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Russia's current war tactics are strikingly similar to its 2008 invasion of Georgia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly, speaking to you from the Central Square. This is the main boulevard of a city that Russia invaded - bombed it, hit apartment buildings, killed civilians. Let me pause. I want to make crystal clear we are not in Ukraine. This is Georgia - central Georgia - another former Soviet republic that Russia attacked in 2008. And this city is Gori. Now, today, totally calm - everything - everybody's going about their business. But back 14 years ago...

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GEORGE W BUSH: I am deeply concerned by reports that Russian troops have moved beyond the zone of conflict, attacked the Georgian town of Gori...

KELLY: Then-President George W. Bush. The U.S. had been watching all that summer of 2008 as long-simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia grew hotter and hotter until August 8, when Russia launched airstrikes within Georgia, sent in tanks and troops, and both governments declared a state of war.

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KELLY: Here's the thing. If you go back to old news reports from that summer, it's deja vu. Substitute the names of different cities, and you would swear you were reading today's headlines about Ukraine. So we're going to take some time now to consider - did Russia write the playbook for what's happening now in Ukraine 14 years ago, in Georgia?

GEORGE MCHEDLISHVILI: It's next episode of the same, I would say, dramatic series.

KELLY: George Mchedlishvili. He's an associate professor at the International Black Sea University in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, an hour or so drive east of Gori. We had arranged to meet him at a Ukrainian restaurant near the university. He's already polished off a fat slice of apple pie when we arrive.

When you look at what happened in 2008 here, you look at what's happening in 2022 in Ukraine, what's the same? What's the pattern you see?

MCHEDLISHVILI: So the pattern is that punishment - punishment of the country which wants to go west, punishment of the country which wants to build a functioning democracy. So, again, Putin doesn't take any chances. He wants the cost for the attempted Western orientation to be so high so the countries are discouraged.

KELLY: But I'm thinking in terms of how he does that. If you look at what happened here, it first was a - we're not invading. We're securing the peace - the giving of Russian passports...

MCHEDLISHVILI: Yeah.

KELLY: ...To people here so that then you can say we're going in to defend Russian citizens who weren't citizens...

MCHEDLISHVILI: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Before you handed them a passport.

MCHEDLISHVILI: Exactly. So kind of - that's how he prepared the ground for invasion.

KELLY: Sound familiar? It is so similar to how things have unfolded in Ukraine. Now, Ukraine is a bigger country than Georgia, and the war there is bigger, too. Georgia never descended into anything like the all-out, all-over-the-country combat that Ukraine is enduring now. Here in Georgia, Russia announced the end of its, quote, "peace enforcement operation" days after it began.

NATIA SESKURIA: The war continued for five days. The fighting continued for five days, but I always say that it is far from being over, even now.

KELLY: Georgian security expert Natia Seskuria.

SESKURIA: It's 2022, and there are still ongoing tensions, and we are facing very, very serious threat. And unfortunately, what we see today is just - I think it's just a continuation of what Russia has been doing in Georgia for many, many years.

KELLY: And when you say it's far from over today, you're referring to - what? - that a significant portion of Georgia is still occupied by Russia?

SESKURIA: Yes. So the Russians occupy 20% of Georgian territory. So Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia-Tskhinvali region are still occupied by Russian troops. The creeping occupation of Georgian territories, which is an ongoing process, and Russia is trying to grab further the Georgian land by pushing borders further into our territory, and that is...

KELLY: Like, actually moving the border...

SESKURIA: Actually moving the borders, yes.

KELLY: ...Which is a barbed-wire fence.

SESKURIA: Yes, exactly.

KELLY: We're talking with Natia Seskuria in the offices of the think tank she just founded, the Regional Institute for Security Studies. That territory you just heard her mention that is still occupied by Russian troops - that's another parallel. You've probably heard by now about the two breakaway regions in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, which have been controlled for years by Russian-backed separatists. Well, Georgia also has two breakaway regions, separated by checkpoints and barbed wire from the rest of Georgia. Russia insists they're independent republics, same as Russia has insisted about Donbas. And Seskuria says, listen also to the way Vladimir Putin uses the word genocide.

SESKURIA: He made several claims that Ukrainians were committing genocide in the Donbas region, and the exact same wording has been used in case of Georgia, which is obviously false information - false narrative.

KELLY: Let's talk about the U.S. role. I was going back and reading what the then-American president, George W. Bush, was saying in 2008.

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BUSH: Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century.

KELLY: He was talking about Georgia. But if you substitute Ukraine and you substitute Biden, it's the exact same language. It's the same rhetoric from the U.S.

SESKURIA: Yes, I agree with that, but I think the reaction is different. And we see that Georgia didn't get weapons, for example. Georgia didn't get that much support in terms of sanctions. In fact, I would say that Russia got a reward by the Obama administration in terms of reset policy, and reset policy was followed by several attempts to appease Russia. What I'm fearing is that, if Russia can get away with this, the next victim of the Russian aggression will be - may be a country that is part of the European Union, even.

KELLY: Or might be Georgia again.

SESKURIA: Or might be Georgia, yes.

KELLY: Natia Seskuria of the Regional Institute for Security Studies here in Georgia. But what she is saying there prompts a question. If the world had done a better job back in 2008 of holding Russia accountable, might the carnage unfolding today in Ukraine have been avoided? What is clear, with the benefit of hindsight, is that Russia was not deterred, but emboldened after its invasion of Georgia 14 years ago. In September 2008, so after the war was officially over, after the U.S. had announced a billion-dollar reconstruction aid package for Georgia, John McCain weighed in. The senator, then presidential candidate, warned that Russia was already in violation of its ceasefire agreement.

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JOHN MCCAIN: And watch Ukraine. This whole thing has got a lot to do with Ukraine, Crimea, the base of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol. So watch Ukraine, and let's make sure that we - that the Ukrainians understand that we are their friend and ally.

KELLY: John McCain 14 years ago. Russia's designs on Ukraine were not hidden. And while Russia built on what it learned from war in Georgia, its tactics haven't changed much. The question now is how the response to Russian aggression will differ - whether Ukraine and the world will be able to push back in a way that prevents the horror unfolding today from becoming the playbook for something even worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRO'S "YELLOW NOISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.