Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 5 Sep.’17 / 12:59
Voice of America’s Ia Meurmishvili spoke with Donald Jensen, Senior Adjunct Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, about the implementation of 2008 Six-Point Ceasefire Plan. Jensen also spoke about “borderization” in Georgia, Russia’s foreign policy towards its eastern neighbors and the West’s approach to the Kremlin.
Ia Meurmishvili anchors VOA’s weekly show Washington Today and can be followed on Twitter @iameurmishvili or on Facebook.
How do you think the so-called Sarkozy ceasefire agreement is being implemented since 2008?
I think at the time those of us who worked on Georgia-Russia politics and those of us, who wrote about it and observed it, did not realize the turning point that it was in post-soviet bilateral east-west relationships. The Sarkozy ceasefire agreement – I cannot say it is a joke, but I can say it is not working. Even at the time, I thought that it was not working. It would not work partly because a lot of the European allies in particular were ambivalent about what had happened or did not understand it. Frankly, they were ambivalent about the Georgian government and its leadership. I think many people saw the Sarkozy’s agreement as a fig leaf to stop the fire. There were hardly any expectations that it would really lead to something more in terms of settling the dispute between the two countries.
What do you mean by ambivalence towards the government?
The story has long been out there and still remains that the Georgians provoked a Russian military response. I am not one of those people who agree with it. If one argues that, you have a pretext for not responding to what I think is Russian aggression, or Russian provocation. You can talk about the mistakes made by the Georgian side, but that way you do not have to answer the deeper questions about Russia’s foreign policy and goals. Just like you do not have to really answer the question about if the Sarkozy’s agreement would ever work. It was a temporary measure aimed at stopping the fighting, without any realistic expectations that something would happen beyond that.
If one county invades another and changes its borders by force, I cannot help but think that the question about who fired the first shot is secondary. It is interesting to hear that that was one of the concerns the Europeans had at the time.
That view is still out there. I agree with you. One of the comparisons is the Crimea annexation, which to me is different, but a parallel development. As in Crimea or in Donbas, one can argue that something happened there that required Russian protection. That is simply nonsense.
And, that of course, is the argument the Russian government used at the time of invasion.
You might recall the 2007 Munich speech – in many ways an equally important turning point – when Putin became much more aggressive. Putin later talked about the scenarios which were prepared for the Russian move there. So, if the scenarios were prepared that suggested that they were waiting for an opportunity to move. It really does not matter what the Georgian leadership does, as long as you can credibly present a pretext for invading and that is sort of what they tried in Ukraine as well.
I agree with you that who shot first is irrelevant, because the situation was much more complicated than that. If you look at it as black and white or as who shoot first, you really do not get any deeper understanding over the bigger issues involved.
Does Georgia at this point have any legal, economic or diplomatic means to try and revitalize the issue of implementing the Sarkozy agreement?
Which would be effective? No. This is really an issue between the U.S. and NATO – let us call it the West – and Russia. Georgia, honestly, I am afraid to say cannot be effective on the ground. I think the Kremlin is trying to soften the Georgian response a little bit. I am not taking sides in Russian and Georgian domestic politics. However, I think the Kremlin sees the current government as more willing to accept strong Russian measures, or acquiesce strong Russian measures. Without the international support, there is really nothing Georgia can do to push back. At a time of uncertainty about the Western approach to Russia, it is easy for the Russians to push inch by inch, which is what they seem to be doing.
Do you think that Georgian government has the same view on that?
I am not criticizing the Georgian government. I am saying that Georgia alone cannot prevent this regardless of who is in charge. The Russians are seeing an opportunity and weakness and they naturally are going to try to exploit it. You see that not just in Georgia, but in lots of places.
The Russian military started to move, so called, South Ossetian border by moving the administrative line demarcation points. This process is continuing for a few years now. Russia only gets criticism from the international community for it, nothing else. In your view, why are they doing it?
They are doing it because they can. Russia sees itself as expanding its influence and trying to consolidate its influence around periphery of former USSR. Is does not mean they are going to take over Georgia. They are not. They are trying to push outward. It is a tailor-made target for Russian exploitation, because of the ethnic diversity, controversy about international law on the issue, and, above all, because no one is stopping them – why not do it!
They are squeezing Georgia. If the Georgia government is seen as unable to protect its own borders – which in many ways is a key determinant of sovereignty – they undermine perception of Georgian sovereignty. Russia is not trying to recreate the Soviet Union. Russia is trying to consolidate its influence around the periphery of the former USSR. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are easily exploitable for Russia without any serious expectation of a Western pushback. In the Minsk process, you see the same problem – Ukraine’s control over its borders is an essential asset of sovereignty. If it is not in control of its borders – as in Georgia – it is not a real country in the eyes of many people.
In addition, the Black Sea and its security have become much more prominent in recent years. So it makes sense the Russians to be extremely unwilling to pull back from Abkhazia. Because of the key strategic location, if no one pushes them, why would they pull back?
How would you summarize benefits, or perceived benefits Russia from moving the border?
Because they can. I am a writer and I know that if you write paragraph a day over a month or two you have a lot of written. If you move the border an inch or two a day – I am minimizing it to make a point – over the years you have a lot more territory. Many people think there is international consensus about where South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be or are. They are still fighting about that and I believe Russia is establishing new facts on the ground. It is going to be very hard to budge them off that, particularly now, when the West has no interest in NATO expansion.
It seems like the international community is not discussing Georgia as actively in the context of Russian aggression. Is there a possibility that Russia is taking advantage of this development and is increasing pressure on Georgia only to use it as a bargaining chip with the West in its Ukraine negotiations?
I would agree with you up to that last point. There is weariness about NATO expansion. Despite the sympathy for Georgia’s situation there is certainly more attention given to Ukraine now. However, in many ways, geopolitically Ukraine is a more critical actor in terms of European security. If you get away from the concept of state building and democracy promotion and look at foreign policy issues in terms of a realist balance of power, Georgia is inevitably going to join NATO later after some of the other places if it ever expands.
But, I would not link Georgia and Ukraine – not at all. There is a general weariness to expanding NATO to both countries. The geopolitical situation in Ukraine is different – it is a war, and it is the war caused by the Russians. Therefore, there is more attention to it and that means less attention to Georgia. However, it does not mean a strict correlation. The same people who want to help Ukraine, want to help Georgia. But, everybody agrees that NATO should not expand anytime soon. But a question always lingers in the background in these policy debates – at what point do you go and run the risk of provoking a Russian response?
The issue of angering Putin still is a factor in calculations. That applies to Georgia as well. People may say that after all, it is a small country and not worth the risk even if we like them. That kind of calculation happens all the time.
So, would you say that it could be beneficial for Georgia to connect itself with Ukraine in these debates?
I think it is important to be seen separately, because these are separate issues. Let’s not use “connect.” The issue is working together to push back Russia’s attempts to expand its reach to its neighborhood. You see Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia helping the Ukrainians in an effective and quiet way. I think Georgia could do that, probably, more effectively as well. But in other respects the challenges Georgia poses are different, as should be the policy responses.
The issue of how our friends like Georgia lobby in Washington is very interesting. Poland and Estonia are very good at it. There are countries that are not so good at it – in particular, Ukraine. But I think Georgia in some ways might more effectively lobby public opinion and the influencers to argue their point of view. Russia is big and everyone pays attention to it and there is a potential to neglect Georgia and even Ukraine and ignore some of the issues they justifiably raise.
What do you think are some of the lessons the West learned after August 2008?
That is a key question. As contrast to the Russians, I do not think we learned too much. It was very clear after the Munich speech that Russia was conducting a pretty aggressive foreign policy. You would have thought that after Georgia the West would have more assertively pushed back against the Kremlin much more determinedly. It did. And other bad things happened… in Ukraine and elsewhere. That is the clearest consequence about not paying enough attention to Ukraine or Georgia. For two or three years we talked about who provoked the Kremlin’s response, than we had the “Reset,” and other things that frankly, looking back, seem naïve.
How about Russia, what did Russia learn?
Russia, I think, learned a lot – both good and bad. There was an internal criticism of Russian military’s performance in the August war. That was the key factor in driving forward the military reforms, which they used much more effectively in Ukraine. The second point would be the realization of the need to more effectively use Russian soft power and information warfare. This is something that really got started after the war. I went back recently and read some of the public information from the Russian side at the time. It was really a mess – obvious lies in many cases. That spurred Moscow to be more effective in information warfare, and now of course, it is a part of their military doctrine. Those were the two negative things that they looked at and fixed.
Russia also saw that you can take advantage of the divided West and that you can push around weak neighbors. In this way Georgia is a paradigm of what happened in a lot of places afterwards. I think they learned a lot and I think they are not going to leave from Georgia or Ukraine anytime soon, unfortunately.
Do you see the U.S. administration’s policy changing towards Russia’s “weak neighbors”?
There seems to be a lot of messages coming from the White House. The bottom line is that I do think they are concerned about the security of Georgia, Ukraine and other countries around Russia’s periphery. The President surrounded himself with people, advisors, policymakers who are strong supporters of Georgia, its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Since it is still fairly early into the administration, it is hard to generalize, but I would say that the White House seems somewhat less concerned about democracy promotion and value-oriented foreign policy. Its response to a Russian threat is coached much more in security terms. You saw that even in the response to the chemical attack in Syria. You see the apparent movement towards giving some sort of defensive weapons to Ukraine.
I think the Trump Administration largely sees problems more in terms of a traditional understanding of security and less in terms of democracy promotion. That in its own way can help Georgia advance its agenda, because the issues that Western critics always raise about these countries – corruption, lack of rule of law, are things that the current administration may be more willing to be flexible on. Not that they are in favor of those things, but they would consider the security issues to be a more central driver than in the past of relations with these countries.