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The Russo-Georgian war: identity, intervention and norm adaptation


Kernen, B and Sussex, M, The Russo-Georgian war: identity, intervention and norm adaptation, Conflict in the Former USSR, Cambridge University Press, Matthew Sussex (ed), UK, pp. 91-117. ISBN 978-0-521-76310-3 (2012) [Research Book Chapter]

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The war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 had many hallmarks of a typical limited interstate war. It was fought between two independent sovereign states over a territorial dispute that had long been a sticking point. Before the creation of the USSR, Ossetia - and Abkhazia in particular - had been contested, and both Georgia and Russia had a mutual history of enmity over territory. There has been significant debate over who was responsible for the war, and also significant debate about how the West responded (or should have responded). But whilst the broad parameters of the conflict have already been documented in this volume, the war did reveal some interesting developments concerning how states go about pursuing their strategic goals in the former Soviet space. In particular, it revealed much about how war in the contemporary international system might be legitimated.

We argue that three developments are especially instructive. The first was that both Russia and Georgia claimed historical dominion over the Abkhaz and Ossetian spaces by pointing to notions of diaspora and kinship (in the case of Russia), and territorial right to govern (in the case of Georgia). This is not new in itself, but it serves as a useful reminder that the manipulation of identity is common in the development of rationales for war. The second development was the invocation by Russia and Georgia of two different interpretations of sovereignty, which produced diametrically opposing rationales for intervention. Third, Russia turned to a relatively surprising source- human security- to legitimate its claims.

In this chapter we demonstrate that the intractability of the conflict over South Ossetia and Abkhazia further entrenched the Caucasus as a site of contestation between Russia and the West. Yet it also marked a subtle shift in Russian strategy. By endorsing a notion of sovereignty that discouraged extra-regional interference, and by referring explicitly to new developments in the UN's human rights policy toolkit, Russia pursued what we term an adaptationalist agenda: the deliberate manipulation of normative concerns for instrumental purposes. The result was that Russia came to endorse a hybrid model of norm-entrepreneurship that had both old and new elements. On the one hand, Russia articulated an adapted view of sovereignty based on diaspora populations that had some grounding in international legal precedent. This revolved around claims of legitimate intervention to protect its citizens. On the other hand, Russia adapted rationales for humanitarian intervention to fit its strategic agenda. Georgia, meanwhile, attempted to internationalise the conflict by appealing to a more traditional Westphalian/Vattelian model, calling for NATO to respond to Russian aggression. But, as we demonstrate below, for Georgia the simple assertion that a Russian 'invasion' was a violation of international law was made more complex by Kosovo's declaration of independence earlier in 2008.

Item Details

Item Type:Research Book Chapter
Keywords:Russia, Georgia, Ossetia, Abkhazia, territory, war, sovereignty
Research Division:Human Society
Research Group:Political science
Research Field:International relations
Objective Division:Law, Politics and Community Services
Objective Group:International relations
Objective Field:Defence and security policy
UTAS Author:Sussex, M (Dr Matthew Sussex)
ID Code:80220
Year Published:2012
Deposited By:Government
Deposited On:2012-10-24
Last Modified:2014-07-25

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