately, have always been the inseparable part of mankind. Since prehistoric times human beings have been fighting each other for different reasons. Human reasoning and nature itself drove mankind to oppose wars, thus it was always perceived as something negative or sinful in all societies and civilizations never behaved in a good manner during wartimes. Sometimes the term “Ethics of war” requires further explanation because ethics and war is hard to be correlated into the same context. The major axiom of ethics concerning warfare is that war should be conducted only as the last remaining alternative to even worse atrocity, indicating that every feasible solution or any form of negotiation, excluding the use of lethal force, should be examined and practiced before the military intervention occurs. The war that results in violence, the spread of aggression, abuse of human rights, deaths and conflicts can never be associated with ethics, therefore, can never be morally justifiable if it isn’t the only remaining method to avoid killings and save lives.

The moral framework of war tends to demonstrate the principle of the lesser evil but not everybody aspires to be applicable to the following moral framework; sometimes the real intention for declaring war is narrow well-covered self-interest of some individuals since it needs to become morally justifiable for society, “sold” as a single remaining possible way-out. In order to really fit the framework of the lesser evil, the state needs to fight the just war that is morally justified. “War is permissible only to confront a real and certain danger, i.e to protect innocent life, to preserve conditions necessary for decent human existence and to secure basic human rights”[2] and in order to make war justified, ones should keep in mind two distinct aspects dealing with the just reasons for going to war (jus ad bellum) and just approach of how war should be conducted (jus ad Bello)[3], therefore; there are specific conditions that need to be satisfied in order to carry sufficient moral weight of being just.

Both sides are accusing each other of a military build-up and war breaking out. This article will strive to find out the ethical legitimacy of the Russian intervention in South Ossetia in 2008 that grew into a Russo-Georgian war. The Six conditions exist that make a war fairly just. All of them needs to be examined to find out if they were satisfied or not. Georgia claims that Russia planned and launched an attack into Georgian territory with a hidden motive of hindering its economic and political development. The plan of targeting the “Role Model” of the region triggers the fear of other post-soviet states to leave the sphere of Russian influence and develop themselves as independent authorities.

The Russian government attempted to justify its military operations in Georgia by the principle of “responsibility to protect”. The approach of global political commitment, ratified by all member states of the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit, addresses the ability of a sovereign state to protect populations within its own borders and other states to assist in doing so, to prevent war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide. Former Prime minister Vladimir Putin asserted that Georgia was guilty in committing “genocide” against its own civilians, a local population in the South Ossetia, which nowadays is perceived as an independent autonomous republic by only four governments all around the world starting from Russian Federation, followed by Republic of Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria and the Republic of Nauru. Russian foreign minister Lavrov once stated that “according to Russian Constitution there is also a responsibility to protect — the term which is very widely used in the UN when people see some trouble in Africa or in any remote part of other regions. But this is not Africa to us, this is next door. This is the area, where Russian citizens live. So the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the laws of the Russian Federation make it absolutely unavoidable to us to exercise responsibility to protect.” [4]There are thousands of reasons to uphold that responsibility to protect norm did not provide any legitimate basis for Russia’s military actions in Georgia. To begin with the fact that R2P doesn’t justify its actions because an individual country took direct actions outside its own borders, second of all the aim of the intervention was not to protect Russian citizens in South Ossetia since Russians are not inhabitants of the territory but Georgians and ethnical Ossetians who historically identified themselves as a part of Georgian political and territorial entity. Therefore, it’s unclear if Russia had any competent authority to declare war since they were not lawfully responsible for public order in the region. In addition, the General Assembly in 2005 enacted it very clear that if any country endeavors to address an R2P to a specific situation, it must be done through the Security Council and not autonomously. It is important to mention that there was not a single SC resolution that gave Russia the legal authority to intervene militarily. [5]

In addition to the fact that R2P appears to be not applicable to the conflict, Russia is not even able to justify its actions as a just cause. Russia has not been able to confirm that the threat posed by Georgia to the South Ossetian population was worse enough by nature and scale to intervene and legitimate the use of military force. Russia failed to confront a real danger that makes its intervention anything but not a just cause. Georgia, a pioneer in western policy implementation in the Caucasus region, was never either committed in any of the U.N specified crimes or blamed for any pre-emptive imminent actions against South Ossetians.

Protection of South Ossetian civilians has never been the primary motive of Russian intervention, thus the actions of the aggressor were never driven by right intention. It can be easily proved by comparing the amount of South Ossetians that died before and after Russian interference. In 2008, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has condemned Russian reports of a high civilian death toll from his forces as “an egregious lie”[6]. He publicly stated that the only reason why Georgia was in a state of war was its condition “under a state of total Russian military aggression”. If it’s obvious that Russian aggression was unprovoked than what can be perceived as the real intention? Putin has always been regretting the collapse of Soviet Union since its right to act like a policeman of the region has eroded and all the former states have left the Russian domination behind. Establishing full Russian control over South Ossetia, which is the second Georgian region occupied by Russia after Abkhazia, would allow Kremlin to exercise total control on the region’s most successful western reformatory country, abandon Georgia’s NATO aspirations, destroy Georgia’s entire military capability and send a clear signal to other former parts of the Soviet Union that their development and independence would not be tolerated by Russia. The annexation of Crimea, that was predicted by Ukrainians during the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, vividly proves the pattern of Russian aggressive foreign policy of not letting the post-soviet world to improve independently.

Russian soldiers sit atop a tank in Tskhinvali, the main city in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia on August 20, 2008, © Dmitry Lovetsky

10 years have passed since the August war happened and following consequences made it easier to look back and examine if all possible peaceful means or negotiations have been tried before the war, to put it simply, if the last resort was practiced in order to avoid the use of lethal force. Despite the fact that Russian Federation requested for Security council advice as the crisis escalated in South Ossetia[7], they suddenly blocked U.N Security Council action and refused to accept its draft resolution with the main concern of immediate withdrawal of Russian military from Georgian territories[8] . The resolution published by the Security Council was not the only agreement that was ignored and left behind. Former president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy publicly stated that Russian unilateral decision to change borders of Georgia was unacceptable and on August 12, proposed the six-point ceasefire agreement that bears the signatures of the presidents of both fighting sides.[9] Ceasefire agreement demanded the withdrawal of Russian military forces without any delay. At the end of August, Sarkozy called on Moskow again asking to comply with the signed agreement immediately that kept to be violated ever after. Due to the fact that the attitude of the Russian government toward agreements, promises or any negotiations is obviously irresponsible and skeptical; it can be concluded that Russia failed to undertake a peaceful alternative solution to the escalated conflict; therefore, failed to comply the condition of the last resort.

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Bombed buildings of civilians August 2008 Gori, Georgia

It can be straightforwardly mentioned that damage of war has overshadowed any advantage or good that has ever been obtained from it. Hundreds of troops and civilians were murdered or deadly injured by massive aerial bombings by Russians that targeted not only combatants but densely populated areas, including three capital cities of Georgian regions, thus proving that even if Russia perceived its actions as a ‘just cause’ it still failed to acknowledge the limits of just war, so Russia has not only ignored the idea of comparative justice but failed to follow the concept of discrimination that warns conflicted sides that innocent lives should not be harmed and civilians should never be targeted. Thousands of ethnic Georgians were forced to leave their hometowns and everything else they’ve ever possessed. Even before the August war started, the region was becoming more and more threatening and living there was getting extremely unsafe because the disturbance of the Russian military was becoming more active and noise of shooting was growing louder. All the villages were razed and houses owned by civilians were completely demolished [10]or burned for ensuring expelled civilians that they weren’t returning back to their habitations never again. Refugee outflows from the conflict areas were huge, currently, Georgia is holding 260000 internally displaced from South Ossetia. The damage of war has been asymmetric not just for Georgia but the currently occupied region, completely emptied from Georgians, is still “bearing the scars of war”[11] and hasn’t improved at all since the war ended, neither socially nor economically. Kremlin gained the total control over the separatist enclave, most inhabitants are obtaining Russian passports. Proportionality of war was so neglected that none of the sides have gained any good and damage inflicted was not proportional even for the separatist rebelled ones, the primary purpose or strategic aim of a particular war was failed to achieve.

“We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace.” [12]The application of hard power should be the last resort possible and actions taken by any side of the conflict must be militarily necessary. The volatile circumstances before the war are waged should outweigh the magnitude of the harm that will be generated afterwards. Russia has failed to satisfy any of the six conditions of Just war, the means used to wage war was so inappropriate that August war needs to be considered as an immoral action and illegitimate use of force by Kremlin.

Protest outside the former Russian embassy in Tbilisi, 7 August 2018

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas “Whether it is always sinful to wage war”

[2] Ramsey, Paul. Speak up for Just War or Pacifism: a Critique of the United Methodist Bishops Pastoral Letter … “in Defense of Creation.”. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2016.

[3] Hutchings, Kimberly. Global Ethics an Introduction. Polity, 2018.

[4] Sergei Lavrov, 2008 The Georgia-Russia Crisis and the Responsibility to Protect.

[5] “Global Centre for R2Ps Background Note on Georgia and Russia.” IRCtoP, www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/component/content/article/133-europe/1815-global-centre-for-r2ps-background-note-on-georgia-and-russia.

[6] “Saakashvili: Russia Targeted ‘Role Model’ Georgia In 2008 War.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 7 Aug. 2018, www.rferl.org/a/saakashviliRussiaa-targeted-rolemodel Georgia-in-2008-war/29415338.html.

[7] “SECURITY COUNCIL HOLDS EMERGENCY MEETING IN RESPONSE TO RUSSIAN FEDERATION’S REQUEST AS CRISIS ESCALATES IN SOUTH OSSETIA, GEORGIA | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/press/en/2008/sc9417.doc.htm.

[8] Worsnip, Patrick. “Russia Blocks U.N. Security Council Draft on Georgia.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 20 Aug. 2008

[9] “France’s Sarkozy Stands by Georgia Peace Plan.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 27 Aug. 2008, www.reuters.com/article/idUSLR456959.

[10] “Russian jets attack Georgian town”. BBC News. 9 August 2008.

[11] Troianovski, Anton.“This Russian-Backed Separatist Enclave Still Bears the Scars of War.” The Washington Post, WP Company, www.washingtonpost.com/video/world/this-russian-backed-separatist-enclave-still-bears-the-scars-of-war/2018/11/2

[12] St. Augustine. “Ethics — War: History of War Ethics.” BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/war/just/history.shtml.