The Road to Hell: Part IV

Despite the long history of ‘humanitarian interventions’ the idea that nations have an obligation to defend the rights of those beyond their own borders has only recently begun to gain acceptance.

Damage to the upper floors of a building in Kyiv struck by a Russian rocket on February 26, 2022. Daniel Leal-Olivas /

In 1948 the  United Nations General Assembly proclaimed genocide as a crime under international law but Cold War rivalries and paranoia prevented any sort of unified response to mass atrocities. The United States refused to ratify the treaty out of fears that doing so might expose U.S. prisoners of war to some form of international prosecution while Soviet authorities watered down the treaty by opposing the inclusion of political groups alongside national, ethnic, racial or religious groups as targets of genocide.

Crimes against humanity continued to take place in the decades following the holocaust but few nations proved willing to place international law above their own geopolitical concerns. Instead, the longstanding concept of territorial sovereignty – the idea that a nation’s government has exclusive responsibility for what goes on within its own borders – remained the guiding principle of international relations. As former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans wrote in his book on the emerging doctrine known as ‘responsibility to protect’:

“It has taken a desperately long time for the idea to take hold that mass atrocities are the world’s business: that they cannot be universally ignored and that sovereignty is not a license to kill.”

But even amid the standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States, some nations succeeded in ending the atrocities that were unfolding on their doorsteps. For the most part, however, these interventions were not conducted in defence of human rights. Instead their primary justification was usually some immediate threat to national security. 

India’s invasion of East Pakistan in 1971 is a good case in point. The Indian intervention took place after months of violence targeting Bengali muslims resulting in a staggering death toll and a vast refugee crisis. Yet despite the urgency of the situation, Indian authorities waited for some sort of military provocation by Pakistan before intervening. That moment finally came in December, 1971, when Pakistan’s Air Force carried out air strikes in Northern India. In response, the Indian army launched a swift invasion of East Pakistan and managed to capture the capital of Dhaka in less than two weeks. The subsequent peace treaty ended the genocide of Bengalis and led directly to the creation of an independent Bangladesh.

Likewise, in 1978, the genocide of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge was ended not by a UN intervention but by an invasion by the Vietnamese army. After years of cross-border raids the Vietnamese government justified their campaign on the basis of self defence and, once deployed, it took Vietnamese forces less than three weeks to seize Phenom Penh and oust Pol Pot. However, instead of applauding the toppling of a genocidal regime, the international community largely condemned the invasion on legal grounds. 

Other instances of national liberation appear to have been the result of pure happenstance. The Tanzanian invasion of Uganda which ended the dictatorship of Idi Amin in 1979 is believed to have been set in motion by a bar fight in a border town. According to several accounts, a brawl in the town of Mutukula sparked an exchange of gunfire which escalated into the war which brought down Amin’s regime and ended a decade of terror and mass killings. In Responsibility to Protect, Evans points out that, as late as the 1970s, moral justifications for war carried far less weight than traditional concerns over territorial integrity and national security. Looking back on the Tanzanian-Ugandan war Evans wrote that:

“The human rights case was … extremely strong, and given [Tanzanian] President Julius Nyerere’s respectable reputation against that of the notoriously mad, bad, mendacious, and dangerous Amin, one might have expected him to rely on it to justify Tanzania’s intervention, at least to some extent. He did not—another reflection of the absolute primacy of sovereignty claims during this period.”

Nevertheless, by the late 80s there was a growing international consensus that humanitarian military interventions should be allowed to take place in extreme circumstances. In 1989 the United States finally ratified the Genocide Convention and the timeline of United Nations interventions shows a sharp increase in deployments starting in the late 1980s with numerous peacekeeping missions in Africa, Central America and the Balkans. For the most part these interventions were not intended to liberate oppressed peoples. They were launched with limited objectives and without any grand plans to create new nation states or make sweeping social or political reforms. No doubt the grim experience of Rwanda, Somalia and Bosnia helped temper expectations of what could be achieved by armed peacekeepers. Ultimately these operations did not hinge on the enthusiastic support of the local population and any sense of national liberation could only be considered a side-effect of renewed stability.

But this newfound pragmatism did not represent the end of the fallacy of liberation. This chapter picks up in 1999 with the U.S.-led bombing of Serbia. It examines the way in which U.S. politicians used concern for human rights to as a pretext to undermine the authority of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and how this one-sided war set the precedent for Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. 

Alongside these two, predominantly ‘realist’, conflicts this chapter also examines two recent wars predicated on delusions of liberation. It reveals how U.S. politicians – inspired by rose-tinted memories of WWII – underestimated the level of resentment generated by their indiscriminate bombing campaign and how the first U.S. units to reach Baghdad scrambled to create a moment of triumph that might lend some legitimacy to the invasion. 

Finally, this chapter looks at the misguided assumptions and self-delusions that led to Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine. Starting with Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution in 2014 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea this final case study traces the process by which Russian president Vladimir Putin convinced himself that Ukrainians secretly wanted to be reunited with Russia.

Like Fucking For Virginity

Operation Noble Anvil (1999)

When civil war split Yugoslavia in the early 1990s many Serbs, Croats and Bosnians found themselves in precarious positions. Independence referendums and conflicts over national borders opened old religious and ethnic divisions and left millions of people vulnerable to rival ethno-nationalist paramilitaries. The bloodiest of these Balkan conflicts occurred in Bosnia where large numbers of ethnic Serbs fought to join the newly created state of Serbia. Following violent campaigns of ethnic cleansing in various regions, U.S. president Bill Clinton helped negotiate a successful ceasefire in 1995. The Dayton Accords effectively reaffirmed the existing borders and put an end to the hostilities but the status of one particular region – the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo – remained unresolved. 

Albanian separatists within Kosovo had already declared the region to be an independent republic but this declaration was only recognised by the neighbouring government of Albania. In the late 1990s the paramilitary Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began mounting attacks on Serbian government forces in the region – prompting vicious retaliation against anyone suspected of supporting the KLA. Over the same period, the government of Slobodan Milošević carried out a gradual campaign of ethnic cleansing by resettling Serbian refugees in the region and enforcing an ‘economic apartheid’ that excluded many Kosovar Albanians from public life.

The simmering conflict boiled over in 1997 as insurgent attacks ramped up and Serbian forces responded in kind – forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee the region. In January 1999 the discovery of the bodies of 45 Kosovar Albanians near the village of Račak – apparent victims of Serbian security forces – provoked international outrage and spurred calls for action from the United Nations. When Russia vetoed a UN intervention the U.S. government began to drum up support for a NATO-led bombing campaign to force the issue. In order to win international approval the Clinton administration relied on wildly exaggerated claims of Serbian atrocities and warnings of an imminent genocide. Most notably, U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen claimed that 100,000 military-aged Kosovar Albanian men were unaccounted for amongst the refugees. In a speech to a veterans group at Fort McNair, President Bill Clinton embellished this figure with lurid details of alleged atrocities. 

“There are thousands of people that have been killed systematically by the Serb forces. There are 100,000 people who are still missing. We must remember who the real victims are here and why this started. It is no accident that Mr. Milosevic has not allowed the international media to see the slaughter and destruction in Kosovo. There is no picture reflecting the story that one refugee told of fifteen men being tied together and set on fire while they were alive. No, there are no pictures of that. But we have enough of those stories to know that there is a systematic effort that has animated our actions, and we must not forget it.”

U.S. Senator Joe Biden was one of many outspoken advocates for U.S. intervention. During an interview on NBC in 1999 Biden said:

“I’ve been saying, we should go into the — on the ground; we should announce there’s going to be American casualties. We should go to Belgrade, and we should have a Japanese-German-style occupation of that country. It’s the only thing that will ultimately work.”

During subsequent peace talks in Rambouillet, France, Serbian authorities agreed to allow Kosovo to be administered as an autonomous province under the supervision of NATO troops. However, in the final stage of the negotiations, U.S. officials added a clause to the agreement which would have given NATO forces free rein over all Serbian territory. Somewhat predictably, Milošević and the Russian delegation withdrew from the negotiations. Commentators from across the political spectrum recognised that this last-minute amendment seemed designed to derail negotiations and provide a pretext for war. Political activist Noam Chomsky called the document an ‘ultimatum’ that ‘virtually guaranteed rejection’. Likewise former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dismissed the Rambouillet Accords as a ‘provocation’ which served mainly as ‘an excuse to start bombing’. 

Two days later NATO aircraft began bombing Serbia. Pilots were instructed to fly above the ceiling of Serbian anti-aircraft batteries – a decision which minimised the risk to NATO air crews but drastically increased the risk of civilian casualties. With bombing runs conducted 15,000 feet above the cloud-covered mountains of Serbia, mistakes became routine. Alongside a string of minor tragedies, misguided NATO air strikes destroyed a crowded passenger train near Grdelica, killed dozens of refugees at the Albanian border, demolished a wing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and levelled a village in Kosovo itself. Adding insult to injury, NATO commanders adopted the widest possible definition of what constituted a ‘military target’ – destroying the headquarters of Radio Television in Serbia alongside factories producing cigarettes, cars, white goods and agricultural supplies. 

Black smoke rises from a central heating plant in Novi Belgrade, some two kms from the town centre. The plant was one of several targets bombed by NATO aircraft on the 3rd and 4th of April 1999.

But, far from bringing an end to the violence in Kosovo, the NATO bombing campaign only succeeded in accelerating it. The chaos of war provided cover for Serbian atrocities and emboldened the KLA to step up their attacks on Serbian and Roma civilians and settle scores with their political opponents. After enduring more than 10,000 air strikes on Serbian territory, Milošević only returned to the negotiating table when faced with the prospect of a ground invasion by NATO troops. On June 3, 1999, the Serbian president accepted NATO’s demands for ending the conflict. When Serbian troops were withdrawn from Kosovo a few weeks later the KLA seized the opportunity to expel almost all non-Albanians from the region. 

Subsequent investigations found little evidence for the mass killings claimed by American officials and a UN report later estimated that 80% of the victims of the Kosovo conflict died during, or in the aftermath of, the NATO bombing campaign. As Alexander Cockburn noted in a 1999 article entitled ‘Where’s the Evidence of Genocide of Kosovar Albanians?’

“Whatever horrors they may have been planning, the Serbs were not engaged in genocidal activities in Kosovo before the bombing began. They were fighting a separatist movement, led by the Kosovo Liberation Army, and behaving with the brutality typical of security forces.”

Although Milosevic was later brought before a war crimes tribunal at The Hague the former Serbian leader was only indicted for crimes committed in Kosovo during the bombing campaign rather than the alleged atrocities which prompted the U.S./NATO intervention. In any event, the bombing of Serbia – without UN approval and in the face of Russian opposition – set a ‘perilous precedent’ in international relations. 

Mission Accomplished

Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003)

Similar delusions of liberation paved the way for the disastrous U.S. occupation of Iraq. In the years following the Persian Gulf War the U.S. government continued to push for ‘regime change’ in Iraq. After a CIA-backed coup unravelled in 1996 the Clinton administration passed the Iraq Liberation Act which publicly committed the U.S. to overthrowing Saddam’s regime. Among other things, the Act provided funds to “promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace [Saddam’s] regime”. One of several opposition groups that received sponsorship via the Act was the Iraqi National Congress (INC) – a group that was created by the CIA to bring together dissident Iraqi forces.

In the debates leading up to the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, George Bush responded to a question about a possible intervention in Iraq by saying “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.” At a NATO summit the following year Bush likened Saddam Hussein to Adolph Hitler, telling his audience that “Czechs and Slovaks learned through the harsh experience of 1938, that when great democracies fail to confront danger, greater dangers follow.”

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, George W. Bush’s administration seized the opportunity to include Iraq in their rapidly expanding ‘Global War on Terror’. Bush speechwriter David Frum stoked further comparisons with Nazi Germany by branding Iran, Iraq and North Korea as a new ‘axis of evil’. Meanwhile, Ahmed Chalabi – the head of the INC – furnished the Bush administration with bogus intelligence on Iraq. In return, U.S. officials quietly positioned Chalabi – a former banker whose family had fled Iraq in the 1950s – as a candidate to replace Saddam.

While there’s no doubt that certain members of the Bush administration took a more strategic interest in Iraq there was a genuine strain of idealism that ran through U.S. foreign policy. For senior figures in the White House, regime change in Iraq justified all manner of underhanded tactics – including falsifying evidence of weapons of mass destruction and drawing tenuous links between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, arch-realist John Mearshimer described the overriding ‘Bush Doctrine’ as the domino theory of liberal democracy.

“…the Bush Doctrine basically said that if we could create a liberal democracy in Iraq. . . countries such as Syria, Iran, and eventually Saudi Arabia and Egypt would [also] turn into democracies. … The Bush Doctrine was not just designed to turn Iraq into a democracy. We [The United States] had a much grander scheme in mind.”

In early 2003, as preparations to invade Iraq were underway, journalist Tim Russet asked Vice President Dick Cheney if he thought that the American people were prepared for “a long, costly and bloody battle with significant American casualties”. Cheney dismissed the question out of hand, saying “I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators.” Middle-eastern heads of state were more circumspect. Turkey’s president refused to let his country be used as a staging point for a U.S. invasion and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad warned one British official that while “Most Iraqis hate Saddam. All Iraqis hate America.”

Given the efforts of the Bush administration to fabricate evidence of weapons of mass destruction and connect Saddam’s regime to Al-Qaeda, it’s tempting to dismiss any statements about Iraqi public sentiment as just more bluff and bluster designed to reassure the American people. But accounts from inside the White House at the time suggests that Bush and many other senior officials genuinely thought that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops. 

This assumption doesn’t appear to be the result of an intelligence failure in the traditional sense. The CIA and America’s other three-letter agencies weren’t advising the Bush administration that public sentiment in Iraq would favour a U.S. intervention*. Instead their optimism appears to have stemmed from some sort of crude deductive reasoning. In the minds of senior Bush administration officials the Iraqi people were living under a tyrannical dictator. The U.S. military was going to overthrow that dictator. Ergo, Iraqis would be appreciative and the U.S. would have a free hand to reorganise the country as they saw fit.

Smoke covers the presidential palace compound in Baghdad 21 March 2003 during a massive US-led air raid on the Iraqi capital.

Instead, the indiscriminate bombing of Iraqi cities during the initial ‘shock and awe’ campaign, and the U.S. military’s failure to restore stability following the overthrow of Saddam, undermined whatever initial goodwill U.S. planners might have counted on. Some thirty thousand Iraqis were killed in the first weeks of the invasion even as the bulk of the Iraqi army deserted their units en masse. A report later compiled by the Iraq Body Count project calculated that more than 40 percent of the civilian deaths attributed to coalition forces in the first 13 years of the war occurred during March and April 2003. In those chaotic early days of the invasion the only people who appeared to be celebrating the arrival of U.S. forces were those intent on looting government buildings. 

Among the more ambitious looters in Baghdad were members of Ahmed Chalabi’s Free Iraqi Forces. In the lead up to the invasion the U.S. government had transferred tens of millions of dollars to the INC in order to recruit and train an army of Iraqi expatriates that might lend some legitimacy to the invasion. Instead the U.S. ended up with an unregulated paramilitary force of a few hundred armed men who took over the homes of former Baath party officials in Baghdad’s up-market Mansour District.

In his account of the invasion, To Start a War, journalist Robert Draper interviewed former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell who described a the moment when President Bush was shown footage of the capture of Basra.

“They watched in silence as the cameras panned across a city occupied by British tanks and helicopters. Smoke rose from the intelligence service headquarters. The gates of the city prison were thrown open. Looters fleeced the state buildings of their desks and chairs and water tanks. The residents of Basra, newly liberated, stared at the cameras. Bush the liberator stared back at them, his expression intense as he attempted to reconcile what he had imagined in his heart for so many months with what his eyes were now seeing for the first time. Then he asked, “Why aren’t they cheering?””

Iraqis celebrate during a looting spree at Saddam Hussein’s former palace near Baghdad International Airport on April 10, 2003.

While the vast majority of the Iraqi army refused to defend Saddam’s regime, the general population remained wary of American forces. When U.S. troops captured the Iraqi capital in April 2003 there was precious little footage of public celebration to convey to American audiences. To make up for the lack of triumphant imagery, U.S. authorities stage-managed the destruction of a prominent statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. As a small crowd of reporters gathered, members of a U.S. Army psychological-operations unit handed out sledgehammers and encouraged onlookers to put on a show for the cameras. When hand tools proved ineffective, a Marine towtruck was brought in to provide the pulling power necessary to bring down the statue. Careful examination of the footage later revealed that some of the men present were members of the INC.

Questions of authenticity were drowned out or set aside as footage of the falling statue was endlessly replayed for U.S. audiences. Over the following hours, CNN replayed footage of the falling statue every seven and half minutes. Fox News looped the same footage every four and a half minutes. In a breathless editorial for The New York Times on April 10, journalist William Safire was quick to add the U.S. capture of Baghdad to the list of righteous victories over tyranny.

“Like newly freed Parisians tossing flowers at Allied tanks; like newly freed Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall; like newly freed Russians pulling down the statue of the hated secret police chief in Dzerzhinsky Square, the newly freed Iraqis toppled the figure of their tyrant and ground their shoes into the face of Saddam Hussein.”

But instead of representing the end of a short war, the capture of Baghdad represented the beginning of a long one. While chaos reigned in most Iraqi cities, the decisions made by the U.S. government set the stage for the insurgency that would consume tens of thousands of Iraqi lives over the following years. As head of the Coalition Provisional Authority U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer demanded drastic economic reforms aimed at opening up the Iraqi economy to the global financial system. At the same time, Bremer’s decision to dissolve the Iraqi army and remove former Baath party members from government positions meant that Iraq’s economy and civil service ground to a halt just as tens of thousands of heavily armed young men found themselves out of work. 

Tellingly, the ad-hoc plan for the occupation of Iraq recycled a codename used during the Allied occupation of Germany some fifty seven years earlier. In the U.S. Army’s Official history of the Iraq War, General John Abizaid criticised this crude historical analogy.

“I think the model that was being used in Washington was the WWII model of de-Nazification. Saddam [was] Hitler, the Republican Guards the SS, and the Ba’ath Party the Nazi Party. This notion of this great crusade against evil had no bearing in reality to what was on the ground and the historical context of Middle Eastern politics and Iraq politics in particular.”

In public, U.S. officials attributed the insurgency to Al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorist organisations but, in reality, the vast majority of insurgents were local Sunni and Shiia Iraqis outraged by foreign interference in Iraqi politics and the reckless (and, at times, predatory) conduct of the occupation force. A year after the overthrow of Saddam, a poll conducted by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies found that 66 percent of Iraqis opposed the occupation. When asked why, almost half said that they did so simply because “It is an occupation force and must leave immediately”. 

Another report, compiled a year later, confirmed that the insurgency represented a typical nationalist backlash against foreign occupation. In the report, researcher Carl Conetta highlighted the testimony of a 47-year old mother who left her family in Baghdad to join the Mahdi army in Najaf, telling reporters: “We are going to fight [the Americans] until we throw them out of Iraq. Our country is our country.” As Conetta noted:

“Here, the effort to exorcize foreign control is experienced as a self-evident corollary of having a country. One simply follows from the other without qualification – that is: opposition to occupation is not contingent on the rationale for an occupation or how the occupiers behave.”

In an article for the Brooking institute aimed at explaining why U.S. authorities didn’t appear to have a plan for the post-invasion occupation of Iraq analyst Michael E. O’Hanlon recognised that 

“The explanation surely includes the administration’s desire to portray the Iraq war as a relatively easy undertaking in order to assure domestic and international support, the administration’s disdain for nation-building, and the Pentagon leadership’s unrealistic hope that Ahmed Chalabi and the rather small and weak Iraqi National Congress might somehow assume control of the country after Saddam fell.”

Battle of the Peacekeepers

The Russo-Georgian War (2008)

To say that many modern wars are motivated by delusions of liberation is not to say that states no longer wage war for purely strategic motivations. The brief Russo-Georgian War of 2008 provides a good case study of the latter but a discussion of what led to this conflict also provides context for Russia’s more recent attempt to overthrow the Ukrainian government. 

If NATO’s bombing campaign in Kosovo created a ‘perilous precedent’ for endorsing separatist movements, Russia’s war over South Ossetia represented the first real consequence of that precedent. The ensuing war between Russia and Georgia provided a test case for how a powerful state could get away with annexing territory beyond its borders.

In February 2008, after years of stalled negotiations with Serbia, Kosovo’s legislative assembly unilaterally declared independence. The international reaction to this announcement was mixed but Georgia was one of many countries that refused to recognise Kosovo due to concerns over how such a precedent might encourage separatist movements within their own borders. 

Two of Georgia’s northern provinces – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – had been pushing for autonomy since the breakup of the Soviet Union and Russia had helped widen these divisions by sponsoring separatist groups, subsidising the local economy and issuing Russian passports to those living in the breakaway regions. In 2007, the Russian government foreshadowed further interference in a white paper on ‘The Humanitarian Direction of Foreign Policy’ which emphasised Russia’s obligations to ‘compatriots abroad’. The paper recommended that the Kremlin take an aggressive stand to defend the human rights of these compatriots (considered to number in the ‘tens of millions’) who had been “artificially separated from their historic Homeland [Russia] after the collapse of the USSR.”

A Georgian soldiers stands guard at the Line of Occupation separating Georgia from the Russian-occupied territory of South Ossetia.

For their part, the Georgian government at the time, led by Mikheil Saakashvili, was intent on both distancing their country from Russian influence and reclaiming Georgia’s breakaway regions. Saakashvili’s government lobbied heavily to join both the European Union and NATO but the unresolved status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia made NATO reluctant to sign off on Georgia’s inclusion in the alliance. In an attempt to resolve this dilemma, Saakashvili drastically increased spending on the military and turned up the political and economic pressure on Georgia’s separatist regions. 

To curry favour with the U.S., the Georgian government contributed more than 2,000 troops to the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq and, in return, the U.S. helped train and equip Georgia’s fledgling defence force. In April 2008, tensions between Georgia and Russia gave way to a full-blown diplomatic crisis following a NATO summit in Bucharest where Ukraine and Georgia were given assurances that they would be allowed to join the alliance at some point in the future.

In an article for War on the Rocks, defence analyst Michael Kofman described how overconfidence in their newly minted army and unfounded expectations of direct U.S. support led Georgian planners to assume they could deter Russia from interfering with their plans for re-incorporating the separatist regions.

“Georgia was no great military power, but for a tiny nation it was well-armed, far beyond anything currently fielded by the Baltic states. Whether or not the Georgian military had the leadership and experience to make good use of this gear is another story. The perpetual dream of such states is to become the Israel of their region. The problem with small states is that they think they can be David, but outside of the Book of Samuel, most of the time David gets crushed by Goliath.”

In early August, escalating clashes between separatist militia and Georgian peacekeepers in South Ossetia led to the shelling of villages on the Georgian side of the ‘Administrative Boundary Line’. Rumours that Russian forces were moving to re-enforce their separatist allies in the South Ossetian capital prompted Saakashvili to launch his own pre-emptive attack.

A Russian tank rolls through south Ossetia during the Russo-Georgian War, 2008.

For the Georgian armed forces the timing of the operation could not have been worse. Georgia’s defence minister was out of the country, many of its military personnel had been stood down following recent exercises and more than 1200 of Georgia’s most experienced troops remained stationed in Iraq. Nevertheless some ten thousand soldiers were mobilised on short notice and ordered to move across the boundary line. In the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, local residents were hastily evacuated as the city came under fire from Georgian artillery. Over the following hours Georgian armoured units pushed into the city – killing scores of militiamen as well as a number of Russian troops. In Moscow, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev announced to the Russian public that:

“…Georgian troops committed what amounts to an act of aggression against Russian peacekeepers and the civilian population in South Ossetia … In accordance with the Constitution and the federal laws, as President of the Russian Federation it is my duty to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they may be. It is these circumstances that dictate the steps we will take now. We will not allow the deaths of our fellow citizens to go unpunished.”

Within hours thousands of Russian troops – waiting on alert just north of the border – poured through the Roki Tunnel separating the two countries and quickly overwhelmed the Georgian army. Russian air strikes followed and, within a week, the Russian military had seized both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, blockaded Georgian ports on the Black Sea and were threatening the Georgian capital. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, mediated a ceasefire agreement between the two sides which placed South Ossetia and Abkhazia fully under Russian protection. Invoking the ‘Kosovo precedent’, Medvedev issued a decree that formally recognised the two regions as independent states – undoing years of incremental Georgian diplomacy. 

This relatively small war had an enormous impact on the Georgian people. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians were killed in the fighting, the Georgian army lost most of its heavy equipment and an estimated 200,000 Georgian citizens were forced to flee their homes – becoming refugees in their own country. A report published the following year by Human Rights Watch revealed that, in the days following the Georgian withdrawal, South Ossetian militia “deliberately and systematically destroyed ethnic Georgian villages”.

Few would suggest that the Russo-Georgian War represented some misguided attempt at liberation. Indeed, the welfare of the South Ossetian population seems to have been a distant concern to both sides. Instead, the war appears to conform perfectly to the realist model of international relations. On one side the Georgian President was intent on forcibly integrating ethnic minorities in order to secure membership in the EU/NATO. On the other side the Russian President was poised to establish a permanent foothold in Georgian territory – one that would ensure that the country remained firmly within Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’. 

Nevertheless the resulting conflict has generally been depicted in the western press as a case of unprovoked Russian expansionism. The subsequent annexation of Crimea and the more recent invasion of Ukraine have both retrospectively added weight to this narrative but we should be wary of oversimplification. An independent inquiry launched by the EU in 2009 determined that Saakashvili had instigated the war by ordering the initial attack on Tskhinvali but acknowledged that the Georgian assault on the South Ossetian capital represented the “culminating point of a long period of increasing tensions, provocations and incidents”.  

Detailed western accounts of the Russo-Georgian war remain few and far between but those writers who have analysed the conflict generally acknowledge the difficulty of untangling the strategic motivations on both sides. In his 2014 book Putin’s Wars, researcher Marcel van Herpen invoked comparisons with Nazi Germany by pointing out that, just as Germany had stoked ethnic conflict in the Sudetenland in the late 1930s, Russia had funded and equipped local militias and then turned them loose in order to justify its subsequent military intervention. Another book on the conflict, written by former U.S. State Department official Ronald Asmus, employed the go-to metaphor of IR realism by depicting Georgia on the front cover as a literal pawn in the contest between Russia and the U.S.

The most ambivalent take on the war was provided by political scientist Daniel Treisman. In a book examining Dmitry Medvedev’s tenure as Russian president, Treisman ends his chapter on the Russo-Georgian war with a series of unanswered questions.

“…it was hard to say at times who was the hostage and who the provocateur. Were the South Ossetians trying to provoke an attack by the Georgians in order to get Russia involved? Were the Georgians trying to provoke Russia in order to draw in the West? Was Russia trying to provoke the Georgians in order to smash their army? Too many parties had a motive for war.”

In addition to representing the first knock-on effect of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, the Russo-Georgian War highlighted both the necessity and the hazards of claiming humanitarian goals when sending troops abroad. According to international law Russia had every right to use is military to protect its besieged peacekeepers in Tskhinvali and the EU inquiry acknowledged that:

“…there seems to be little doubt that if the Russian peacekeepers were attacked, Russia had the right to defend them using military means proportionate to the attack. Hence the Russian use of force for defensive purposes during the first phase of the conflict would be legal.”

And yet Russian officials were not content to justify their invasion solely as a response to an attack on their troops. Instead they claimed that their invasion was a righteous response to an unprovoked assault on the population of South Ossetia. Russian newspapers at the time published allegations of Georgian atrocities and claimed that Georgian forces were engaged in a genocide against the South Ossetian people. Just as American officials had inflated the scale of violence in Kosovo the Russian press repeated claims that 2000 South Ossetian civilians had been murdered by Georgian security forces. As van Herpen pointed out, these false accusations of war crimes and ethnic cleansing became a self-fulling prophecy.

“The Russian lies concerning a genocide committed by Georgians had the perverse effect of inciting South Ossetian militias to kill, rape, and loot Georgian citizens with even more fervor.” 

The Russian invasion of Georgia was to have other knock-on effects over the following years. The muted reaction from the ‘international community’ seemed to indicate that NATO and the UN were not interested in contesting Russian encroachment into the territories of the former Soviet Union. No sanctions were levelled against Russia and, despite the damage done by the vague guarantee given in Bucharest, NATO made no attempt to fast-track Georgia’s membership in the alliance. 

The Counter-Maidan

Russian Invasion of Ukraine (2014)

In February 2014 violent protests in Kyiv’s Maidan Square culminated in the removal of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. The demonstrations began as a reaction to widespread government corruption and anger at Russian interference in Ukrainian domestic politics and escalated following Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an agreement aimed at allowing Ukraine to join the European Union.

In the preceding years Russian state media had treated Ukrainian petitions to join the EU as evidence of a U.S. conspiracy to isolate Russia and pave the way for Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO. The Kremlin viewed the overthrow of Yanukovych as an illegal coup and Russian state media fought to discredit the wider protest movement by highlighting the participation of Ukrainian nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. By painting all the Maidan protestors as ’Nazis’ and ‘Banderites’ (in reference to the infamous Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera) Russian officials and media figures pushed the narrative that Ukraine’s government had been subverted and that action needed to be taken to liberate ethnic Russians from ‘Ukro-fascists’.

Protesters advance toward new positions in Independence Square in Kiev in late February 2014.

At a press conference in March 2014, Putin revived the language of Brezhnev – telling reporters that:

“Ukraine is not only our closest neighbour. It is our fraternal neighbour. Our armed forces are brothers in arms, friends. They know each other personally…We will not go to war with the Ukrainian people. If we do take military action, it will only be for the protection of the Ukrainian people”

Even as he spoke, Russian troops (stripped of identifying insignia) were in the process of seizing control of the Crimean peninsula. Once Ukraine’s security forces were evicted, Russian officials organised a sham referendum to legitimise their takeover.

Following the referendum Putin visited Crimea for the 69th anniversary of Sevastopol’s liberation by Soviet forces. News reports showed crowds cheering for a parade of Russian dignitaries, WWII veterans and members of the separatist militia that had helped annex the peninsula. As part of his speech Putin told his audience that:

“I am sure that 2014 will go into the annals of our whole country as the year when the nations living here firmly decided to be together with Russia, affirming fidelity to the historical truth and the memory of our ancestors,”

Meanwhile, in Eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian political groups were encouraged to stage their own ‘counter-Maidans’ in various regional capitals. Attendees were bussed into the cities en masse and paid to wave banners and fly Russian flags. Much to Putin’s surprise, these rent-a-crowd demonstrations failed to trigger the sort of popular uprising that Russian officials expected. In a recent podcast appearance, kremlinologist Michael Kofman pointed out that suspicions of western conspiracies and covert operations in Ukraine arguably blinded Putin to the possibility that he was witnessing a genuine popular movement in Kyiv. 

“… in the counter-Maidan [Putin] attempted to imitate something that never existed…He interpreted the real Maidan as, fundamentally, a CIA plot…that he could counter with a replicated operation. But when you try to imitate a thing that never existed in the first place, it’s probably not going to work.”

Despite lukewarm support from the wider population, separatist militia – armed and financed by the Russian government – succeeded in taking control of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Local militia, backed by Russian Special Forces, stormed government offices and announced the formation of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The international response to this regional coup remained muted until July 17, 2014 when separatist forces mistakenly shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight en route to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 passengers and crew. Amid a groundswell of international outrage, the Ukrainian army intensified its attacks on the breakaway Republics but stopped short of an all-out offensive so as to avoid drawing Russia further into the conflict. 

When the separatists continued to lose ground, Russia launched a covert invasion of Donbas to prop up their proxy forces. In August 2014, thousands of troops accompanied by Russian tanks and self-propelled artillery rolled across the border. Over the following weeks and months the Russian government staged further sham referendums to legitimise the new republics while Russian armoured brigades traded rockets and artillery with Ukrainian forces along the front line. This undeclared war lapsed into stalemate following peace talks in 2015 but, over the following years, Ukraine successfully lobbied for Western financial and military aid and refused to give in to Russian political blackmail. Finally, in 2017, the Ukrainian parliament agreed to make NATO membership the country’s overriding foreign policy objective. 

Those living in Crimea may have had mixed feelings about the Russian occupation but the relative ease with which Putin’s forces managed to seize the peninsula appears to have given Russian officials a false sense of confidence in further annexations. Previous opinion polls conducted in Crimea had shown substantial support for the Russian Federation but those figures had been in steady decline since the late 2000s and, despite knowing that their referendum in Crimea was a sham (notably, the ballot didn’t include the option to remain part of Ukraine), Russian authorities appear to have derived real confidence from the 97 percent vote for integration. 

But, in Donbas, public support for Russia proved to be a mirage. According to a survey conducted by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology in April 2014, only a third of those living in Donbas favoured joining Russia while another third would have been satisfied by greater political autonomy within Ukraine. Despite substantial economic and linguistic ties to Russia, Donbas residents showed very little appetite for secession and very little enthusiasm for their newly appointed governors and officials – a mix of former gangsters, fringe political figures and Kremlin agents. 

In the years between Russia’s initial annexation of Crimea and Donbas and the major offensive launched in February 2022, Russia spent enormous resources broadcasting a propaganda narrative that denied Ukraine’s sovereignty and refused to recognise any sort of unique Ukrainian culture. In the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution Putin even revived an Imperial Russian political project which recast vast territories in eastern Ukraine as provinces of ‘Novorossiya’ (Literally ‘New Russia). This propaganda offensive continued for years amid the frozen conflict in Donbas. In an article for the Atlantic Council in March 2020, political scientist Taras Kuzio drew attention to comments made by Putin during a 2020 interview on Russian news agency TASS.

“Disregarding the abundant evidence of the past six years, Putin took the opportunity of this flagship interview to repeat his claim that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”. This belief is central to Putin’s many Ukraine delusions and appears to be entirely sincere. He has reiterated it on numerous occasions since the conflict between the two countries began in 2014, and is seemingly indifferent to the offence it causes. Putin then proceeded to blame the rise of a Ukrainian national consciousness on outside interference, thereby dismissing Ukrainian agency and reducing the country’s long independence struggle to the status of anti-Russian plot.”

Putin’s sense of national chauvinism appears to have been bolstered by a rotating cast of exiled and sidelined political figures from Ukraine itself. At certain periods, former Ukrainian officials like Vladimir Sivkovich, Viktor Medvedchuk and Valentina Matviyenko became close confidants to Putin (with Putin even agreeing to act as godfather to Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter) and key advisors to Russia’s FSB. Whether out of genuine self-delusion, or simply to ingratiate themselves with Putin, these figures insisted that a widespread Ukrainian desire to ‘rejoin’ mother Russia was being thwarted by an illegitimate and unpopular ruling elite. 

The steady consolidation of Russia’s media industry further reenforced Putin’s ideological echo chamber. Over the course of the 2010s, independent and opposition news outlets in Russia were marginalised or shut down in an effort to quell domestic dissent and avert a local ‘colour revolution’ of the sort that had toppled authoritarian governments in several former Soviet states. This crackdown on independent media took place gradually but the end result was a ‘firehose of falsehoods’ that saturated Russian audiences with propaganda and conspiracy theories. 

While this campaign of disinformation succeeded in discrediting opposition movements within Russia it also left senior officials in the dark when it came to gauging public sentiment in Russia and Ukraine. Foreign diplomats and journalists familiar with the Kremlin noted that Putin and his inner circle were becoming increasingly divorced from reality as the standoff with Ukraine dragged on. This drift into paranoia and delusion was confirmed by a senior Russian diplomat who fled Russia following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. In an article for Foreign Affairs, Boris Bondarev wrote that:

“… for me, one of the invasion’s central lessons had to do with something I had witnessed over the preceding two decades: what happens when a government is slowly warped by its own propaganda. For years, Russian diplomats were made to confront Washington and defend the country’s meddling abroad with lies and non sequiturs. We were taught to embrace bombastic rhetoric and to uncritically parrot to other states what the Kremlin said to us. But eventually, the target audience for this propaganda was not just foreign countries; it was our own leadership. In cables and statements, we were made to tell the Kremlin that we had sold the world on Russian greatness and demolished the West’s arguments. We had to withhold any criticism about the president’s dangerous plans. This performance took place even at the ministry’s highest levels.”

Perhaps the most overlooked contributing factor to Russia’s disastrous offensive in February 2022 was the tempering of Ukrainian nationalism. Just as the arrival of Greek troops had galvanised a weak and fractured nationalist movement in Turkey a century earlier, the undeclared war in Donbas brought Ukrainians together in opposition to Russian encroachment. Whereas, in the past, pro-Russian parties had enjoyed considerable support in eastern Ukraine, the war in Donbas seemed to burn off any latent goodwill. Surveys conducted in 2018 in areas that were formally pro-Russian strongholds in the country’s east found that only seven percent of Ukrainians approved of Russia’s leadership.

Putin’s ‘Special Military Operation’

2nd Russo-Ukrainian War (2022)

On February 24, 2022 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a ‘Special Military Operation’ aimed at ‘de-militarising’ and ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine. The ground invasion was preceded by a barrage of long-range missiles and air strikes directed at key government buildings and airfields in Ukraine. In the early hours of the morning, Russian armoured battalions surged into Ukrainian territory from occupied Crimea and Donbas – overwhelming the defenders and pushing deep into Ukrainian territory.

At the same time, Russian troops based in Belorussia attempted to conduct a blitzkrieg assault on the Ukrainian capital. The main thrust of this two-pronged attack was mounted from a section of the border only 100 kilometres north of Kyiv. Russian Battalion Tactical Groups – consisting of hundreds of tanks, armoured vehicles and mechanised artillery – pushed through Chernobyl’s exclusion zone and crowded the main highways as they worked their way south. 

Despite the shock and disruption caused by the attack, the Ukrainian authorities managed to stick to their contingency plans. Ukrainian troops gave ground at the borders and conducted a ‘fighting retreat’ while engineers destroyed bridges, mined roads and opened floodgates to slow the Russian advance. Ignoring advice from his U.S. and European allies, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky refused to leave Kyiv and his declaration of martial law prohibited men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country. In major towns and cities across the country, military officials handed out weapons to volunteers in order to buy time to mobilise reservists. 

Reports of fierce fighting at Antonov airfield were among the first indications that Russia’s invasion was not going entirely to plan. In order to secure a staging point for the main assault on the capital, the Russian Air Force ferried dozens of elite VDV troops directly to an airfield just north of Kyiv. However Ukrainian defenders – a mixture of professional soldiers and local militia – launched an immediate counter attack which succeeded in driving off the Russian invaders. This Ukrainian force held onto the airfield for another day before they were forced to withdraw but, by that point, the opportunity for a Russian coup de main had passed. When the main Russian army arrived on February 25th the runway was cratered and the airport itself was still under fire from Ukrainian artillery.

Thanks to a combination of fierce Ukrainian resistance and bewildering Russian incompetence the invasion force from Belorussia never managed to encircle Kyiv – let alone seize the city. Instead, thousands of Russian armoured vehicles and trucks found themselves stuck in traffic jams without food, fuel or ammunition. Ukrainian Special Forces added to the chaos by ambushing supply convoys and conducting night raids on isolated Russian units. In the absence of any backup plan, Russian troops remained where they were – unable to advance but unwilling to retreat without orders. 

When they were finally withdrawn from Kyiv a month later The Russian army left a trail of abandoned and burnt-out armoured vehicles. They also left the bodies of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians – executed on suspicion of spotting for Ukrainian artillery or simply murdered to inspire terror. While the death toll among Russian troops remains difficult to verify, U.S. sources estimate that 10,000 members of the Russian Armed Forces were killed or severely wounded in the first month of the invasion.

Following the disastrous attack on Kyiv, the Russian army redeployed its forces to prop up its offensive into Eastern Ukraine which was also running into stiff resistance. In cities that had previously been strongholds of pro-Russian sentiment, Ukrainian territorial defence units fought desperately to delay the Russian advance. Meanwhile, civilians in the newly occupied regions berated and ridiculed Russian troops and refused to provide food or directions. Out of frustration, Russian forces resorted to the same tactics they had used in Syria and Chechnya – indiscriminate bombing of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and apartment buildings. Rather than demoralising the Ukrainian population these attacks seem to have stiffened Ukrainian resolve and further reduced the possibility of a negotiated settlement. 

Abandoned and destroyed Russian armoured vehicles on the streets of Kharkiv three days after the invasion began.

Following the collapse of Russia’s Kyiv offensive the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, was asked by the U.S. Senate to explain what led to the failure of the invasion. He listed four misguided assumptions made by Putin’s administration.

  1. That Ukraine was weak and politically divided
  2. That Europe and the rest of the international community wouldn’t mount a significant response
  3. That Russia could withstand any sanctions
  4. That Russia’s military had been modernised and would fight effectively

There’s no doubt that each of these factors played a part in Putin’s decision to go to war. Nevertheless Burns’ first point surely undersells the extent of Russia’s intelligence failure. Much more than capitalising on political divisions the Russian invasion plan appears to have been predicated on the active support of a sizeable minority of Ukrainian citizens and the passive acceptance of the majority.

The best evidence for this can be found in the size and shape of the army that Putin committed to the invasion. It’s estimated that somewhere between 175,000 and 190,000 troops were involved in the initial offensive and, while this might seem like a substantial force, it falls well short of what is typically demanded by modern military doctrine. As Seth Jones wrote in an analysis of the invasion* for the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

“There are no exact formulas for how many soldiers are required to hold conquered territory, but a force ratio of as many as 20 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants has sometimes been necessary to pacify a hostile local population. Large numbers of troops are generally essential to establish basic law and order. By the end of World War II, for example, there were 101 U.S. soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants in the U.S.-controlled sector of Germany. More recently, there were 19 U.S. and European soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants in Bosnia in 1995 and 20 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants in Kosovo in 2000.”

These figures are not exclusive to western military doctrine either. During Russia’s most recent war to ‘pacify’ Chechnya in 2003, the Russian military ended up deploying more than 150 soldiers for every 1,000 Chechen residents. By contrast, in Ukraine, which has a population of more than 40 million people, Russia deployed what can only be considered a token force. Even assuming the higher estimate for Russia’s initial commitment, the success of Putin’s Special Military Operation would have left Russia with a ratio of just four soldiers for every 1000 Ukrainian citizens.

Russian POWs captured in the wake of the attack on Kyiv revealed further evidence of Russia’s strategic optimism. Those soldiers who were briefed on the operation were told that they would be participating in a ‘show of force’ and that resistance would be confined to fringe groups of fascists and ‘Banderites’ (a catch-all term for Ukrainian nationalists and neo-Nazis). 

Based on these assumptions the Russian army ignored many of its standard operating procedures – bridging equipment was left in reserve while tanks and armoured vehicles were allowed to advance without infantry or air support. The first wave of Russian troops were only given enough food and fuel to remain in the field for 72 hours. Meanwhile Russian Air Defence units were instructed to treat all aircraft overhead as friendly.

A white paper compiled by British military think-tank RUSI, noted that Russian forces were told to avoid confronting Ukrainian units.

“Confirming the notion that the conventional military component of the invasion was intended as a supporting demonstration of power rather than the main effort, Russian units were ordered to proceed in administrative column, and to bypass UAF units. Many Russian soldiers arrived in towns without their weapons loaded. They were – for the most part – not anticipating heavy fighting.”

Collectively, these decisions gave Ukrainian forces room to manoeuvre in the crucial first hours of the invasion.

Given that Ukraine had been the focus of Russia’s intelligence services for more than a decade, it’s worth asking why Russian planners failed to anticipate the backlash against Russia’s invasion. While the workings of Russia’s various intelligence agencies are shrouded in secrecy many experts have blamed the early miscalculations on the Federal Security Service (FSB) – specifically the FSB’s 5th Service, which is tasked with collecting data on the former Warsaw Pact nations including Ukraine. In the weeks leading up to the invasion in February 2022 the 5th Service presented a final survey of Ukrainian public opinion to war planners in the Kremlin which seemed to confirm prevailing assumptions about Ukrainian political attitudes and loyalties. According to that same paper by RUSI, the survey revealed that:

“Ukrainians in early February were, by and large, pessimistic about the future and apathetic about politics, and did not trust politicians, political parties or the majority of Ukraine’s domestic institutions. Their main concerns were overwhelmingly inflation and the cost of living, with both perceived to be rising.”

At the midpoint of his presidency, Volodimir Zelesnksy’s personal approval rating had dropped to 34 percent. Financial turmoil caused by the Covid pandemic and the lingering war in Donbas had reduced overall trust in the government to a mere 27 percent and, crucially, from the perspective of the Kremlin, a full 40 percent of respondents claimed that they would refuse to serve in the military or fight to defend Ukraine. The televised address given by Putin on the eve of the invasion – which emphasised the many failures of Ukrainian civil society – seemed to be drawn directly from the FSB’s public opinion survey. But as researchers Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling pointed out:

“The problem with surveys of social attitudes is that they are a snapshot of a moment in time. In stable conditions, trends in the data can suggest the trajectory of public sentiment, and the FSB has social trends data for Ukraine going back as far as 2006. But a seismic shift of context can cause major variations in sentiment and attitudes. Air attacks, even when limited to precision strikes on military targets, have historically been perceived extremely negatively by civilian populations…”

As of writing Russia’s war on Ukraine is entering its 14th month with no end in sight. Nevertheless, even if the Russian military manages to hold onto their captured territory in the east, the damage done by their attempted coup will still reverberate for decades. Sanctions will see the Russian economy contract over the next several years and EU member states have already begun divesting from Russia’s gas and oil industries. Furthermore, Russia appears to have lost most of its high-end military equipment and has resorted to pulling thirty and forty-year old tanks out of scrap yards to replace losses on the front line. Meanwhile, a string of atrocities and indiscriminate rocket and artillery attacks have permanently destroyed the popular support that Russia once enjoyed.


Humanitarian Intervention
Gareth Evans (2009) – The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All
Suzanne Hill (2020) – The Cold War and the Genocide Convention: A History of the United States’ Refusal to Ratify 
Uganda Daily Monitor Editorial (2015) – How bar fight sparked the 1979 Uganda – Tanzania war

NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (1999)
Brett Wilkins (2019) – Killing for Credibility: A Look Back at the 1999 NATO Air War on Serbia
Michael Mccgwire (2000) – Why Did We Bomb Belgrade?
Noam Chomsky (2001) – A Review of NATO’s War over Kosovo
Rama Sampath Kumar (2008) – From Kosovo to Georgia: The US, NATO and Russia
Aleksa Djilas (2000) – Bombing to Bring Peace
Tim Marshall (2022) – What Putin learnt from NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo
Alexander Cockburn (1999) – Where’s the Evidence of Genocide of Kosovar Albanians? 
Masha Gessen (2022) – How the Kosovo Air War Foreshadowed the Crisis in Ukraine
Michael Mandelbaum (1999) – A Perfect Failure: NATO’s War against Yugoslavia

U.S. Invasion of Iraq (2003)
Michael E. O’Hanlon (2005) – Iraq Without a Plan 
Carl Conetta (2005) – Vicious Circle: The Dynamics of Occupation and Resistance in Iraq
Thomas E. Ricks (2007) – Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005
Robert Draper (2021) – To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq
Robert Dreyfus (2002) – Tinker, Banker, NeoCon, Spy
Anthony H. Cordesman and Emma R. Davies (2008) – Iraq’s Insurgency and the Road to Civil Conflict
Daniel Lieberfeld (2005) – Theories of Conflict and the Iraq War
Peter Mass (2023) – Firdos Square
Peter Mass (2011) – The Toppling: How the Media Inflated a Minor Moment in a Long War

Russo-Georgian War (2008)
Daniel Treisman (2011) – The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev
Michael Kofman (2018) – The August War, Ten Years On: A Retrospective on the Russo-Georgian War
Ronald Asmus (2010) – A Little War That Shook The World
Marcel van Herpen (2014) – Putin’s Wars: The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism
Council of the European Union (2009) – Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia
Gerard Toal, John O’Loughlin (2014) – How people in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria feel about annexation by Russia
Christopher Hitchens (2008) – South Ossetia Isn’t Kosovo

Russian Invasion of Ukraine (2014 – 2022)
Adrian A. Basora, Aleksandr Fisher (2014) – Putin’s “Greater Novorossiya”: The Dismemberment of Ukraine
Mykhailo Minakov (2021) – Just Like All the Others: The End of the Zelensky Alternative?
Alex Vershinin (2022) – Lessons From the Battle for Kyiv
Nick Reynolds, Dr Jack Watling (2022) – Ukraine Through Russia’s Eyes
Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr V Danylyuk, Nick Reynolds (2022) – Preliminary Lessons in Conventional Warfighting from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: February–July 2022
Congressional Research Service (2023) – Russia’s War in Ukraine: Military and Intelligence Aspects
Sam Jones, John Paul Rathbone, Demetri Sevastopulo (2022) – A serious failure’: scale of Russia’s military blunders becomes clear
Roman Anin (2022) – How Putin Decided To Go to War
Pjotr Sauer (2022) – ‘Pure Orwell’: how Russian state media spins invasion as liberation
Paul Sonne, Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris, John Hudson (2022) – Hubris and isolation led Vladimir Putin to misjudge Ukraine
Serhii Plokhy (2021) – Contextualizing Putin’s “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”
Boris Bondarev (2022) – The Sources of Russian Misconduct

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

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