Mikheil Saakashvili on the lessons from Georgia
AS THE WEST debates diplomatic and military means to end the war in Ukraine, it cannot ignore the lessons of its own past mistakes. Some of the most serious date back to Russias war on Georgia in 2008, when, as the invaded countrys head of state, I was in a situation similar to that of Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraines president. There are many voices across the world calling for a freezing of the conflict in Ukraine, which would allow Russia to hold on to part of the country. But the Georgian experience shows that such a policy of appeasement is nothing but a time-bomb, a stage of escalation. Russias president, Vladimir Putin, started the Russian-Georgian war because he could never win the peace. We irritated him with impressive anti-corruption reforms and economic success in Georgia, where we managed to form strong institutions. In Ukraine, he launched an all-out offensive after that country finally established itself as an electoral democracy and after Mr Zelenskys administration started to go after oligarchs and adopted a number of radical reforms. But just as Putin couldnt win the peace, he cannot win the war. In 2008 we resisted him. And after Lech Kaczynski, Polands president at the time, mobilised several European leaders to come to Tbilisi, Georgias capital, President George W. Bush intervened and Putin had to stop. But in 2012 he helped to get rid of my government through a hybrid operation involving a flood of fake news and military manoeuvres across the Georgian border. We handed over power to an obviously pro-Russian governmentto the relief, I have to say, of many Westerners who saw us as a nuisance and obstacle in their drive for business as usual with Russia. Putin also won a personal victory over me. Once my presidential term ended, the new government launched criminal cases against me, forcing me to leave the country. When it became clear to me that I could no longer watch from afar as Georgias reforms were rolled back by a government that had become openly allied with Russia, I returned, was arrested, thrown in prison and poisoned, with Russian state media rejoicing. One thing that characterises Putin is his me against everyone else worldview. And he stokes division among the everyone else, and capitalises on it, by spreading disinformation and transforming topics of debate into subjects of confrontation. Among his tools are threats to use all the force at his disposal, including nuclear weapons, and accusing others of not keeping their word when in reality it is he who breaks his promises. He has pulled this trick many times. The West should not fall into those traps. It should understand that there is no side exit from this war through a ceasefire, fixing new lines or some new mutual guarantees. Putin is a bully who cannot be reasoned with. The idea of normal relations with a Russia led by him is a fantasy. Only the use of force or a credible threat of it can stop him, as it did in 2008 when Russian forces halted outside Tbilisi because of Americas announcement of a military-humanitarian operation, accompanied by naval manoeuvres in the Black Sea. This isnt kid-gloves diplomacy. The American administration that took office at the start of 2009, led by Barack Obama, seemed to view the Russian-Georgian war as being its predecessors problem. It adopted a policy of reset with Russia, assuming that if America toned down the rhetoric and was reasonable with Putin, relations could be normalised. Russias annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014 was a direct consequence of that policy. And yet we hear similar calls today: the idea that Putin does not need to be humiliated and could be given an off-ramp to exit the war with grace. But this is something he has no interest in. His foreign policy is rooted in an imperial ideology that views the countries around it as Russias property. Now he has widened his list of enemies, the everyone else, to anyone who tries to prevent him from swallowing Ukraine. When people talk about a possible ceasefire with Putin, they should keep in mind several past episodes. In 2008 he signed a ceasefire agreement with Georgia that had been brokered by Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France, but failed to withdraw his troops fully, as called for by the agreement. He justified this by citing new realities on the ground. After all these years, Russia still occupies around 20% of Georgia and keeps grabbing land from it village by village, across the ceasefire line. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia signed the Minsk 1 and Minsk 2 peace deals with Ukraine, which included provisions for the cessation of hostilities. It culminated in the full-scale invasion in 2022. And if these examples dont suffice, consider the deal done by Putin with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the recently deceased leader of the Wagner Group of mercenaries, after his abortive coup attempt in June. Putin and Prigozhin met, looked into each others eyes, shook hands and informed the world that they had made peace. Weeks later one of them was blown up in the sky not far from Putins dacha. Can anyone believe in Putin as a responsible statesman who sticks to his word? We should all by now understand that the idea of normalising relations with him is deluded. So the only solution is military victory for Ukraine, which would in all probability lead to regime change in Moscow. Any type of appeasement would invite a global catastrophe. Mikheil Saakashvili served two terms as president of Georgia between 2004 and 2013 and was governor of Odessa in Ukraine in 2015-16.