What Should Tbilisi Do About Putin?

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Lasha Pataraia, Director of the Caucasus Academy of Security Experts, believes the Cold War never ended

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In 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his displeasure with then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s intention to join NATO by invading Georgia’s ethnic-minority breakaway regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – in the Five Days’ War. This conflict was the first in human history to involve major cyberwarfare and internet propaganda components, which were instrumental in the war’s outcome. NATO strongly supported Georgia but did not deploy troops. Russia achieved its military objectives of occupying and garrisoning the breakaway republics.

As the proxy conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine has intensified during the last two years, Georgia has reemerged as a potential battleground. Signaling their ongoing intention to deter further Russian expansion, American and British NATO forces completed the Noble Partner training mission with their Georgian counterparts on May 26.

Lasha Pataraia, Director of the Caucasus Academy of Security Experts, believes Georgia must take an active role in Western efforts to contain Russian aggression, especially focusing on cyber-defense. He says that the 2008 War revealed Russia’s hostile intentions – foreshadowing Putin’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Speaking to Parallax News, Pataraia said “Georgia must play a key part in Western strategic planning to contain the threat from Putin. Most Georgians speak Russian and over 80% of Georgian men have served in the Soviet Army. We have the psychological, social, geopolitical, and linguistic skills to help the West thwart future Russian aggression.”

According to Pataraia, those who assume the Cold War ended with the Soviet collapse in 1991 are deluding themselves. “Countries that border Russia will continue to remain targets for subversion, invasion, irredentism, and even outright annexation. The Cold War never ended.  We are currently fighting the same war that our parents and grandparents fought against the Soviets. All that happened is that the name of our opponent has changed. The period 1991-2003 was merely a brief ceasefire while the Russians regrouped.”

As the Cold War has evolved over the decades, cybersecurity and informatics have become paramount. From Pataraia’s perspective, Putin was stopped from advancing further towards Tbilisi in 2008 only as a result of President Saakashvili’s effective measures to inform Western opinion-makers about the atrocities Russian troops were committing. This prompted a prompt diplomatic intervention by the U.S. and France, especially.

Conversely, in 2014, at the height of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Ukrainian leaders were unable to get information out in a timely enough manner to facilitate effective Western support. According to Pataraia, it is now obvious to cybersecurity experts that Putin used cyberattacks which successfully paralyzed Ukrainian communications. From Pataraia’s perspective, because the ill-prepared Ukrainians lost the cyber war, they also lost their precious Crimean port facilities.

For Pataraia, the events of the last two years reveal Putin’s hand. He seeks constant expansion and needs victories to remain popular at home, especially if the Russian economy continues its nosedive.  Georgian leaders who think they can accommodate Russia and avoid a new conflict are deluded. Conversely, those who wish to stand firm against further Russian expansion by arming the Georgian military are focusing on the wrong threat.

Georgia is a country of less than four million inhabitants. Russia sits on its northern border. No matter how well-armed the Georgian military becomes, Russian high-end military power will always be able to cut the country in half in less than two hours.

When Pataraia surveys these strategic realities, he concludes that Georgia should prioritize cooperation with the West via building its intelligence capabilities to respond to these challenges. The Soviet Union did not collapse due to a frontal military assault, but rather due to its weakening from within. Today, according to Pataraia, Georgia could be instrumental in fighting the information war against Putin’s domestic tyranny and weakening his Caucasian alliance with Armenia, which leads to Georgia’s present encirclement. Pataraia believes that popular opinion in Russia and the Caucasus is currently being dramatically affected by Russian online propaganda.

Asked by Parallax what he would request if he could have a hypothetical meeting with John McCain (one of Georgia’s most powerful friends in the U.S. Congress), Pataraia replied: “To withstand Putin’s cyber and media attacks, we need to create a Caucasian Silicon Valley centered on Tbilisi. I would like Western funding to develop our IT sector, partnerships with Western think tanks, and training programs for our security officials and intelligence community.”

 

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  • Lasha Pataraia, Director of the Caucasus Academy of Security Experts, believes the Cold War never ended
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Georgetown’s Mehran Kamrava believes Georgia is a vulnerable small state, surrounded by potential enemies and, as such, must follow a middle road between NATO and Russia

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Since the 2008 Russo-Georgian Five Days’ War, Georgia’s internal political dynamics have shifted. The overtly pro-Western government of President Saakashvili has been replaced by Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s administration, which is attempting to balance its economic connections to Russia with intentions to strengthen ties to the E.U.

For Mehran Kamrava, Director of The Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Georgia sits atop the quintessential fault line in the new Cold War. If it becomes enmeshed in a new round of violent Western-Russian confrontation, its territory, citizens, and economic interests stand to suffer greatly.

Georgia’s remaining in NATO’s security orbit since 2008, and securing an E.U. association agreement in 2013, has antagonized Russia, causing it to embargo Georgian exports.  For Kamrava, editor of the forthcoming volume, The Great Game in West Asia: Iran, Turkey and the South Caucasus (Hurst, November 2016), the recent NATO/Georgian Noble Partner training exercises were another pointless provocation—unlikely to meaningfully forward Georgian interests, while quite likely to cause a further Russian backlash.

Speaking to Parallax News, Kamrava said the South Caucasus and Central Asia “are the new victims of the reignited Cold War. They lack both the resources to defend themselves against Russian expansionism, and the geographical closeness or treaty connections to receive a full Western security guarantee.”

As such, Kamrava argues that Georgia would not benefit from joining the E.U. and would never be able to secure full NATO membership. In fact, according to Kamrava, seeking NATO membership would only needlessly antagonize Russia and likely spur another invasion.

“Small states in conflict regions have two basic strategic options: either bandwagon or hedge. The drawback for any Georgian attempt to bandwagon with NATO is potential abandonment when the chips are down. Moreover, the Caucasus are a complex region and Georgia needs as many friends as it can get,” Kamrava explained.

According to Kamrava’s analysis, under former President Saakashvili, Georgia already attempted to bandwagon with the West. This backfired as NATO was unable to deter a Russian invasion and essentially abandoned Georgia in 2008.  A new strategy would be to follow a hedging policy closer to that practiced by Azerbaijan, Georgia’s eastern neighbor.

Asked what such a hedging policy for Georgia would look like, Kamrava replied, “Georgia needs to simultaneously maintain good economic and diplomatic relations with the E.U., Russia, and the USA. It needs to receive concessions from, and make concessions to, each of these parties to best secure her interests.”

Asked by Parallax what he would request for Georgia at a hypothetical meeting with John McCain (one of Georgia’s most influential supporters), Kamrava replied, “At present there is a dialogue of the deaf. To cure this, I would propose a meeting of Obama, Putin, Federica Mogherini [the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs], and the Georgian leadership. At that summit, all parties could issue Georgia a security guarantee. In exchange for promising to not join NATO or the E.U., Georgians could receive favorable trade agreements with Russia and Europe on key commodities. Maybe the Georgians could even get their lost territory back. Maybe such a summit would lead to a larger global détente between NATO and Russia. Yet whatever its global ramifications, Georgians must put their interests first and not get sucked further into the evolving global conflict. Only by balancing competing interests, and not becoming a pawn for either side in the new Cold War, can Georgia live in peace and prosperity with its neighbors.”

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Malkhaz Gulashvili, owner of The Georgian Times, believes Georgia should be fully neutral in the great power conflict by becoming a demilitarized zone and hosting a UN regional office

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Malkhaz Gulashvili, owner of The Georgian Times, believes that Russia is losing the cyber and information war against the West.  Over the last years, he sees Russia as a largely reactive power – lashing out only when its core interests were threatened by Western encroachments.

Speaking through a translator, Gulashvili told Parallax News: “It is a misconception that Russia is winning the information war with the West. In countries, like Georgia or Ukraine, where Russia gradually lost the PR war, its political control evaporated. Only then have the Russians acted militarily. They had Ukraine under their aegis in the days of former President Victor Yanukovych, and then they lost it in 2014. Only then did they switch to aggressive actions to regain what they had lost, via actions like the annexation of Crimea. The Russians simply lacked the ability to combat the Western PR machine by nonmilitary means.”

Gulashvili believes that a similar pattern – a Western soft power offensive provoking a Russian response – unfolded in Georgia in 2008. According to him, Senator John McCain and then Vice President Dick Cheney aided and abetted the corruption and tyranny of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who in turn pushed pro-Western reforms to benefit Western investors while repressing dissenters.

Gulashivili knows about Saakashvili’s dictatorial behavior first hand. During his reign, Gulashvili handed a copy of his book “A Road to the Truth, a Peaceful Caucasus and a Unified Georgia” to Russia’s then-president and current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. The Saakashvili government labeled this an action of “treason” by Gulashvili, who was later incarcerated as a political prisoner.

Gulashvili believes that today the Georgian political class is less despotic than under Saakashvili, but largely unreformed when it comes to its reflexive desire to ingratiate itself to the West. The politicians crave NATO training exercises – such as the recently completed Noble Partner operation – and promise to serve as a sacrificial pawn in Western containment strategy against Russia. He believes that Saakashvili deliberately antagonized Putin with his economic plans and designs for Georgia to join NATO.

Speaking to Parallax, Gulashvili said: “The same pattern is continuing. More armaments and training exercises do not improve Georgia’s self-defense capabilities, rather they untie the hands of Russian militarists, who crave to subjugate militarily any region over which they lost influence. In the 1990s, many Georgians of differing political stripes wanted to join NATO, but events have proven that no matter what we do we will never be granted full membership. The West uses NATO membership like a carrot dangled in front of the nose of donkey.”

According to Gulashvili, “the time has come for Georgians to face hard facts.  One: Putin is more powerful than Yeltsin ever was and he fully controls the political, economic, military, technological, and media levers in Russia. In short, he and his KGB cronies are more fully in power than any post-Soviet leader. Two: in case of a conflict between Russia and Georgia, the West won’t be able to provide any real and tangible military help to Georgia, as we saw in 2008. That is why Georgia needs to come up with innovative politics. For the sake of argument, I will call it cross politics: we need to seek alignment in all directions: West, East, North and South. Up until now our politics was oriented only towards West.”

Surveying these strategic realities, Gulashvili explained that, when it comes to the Caucasus region, NATO is a paper tiger. Putin can easily harm Georgia’s economy, cybersecurity, and world standing if his strategic assets in the Caucasus are threatened by Western military incursions. And yet Russia and Georgia have many shared interests. They would benefit from free trade. Their economies could be complementary. Russians are the fastest growing sector in Georgia’s tourist economy, while Russia has traditionally been the largest consumer of Georgian wines.

Asked what he would request from Georgia’s allies in the international community, Gulashvili responded through a translator, “I agree with Mehran Kamrava’s idea to host an international summit on Georgia’s future. But I would like the actions taken at that summit to be held under the UN banner and to include Germany, China, and other regional actors.  The outcome of the summit should be for Georgia to be declared a de facto neutral country. Rather than getting multilateral security guarantees (Ukraine possessed such guarantees and was still invaded), we should simply absent ourselves from the global conflict and become an internationally-monitored demilitarized zone to be enforced by the UN. We are a small country with no desire to meddle in geopolitics. Setting up a UN regional outpost or office in Tbilisi could help turn our country into the Switzerland of the Caucasus. Sooner or later Russia will understand that it will not be able to achieve any enduring peace in the Caucasus unless it will return the lost territories to Georgia. Blessed with our glorious mountains and as the birthplace of wine, we should be able to trade with everyone, host all visitors, and solicit investment from everywhere.”

For more articles and media by Jason Pack click here.

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  • Malkhaz Gulashvili, owner of The Georgian Times, believes Georgia should be fully neutral in the great power conflict by becoming a demilitarized zone and hosting a UN regional office
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