Leadership: Georgia And Ukraine


April 9, 2015: Georgia's example in breaking with its Soviet past inspires many Ukrainians. This has resulted in the Ukrainian government and its Western allies considering the experience of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia in resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which was until recently escalating. The most immediate lesson from Georgia's short war concerns the provision of U.S. weapons to Ukraine. Before the 2008 war in Georgia, in which Russian military personnel overran Georgia's territory in just five days after Georgian used artillery against the pro-Russian breakaway territory of South Ossetia, the U.S. had already provided weapons and trainers for the Georgian military.

From 2002 to 2009, Georgia received $693 million in U.S. security assistance and used the money to buy military vehicles, radios, and surveillance and detection equipment. Georgia also received $132.5 million worth of lethal weaponry, mostly small arms and light weapons. The U.S. refused to provide the anti-aircraft and other high-end arms Georgia wanted. So 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 determined Russian invasion. Russia used older equipment in its attack, 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. Some fear that U.S. arms in Ukraine would probably provoke Russia to use regular troops in eastern Ukraine less sparingly than it has done so far, probably with similar results to the ones seen in Georgia. The one flaw in that argument is that Ukraine is much larger than Georgia and other countries (especially in Eastern Europe) more determined to keep Ukraine free of Russian control. Meanwhile the U.S. has gone ahead and trained Ukrainian soldiers in the use of sophisticated U.S. technology. The Ukrainians have proved to be quick learners, in part because American gear is designed with ease-of-use and “user friendliness”. Meanwhile the war in eastern Ukraine is essentially at a stalemate.

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 in 2008. A key difference between the Russian conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine is that Western powers did not impose economic sanctions on Russia in 2008 even with Russian troops poised at the outskirts of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. It was only through French diplomacy that Russia and Georgia agreed to a basic truce that effectively gave Russia control of Georgia's breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The reason Russia accepted French mediation was that 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 the fighting. 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 France in August 2008, and the specific military details added to it in September 2008, closely resembled the protocols signed by Ukraine, pro-Russian rebels, Russia and European mediators in Minsk in September 2014. Yet, unlike the original Minsk agreements, the original Georgian cease-fire held. Ukraine needed a second agreement in February 2015 because the Russians kept attacking. Russia obviously sees Ukraine as a much larger, complex and dangerous than Georgia.

Russia's current military advantage means Ukraine will eventually have to make a deal from a position of weakness. Another lesson of the Russo-Georgian war is that after winning, Russia's interest in continuing to meddle in Georgia has been less than many expected. Georgia also did not join Russia's Eurasian Economic Union, instead signing the association agreement with the EU that triggered the crisis in Ukraine. At the same time Russia annexed six percent of Georgian territory and population.

Many people in Ukraine are worried that since Ukraine made a deal with Russia, allowing it some political influence on the country's future, Russia will meddle to an extent that will make meaningful reforms impossible. So far, Russia has not been able to do that in Georgia. Then again regaining Ukraine as part of the Russian Empire is far more popular in Russia than doing the same with Georgia.

Ukraine will always feel Russia's pull and its bureaucrats will be tempted to serve Russia's interests as their economy has long required Russian trade to survive. 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. As for the current cease fire in Ukraine, it may well break down into a new spiral of deadly warfare, but it is the current mechanism to avert further death and destruction. The West now has no choice but to respond intelligently and assertively to Russia’s new strategy. – Ryan Schinault



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