Georgia: How close did Europe come to a wider war?

August 18, 2008

ferdinand.jpgA poster at the entrance to the World War One exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum depicts the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, minutes before they were shot dead as they toured the streets of Sarajevo in an open topped car. The two bullets triggered World War One. Alliances quickly came into play and an argument between Austria and Serbia drew in Russia, Germany, France, Belgium and Britain.

Europe was at war.

On August 8 this year Russia sent its forces into Georgia to repel Tbilisi’s attempt to wrest control of the pro-Russian, breakaway region South Ossetia. Georgia, like Ukraine, has been pressing to join NATO but has only been promised membership of the alliance at an unspecified future date. What would have happened if Georgia had already secured NATO membership, as it wished, at the alliance’s meeting in Bucharest back in April?

Would the conflict have dragged in fellow NATO members including the United States, Britain and Germany? By invoking NATO’s Article V mutual defence clause, the Georgians could have required other nations to come to their assistance.

Could this have led to another European war at a time when the West’s guard was down and the Cold War years seemed consigned to history?

In the days after the conflict began, a senior envoy from a European state opposed to Georgian NATO entry told Reuters: “Thank heavens we didn’t take them in… No one in NATO wants to be dragged into a war in the Caucasus because of (President Mikheil) Saakashvili’s miscalculations.”

What do you think? 


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Make a deal with Russia; if they leave their neighbors alone, independent and selfgoverning we will not take them into NATO or put missles in their territories. Leave a neutrality zone around Russia. How would we like it if Russia put missles in Cuba and make a military alliance with them? I can understand Russia’s concern and it is an affront to diss them. With peace and time things will work themselves out to the benefit of all.

Posted by Chuck | Report as abusive

If Georgian had been a NATO ally at the time of his invasion of South Ossetia, I believe NATO would have not permitted Georgia to take that region, nor permitted the conflict. Additionally I do not believe that America and its allies would have attack Russia in response due to the convoluted nature of the whole engagement. I also do not believe Russia would have moved its forces into Georgia due to Russia’s lack of interest in engaging a NATO ally. It is the 21st century and the old fundamentals no longer apply. Russia nor the US could afford a war on any scale.

Posted by JP | Report as abusive

The only way to keep the world safe is KEEP THE USA STRONG.

Posted by Harry Lin | Report as abusive

These are the sparks that could ignite the 3rd World War, and NATO support for Georgia and Ukraine (and other former Warsaw Pact nations for that matter) will be the the fuel that keeps the fires of war burning.

Posted by Erik | Report as abusive

It would have most assuredly led to an all out war or it would have meant to the death of NATO.

How could NATO pick and choose which member states it would abide by article V for and which it wouldnt? How do you tell a country like Georgia your defence isn’t as important as Canada or Germany’s however in any offensive NATO role you will be the front line and can expect troops and weapons buildup on your soil putting you at the most risk.

To me it is simple, NATO would have to have been officially involved or NATO would have dissolved. Now that doesnt necessarily mean war would have erupted as Russia is equally unprepared for a war of that scale, but official measures would have need to taken place if for nothing else than to show face.

For me as a North American, it drives the question of why has the EU still not created it’s own reactionary force that has been called upon for no less than a decade to deal with internal European problems. I for one, would see no reason to send North American troops to a conflict whose roots are older than either the US or Canada!

Posted by Will | Report as abusive

Anybody in Western Europe wants to die for aggressive and stupid Georgia president because of Democracy? Anyone?

Posted by Stupidity | Report as abusive

not even remotely close.Russia has nukes hello what country on earth would get engage in such a war, and where would world go after that war is over.Russia is not afraid to use them if they feel gravely threatened , especially from whole NATO organization,with the ongoing war in Iraq and Afghanistan US and NATO are in no position to even think about going into a war and i`m sure some NATO member will imminently withdraw their membership status , Europe should think twice about Russia,they are bordering Russia , they share same continent, they are not divided by ocean or great distances that require warships, or long range Bomber , Europe need to get closer no to further distance themselves from Russia ,they may seem autocratic but they are Europeans and they share same values as rest of Europe.I don`t see US jumping all over China about Tibet or denying basic human right and executing people every day , but Russia err they are evil,Communism is dead , like every country Russia is looking for their own interests like US and EU have been doing for 50 year.

Posted by tetoec | Report as abusive

Absolutely not! Russian would not dare to attack a NATO nation. They would try to solve the problem diplomaticly. Putin is not stupid enough to use nukes, because that would mean end for Russia and his reigh, which is precious to him more than his billions he has stole from Russian people. Putin and his goons need to resign or drag Russia down with them.

Posted by Alex | Report as abusive

Russia invaded for national pride and nationalism, less for national interests and any concrete gain. Russia has now lost friends and damaged relationships. Nationalism was the driving factor at work here, the invasion, the scale of it, and how far the russians went doesnt make sense if you look at it geostratagically.

Comparasons to WWI leave out some important factors. If georgia was in NATO, i think they would have acted more responsibly, even the russians would think twice about it. If georgia was in NATo, events would have taken a much different path.

Because of the boiling nationalism, you cant be surprised when russia invaded south ossetia and then georgia proper, and the western outrage to the russian invasion of georgia proper isnt surprising either

But what is surprising (to me) is that when Russia was only in south ossetia, and not (yet)in georgia proper, the west still seemed pretty pissed, even though russia, at this point in time, was only defending the south ossetians from georgian aggression. Russia, before they invaded georgia proper, was propping up a democracy, the south ossetian government was popularly elected and the populace wanted independence from georgia. Yet, despite the wests bluster for freedom and democracy, the west still chose to condemn russia for helping the ossetian republic and then the west gave (verbal only) support to georgia.

I just had a thought, what if Georgia was china and south ossetia and abkahzia were tibet and xinjiang?

Ok in this hypothetical scenario, china is weak pollitically and militarily, and two provinces of tibet and xinjiang just broke off. Now china moves militarily to take them back, but as china does so, another foreign power moves in (india, russia, maybe pakistan or something) and pushes china out, like russia did to georgia.

Now, i can give you a whole list of reasons why this wont hapen in the next thousand years, not the least is that china has a big military comparatively and georgia had no chance against russia, but hypothetically OK? what if?

THere are some differences between what hapened in georgia and my hypothetical situation that apply to my question. Georgia is democratic, china is best discribed as an ogliarchy. Georgia is, to put it simply, liked by the west, china is routinely critizised by the west and even hated by many in both parties (in america that is).

Now the question is, what would the wests response be in this hypothetical situation? Will they denounce the interfering power as an agressor? or will they support china’s territorial integrity? will they say “china had it comming, they brought it on themselves” like the way some people here are saying about Saakashvili, or will they critisize the other country as being a bully?

Posted by questionist | Report as abusive

It aint over yet. Russia is in a good position to call the shots. Europe needs Russian energy and resources. Russian has a lot of American debt. Russian knows US is already bogged down in trouble with Afghanastan and Irag, Isreal is pressuring Iran, and China wants Tiawan.
Most importantly, Russia has a long history of bloody wars where millions die and thats OK with Russia. Nuclear weeapons are the tools that prevented WW-III 50 years ago, I wonder if they will still keep the war genie in the bottle this time. Probably not. Some idiot will use one without permission. I’m not a bible pusher, but all the signs are in place for a world battle.
It will probably start with Isreal’s nukes in Iran.
I am sure glad I live in the washington mountains.

Posted by rls | Report as abusive

Russia is really weak and was weak also during the Soviet Union times. But it took us 15 years to understand how weak they were until they collapsed totally. They are just trying to capitalize on their nukes by threatening the world, whereas many of their citizens are suffering from poorness. As you know, Russia scores number one in human trafficking while many Russian citizens work as prostitutes worldwide oligarchs in Moscow just dont care.
Soon their nukes will be useless if the defensive shield system is installed in more and more countries. So it was Russia’s last chance to make a move… But in the long term I think history will repeat…

Posted by le | Report as abusive

Will we never learn the lessons of history? Give them an inch and they will take a mile. Time to hit them and hit them hard, in all ways! The reason World War II happened was because we did nothing until it was too late.

Posted by bennie | Report as abusive

One needs to talk to a few Germans, Austrians, Serbians and Croats to understand the historical hatred between the Slavic and the others. Basically after the Bosnian conflict we should have been doing everything we could to avoid getting entangled in this mess again. Instead we got our face slapped because of Bush’s childish embrace of Saakashvili whose struggle against Putin is deeply and mutually personal. He is led to believe he can keep flying in Putin’s face yet he is somehow protected. In fact Putin can choose to march into Tbilisi anytime and no one on earth could possibly save Georgia. We don’t need to worry about Putin. Our moronic President must be making him laugh so hard he might just drop dead.

Posted by Cost | Report as abusive

What has Russia done that makes them sooooo bad. South Osettia gets attacked, 2000 of their citizens get slaughtered (700 children)by the Georgians…..90% of South Ossetia have Russian citizenship,,, Georgia is a
puppet of GWB and who can trust GWB ? Why do we need missile shields in Poland and the Chek Republic? and then one of the comments above is trusting Putin LOL! I wouldn’t trust the nut Bush and his nuttier stooge Shaakasvili!!
Why keep enlarging Nato eastward? To you, who live in a “myth” world about US power,,,,where is it in Georgia
besides shooting our mouths off, Russia is not Grenada,
Panama, or Iraq…Russia just gives Bush the “bird” and what? Bush keeps throwing tantrums.

A informed American inOregon.

Posted by fred | Report as abusive

Russia is on the rise and cannot be kept down anymore. The country has got the resources, the ability and knowledge. Unipolar times have come to an end. China, Russia,India are powers which will be able to moutn a challenge to any country trying to dominate.

Posted by vaibhav | Report as abusive

For obvious reasons it was good it did not come to full-blown war in Europe.

However, Pres. Saakashvili did not miscalculate. Rather he was tricked into a Russian trap, in lack of a better word, carefully planned, timed and orchestrated. Having been provoked by Ossetian and Russian troops and irregulars for several weeks, including shelling and sniping of Georgian civilians in South Ossetia, Georgia reacted militarily, which was exactly the Russians wanted. This precursory Russian aggression was not really covered in the free press. (Russia did the same in Dagestan before the Second Chechen War. Bizarrely, Russia does not see the hypocrisy in subjugating Chechnya and “defending” Ossetia. Territorial integrity is relative…)

Georgia reacted, trying to police a part of its very own country …and the rest is history.

There will be few short-term consequences as we, the West, EU, etc., need Russian oil, and because the current American administration is at its nadir, and because the current President-nation of the European Council, France, will go easy on Russia. Russia will be unpopular, yes, but was never bothered by the Chechen Wars, and will not be so by this conflict.

Long-term the consequences may be far bigger. It is now painstakingly clear that Russia is not playing on the same field as the West, at all. Bluntly, Russia has reverted to its old ways of autocracy and expansion and violently tending its backyard, which in fits and starts has been Russian policy since Peter the Great.

This is a unsound approach in the 21st century. Russia has oil and nuclear warheads, and that is it. The oil will be depreciated eventually (it will); the Russian population is shrinking fast; its economy is simple; its political system is short-sighted and unaccountable; it has no true, reliable allies, etc., etc. And one day somebody may come knocking on the Siberian back door…

We will see. PM Putin is the bad guy here. However naive, Pres. Saakashvili did what he had to do. Saying otherwise maybe wise, but is surly Chamberlainian.

Posted by Matthew Hansen | Report as abusive

Why is the subject that “Russia responded to an attack made by Georgia against Ossetia” is being dodged by all these assumptions and stories such as it was a planned attack. Hello world, like Russia forced Georgia to attack Ossetia.
It was an epic fail made by Georgia’s presedent, which not even his own people support.
The Europeans are getting fed up with US decisions.
The NATO is a big joke, its where a country like US will do something stupid and use the rest of the alliance for cover.
All US can do is warn Russia, but in reality US is too exhausted to wage another war after Afgan and Iraq.
And the NATO ? Why would Europe want go to war against Russia? over what? United States? or Georgia ? pfft plz.

Posted by systema | Report as abusive

Why Bush is trying to provoke Russians. Cold War had ended and Bush is trying to put radar stations+ military hardware close to Russia…Bush is the provocateur not Russia. Russia is trying to recoup from past Soviet mistakes and the neocons of Washington are trying to establish new beach heads close to Russia.

Posted by Sinan | Report as abusive

What I find odd is that bloggers posting on this site fail to realize how coordinated Russia was in the sense of time it took to invade the country of Georgia. This means this was not something that was started simply by Georgia attacking South Osetia. Russia was building up an army on the borders of their old provinces for just such a provocation so they could defend their actions in invading another country. Vladamir Putin and the rest of the Kremlin cronies are trying to revive their strenght in the world and the only way to do that is to dominate the area around you which they are currently doing. I say down with Russia and their Cold War Era behaviors. If the country can’t survive in todays society without being a bully to its neighbors or if they can’t survive without flouting their new found riches in oil then the country would be better off it collaspsed completely. I would then say good riddence to bad Russian Rubbish.

Posted by Stupidity 2 | Report as abusive

We were very close to a wider conflict. If NATO or the US had not acted with as much care and caution as they have we could already be in it.
This situation would not have developed if Georgia had been given a timetable for joining NATO, including conditions that need to be met, before Georgia can acutually become a member. Surely, the rights of minorities and all citizens must be guaranteed. This is in Russia interest as well. Since Russians abroad will be safe in countries that are democracies, law-abiding states that honour human rights. If Russia realy cares about minorities and human rights, it will foster the growth of democracies on its borders (Byelorussia, Middle-Asia, etc).

Posted by Suzanna | Report as abusive

Hello People!!!!
This has been coming for a few years now!!! As the sleeping Bear has slowly regained its former military. Russia has been looking at going back to its old ways! Putin is and always will be KGB on the front it has been disband. But when was the last time anyone has heard of freedom of elections in Russia? Required for the G-8 Membership the EU wanted. Every opposition was arrested and Putin put his puppet on stage for the world to see.
I think that a strong statement from Nato and the USA needs to be delivered to Russia NOW!!! If we let them continue to think that the world will stand by and watch!!
We will have many more lives at risk!!! The Ukraine will be next, then Poland and Moldova. Are we a free society willing to let that happen? I hope to god that the USA will respond and make clear that Georgia is free and will remain a free county. My heart bleeds Red White and Blue and I think people need to see the long term affects of this invasion by a hostile force. Russia is already reneging on its signed agreement to withdraw troops and only leave peace keepers

Posted by JonChris | Report as abusive

Even if all of Europe and the US were in war, it would not have triggered a ‘World’ war. This could only be a Nato-Russia war. During WWI and WWII most of Asia and Africa were under European control. So these regions were also dragged into the wars. Now its not the case. Anyway, this may lead to a nuclear war in Europe and N.America.

But why do you people want to put the lives of millions of people around Europe for the sake of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Is Georgia a divine land that must not be divided?

Posted by Shaan | Report as abusive

Let me give a few history facts:
1) Whatever you say, DO NOT CONFUSE Russia with Soviet Union. Russia had suffered from communists more than anyone else in the world. Especially from two Georgians, – Stalin (real name Jugashvili) and Beria (the bloodiest head of KGB). By the way, they gave Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia, – these two countries were never under Georgian jurisdiction.
2) There were always small-scale skirmishes along the Ossetia-Georgian border, that’s why Russian peacekeepers were there separating sides. I don’t think Ossetians were firing at villages, but even if it is so, a massive attack in response to a few shots (possible provocation?) simply cannot be spontaneous and must have been planned ahead.
3) Georgian forces leveled Tskhinvali, a capital of South Ossetia with population ~30,000. More than 1000 civilians (according to Russian officials) were killed. And it took almost 24 hours of bloodshed before Russia has intervened, – that doesn’t look like they were planning the war ahead.

Posted by Alex K. | Report as abusive

I ‘ve just finished reading the whole blog. My general impression is that all anti-russian posts look either stupid or hysterical, at the least. Can anyone give serious “nay” to pro-russian side of the story?

Posted by Alex K. | Report as abusive