Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Paul Robinson

The ninth installment of the Reconsidering Russia podcast series features Dr. Paul Robinson, professor of Russian and military history at the University of Ottawa.

In this podcast, Dr. Robinson discusses US-Russian relations, Canadian-Russian relations, Boris Johnson, Aleksei Navalny, Russian conservatism, Russian Eurasianism, Russian Orientalism, avant-garde Soviet science fiction, and the origin of the name of his blog Irrussianality.

Dr. Robinson holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and an MA in Russian and Eastern European Studies from the University of Toronto.

Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Fred Weir

The sixth and latest Reconsidering Russia podcast features Fred Weir, the Moscow Correspondent at The Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Weir holds an honors B.A. in European history from the University of Toronto and a teaching degree from the Ontario College of Education.

In this podcast, Mr. Weir and I discuss Russian politics and society, US-Russian relations, the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine, the American Rust Belt, and his experiences covering Russia as a journalist, living on an Israeli kibbutz, and working as a journeyman ironworker. Enjoy!

What Do Average Americans Really Think of the Russians?

Terminal Tower, Downtown Cleveland (Photograph by this writer)

Terminal Tower, Downtown Cleveland (Photograph by this writer)

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, the American media has been in a state of panic over allegations of Russian hacking. The frenzy has been promoted by war hawks in both major parties, bolstering their bellicosity.

But what do average Americans really think of the Russians?

To answer this question, I set out on a journey through two cities in the American Rust Belt state of Ohio: Cleveland and Columbus.

My mission was to go diners, bars, construction sites, barber shops, and hair salons and talk to working Americans about the Russians. Overall, I interviewed over 30 persons of various professions. I took copious notes, with the permission of all my respondents. The only people who declined did so because they did not have the time. All interviewees were anxious to respond, some to the point of interrupting others. The answers that I received were far more nuanced than one might expect.
 


 
Searching for the Russian trace in Cleveland

Home to large communities of Eastern Europeans and post-Soviet peoples, the city of Cleveland is no stranger to the Russians. In the 1930s, celebrated Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov scrambled to find directions to the city. In the 1950s, Anastas Mikoyan visited the city as part of a larger tour of the US. Upon catching sight of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, tears reportedly came to Mikoyan’s eyes as he recalled a familiar landmark from home: the Lomonosov Moscow State University.

“Reporters who stood close to him as he looked at the downtown skyline swear that the old Communist’s mustache twitched,” wrote Massachusetts-born Cleveland journalist George E. Condon. “His eyes were misty as he raised an arm in comradely approbation and said: ‘Now you’re talking! This is my kind of town!’”

My first stop in Cleveland was the Clevelander Bar & Grill in the city’s downtown on 27 December 2016. After ordering a beer, I asked the people behind the bar about the Russians.

“Can we get along with them?” I inquired.

“Look, if there was a war or something, I would want Russia on my side,” said the bartender, “They’re big and tough, man. Who was the guy who led them during the war? You know, with the mustache?”

“You mean Stalin?”

“Yeah. He was tough, man.”

“What do you think?” I asked the barmaid.

“Of course, we should have them as our allies,” she said. “We need to have a dialogue with them, but I don’t trust them. You know what they say: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. Still, I don’t trust Russia. It’s a very scary country.”

“Why do you think Russia is scary?” I asked.

“I dunno. That’s what the media says,” she responded. “However, I don’t think the people are bad. Our neighbor is a Russian. He’s married to a Serbian woman. We have no problems with them. In general, I think that people can get along. The governments can’t. That’s the problem.”

Later, I walked down the street to a Subway restaurant. After ordering a sandwich, I casually began a conversation about the Russians with the owner and his assistant, both middle-aged, round and jovial African-American men.

“The Russians are tough,” said one of the men. “They mean business. You don’t wanna mess with them, man.”

“Do you think that US-Russian relations can improve?”

“Not while Donald Trump is in the White House,” he chuckled heartily. “That man’s crazy! He can’t even keep his Twitter under control! How can we expect him to deal with the Russians?”

Walking back, I traveled to the old beaux arts Leader Building on Superior Avenue. The building is under construction, being converted into condos. This was a perfect place to continue inquiries about the Russians. I found a group of affable construction workers on their break. The men were middle-aged. Three were white, one was black.

“Can we get along with the Russians?” I asked.

“Why not?” said the black construction worker, smiling easily. “We need them.”

“We do need them,” said another construction worker smoking a cigarette, “I mean, look how big their country is! They’re a lot of people. We need as many people to be our friends as possible. We don’t need anymore enemies. You know, my neighbors are Russian immigrants. I have no problems with them. Honestly, I think conflict now between the two governments is basically one big pissing match. If you just bring the people together and leave the politicians out of it, then we’d be fine.”

“I know the authors Dostoevsky and Bulgakov,” interjected another worker. “Crime and Punishment and The Master and the Margarita are among my favorite novels. If Russians can write such great novels, then they must not be bad people. We can work with them.”
 


 
I continued to the Starbucks in the Huntington Bank (formerly Sohio) Building. What did the baristas of this corporate coffee chain think when they thought of US-Russian relations?

One barista, a tall young man in Buddy Holly-style glasses who was, ironically, of partial Russian descent, responded:

Well, for one thing, the Russians are people you don’t wanna mess with. Ultimately, it depends on the leadership on both sides. I feel that any American leader needs to approach the Russians with a lot of tact and finesse, but also toughness. Putin’s a smart guy. At times he can be unpredictable, like what he did in Crimea. However, he’s not crazy like Ahmadinejad or the guy in North Korea. He knows his stuff and he’s tough too.

Can relations improve? Ideally, absolutely. Yes, the interests of the US and Russia do usually differ, but I think we can find common ground. Trump said he’d be willing to talk to the Russians. Some people might not agree, but I honestly think that it’s movement in the right direction. Look, we’re dealing with two nuclear-armed countries here. No one wants war. Why not talk instead?

Another barista, a pretty young woman, also of partial Russian descent, interjected:

I agree. We could and definitely should get along with the Russians. In fact, we can get along with a lot more countries than we do now. However, in order for that to happen, I honestly think that we need to stop getting involved in everybody else’s business. We need to move beyond the idea of American exceptionalism. Right now, it seems as if everybody is angry at us.

“Buddy Holly” nodded, adding:

Right. We need to talk to countries more. We have to stop all these wars. We need to get our own house in order. We don’t need to import democracy to other countries. They need to learn it on their own.

Like everybody is now talking about these Russian hacks. But didn’t we interfere in their politics? Honestly, I don’t buy the whole story. For one thing, there’s just no proof. It just seems like a way to discredit Trump before he enters the White House. It’s dangerous, though, because these accusations involve a nuclear-armed country.
 


 
Founded in 1893, Otto Moser’s is a Cleveland institution. Located in the heart of Playhouse Square, Cleveland’s theatre district, the deli is renowned for its corned beef sandwiches. It has also been the frequent hub for visiting stage actors and movie stars. Bob Hope, Helen Hayes, W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, the Barrymores, and John Philip Sousa all dined at this celebrated restaurant. It was the next stop in my quest to discover what average Americans really thought of the Russians.

Sitting at the bar, I ordered a drink and quickly began a conversation with the waitress, a middle-aged Greek-American lady. As it turned out, she was actually married to a Russian, not surprising in a town where onion-domed Orthodox cathedrals are a common sight. She said:

You know, there are people who still think of the Russians as communists. However, the fact is that they’re not. In fact, they’re trying to move away from all that. What Stalin did was incomprehensible. The Orthodox Church was heavily persecuted in the Soviet Union. You know, I’m Greek and Orthodox and my husband is Russian and Orthodox. When he came to this country, he literally had to re-learn Orthodoxy.

Could the US and Russia get along?

“Well, I sure hope so,” she said. “It’d be better than the alternative.”

Another waitress, an older woman, spoke-up and claimed that she was of Russian descent and that her family was descended from nobility who had fled the 1917 Revolution. She added:

To be frank, I doubt that Putin and Trump are in cahoots. I mean, it’s possible that the Russians did hack the election, but I honestly don’t believe it. If they did, then what’s the big deal? People forget that we influenced their elections! As to the question of us getting along with the Russians, of course we can. We have a long history with Russia, not all of it bad. In general, we should have good relations with all countries. After this election, we seriously need to think about uniting our own country here at home and not get involved in fighting wars overseas.

As she spoke, it began gently snowing outside. A middle-aged African-American gentleman in a fleece who was sitting next to me joined in on the conversation. He was a tall, easygoing, plain-spoken man. A fan of the Buffalo Bulls and a Cleveland native, he was a small business owner and spent much of his time between Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

“What do you think of the Russians?,” I asked. He responded:

I look at the Russians as Russians. We need to see the humanness of the other side, you know what I’m sayin’? That’s how you start makin’ peace between people. Now, the relations between our governments, that’s a different issue. That’s political. Sometimes I think that we can never get along, but you know, we now have a new president in office. He says he’ll fix the relationship. Let’s see what happens.

“What do you think about the allegations of Russia hacking the DNC?”

I don’t buy it, honestly. In general, I don’t trust anything the media or the pundits say. Is there a possibility that the Russians did hack the election? Sure. But honestly, I don’t believe it. Even if they did, it wouldn’t have had a decisive impact on the outcome.

A hair stylist, a middle-aged woman of Syrian Christian background, at Best Cuts in the old Cleveland “streetcar suburb” of Lakewood, echoed this sentiment:

I think we have a chance to get along with the Russians now that we have a new president. I think Trump’s going to work on it. Will he succeed? I don’t know. But I think that the two superpowers should definitely be talking. Russia is a powerful, nuclear-armed country. You want them to be on your side, especially because there are so many issues that both of our countries could cooperate on. Take Syria. As a Syrian, I can tell you we don’t want Assad out. If Assad goes, ISIS will be in Damascus. I definitely think Syria would be more stable with Assad in.

As for the Russian hacking allegations, I certainly wouldn’t put it past them. However, I think Hillary’s people cooked up the whole thing to discredit Trump.
 


 
Pursuing the Russian trail in Columbus

I continued my quest for answers in Columbus, the capital of Ohio, again, taking notes as the respondents spoke. On the morning of 10 January 2017, I had breakfast at the Hangovereasy, a popular diner in Columbus, especially among university students. At the bar, I ordered a cup of coffee and struck up a conversation with the bartender, a big, bearded middle-aged man of mixed German-Greek descent with an easygoing demeanor. I asked him: Can we get along with Russia? He responded while cashing out an order at the register:

Why not get along? I know that the war hawks don’t want any cooperation with the Russians. But honestly, we need to get along with them. After all, they’re a large country with nuclear weapons.

I also think that if more people actually got to know actual Russians, then things would calm down. I knew Russians when I used to work out in LA. They’re good people, man. I mean, I never saw them as ‘enemies.’ They never were rude or demanding or anything like that. They ran this wonderful Russian coffee shop. They actually reminded me of people from the Middle East. Like, you know Lebanese or Syrian immigrants. Very good, entrepreneurial people.

They’re very generous too. You know, this one Russian guy in LA actually gave me a complete Bose stereo set. Just gave ‘em to me, man! They were sweet, but, in the end, I had to sell them in order to move back to Ohio with my girlfriend. So, yeah, I think if there was more interaction between Russians and Americans as people, things would get much better.

You know, there’s a lot of fear going around now, especially now with all these stories you see in the media about the Russian hacks. Honestly, I think it’s all BS. I mean, the Russians could have influenced the election, but even if they did, I doubt they determined it. I think it was all made-up by the Hillary faction of the Democrats. They’re just sore losers and have a hard time accepting the results. Hey, when you screw over working people and rig the election against Bernie, that’s what you get. I’m sorry. You know how it is here in Ohio. Our jobs have been shipped overseas. And they just expect us to vote for them? I don’t think so.

And you know what? There’s fear on the other side too. My Russian friends in LA once told me that, back in Russia, all the news stories about the US were about war. Now, that could be because the government influences the media, but it also could be because we’re involved in so many wars overseas. We really need to start worrying about our own problems in this country and drop the “I’m #1” mentality that gets us into all these wars.

After breakfast, I walked to a nearby construction site on the OSU campus. Here I encountered a group of workers on break. What did they think of the Russians?

“We have to deal with them,” said one of them. “They’re a big superpower with nuclear weapons. That’s the reality. Yeah, I know they’re talking about all these hacking stories about the Russians. Honestly, I don’t believe it. I think it’s the media trying to make Trump look bad. And I don’t know what our trade with Russia is like, but we need good trade deals in this country that benefit American workers, not corporate interests.”

“I’m in favor of any relationship that’s mutually beneficial,” said another worker, the equipment manager. He was an older gentleman with a thick grayish beard. “Maybe Russia’s got something that we want. Maybe we’ve got something that the Russians want. I’m all for trade and exchange, but it’s also gotta be fair and equal. We have too much unequal trade. Ohio jobs have been shipped overseas. You go to the store and everything is made in China, Taiwan, Mexico, or other countries. It used to be made in the US!”

“What do you think of the Russian hacking allegations?,” I asked.

“I think it’s a bunch of BS,” the man said as he smiled with a twitch of his thick mustache. “There’s no proof. It’s just one party wanting to get revenge on the other party.”
 


 
My final stop in Columbus was Adriatico’s Pizza. Established in 1986, it is one of the most renowned pizza places in Columbus. I posed my question to the waitresses: can we get along with the Russians?

“It depends who the leadership is,” responded one of the waitresses. “Honestly, I think Putin is conning Trump. I mean, sure, it makes sense to have good relations and it is possible, but I think the Russians are playing games with us. I’m not sure what’s driving these recent tensions – nuclear weapons or oil.”

“I don’t see why we can’t get along,” interrupted another waitress. “Look, we don’t see eye-to-eye with the Russians on everything, but you know the adage ‘keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.’ We need to talk to them even if we disagree. Who knows? Perhaps we can become friends on some issues. We don’t want more enemies. I know that there are politicians in Washington who want more war, but I don’t.”

“I doubt we can have good relations,” said a third waitress. “We have different values. Our governments are completely opposite. For one thing, the Russians are tough and mean. They’ve become hardened by communism and World War II. Now they’re hacking into our elections. Trump was involved in that. After all, he’s friends with Putin.”

“Do you know that for a fact?”

“I dunno. That’s what they said on TV.”

Finally, I spoke to one of the head managers of Adriatico’s, a slim gentleman of 40 years with jet black hair. Could we get along, I asked? He responded:

Optimistically, yeah, I think we can get along. I mean we’re dealing with two nuclear superpowers here who can destroy the earth many times over. And yes, Russia is a superpower. They had their falling off for a little bit there, but now they’re back. We have to accept that reality.

I remember when I was a kid 33 years ago and I watched The Day After on TV with my folks. This was up in my hometown of Tiffin, Ohio. We were a blue-collar family. My dad worked for a foundry. But man, I’ll never forget The Day After. Now that was scary! I mean, what are you? 25, 28 years-old? You don’t know what it was like in 1983. It was really scary. And The Day After was almost real, that’s what made it even scarier. I remember it being late at night, later than my usual bedtime, and watching the mushroom cloud on TV. I’ll never forget that mushroom cloud. I couldn’t even finish watching it.

Now, look, I’m a 40-year-old man. I have a four-year-old son. I don’t want him to grow-up in fear. And, look, from what I understand, we’ve got fear on both sides. Okay, so Americans think Russia is scary, but aren’t the Russians also afraid of us? I’d rather believe in a global society, where the US can talk with all countries – especially Russia.

Equalization and Dehumanization in Eastern Ukraine

Donbas refugees in Rostov Oblast, Russia. (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev)

Donbas refugees in Rostov Oblast, Russia. (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev)

Dehumanization is a central component of war propaganda. By removing the humanity of individuals and reclassifying them as anonymous “others,” it becomes easier for combatants in a war to kill them. Such is the case with eastern Ukraine, a conflict rife with dehumanization.

In the Ukraine conflict, the greatest victims of such dehumanization are the 5.2 million Russian-speaking civilians of the industrial eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas. Lifelong residents, they are caught in the crossfire between the pro-Russian rebels and the pro-Kiev militias. Regardless of their political sentiments, the locals have been cast by officials in the Kiev government variously as “terrorists,” “Colorado beetles,” “Moskali,” and “subhumans.” Very little distinction is made among the civilians, the actual rebels, and the rebels’ supporters in Moscow. Civilians who remain in rebel-held territory are often considered “traitors” by the mere fact that they chose to remain in their homes.

This lack of clarity, combined with attacks against east Ukrainian civilians by far-right battalions (accused of war crimes by Amnesty International), has driven the majority of the population to support the rebels. If they were ambivalent toward the rebel cause before, the rhetoric and actions of the Kiev government and its supporters changed their stance. Further, since the start of the conflict, the dehumanization has extended to anyone in Ukraine deserting the army, dodging the draft, or explicitly voicing opposition to the war, like the journalist Ruslan Kotsaba.  He was arrested by Ukrainian authorities for openly expressing his views in a YouTube video and now potentially faces 15 years in jail for treason. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience.

The dehumanization of eastern Ukrainians has also spilled into the discourse of Western politicians, pundits, and analysts. One of the most vocal of these, the Ukrainian-American academic, Alexander Motyl, has called the people of the Donbas “the most retrograde part of [Ukraine’s] population” and has attempted on more than one occasion to draw parallels between them and white US southerners who supported Jim Crow. His discourse has only fueled the flames of the conflict, pitting Ukrainians against Ukrainians. It also drew strong criticism from Lev Golinkin, a writer originally from Kharkiv, in The Huffington Post.

Motyl was not alone. Other Western commentators have also dehumanized the people of eastern Ukraine. Further, this dehumanization has seeped into a general dehumanization of all things Russian. From the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement was presented to Western readers as a “civilization choice” for Ukrainians between a “civilized Europe” and a “barbaric, Asiatic Russia.” During the Euromaidan protests in December 2013, Sweden’s former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, the co-architect of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program, tweeted that the growing conflict between the protestors and police symbolized “Eurasia versus Europe in [the] streets of Kiev.” Even more extreme, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared Moscow to be the “new Tatar-Mongol yoke.”

Such characterizations and stereotypes imply a superiority of one people, culture or civilization over another. They allude to destructive racial ideologies from the darker chapters of the 20th century. The implicit message is exclusion and separation, not cooperation and engagement. These discursive Social Darwinist formations have absolutely no place in the discourse of the 21st century. Yet, somehow they persist.

There is also dehumanization in the Russian media. However, it is important to highlight the distinct nuances here. Dehumanizing rhetoric in the Russian media has largely concentrated around liberal oppositionists who are derided as “fifth columnists” and potential “traitors.” The discourse is purely internal, though it is undoubtedly exacerbated by external affairs. Western policies toward Russia and the former Soviet space since the dissolution of the USSR have fueled greater distrust and suspicion on the part of the Russian government toward the opposition, making freedom of speech more difficult. In this respect, one can make a very strong case that Western policies like NATO expansion, missile defense, the unilateral cancellation of the IBM treaty, or the sponsorship of pro-Western revolutions in ex-Soviet states have harmed the development of democracy in Russia, not helped it.

This stands in contrast to the dehumanization of east Ukrainian civilians and Russia by the present Ukrainian government and its supporters in the West. In fact, official Russian-backed media has refrained from engaging in any dehumanizing rhetoric toward the people of Ukraine proper. True, they have liberally used terms like “Nazis,” “fascists,” and “Banderists.” However, they have not used these terms to describe the Ukrainian people as a whole. Rather, they have used them to describe the government in Kiev, a very important distinction. In Moscow’s view, there is a clear delineation between what is regarded as “the government” and “the people.”

Indeed, in the Russian worldview and discourse, the Ukrainian people are seen as either a deeply kindred people or an extension of a greater East Slavic whole, along with Russia and Belarus. Further, a larger partition of Ukraine, which would certainly involve more conflict, is decidedly not in Russia’s interests. Therefore, Moscow has little to gain from dehumanizing a large number of Ukrainian civilians through the mass media. This explains why they have been careful to distinguish between the government of Ukraine and the people. In fact, in the Russian narrative, the people of Ukraine are often presented as being “naive” or “duped” by Western policies, though their struggle against corruption is viewed understandably.

By contrast, the distinction between the breakaway governments of Donetsk and Luhansk and the locals living there is barely made by the Ukrainian government. This is why the dehumanization of civilians in the Ukrainian media and in the Russian media simply cannot be compared or “equalized.” Equalization often has the intended goal to bring people together. By creating a false symmetry, the thought is that people will recognize the flaws of “both sides” and work toward peace. The goal is indeed noble, but the aims of achieving it, which obscure the facts of a given situation, are questionable.

Analytical equalization has likewise been applied to another part of the Soviet Union: the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia is a hybrid regime among the ex-Soviet states, embracing elements of liberalism and authoritarianism. Yet, it largely has a free press and free media (including a Daily Show-style satirical news program). Armenia simply cannot be described as an “authoritarian state.”

This is in contrast to Azerbaijan, which is indeed an authoritarian state. The country boasts a pervasive personality cult of the ruling Aliyev family, especially the current president Ilham and his father, Heydar. Dissent is systematically muzzled and there is little room for free expression or free speech.

An objective assessment would illustrate the differences that exist between the two states. Yet, Western commentators, eager for an immediate peace over Karabakh, gloss over these differences and instead generalize that “both are exactly the same.” Such a formation excludes critical thinking and prevents one from observing nuances between the conflicting parties. Consequently, the search for that all-elusive resolution becomes even more challenging.

Overall, the key to ending any war or conflict is to first and foremost stop the senseless dehumanizing and malicious rhetoric. Dialogue becomes possible when people begin to realize their common humanity – that which they share. Consequently, instead of talking in exclusionary terms of “Europe” vs. “Eurasia,” “West” vs. “East,” we should be reflecting collectively in terms of cooperation among all peoples on the vast Eurasian landmass, from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Only then can there be true peace.

Correction (8 March 2015): It has been called to my attention that I made a typo on this piece.  I accidentally referred to Amnesty International declaring Ruslan Kotsaba as a “prisoner of consciousness” as opposed to a “prisoner of conscience.”  This has now been fixed, but the mistake was somewhat ironic, given concerns of Europe “sleepwalking into war.”  Kotsaba was indeed “conscious” enough to see that danger.

Georgia and Ukraine: The End of the Special Relationship?

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (UPI Photo/Sergey Starostenko)

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (UPI Photo/Sergey Starostenko)

Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Kakha Kaladze, the Georgian Economy and Energy Ministers respectively, arrived in Kiev on 30 January for a meeting with Ukraine’s Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavičius. This goodwill trip is the first such meeting to be held between Georgia and post-Maidan Ukraine.

Georgia and Ukraine are known to have a history of good relations. They became particularly close in the wake of the Rose and Orange Revolutions of the 2000s. The Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili and the Ukrainian government of Viktor Yushchenko made common cause together, enhanced by Saakashvili’s contacts in Kiev from his days as a university law student. Both governments were united by their aspirations for NATO and EU membership, their total loyalty to Washington, and their pro-Western, anti-Russian nationalist discourse.

Given this history, one might expect that the first visit of Georgian state officials to post-Maidan Ukraine would be greeted with more pomp and circumstance. However, relations between the two states have deteriorated significantly since the Maidan Revolution last year. Today they can be best characterized as less-than-warm.

At face value, the two present governments in Georgia and Ukraine could not be more different. Georgia today has a government run by pragmatists who seek to balance their relations between Russia and the West while keeping Georgia’s national interests at the forefront. Meanwhile, Ukraine has a government dominated by pro-Western, anti-Russian nationalists with a significant and disturbing presence of far-right and neo-fascist elements.  Kiev stands unyielding in its totally unbalanced approach and extreme positions.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

However, it would be incorrect to say that the decline in relations was an inevitable development based on the widely divergent natures of the two governments.  Ultimately, it was Kiev’s provocative actions that made such a deterioration virtually unavoidable.

Specifically, the post-Maidan government’s proximity to Mikheil Saakashvili and many of his former colleagues have alarmed officials in Tbilisi. The former Georgian president remains widely unpopular in Georgia today, not only because of the disastrous 2008 war but also because of his autocratic tendencies and abuses of power while in office. It is true that Saakashvili managed to clamp down on low-level corruption, endemic in so many ex-Soviet states. However, to the vast majority of Georgians, Saakashvili’s negative attributes outweigh any positive ones.

Today, Saakashvili is a wanted man in Georgia. The former Georgian leader stands accused of abuse of office and is sought for questioning in connection with the murder of former Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. Prosecutors in Tbilisi are also seeking an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest. Meanwhile, Russia, on behalf of South Ossetia, is pressing for criminal charges against Saakashvili for indiscriminate shelling and attempted ethnic cleansing against Ossetian civilians in the 2008 war.

Following the old adage “your friends define who you are,” one would think that the new government in Kiev would want to keep their distance from a man like Saakashvili, who is wanted by his own country. However, this has evidently not deterred the post-Maidan Ukrainian government. Indeed, from the very beginning, Saakashvili and his crew were part of the drama in Ukraine. In December 2013, Saakashvili flew to Kiev where he addressed the crowds on the Maidan.

Mikheil Saakashvili on the Maidan, Kiev (AFP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov)

Mikheil Saakashvili on the Maidan, Kiev (AFP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov)

After the overthrow of Yanukovych, Saakashvili emerged as an “informal advisor” to the interim Yatsenyuk-Turchynov government. This prompted protests not only from Georgia, but also from the government of breakaway Abkhazia and from Russia too. On Armenian television, Saakashvili’s participation in Ukrainian affairs was satirized.

Speculation increased that Saakashvili would be appointed to a formal advisor position immediately following the election of Petro Poroshenko as President.  At first, it seemed that Poroshenko would actually appoint Saakashvili, but amid renewed protest from Georgia, he backed down.

Instead, Poroshenko appointed as an advisor the late Kakha Bendukidze, a close Saakashvili associate and the architect of controversial “shock therapy”-style privatization reforms in Georgia. Though adored by Georgia’s pro-Western elites, Bendukidze was reviled by much of the Georgian population.  Specifically, he is held responsible for worsening the country’s widespread poverty. Bendukidze’s tenure as an advisor to Poroshenko was short-lived. After only six months in office, the Georgian shock therapist died suddenly of heart failure.

Within the past two months, the drama in Georgian-Ukrainian relations has increased. In December, Poroshenko appointed two former Saakashvili officials (both Georgian nationals) to high government posts. These were Georgia’s former Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze and former Healthcare Minister Aleksandr Kvitashvili. Both assumed the same respective posts in the new Ukrainian government. There was also talk of Poroshenko appointing the Saakashvili-era Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili to an official post.  Adeishvili faces criminal charges in Georgia and is wanted by the Georgian government via an Interpol Red Notice.  Poroshenko even offered Saakashvili the position of Deputy Prime Minister, but Saakashvili declined.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has been critical of Kiev's closeness to former Georgian President Saakashvili.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has been critical of Kiev’s closeness to former Georgian President Saakashvili.

These actions by the Poroshenko government have been received negatively in Tbilisi. Pragmatists like Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili have become especially vexed by Kiev’s apparent indifference to Georgian national concerns. However, they are not alone. Concerned Ukrainian citizens are also perplexed as to why Poroshenko would appoint Georgian nationals to high posts and not Ukrainian nationals. Poroshenko argues that this is due to pervasive corruption in Ukraine. Critics counter that it is in fact quite possible to find professional non-corrupt individuals in a nation of 45 million people.

Adding to the concern are Saakashvili’s periodic threats to return to Georgia as a triumphant hero and to overthrow the democratically elected Georgian government in a Maidan-style revolution. Many of these threatening and provocative statements were voiced by Saakashvili during his periodic trips to Kiev. “I will be back,” he stated in a recent interview, evidently channeling Arnold Schwarzenegger and adding that he was “certain” that he will return to Georgia “even before the elections.”

Saakashvili’s involvement in Ukraine and his total support for Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” in the Donbas have created even more problems. The former Georgian leader has been encouraging youths in the Georgian army to leave Georgia, fight in Ukraine, and join the pro-Kiev volunteer battalions, many of which have far-right affiliations and have been accused of war crimes by Amnesty International. The pragmatists in the ruling Georgian Dream coalition have strongly criticized such actions. Prime Minister Garibashvili has called Saakashvili’s efforts to have young Georgians give up their Georgian citizenship and fight in Ukraine an act of “direct treason” against Georgia.

Despite all of this, Tbilisi, undeterred, has expressed its openness and readiness for friendly diplomatic relations with Kiev.  In November, Prime Minister Garibashvili announced his intention to eventually visit Ukraine.  Georgia’s Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani echoed this interest.

However, Ukrainian officials have continuously delayed these proposed visits, thus effectively preventing them from taking place. Some Georgian observers and politicians claim this is a deliberate effort by Ukrainian authorities to block the establishment of normal, friendly relations. Many attribute this to the influential position of Saakashvili and his political allies in Kiev.

Whatever the cause for Kiev’s behavior, it is clear that Georgian-Ukrainian relations are unlikely to improve any time soon.

Getting Kennan Right

George F. Kennan, Heidelberg, Germany, 1952 (Getty)

George F. Kennan, Heidelberg, Germany, 1952 (Getty)

In his recent article in Foreign Affairs, the American academic Alexander Motyl called on Western governments to review George F. Kennan’s case for the “containment” of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Specifically, Motyl contends that Kennan’s containment strategy represents an “adequate policy response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine.”

The trouble with that argument is that if Kennan were alive today, he would most certainly disagree with such an interpretation of his work. In fact, he would likely see the present-day evocation of his Cold War strategy as yet another perversion of his original intent (to note, Kennan also did not intend “containment” to mean a military buildup as it was interpreted in Washington during the outset of the Cold War).

In the late 1990s, the US broke its unwritten promise to Russia, as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, not to expand NATO “one inch” beyond East Germany. Instead, Washington supported the admission of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary into NATO. A realist, Kennan strongly opposed that move as a major error of US foreign policy, and emphasized that its consequences would be dangerous and would not lead to anything good.

However, his advice was ignored by the US political elite, which sought to expand NATO not only into the former Warsaw Pact states and the ex-Soviet Baltic republics, but also into Ukraine and Georgia. Kennan did not live long enough to see the disastrous 2008 South Ossetia war in Georgia, though if he had, he would have likely seen it as a vindication of his earlier warnings against the dangerous policy of NATO expansion. He would likewise view the current crisis in Ukraine as further proof of this.

On a more fundamental level, Kennan was also highly critical of the US policy of “democracy promotion” in the ex-Soviet space. Even during the depths of the Cold War, he believed that if communism ever did fall in Russia, Washington “should let Russians be Russians” and allow democracy to develop in Russia and the former USSR endogenously as opposed to getting involved. Once again, Kennan’s advice was ignored. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, American economists actively assisted the wild “shock therapy” privatization in Russia, while Washington gave then-president Yeltsin its full, unconditional support.

Thus, if the West is serious about formulating a solid Russia policy and about resolving the crisis in Ukraine, it needs to get Kennan right by looking beyond the discourse of containment and exploring his other foreign policy positions. Adhering to his advice would be the first step toward serious de-escalation.

Russia and Georgia: In Search of a Caucasian Peace

Ivanishvili after his election victory, October 2012 (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Ivanishvili after his election victory, October 2012 (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

In October 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition swept into power, dealing a severe blow to the ruling party of Mikheil Saakashvili. First and foremost, the Georgian billionaire promised to adopt a more pragmatic approach toward relations with Russia and to entice its breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia by peaceful, diplomatic means.

Two years later, Russo-Georgian relations are at a standstill. Communications appeared to be heading toward a thaw in February when, during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to meet the newly-elected Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Such a meeting would have been the first between the Russian and Georgian leaderships since the 2008 South Ossetian war. However, this proposed summit was postponed indefinitely, overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.

Russo-Georgian relations remained in a state of “freeze” since that time. Meanwhile, in the absence of official diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, the region is becoming increasingly more militarized. Encouraged by Washington, Tbilisi continues to pursue NATO and was recently granted a NATO security package at the recent NATO Summit in Wales. Among other things, the package allows for the establishment of a NATO training facility on Georgian territory and for NATO to “occasionally” hold military exercises in Georgia.

USS Mount Whitney in Batumi (Civil.ge)

USS Mount Whitney in Batumi (Civil.ge)

Moscow has reacted to this with alarm. Indeed, their fears seemed confirmed when, on October 13, it was announced that the USS Mount Whitney, the flagship for the US 6th Fleet in Europe, would land at Batumi. According to Washington, the visit was intended to “strengthen ties with NATO allies and partners like Georgia, while working toward mutual goals of promoting peace and stability in the Black Sea region.”

That same day, Moscow proposed a treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia as a means of strengthening ties with the rebel region.  Among other things, the proposed draft called for a total standardization of the Abkhaz and Russian militaries and for additional Russian troops to be stationed along the de facto Abkhaz-Georgian border. It also called for looser border restrictions, a standardization of Abkhazia’s customs legislation with that of the Eurasian Union, a gradual “harmonization” of Sukhumi’s budgetary and tax policies with Moscow’s, and for Russian diplomatic aid in expanding Abkhazia’s international recognition.

Moscow’s move was likely a gambit to call Tbilisi’s bluff on its NATO aspirations. It also indirectly signals to Georgia that it regards NATO as a very serious threat to its security. It further communicates that while Tbilisi still has a realistic chance at reconciliation with Sukhumi now, it may lose such an opportunity permanently if it continues to pursue NATO membership.

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (Mikhail Mokrushin / RIA Novosti)

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (Mikhail Mokrushin / RIA Novosti)

As expected, the draft agreement was received negatively by official Tbilisi, which warned that it “will seriously endanger the process of normalization of the Georgian-Russian relations” and may represent a de facto “annexation of Abkhazia.” The Abkhaz have reacted negatively as well. Though most Abkhaz support the idea of one day joining the Eurasian Union and of having Moscow’s backing on security, they see the proposed treaty as going too far and “infringing on Abkhaz sovereignty.” Even the new Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba, who is usually known to be close to the Kremlin, spoke out against it.

Zurab Abashidze (RFE/RL)

Zurab Abashidze (RFE/RL)

Talks in Prague between Tbilisi’s special envoy to Moscow, Zurab Abashidze, and his counterpart Grigory Karasin, have failed to yield results. Meanwhile, Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and at least one politician from within the ruling Georgian Dream coalition have called for a total cessation of any dialogue with Moscow. Indeed, UNM members have argued that the Abkhaz treaty is clear proof of Moscow’s sinister intentions toward Georgia. Consequently, in their view, there is no purpose for future talks and they should be cancelled completely. Of course, such a reckless move would have negative implications for both Georgia and Russia. Abashidze, a veteran diplomat from Shevardnadze-era Georgia and from the USSR, knows this better than anyone and has been quick to defend continued talks.

Do these most recent developments indicate an end to the efforts by the Georgian government toward a Russo-Georgian rapprochement? Are the options for a peaceful and diplomatic solution between both sides exhausted?

Hopefully not.

Both Moscow and Tbilisi are still searching for the right moment to reset relations beyond practical economic and trade issues. In fact, as it became increasingly apparent that the ceasefire in Ukraine’s Donbas appeared to be holding, Georgian President Margvelashvili expressed renewed interest in finally realizing his proposed meeting with Putin.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (President.gov.ge)

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (President.gov.ge)

In media interviews in September and October, Georgia’s philosopher-president stressed that relations between Tbilisi and Moscow must first be eased before serious talks can begin on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He likewise warned Moscow of the potential danger of the status quo, and expressed interest in greater dialogue.

In one such interview with the Georgian edition of Forbes magazine on 8 October, Margvelashvili stated that “it is difficult to talk about Putin in such an open discussion. Putin is interesting to me as the real decision-maker in the most difficult issues for Georgia. I do not personally know him, but I hope he is rational and supports a rational policy. I hope at some point it will be possible to construct the Georgian-Russian relations in favor of our countries’ interests. I hope for this.”

A potential Putin-Margvelashvili meeting would do much to improve relations between both countries and may even lead to a future compromise resolution over Georgia’s breakaways. While it is difficult to imagine that Russia would simply “unrecognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is possible that Moscow could offer an equitable solution to the problem through a co-equal federal or confederal structure among Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Tskhinvali. A Moscow-backed peace deal between Georgia and its breakaways would also ameliorate Russia’s concerns of seeing an enlarged NATO on its southern flank.

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili in a football friendly between Georgia and South Ossetia. (InterPress News Agency)

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili in a football friendly between Georgia and South Ossetia. (InterPress News Agency)

In this regard, Georgia has sought to pursue a more balanced policy toward its estranged regions, emphasizing peaceful dialogue and coexistence as opposed to military confrontation. On 12 October, the Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili engaged in one peace initiative with his Ossetian counterparts by donning a football jersey. He and other members of the Georgian government, together with current and former Georgian football players, engaged representatives from South Ossetia in a football friendly in the city of Gori. The captain of the Georgian team, Garibashvili, decided to switch sides in the second half and joined the South Ossetians. The game ended 4:4 in yet another variation of Caucasian “football diplomacy.”

“We don’t want to be enemies of Ossetian and Abkhazian brothers, we want fraternity with them and today’s game was a clear demonstration of it,” stated the Prime Minister after the match. “I have an amazing feeling. It was a step towards confidence building. I am so glad that our Ossetian brothers have so sound generation. I am really in a good mood. I felt love and friendship coming from them.”

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili (Vano Shlamov / AFP)

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili (Vano Shlamov / AFP)

Garibashvili has been another voice of reason in Georgia, calling for the continuation of talks and dialogue. Reacting to the proposed Abkhaz treaty, he emphasized that Moscow confirmed that the treaty was still incomplete and remained only “under consideration.”

“I am very interested in the Russian government’s final position,” he said. “I do not want to believe that the Russian government intends to respond to our constructive and pragmatic policy by such a step. This should not be in anyone’s interest.”

He continued stated that “we started a direct dialogue, which was a direct recommendation from the international community. We successfully continued the pragmatic policy, launched by Bidzina Ivanishvili as early as two years ago, and as a result of this the trade and economic relations were normalized with Russia, resulting in increased export to Russia. We have not spared our efforts to demonstrate that we are a maximally pragmatic, constructive and stable government.”

At the same time, he also noted that such efforts still have “not significantly affected the political situation” outside of trade and economic ties. Indeed, immediate talks between Moscow and Tbilisi would be in the best interests of both countries. In this regard, a direct meeting between Putin and Margvelashvili would do much to restore confidence on both sides and would lead to a serious and constructive dialogue on important and difficult issues. Overall, it is clear that diplomacy is the best route toward normalization, compromise, and resolution.

UPDATE (20 October 2014): Vano Machavariani, the Former Foreign Affairs Advisor to the President of Georgia has stated today that Tbilisi had been preparing for a direct meeting between Margvelashvili and Putin but that it had been indefinitely postponed due to the “government’s reluctance.”  While he notes that the situation is “more complicated now” and that “it is difficult to organize a high-level meeting,” he also emphasized that such a meeting is still possible

“If the partner countries will engage in [this meeting],” he stated, “some steps can be taken.”  He also maintained that such a move is particularly important now, given the recent controversy over Moscow’s proposed treaty with Abkhazia.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Davit Zalkaliani and Tbilisi’s envoy to Moscow Zurab Abashidze have stated that they were unaware of such preparations.  However, Zalkaliani does not exclude that Machavariani may have been pursuing extra diplomatic efforts.  He also noted too that a potential visit is still possible.

“As you know, the organization of a visit is a very serious matter and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be involved in it,” he stated.  “All organizational issues are agreed on through diplomatic channels. We do not have diplomatic relations with Russia. Hence, it should have been done through the Swiss Confederation, though we have not sent any note or letter.”