The Russians know there’s only so long that President Zelensky can hold fire. This is exactly what happened in Georgia – Putin knows that at some point Ukrainians will have to fire back just like the Georgians did.
Dear #Georgia, Now is your chance to remind the world that #Putin just violated international law in #Ukraine just as he did by invading you and recognizing the independence of #SouthOssetia and #Abkhazia in 2008″ – former US Diplomat and Atlantic Council senior fellow Matthew Bryza tweeted. Back in 2008, Bryza was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. In an interview with Radio Free Europe’s Georgian services, Bryza reminisced on the many similarities between the events forestalling the August War in 2008 and the current situation in Ukraine, just as the Russian President, after “counselling” the small clique he uses to run the country, decided to recognize Ukraine’s Donbas and Luhansk regions as independent states.
Putin recognized Donbas and Luhansk as independent republics. Why, and what happens next?
Putin lost Ukraine as a friend and as an allied nation when he invaded in 2014. So now he tried to bring all of Ukraine back. He thought he could intimidate Europe and the transatlantic community. It didn’t work.
Biden’s done a great job in maintaining transatlantic solidarity, so they didn’t get frightened into just backing off and blaming the Ukrainians, just like the Europeans blamed Georgia. No, that didn’t work this time. So now Putin’s got to go for second best. His minimal goal is to make sure that Luhansk and Donbas will forever be a reason for the Germans and the French and Hungarians to say, “Ukraine’s too complicated. It’s got these disputed areas, it can’t become part of NATO.” And it also gives an excuse to move more Russian forces in and have a land-bridge, then down to Mariupol, and then to see what it can grab in the future.
What should the West’s response be?
The West’s response right now must be firm, harsh and unified. Last night the Biden administration wasn’t quite clear on how tough it is going to be – its initial step was to announce a sanction that frankly struck me as ridiculous, which was to prohibit investments in Donbas and Luhansk. There is no serious investor who has serious plans to go into those areas anyway, so that was meaningless. But after what Russia did overnight, I’ve seen a change of tone in the administration narrative, so what I think took place is the Biden administration wanting to coordinate things with its European allies before it issued harsh sanctions, and first and foremost, persuade Germany to suspend the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
It’s quite significant and credible that the German government has shown its willingness to endure pain – serious potential economic pain – by cutting off the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Biden and his administration have done a great job keeping the transatlantic family unified: it’s exactly what needs to happen now. Sanctions should mean the end of Nord Stream 2; harsh sanctions on all the major Russian banks; Russian government officials and President Putin’s own assets should be exposed in banks outside of Russia and frozen. And Russia should be removed from the SWIFT system. This might cause some pains for SWIFT, but just like Germany, the rest of the civilized world should be ready to endure some hardship to deter Putin from murdering tens of thousands of Ukrainians. And this will probably result in thousands of deaths on the Russian side as well. What Putin is doing is illegal, it’s immoral and dangerous, and it is better to fight Putin through very tough economic sanctions now than on the battlefield later.
Many Europeans want to blame the Ukrainians for being out of compliance with the Minsk Agreement, just like they wanted to blame Saakashvili for somehow being impulsive or reckless.
You mentioned that Georgia got blamed by Europeans in 2008. A lot of comparisons are being made between the situation now and the situation back then by opinion-makers, diplomats and the like. How much does the Kremlin textbook repeat itself?
Indeed, there are so many comparisons. The first is how successfully the Russians have been able to convince those Europeans who don’t want to accept the inconvenient truth, which is that Russia is in breach of the Minsk Agreement. Russia is the aggressor; Putin has completely fabricated this crisis. So many Europeans want to blame the Ukrainians for being out of compliance with the Minsk Agreement, just like they wanted to blame Saakashvili for somehow being impulsive or reckless, although that ignores the fact that a democratically elected leader of any country has a duty to either protect or restore his country’s territorial integrity and defend its citizens when they’re under attack.
The Europeans really want to blame the Ukrainians, they’re waiting for the Ukrainians to fire back. And the Russians know there’s only so long that President Zelensky can hold fire. This is exactly what happened in Georgia – Putin knows that at some point Ukrainians will have to fire back just like the Georgians did. And then that will be the excuse for the invasion.
Putin’s minimal goal is to make sure that Luhansk and Donbas will forever be a reason for the Germans and the French and Hungarians to say, “Ukraine’s too complicated. It’s got these disputed areas, it can’t become part of NATO.
How long can Kyiv hold from firing back? They do have the questionable luxury of knowing what happened to Georgia, but are we expecting Ukraine to show eternal patience?
There’s no way to know when President Zelensky will feel that his duty as head of state, democratically elected, requires a return of fire. But you’re right, he has seen not just that the Georgian response provided a pretext for Russian invasion but that it also provided a pretext for the ridiculous, scandalous, untrue report by the European Union, which was an absolutely disgrace. The way that was written saying that Georgia shot first – Georgia did not shoot first: the South Ossetian separatists shot first with Russian artillery, and Georgia returned fire. Georgia did not start the war, Georgia retaliated, as is the duty of the democratically elected leader of any country at some threshold.
We can argue over whether or not that threshold was the right one that President Saakashvili chose. That’s a fair argument, and where that lies for Zelensky, I don’t know.
But he’s also seen a second example, when under Poroshenko, the Ukrainians couldn’t have been more docile. They couldn’t have been more restrained. Everybody knew Russia had invaded Crimea and occupied it. Everybody knew the little green men had invaded Donbass, and Ukraine did nothing, no military response allowed it to be taken over by the Russians. So far, he’s been smart to my mind, and held off returning fire.
What I find really worrisome is the ease with which the French and German leaders are manipulated. They convince themselves that they’re pursuing peace. And they’re simply being manipulated.
There are more similarities with Georgia: the full scale information warfare, the cyber attacks, so-called passportization, evacuation… And then the last one that I find really worrisome is the ease with which the French and German leaders are manipulated. They convince themselves that they’re pursuing peace. And they’re simply being manipulated. As as a Deputy Speaker of the Duma told me in 1996, when I was a young political officer in Moscow, “You Americans, you don’t understand politics. You want to be liked. That’s gives you no power. We Russians want to be feared. That gives us real power. And we know we can frighten the Europeans.” And that’s what Putin is trying to do here. And that’s what he did so well in the case of Georgia.
In my day, the Germans were the chair of the so called Secretary-General’s Group of Friends of Georgia, and it was the incumbent President Steinmeier who was then the foreign minister who took on the plan that we Americans had developed and got agreement from the Georgian side on two basic ways to de-escalate by getting more peacekeepers and military or police observers in Kodori Gorge in exchange for a Georgian pledge, no first use of force- a whole bunch of things, a balance. And Steinmeier watered it down and made it all essentially the Georgia would pledge not to use force first. And then Russia would make some pledge not to attack. It was vague, but the Germans got played, they got manipulated, and then the French got played worse, back at the negotiations on the ceasefire agreement. It was Bernard Kouchner. And then Alexander Stubb, then an OSCE chairman. They negotiated a fair, good ceasefire agreement. And Sarkozy went to Moscow and reopened the negotiation and reopened the agreement and what came back was horrible. It was so bad, that when the French ambassador showed it to me in Tbilisi the next day, I said, “Eric, I have to leave now, because I’m so angry with what your president did here. He doesn’t even understand what he’s done, how he’s given Russia the right to keep its troops on Georgian territory, and forces the Georgians to withdraw their troops from their own territory that is now occupied territory. That’s, that’s so wrong. It’s a violation of international law!” But even worse, and nobody knows much about this last point, I rarely talked about this, but it’s time. The draft agreement that Sarkozy accepted from Putin included Putin’s point that not only could the Russians occupy South Ossetia, up to the point where they did, which was within a couple of kilometers of Georgia’s East-West highway, but the French also agreed to the Russians having the right to have military patrols, either five or 10 kilometers beyond where they had halted their military operations. And anybody who knew the map knew that that gave them the right to have military patrols onto and cutting off the highway and the rail link. And so I mean, when I saw that, I went crazy. And I called the Secretary of State, and my boss, Dan Fried, and I said, “You cannot allow this to be in the agreement.” They were meeting with our French counterparts in Paris. And they said, “Why?” I told them that if you look at the map, this is what happens. The French had just given the Russians, the Russian military, the right to block the main Georgian highway. “What’s that gonna do to Tbilisi? It’s gonna cut off everything, fuel, food, medicine, everything,” I said. So my senior colleagues went back and asked their French colleagues and the French government, why did you do this? And the French said, “Well, it seems reasonable. The Russians need a patrol to protect their forces because the Georgians might attack them.” And then, to my boss’s credit, they said, “Did you have a map with you when you agreed to this?” And the French said, “No, we didn’t look at a map. It just seemed reasonable.” So the French are getting played again, just like this.
Do you expect the same thing to happen with Macron?
It is happening. Macron is not looking. He’s not involved in the details. He wants dialogue and both sides to de escalate, as if Ukraine has done anything here. It’s innocently sitting there hoping to restore its territorial integrity, not threatening anybody militarily. Russia threatens illegally and immorally in violation of all of its commitments, threatens the use of massive force in defense of an abstract principle. Contrary to all of that, the French president is calling on both sides to de escalate and have dialogue- that is the European modus operandi: to forget about who’s right or wrong; forget about who’s violating international law, to just have dialogue. And yeah, little guys, because Russia is the big guy, you’re gonna have to de-escalate to so these are all very similar things to what happened in Georgia and to Georgia.
President Biden apparently asked the French president to facilitate his summit with Putin. And there was an interesting quote from an unnamed French official: “We are creating a diplomatic perspective the Kremlin can accept.” What could that perspective be?
Wow. Well, first of all, that means you’ve given up on the negotiation before you even started negotiating, right? A diplomatic perspective? Putin is the one who’s been escalating and using force as a diplomatic tool. So maybe what the French diplomat meant was: “Yes, we were intimidated by Russia’s threat to use force, just like we were in the case of Georgia. And Russia now accepts the need to have a discussion, because we French have recognized the need for Ukraine and for all of NATO and the transatlantic community to take seriously Russia’s demands to rollback NATO to its pre-1997 borders.” And in fact, Macron has said as much, he said we have to, we have to take these Russian demands seriously.