Georgia is not ready to defend itself if Moscow decides to invade again. And this is a very big weakness, one which should have been solved years ago and remains unresolved to this day…In Georgia, they don’t bother to ask themselves difficult questions…it’s something Georgian politicians seem to be averse to – Eugene Kogan, a researcher at the Vienna Institute of International Politics, an expert on defense and security issues in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, who has been living in Georgia for the past 10 years, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. We spoke to him about the role of Georgia in the region, territorial integrity, Karabakh, and the new war in the Middle East. We started with the Israel-Hamas conflict.
“It must have taken them at least six months to prepare, to do what they did that Saturday,” Kogan says of the recent Hamas attack on Israel. “It was well orchestrated, well coordinated. And I think the end result came as a surprise even to them, to be able to break the Israeli defense and to kill as many, and in such a short time, as they did. It certainly sent shockwaves around the State of Israel. I put the blame on the political and military leadership of the State of Israel, and in particular, on Prime Minister Netanyahu – over the last nine months there was a huge wave of demonstrations in the State of Israel with the participation of military and reserve forces. The state of the armed forces (IDF) has become drastically downgraded. And what we saw was the result of a well prepared onslaught on the state of Israel by Hamas.”
What is Israel’s response meant to achieve?
The entire operational business moving against Hamas is an extremely difficult issue because of the local infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, but also because of the approximately 150 kidnapped Israelis. This is a major difficulty at the moment for the IDF: to not only destroy the Hamas infrastructure, but also to rescue the captive Israelis’ alive.
During the first days, there was a huge aerial bombardment of the of the Gaza Strip. The aerial bombardment we’ve seen so far has destroyed not only the Hamas infrastructure, but also civilian infrastructure, but the problem is that these two issues are so strongly intertwined. It’s a huge Hydra. We know the Hamas soldiers use the civilian population as a shield, so when people start pointing the finger at Israel, they’d better remember that. They’d better remember those atrocities that were committed by Hamas – more than 1000 Israelis dead in three days.
There’s this famous quote from Golda Mayr, that peace will come to Arabs when they start loving their children more than they love killing Jews. How far are we from that moment today?
When it comes to Gaza, I think we are very, very far away. What we are seeing today is the mistake of the Israel government. They thought Hamas could be a real partner. This onslaught from Hamas really made everyone open their eyes and realize that no, Hamas cannot be a partner. It’s very difficult to keep a brave face and offer your hands to somebody who is going to cut your fingers off.
Let’s look at the external actors – who has benefited from what’s taken place, and who has suffered?
Well, we have to be extremely extremely careful. I don’t have enough real evidence to point my finger at one country. Everyone is saying Iran, but I would be very cautious to say its Iran and only Iran who is benefitting from this. At least one other beneficiary at the moment is Hezbollah in Lebanon. But we see that they are not rushing to Hamas’ assistance. They know that the country they’ve made a home in is at a tipping point, and if they do something, the Lebanese will put their thumb on Hezbollah. So they are being very calculated, cautious, not giving in to overplay. President Assad of Syria has enough troubles as it is, so I don’t expect Syria to get involved in what is happening in the Gaza streets. Egypt, Qatar and Turkey will do their best to play a game of mediating between the sides.
What about Russia? Not in terms of involvement, but in terms of benefiting from shifting the attention from Ukraine?
I don’t think the European Union, NATO or United States have shifted their attention away from Ukraine. I’ve seen nothing that would make me think so, anyway. Even if it happens, it will be short-term.
Onto the last Karabakh war and Armenia’s subsequent recognition of Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory – what changes will that bring to the region?
I’d urge everyone to be very, very careful, because there have been a lot of articles rushing to conclusions: “The chapter is closed! Russia is out. Turkey and Azerbaijan are celebrating and Armenia is done.” In terms of economy, in terms of political influence, in terms of Russian military bases and peacekeepers in Armenia, Russian still has a pretty strong hand. So, to say that Russia is out is a bit of a wishful thinking, I’m afraid. Let’s see what Russia does with its remaining political, military and economic leverage there in the next 6 months or so.
And there is still the very tricky issue of the Zangezur Corridor, on which neither side wants to compromise. For Armenia it’s non-negotiable, and Alyev and Erdogan aren’t willing to give anything away.
And on that note, the Georgian proposal to offer itself as negotiating ground between Armenia and Azerbaijan is similarly premature and naïve. It’s a nice gesture, but it isn’t taken seriously by any of the involved parties, because both Azerbaijan and Armenia want bigger actors to be involved: Europeans, Americans, Russians. From that perspective, Georgia is a lightweight boxer, a featherweight even.
How is Georgia navigating these dangerous waters that it finds itself in today?
“There is one very strong vulnerability – this country has no real partners in the region. When you have partners, you have to be extremely cautious. I don’t think Turkey is a real partner to Georgia in this respect. Azerbaijan is a nice friend, but not a military partner. The Americans are too far away. And, for Europe, Georgia is situated somewhere very much on the margins of the Black Sea; unlike Moldova, which is very close to Romania and EU member states, Georgia is not close to Europe at all. It is too far away.”
Kogan recently wrote: “Putin knows that Turkey, despite its friendly relations with Georgia, will not come to its rescue should Russia decide to attempt to bring Georgia under its control. Moreover, if Putin and Erdogan decide one day in the future to divide Georgia into their spheres of influence, the international community will be stunned but will not involve itself militarily on the side of Georgia.” We asked him how realistic he thinks that scenario is.
“It’s very unrealistic at the moment,” he tells us. “But you never know what to expect from President Erdogan. My idea was, what if one day in the future, let’s say in the next five years, President Erdogan is invited by President Putin over to Sochi for a nice dinner and stay. And then they have a nice chat about this very strange territory, Georgia, and then Putin offers Turkey a free pass on some of the territories close to Turkey, while the rest will become a protectorate of Russia. It’s an unlikely scenario, but it’s not unthinkable at all.”
Some might say you are putting Russia, a known and confirmed aggressor, and Turkey, on equal footing as a potential aggressor. Is that fair?
I think it’s fair enough, because let’s not forget that some territories that used to belong to Georgia, as recently as last century, today are part of Turkey. I agree that these things seemingly belong to the past, but if they were to divide Georgia, I think the larger part of Georgia would be taken by Russia, somewhere around 2/3, and one third would go to Turkey. So, that wouldn’t put them on equal footing, if that helps.
Why would Turkey risk doing that and becoming another Russia in the eyes of the international community? Not to mention that it’s a NATO member.
Turkey is still a member of NATO, I agree, but I would argue that over the last 6-7 years, Turkey has been growing increasingly distanced from its so-called Euro-Atlantic perspective, while Turkey’s affinity with Russia, and Erdogan’s with Putin personally, is only growing. So if Putin were to make a tempting offer, I think Erdogan would consider it.
What’s your take on Georgia’s strategic patience policy?
To realistically pursue a pragmatic policy, there are certain very important requirements which Georgia doesn’t satisfy at the moment. First, you must have a proper military in order to defend yourself, because the case of Ukraine showed us that if there is a military and a home front, which stands squarely behind the military, then there is a chance for a real fight. In today’s Georgia, there is a miniscule military force and no real home front. Georgia is not ready to defend itself if Moscow decides to move in. And that’s a very, very big issue, because things should have been done over the last 10 years so Georgia had not just a 20- to 30,000 standing military force, but at least 150,000 reserves too. It has 0; such forces do not exist in Georgia, and it’s very difficult to imagine these things will exist in the foreseeable future. At the same time, the situation is rapidly changing in the world, especially in this region, and if they aren’t prepared, then they will be punished. It’s as simple as that. The way Georgia is navigating today, that’s how a weakling navigates – instead of doing what’s needed, it quietly hopes for the best. If Georgia wanted to be in better shape, then Georgia and the United States would have formed a deeper military relationship.
There was discussion about construction of a joint military airfield in Georgia – that’s something the Americans would really be interested in and happy to contribute to, but what Georgia did is first said yes, and then started hesitating. That’s not how a reliable partner operates – if you want Americans to be here, you have to offer them something. If you need a degree of protection against Russia, then you must be straightforward and frank in discussion. Instead, it became a game of politics, and as it happens often with the Georgian politics and politicians, nobody took matters seriously enough. They say let’s do it. And then when the time comes to do something, they say, no, let’s wait. The current government is a government that is unwilling to do almost anything but sit on their seats and worry about the next election. That’s not a policy line.
The camp Georgia now finds itself in – not alienating Moscow, strategic partnership with China and budding relationship with EU pariah Orban – what are the rewards, or prices, that come attached?
Before doing anything, Georgians must ask themselves – what is there for Georgia and what is there for China? What is there for Georgia and what is there for Russia? What is there for Georgia and what is there for the EU? What is there for Georgia and what is there for the US? I don’t think the Georgians bother asking such hard questions themselves.
And the expansion of Russian naval presence at the Ochamchire base? What’s your reading of the situation? What does it spell for Georgia’s ambitions, however far-fetched, to reintegrate Abkhazia?
I think the first question you should ask yourself is what is going to happen to the at-the-moment-only-on-paper Anaklia port project? I think this is the Russians basically saying – no Anaklia for you, not now and not later. And yes, reintegrating Abkhazia is really far-fetched. Solving questions like these requires thinking in terms of hard realism, which Georgian politicians seem to be averse to. Now Russia, on the other hand, is a pure hard-realism power, they won’t give away anything, unless forced to, and even then, they will try to cling to whatever they can. There is a very well-known Russian saying, “What’s ours is ours, and what’s yours we’ll negotiate.”
When it comes to Georgia, any kind of “get-together” with Abkhazia is a very unrealistic scenario. Georgia’s “Ministry of Reintegration,” should take a good look at the mirror and ask themselves what they have achieved, in terms of reintegration, in the last 10 years? Zero. Abkhazia has no desire whatsoever to deal with Georgia, while South Ossetia wants to merge with North Ossetia, and be fully integrated into the Russian Federation. So when Prime Minister Garibashvili says “we are still on the path to bringing those two territories back,” I find it hard to take him seriously! Wake up and realize that you’ve lost, and you lost a long time ago.
And with that realization comes what? Acceptance? Or understanding we will need to fight to regain those territories?
Not acceptance. Take Azerbaijan – it never accepted its losses. For the last 30 years, they patiently worked to regain what they lost. And so Georgia too will need to be extremely patient. But, if there is any regaining to be had, Georgia will have to invest a lot of resources, hard work and money into bringing its army up to speed. The first step would be realistic acknowledgement of the situation – that Georgia is losing, and losing badly, and it needs to change things if it doesn’t want to lose for good. It will have to sit down and make a good list of pros and cons for the present and for the future.