Commentary / World

Ukrainians would be wise to heed Georgia’s war lessons

by Leonid Bershidsky


Georgia’s example in breaking with its Soviet past inspires many Ukrainians. Georgian reformers from former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s Cabinet have taken high-profile posts in the Ukrainian government recently. Saakashvili himself is widely seen as a candidate for the job of chief corruption fighter in Kiev.

So perhaps the Ukrainian government and its Western allies should also consider the experience of Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia in resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which is again escalating. Perhaps the most immediate lesson from Georgia’s short war concerns the provision of U.S. weapons to Ukraine, which U.S. President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary recently backed. Before the 2008 war, in which Russian troops overran Georgia’s territory in five days after Georgia shelled the pro-Russian breakaway territory of South Ossetia, the United States had already provided weapons and trainers for Georgian troops.

From 2002 to 2009, Georgia received $693 million in U.S. security assistance and used the money, among other things, to buy military vehicles, radios, and surveillance and detection equipment. During the George W. Bush administration, Georgia received $132.5 worth of weaponry, mostly small arms and light weapons. The U.S. refused the anti-aircraft and other high-end arms that Saakashvili pressed for, but Georgia bought drones from Israel and anti-aircraft systems from Ukraine.

None of this did much for the Georgian military when it came to fighting off a purposeful Russian invasion. The bigger nation used some pretty outdated machinery, such as 30-year-old T-72 tanks, but its onslaught was so overwhelming that Georgia’s ill-trained military had to capitulate.

If the U.S. were to arm Ukraine today, this would be a powerful irritant to Russia, as were the arms supplies to Georgia before 2008. It would probably provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin to use regular troops in eastern Ukraine less sparingly than he has done so far, probably with similar results to the ones seen in Georgia. It may well be too late to start training Ukrainian soldiers in the use of sophisticated U.S. technology or even unfamiliar light weapons, because the war is already on.

Because there is a consensus among Western nations to avoid sending troops from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Ukraine, just as they weren’t sent to Georgia, it’s probably worth considering another, diplomatic, lesson from 2008: Western powers did not impose economic sanctions on Russia. With Russian troops poised at the outskirts of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, that wasn’t even an option. Instead, Europe — particularly France — acted fast to achieve a cessation of hostilities.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s shuttle diplomacy between Tbilisi and Moscow yielded a basic truce that effectively gave Moscow control of Georgia’s breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia accepted Sarkozy’s mediation because Europe had not set itself up on one side in the conflict and was willing to sacrifice its commitment to international principles, such as territorial sovereignty, to stop bloodshed.

As Tuomas Forsberg and Antti Seppo wrote in their assessment of Europe’s role in the conflict: “From the Russian point of view, a sufficiently independent but not a threatening posture proved to be a key factor that made it possible in the first place for the EU to assume the role as a mediator in the Georgian case.”

The six-point peace plan brokered by Sarkozy in August 2008, and the specific military details added to it in September, closely resembled the protocols signed by Ukraine, the pro-Russian rebels, Russia and European mediators in Minsk in September 2014.

Yet, unlike the Minsk agreements, the Georgian ceasefire held.

There were several reasons for this crucial difference. One was that Dmitri Medvedev, not Putin, was president of Russia and his mildness moderated Prime Minister Putin’s aggressive decisiveness. Russia also didn’t start the Georgian crisis by annexing territory, as it did in Ukraine, nor muddy the waters by claiming its troops weren’t involved.

And Europe’s role was truly neutral, while in the Ukraine crisis the EU chose to align itself firmly with the U.S. and against Russia, mirroring American sanctions.

Finally Georgia’s military had been routed and Saakashvili faced the imminent occupation of his entire country, so he was willing to compromise to save it. By contrast, Ukraine’s leaders appear still to nurture hope of a military victory, with Western support.

Ideally European neutrality — including the cancelation of some of the most odious sanctions — would help build trust in future peace talks and help convince Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that his country cannot beat Russia on the battlefield. Yet this is probably impossible at the moment for reasons of domestic Ukrainian politics, because it would be seen as surrender.

Today, Russia sees Europe as a party to the Ukraine conflict. Just as European leaders don’t trust Putin, who has lied repeatedly about the Russian role in the fighting, Putin doesn’t trust them.

This calls for more substantive negotiations on the post-conflict order, probably including constitutional guarantees from Ukraine that it will never seek to join NATO and that the currently rebel-held areas will receive broad autonomy within Ukraine.

These guarantees could come in the form of a second chamber for the Ukrainian Parliament that would include representatives of all the country’s regions, each holding a veto over matters of military policy. Working out such a compromise would require Poroshenko’s full cooperation, which is unobtainable without European pressure.

It’s hard to imagine now, after almost a year of posturing, but all conflicts have to end. Russia’s military advantage means Ukraine will eventually make a deal from a position of weakness.

Another lesson of the Russo-Georgian war is that after winning, Russia’s ability to meddle in Georgia has been less than many expected. Saakashvili remained president until November 2013, though he largely lost power after a landslide opposition victory in the 2012 parliamentary election.

The winners have partially rolled back Saakashvili’s reforms and sought to improve relations with Russia. Yet Georgia did not join Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union, instead signing the association agreement with the EU that triggered the crisis in Ukraine. Georgia has a small, open, deregulated economy that grew at an annualized rate of 5.6 percent in the third quarter of 2014, the last one for which data are available.

Many people I know in Kiev are worried that if Ukraine makes a deal with Putin, allowing him some political influence on the country’s future, he will meddle to an extent that will make meaningful reforms impossible. He has not been able to do that in Georgia.

Ukraine will always feel Russia’s pull and its bureaucrats will be tempted to serve Russia’s interests for Putin cash. Yet the country can still proceed on its European path economically and in terms of institution-building after admitting that it cannot beat Russia militarily. All it takes is a strong will to reform, possibly following Georgia’s path of ruthless deregulation. Europe can help in developing that will, as well as the institutions to sustain it.

In a trip to Kiev and Moscow over the weekend, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed what Hollande calls “a new solution to the conflict based on the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

That would be a welcome turn of events. Six thousand lives are already too many to lose.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Berlin-based Bloomberg View contributor and author.