Why Putin Should Have Georgia on His Mind

Parallels between Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine now suggest he may win the battle, but lose the war.

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
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Protesters call for U.S. action against possible Russian incursions into Ukraine, in front of the White House in Washington March 1, 2014.
Protesters call for U.S. action against possible Russian incursions into Ukraine, in front of the White House in Washington March 1, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

In October 2013, Haaretz reported the results of the presidential elections in Georgia, in which Giorgi Margvelashvili beat the candidate of the outgoing president, Mikheil Saakashvili. The headline described a “sweeping victory to the pro-Russian candidate in the Georgian presidential elections.”

The Georgian Embassy in Israel quickly called the paper to clarify that the president-elect was not “pro-Russian,” and that he intended to maintain the policies of his predecessor and strengthen ties with the West. Moreover, from the Russian point of view, Georgia is more or less lost.

The reason: the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008. As Fyodor Lukyanov, the chairman of the Presidium on Foreign and Defense Policy, told Haaretz, Russia had already used all existing means with regard to Georgia.

Like the events in Ukraine today, the war in 2008 – which ended with a unilateral declaration by South Ossetia and Abkhazia that they were seceding from Georgia – was part of the efforts by Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin (then its prime minister, now president), to stop its neighbors from being pulled into the Western sphere of influence.

From that point of view, Putin could deem the war a success – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization withdrew its plans to have Georgia and Ukraine join it. Looking back, though, while Putin did succeed in preventing American soldiers from being stationed on his southern border, he lost his hold on Georgia completely.

The parallels between the Georgia of 2008 and Ukraine today indicate that Putin’s decision to send troops to Crimea was a tactical achievement, but one that damaged Russia strategically.

In Putin’s early years in office, his opposition to the expansion of the NATO alliance was much stronger than his opposition to the expansion of the European Union to his doorstep.

In his first visit to Finland in 2001, Putin spoke colorfully of the plan of the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – to join NATO. Only a “sick mind” would consider Moscow a threat to Europe, he told a press conference in Helsinki.

A year later, seven Eastern European countries – all formerly part of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Convention – joined NATO. Putin’s ability to prevent the expansion of NATO was limited. He was still dealing with his country’s economic and social collapse in the late 1990s, and the cruel memory of the war in Chechnya was still fresh.

In early 2008, Russia was much more stable. This time, Putin was not going to allow the military alliance to expand along his country’s borders. That February, shortly after he forced the hand of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko over Kiev’s gas debt to Moscow, Putin threatened to aim missiles at Ukraine if it joined NATO.

That summer, as prime minister, he went to war against Georgia, ending for good the intentions of Russia’s two southern neighbors to join the North Atlantic alliance.

When the current conflict between Russia and the EU over Ukraine began last year, some pundits said that Putin might protest, but he would not voice as strong opposition to Kiev’s plans as he had done with Georgia in 2008.

But it seems the lessons Moscow learned after former Soviet bloc countries joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 strengthened the Kremlin’s resolve to oppose Brussels’ expansion along its borders.

Russia found that the EU’s new member states along its borders attributed less importance to Russia’s positions; Poland even became a leading anti-Russian voice in the EU.

The EU’s expansion also stirred anti-Russian aspirations in some of Russia’s other neighbors, like Ukraine and Georgia. Finally, the Kremlin found that the entry of its main trading partners into the EU hurt Russia’s aspirations to build a strong market economy.

As in Georgia six years ago, the Russian president has already assured himself his immediate interests in Ukraine – the Russian port of Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula is under his control, and it is hard to see how the West will take it away.

Any attempt to predict Putin’s moves is playing with fire, but it is certainly possible that he will try to stir instability in areas in the southeast of Ukraine, and thus justify broader military involvement. However, commentators say he will run into stronger opposition from the Ukrainian army if he sends troops beyond Crimea.

Even if Putin takes the soil- and resource-rich areas of the east away from Kiev, Russia has apparently still lost Kiev. Last week, the EU was still promising it would wait to sign new agreements with Kiev until after the elections in Ukraine. But yesterday a source in Brussels told Haaretz how they were “keeping an open mind” about the possibility of closer ties even before the elections, which the new government in Kiev wants badly.

Moreover, by sending troops to Crimea, Putin has shown his hand. Brussels is already preparing for the next confrontation with the Kremlin, with pacts of closer cooperation between the EU and Russia’s neighbors Moldova and Georgia – which the EU official said be signed by August at the latest.

Follow @AsafRonel on Twitter

A soldier atop a Russian armored personnel carriers with a road sign reading "Sevastopol - 32 kilometers, Yalta - 70 kilometers", near the town of Bakhchisarai, Ukraine, Feb. 28, 2014. Credit: AP
Troops in unmarked uniforms stand guard in Balaklava on the outskirts of Sevastopol, Ukraine, March 1, 2014.Credit: AP

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