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.

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.

Odessa: A Ukrainian Tragedy

Odessa's celebrated Potemkin Steps, once the scene of Sergei Eisenstein's famed 1925 Soviet classic, The Battleship Potemkin. (Palmyra.od.ua)

Odessa’s celebrated Potemkin Steps, once the scene of Sergei Eisenstein’s famed 1925 Soviet classic, The Battleship Potemkin. (Palmyra.od.ua)

Odessa is a beautiful, theatrical city, renown for its humor, wit, culture, and charm. Yet, at the same time, it is also a city that has experienced much pain and tragedy in its history. Since the horrors of World War II, who would have guessed that nearly 70 years later, the people of this celebrated “St. Petersburg of the south” would again have cause to mourn?

It is beyond doubt that the 2 May massacre in Odessa was a turning point for the crisis in Ukraine. Last Friday was a painful day of mourning for a country that is already on the brink of catastrophe. One might expect that such grief would lead toward greater unity within the country and perhaps pave the way for a rational, constructive dialogue toward peace.

Instead, the massacre has only hardened opinions in Ukraine. Throughout the southeast, including Odessa, popular anger and opposition to the Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government is currently on the rise. In Central Ukraine and Kiev, public opinion over the tragedy is divided. In Western Ukraine, while many have expressed sorrow for the deaths, the popular stance largely does not want to fully explore what happened in Odessa.  The involvement of the pro-Kiev activists is downplayed and “pro-Russian provocateurs” are blamed instead.  According to one observer in Western Ukraine, the reaction from some in the West on social media has been “less than compassionate” and “even hubristic.”  Further west, in the remote Rusyn-speaking oblast of Zakarpattia, popular reaction to the tragedy in Odessa is unclear.  Meanwhile, as tensions rise, Odessa’s historic Jewish community, which had been experiencing a cultural and religious revival in recent years (including a Yiddish language revival), is planning to evacuate the city en masse.

In the United States, mainstream media networks like ABC, CNN, and Fox have practically ignored the massacre. In the rare case that it is mentioned, the question of responsibility is always vague. Official Washington offered its condolences on Saturday in the same manner, without naming any perpetrators. Later, though the US Ambassador in Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt admitted in an interview with CNN that there was no evidence of a Russian role in the massacre.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Frank-walter-steinmeier.de)

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called for fresh talks to de-escalate the crisis.  (Frank-walter-steinmeier.de)

In Germany, opposition to the events in Ukraine as well as a desire for a resolution to the crisis are growing. One member of the ruling Christian Democrats stated that Germany “should stop being a servant of the Americans” and that confrontation with Russia over Ukraine was “blind to history and deaf to the other side.” Meanwhile, Germany’s Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for a new round of Geneva talks.  A veteran diplomat, Steinmeier has stated that the new talks will “send a ‘strong political signal’ that previous agreements will be implemented.” The plan now has the backing of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Russia’s response to Odessa has been remarkably reserved. Moscow condemned the massacre in very strong terms and the State Duma has demanded a probe into the tragedy. However, Russia has refrained from intervening directly in Ukraine, despite anger in Moscow and pressure by hardliners in the Kremlin to invade.

It is undeniably apparent that Right Sector and far-right football fans known as the “Ultras” were singularly responsible for what happened in Odessa. On YouTube, footage has emerged showing the nationalists starting the fire and later shooting anti-Kiev activists who attempted to leave the burning building.

The Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government has sought to downplay the massacre, instead expressing very general “sorrow” for the victims and emphasizing the clashes that preceded it between supporters and opponents of the government. In every case, they are quick to blame the initial clashes on “pro-Russian provocateurs.” During his visit to Odessa, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk reiterated the same script, though also blaming the security services for not stopping the violence.

Yatsenyuk also pledged a de-centralization of powers to the oblasti and to this end, a bill for a nationwide plebiscite on the issue has been registered at the Ukrainian Rada. Yet people living in Ukraine’s southeast are skeptical. The government has announced vaguely-worded “de-centralizations” in the past, but these were ultimately never realized. In a much less calculated move, the government has also dispatched a special all-volunteer battalion of Kiev’s National Guard to Odessa. It is doubtful that such a move will help de-escalate tensions and build confidence in this part of Ukraine. Opposition to the government runs high in Odessa.  Some have even gone so far as to refer to the massacre as an act of “genocide.” Meanwhile, the “anti-terrorist operation” continues in Eastern Ukraine, which is now effectively in a state of war with Kiev.

Overall, anxiety and apprehension remain high throughout Ukraine in the aftermath of the Odessa massacre. If social media is any indication, it demonstrates that people throughout the country have fundamentally different views and interpretations of the event. Dialogue is extremely important to restoring order and peace, but it is increasingly being supplemented by a discourse of “my interpretation is better than yours” and even worse “us vs. them.” In the backdrop of all this is a fast deteriorating socioeconomic situation and the near-bankruptcy of the country. Ukrainians together need to emerge with white flag in hand to set aside their differences and engage in a serious, meaningful dialogue to find solutions to their problems. War, no matter what, should never be an option.

How Moscow Views the Ukraine Crisis

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David, 1800.  The historical memory of the Western invasions of Russia (including the Napoleonic invasion of 1812) still affects Russian perceptions of the West today.

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David, 1800. The historical memories of the West’s invasions of Russia (including the Napoleonic invasion of 1812) still loom large in the Russian consciousness.

Throughout the ongoing Ukraine crisis, few Western commentators and/or observers have considered Moscow’s view of the situation. In the Western media, the prevailing image is that Russia is an aggressor, intent on dominating its neighbors. Western influence is presented as “positive.” Russian influence as “negative.” Joining the EU is depicted as being a road to economic and social prosperity and NATO is offered as a defensive bulwark against the “terrible” Kremlin. Remarkably, at least in the United States, liberals and conservatives are singing the same song. Further, the discourse of “invasion,” “occupation,” “aggression,” and “World War III” is hardly diplomatic. How does anyone believe that negotiations can ensue when such language is thrown about?

By contrast, in Moscow, the view of the situation in Ukraine is entirely different. It perceives the West as encroaching on countries to which it has been very closely associated. Ukraine (the entire country, East, South, Central, and even West), along with Belarus, is viewed as a fraternal East Slavic nation to which Russia is intimately bound. The capital Kiev is regarded by all Russians as the “mother Russian city,” the common point of origin for all East Slavs. To view Kiev within the boundaries of the EU and NATO is more than just a violation of a sphere of influence.  To the Russians, it is almost sacrilege.

Meanwhile, it does not help that some of the most vocal advocates for Ukrainian membership in the EU and NATO come from countries that Russia perceives as historical invaders. They include Poland and Sweden, the co-founders of the Eastern Partnership program that sponsored the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Both countries have a history of animosity toward Russia, but it is Poland in particular that Moscow views as being one of the chief advocates for Western expansionism.

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

We in the West regard Poland primarily as the victim of Russian aggression, particularly communism. We reflect on Russia’s participation in Poland’s partitions, its suppression of Polish uprisings, the Polish-Soviet War, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyń massacre, and the establishment of communist Poland. Conversely, to a Russian with a sense of history, Poland is perceived as a historical invader, a country that during the Time of Troubles in Russia (1598-1613) supported the Tsar-pretender “False Dmitriy,” attempted to bring Catholicism to Orthodox Russia, and eventually invaded and occupied Moscow in 1609. That invasion was repelled in 1612 by the duo of Kuzma Minin and Dmitriy Pozharsky, whose statue stands today in front of St. Basil’s in Moscow.

Even in more recent times, Russians recall that it was Poland’s Marshal Piłsudski who, during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21, not only tried to ensure the freedom of Poland, but also sought to annex to Poland large swathes of Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Western Russia to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of old. Piłsudski is still admired by some in Poland today, including members of the political elite such as the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his twin brother, Jarosław. He is also greatly admired by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy in a portrait by Ilya Repin, 1887.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy in a portrait by Ilya Repin, 1887.

Russians likewise recall Polish participation in the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. In Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is the Polish legion that is depicted as being the most fanatically supportive of an expansion toward Russia, so much so that they drown in the River Viliya for Napoleon. Today, the Russians see very much the same thing, except that Napoleon is now replaced by NATO and that the Poles are now showing their loyalty, not by drowning in the Viliya, but by asking for NATO troops to be stationed in their country.

In another Tolstoyan parallel, Moscow also likely views the Ukrainians who protested on the Maidan as being the modern equivalents of the muzhiks of War and Peace. It was the muzhiks who rose up against their oppressive landlords for Napoleon, who they viewed as the embodiment of the French revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, et fraternité. Today though, the modern landlords are Ukraine’s corrupt political elite and oligarchs, while the liberal ideals of Napoleon and revolutionary France are today the liberal ideals of Brussels and the European Union. Moscow regards the latter ideals in 2014 just as they regarded Naopleon’s ideals in 1812 – that is, as false promises motivated only by geopolitical ambitions rather than by any genuine sense of altruism.

Given this, it would be wise to recall history before permitting the rhetoric to get too out of control.

How to Defuse the Ukraine Crisis

Below are ten basic provisions that I believe may ameliorate not only the Ukraine crisis but also the broader tension that currently exists between Russia and the West. Not all readers will agree entirely with these positions, but hopefully they will become a starting point from which to defuse the situation, proceed forward, and create mutually friendly, not hostile, relations among all parties:

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS).  The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand "one inch" beyond East Germany.  The promise was never fulfilled.  To defuse the ongoing Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS). The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch” beyond East Germany. The promise was never fulfilled. To defuse the Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

1. The West and Russia should drop any mutual sanctions or restrictions against one another.

2. In order to encourage mutual trust, Moscow and Washington should make an unambiguous, official agreement prohibiting further expansion and encroachment of NATO into the former Soviet republics. Such an agreement must be clearly articulated in a written document, unlike the informal promise not to expand NATO made by US officials to former Soviet President Gorbachev in the 1990s.

3. The United States must promise to cancel the planned missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

4. The United States should recognize Russia’s interests in the former Soviet states, including at least verbal support by Washington for the Moscow-based Eurasian Union, provided that it does not expand beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet states.

5. On Crimea, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize and accept Russia’s incorporation of the peninsula. This may be a difficult step to take, but the West and the Yatsenyuk government have to acknowledge that the area is demographically and historically Russian, and that it is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Moscow will not reverse this action and any attempts to force Russia to do so would be counterproductive. Therefore, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize the reality that Crimea is effectively part of Russia.

6. On Ukraine, both Moscow and Washington should express a desire to see Ukraine proper united and indivisible, and to adopt either an oblast-by-oblast federal system or a decentralized unitary system. Ukraine should declare military neutrality and should pursue integration into the Eurasian Customs Union based on Ukraine’s logical and historic economic ties with Russia; notwithstanding the fact that the EU economy currently cannot manage Ukraine. If Brussels were to bring in Ukraine, it would seriously threaten the stability and unity of the EU and would unravel the progress made over the decades of forging a united Europe. Both Russia and the EU should cooperate on helping Ukraine to strengthen its economy and state institutions by challenging the stranglehold of the Ukrainian oligarchs.

7. Given the fact that many Moldovan citizens are already EU citizens via Romanian passports, and that Moldova is becoming increasingly integrated with the EU, Moscow should recognize Moldova’s pro-European orientation.  In turn, Chișinău should relinquish its claims to Transnistria.  Depending on the situation in Ukraine and the will of the people of Transnistria, the latter could then reunite with the former as part of the multiethnic, Russophone Odessa Oblast. The new division would occur along the River Dniester, with all Moldovan-controlled areas on the right bank of the river being ceded to Transnistria, and all Transnistrian-controlled areas on the left bank being ceded to Moldova. The remaining Moldovan state would proceed with EU integration, but would declare military neutrality and disavow any intention of reunification with Romania.  Its relationship with the latter would then become akin to the relationship shared between Germany and Austria.  Such a resolution would alleviate ethnic concerns within Moldova, particularly with the Gagauz.

8. On Georgia, Moscow should promote (with the support of Washington) a federal solution for Georgia as well, making Abkhazia and South Ossetia federal states within a unified Georgian republic. The process for this should follow roughly along the lines of the proposed plan that I posted earlier. Like Ukraine, this new united Georgian federal state should declare military neutrality and, for economic, historical, and geographic reasons, should integrate into the Eurasian Customs Union.

9. On Armenia and Karabakh, the solution to this particular issue should be in the principle of self-determination for the Karabakh Armenians, though this is just an opinion. The aggressive and threatening rhetoric and actions from official Baku have only alienated the Karabakh people. Notably, Baku has also consistently denied basic human rights to its own ethnic Azerbaijani citizens. Thus, such a regime could not be trusted to rule over the people of this region. Aside from this, in order for there to be a realistic and lasting solution to this problem, Azerbaijan must open its borders with Armenia and civil society contacts must be enhanced. Armenians and Azerbaijanis can get along, but not when they do not see or communicate with one another. In their common humanity, they will find that peace and coexistence are possible, but the borders must be open first. Turkey too must open its border with Armenia.

10. Both sides should agree on a gradual convergence of the West and Russia (along with the former Soviet states) in economic, political, and military spheres, thus ensuring that all parties are on the same page with regard to the future of the post-Soviet space and post-Cold War world in general. There are so many more important priorities that need to be solved in the world (Iran, North Korea, Syria, etc.). Russia and the West need to cooperate on these issues and must not be in conflict. Further, such a solution would effectively help to realize the long-term goal of a united and indivisible Europe. It would also go a long way toward building trust with Moscow, thus creating the conditions for Russia to deepen its democratic development endogenously.

How the West Got Moscow’s Eurasian Union Wrong

Will Rogers (Biography)

Will Rogers (Biography)

Will Rogers, the noted American entertainer and radio personality, once famously joked that “Russia is a country that no matter what you say about it, it’s true.” This holds true today, especially in the Western press.

One example of this is the Russian initiative to form the Eurasian Union, a supranational union comprised of former Soviet republics. This has been largely criticized in the West as either a “New Russian Empire” or a “New Soviet Union.” In 2012, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to the project as a “move to re-Sovietise the region.” While acknowledging that the Eurasian Union will not be called “the Soviet Union,” she also stressed “let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.” Timothy Synder, the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, went even further in his denunciation of the concept, referring to it as the realization of the anti-liberal neo-fascist Eurasianist schemes of Aleksandr Dugin. He specifically cited Dugin as “the ideological source of the Eurasian Union” and that his work constitutes “the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration.”

Beyond the headlines, though, what exactly is the Eurasian Union? Is it truly an anti-Western conspiracy of neo-fascists, Bolsheviks, and boogie men opposing liberal ideals worldwide which, like Soviet communism, needs to be “contained?” Or rather is it a supranational liberal economic union promoting free trade and open borders with the former Soviet republics who already share close historical, economic, and cultural links with Russia? For the answer to this question, one must turn to the history of the Eurasian Union idea. Indeed, if one explores the history of the Eurasian Union concept, one discovers that its originator was not Aleksandr Dugin, but in fact, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

As the Soviet system and Soviet communism was collapsing in the early 1990s, then-Soviet President Gorbachev took a bold step that is often overlooked: he proposed the basic framework for a reformed Soviet state. The new state would be a non-communist democratic federation (under Gorbachev, the Communist Party already began to lose its monopoly on power in 1989, a fact that became official with his creation of the Soviet Presidency in March 1990).

Gorbachev anticipated a referendum in which Soviet voters would be given the choice to vote on the establishment of this new state in March 1991. This referendum on a New Union Treaty was approved by the vast majority of Soviet citizens, including those in then-Soviet Ukraine, who favored it by 82%. It should be noted that a significant number of West Ukrainian activists had boycotted Gorbachev’s referendum, but even if one were to include the boycotted votes as “no” votes, then the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians still favored Gorbachev’s new union by a wide margin. Additionally, the only other Soviet republics that boycotted the referendum were the three Baltic states (which sought independence), Moldova (which sought to reunify with Romania), Armenia (which was frustrated with Moscow over its indecision on Nagorny Karabakh), and Georgia (under the influence of nationalist dissident leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia). Other than this, the referendum passed overwhelmingly.

Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin

Despite the fact that the referendum was favored by the vast majority of Soviet citizens, it was never implemented. In August 1991, communist hardliners, who bristled at Gorbachev’s glasnost, put the Soviet leader under house arrest in Crimea. In the end, the putschists were faced down by the leader of the then-Soviet Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin and the coup collapsed. Following the coup, Gorbachev sought to pursue the establishment of the new union that the majority of Soviet citizens favored in the March referendum. However, Yeltsin insisted on a confederation of states as opposed to a state federation. Gorbachev was initially opposed, fearing that a confederation would lead to disaster. However, in the end, Gorbachev relented and backed the confederation proposal.

However, even the idea of a confederation was not realized. Without Gorbachev, Yeltsin, along with Ukraine’s Lenoid Kravchuk and Belarus’ Stanislav Shushkevich, formally dissolved the Soviet state at meeting in the Belavezha Forest. Gorbachev lost his position and the 15 Soviet republics were now formally independent states, with some, like the Baltics, Armenia, and Georgia, proposing independence referendums earlier. However, Yeltsin apparently did not want to totally severe Russia’s ties with the other former Soviet states (now known as the “near abroad”). Indeed, the Belavezha Accords also gave birth to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose association of 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics (understandably, the Baltics for historical reasons did not participate).

Nursultan Nazarbayev

Nursultan Nazarbayev

During his administration, Yeltsin never formally lost sight of maintaining Russia’s links with the former Soviet states, despite major problems in Russia itself (most of which were arguably the result of his own policies). In 1992, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was formed, initiating a sort of military alliance among the various ex-Soviet states. Two years later in 1994, in an address to a Moscow university, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed an early concept for an EU-style supranational union of the ex-Soviet states. Then in 1996, this idea evolved into the Treaty on Increased Integration in the Economic and Humanitarian Fields signed by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.  This was followed by the Treaty on the Customs Union and the Single Economic Space in 1999 signed by the same countries along with Tajikistan.  Finally, in 2000, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) was formed.

Again, I have cited three individuals in this historical overview: Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Nazarbayev.  All three favored some sort of integration and association among the former Soviet states prior to the major writings of Aleksandr Dugin in 1997, including his controversial fascist-Eurasianist work The Foundations of Geopolitics. The assertions that the Eurasian Union, at its heart, is a Duginist scheme do not take into account the integration processes that were already in progress within the former Soviet Union and therefore are both incorrect and anachronistic.

It can likewise be definitively concluded that, given the fact that organizations like the EurAsEC serve as a direct predecessor to today’s Eurasian Customs Union, the ideology and political philosophy of Moscow’s present-day post-Soviet integration effort is not intended to be a conspiratorial neo-fascist or anti-Western coalition. Rather, it is at its core a liberal idea, intended to promote open borders, free trade, and economic and cultural exchange among the ex-Soviet states, who already share much culture with Russia. In the words of fellow Russia watcher and commentator Mark Adomanis:

Without lapsing into cartoonish Kremlinology, I do think it’s noteworthy and important that Putin is so publicly and forcefully going on the record advancing a broad program of technocratic neoliberalism: harmonizing regulations, lowering barriers to trade, reducing tariffs, eliminating unnecessary border controls, driving efficiency, and generally fostering the free movement of people and goods. Even if not fully sincere, an embrace of these policies is healthy.

…Anything that makes Russia more open to people and commerce is positive and can only serve, in the long-term, to weaken the foundations of its current hyper-centralized system.

Efforts toward Eurasian integration continued apace under the Putin presidency. According to Mikhail Gorbachev in a 2009 interview with the Moscow-backed network RT, Ukraine seemed to have expressed interest in the project as well:

We were close to creating a common economic zone, when Kuchma was still in power. These four countries – Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan had 80% of the potential of the whole Soviet Union. It was a great force. And if you look at all the natural resources… But then many things got in the way of this process – Caucasus, Ukraine.

US President George W. Bush with Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili

US President George W. Bush with Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili

The “things” to which Gorbachev referred were efforts by the United States to expand its geopolitical sphere of influence deep into post-Soviet territory, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia. The US administration of George W. Bush, with the aid of Western NGOs and both major American political parties, sought to promote pro-Western “color revolutions” in the ex-Soviet states. They aggressively focused particularly on Georgia, which was Moscow’s historic “center” in the Caucasus, and Ukraine, a country with which Russia shares deep historical, cultural, economic, and even personal ties. The spread of such revolutions also happily, and not coincidentally, intersected with American and Western energy interests in the region. American oil companies showed particular interest in resource-rich states like Azerbaijan and the “stans” of Central Asia.

George F. Kennan

George F. Kennan

The new leaderships of both Ukraine and Georgia also set an overtly pro-Western course to join both the EU and NATO, much to the Kremlin’s annoyance. In the early 1990s, the administration of US President George H. W. Bush squarely promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would “not move one inch eastward” beyond East Germany as a means to ensure Soviet support for German reunification. However in 1997, under the Clinton administration, the United States backpedaled on its promise to Moscow by inviting several former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO and also intimating the promise of EU membership. Though accepted by Yeltsin, the expansion of NATO by Washington annoyed and antagonized Moscow. In this regard, the words of the great diplomat, George F. Kennan in February 1997 were especially prophetic:

Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.

Gorbachev echoed this sentiment in his 1999 book On My Country and the World:

The danger of a new division of the continent has arisen with NATO’s expansion to the East, which will inevitably encourage military preparations in a number of countries on the continent.

Václav Havel

Václav Havel

However, neither Kennan’s nor Gorbachev’s words were ever heeded by Washington policymakers. Eventually, both NATO and the EU expanded to include virtually all of the former Warsaw Pact states in Central-Eastern Europe as well as the three former Soviet Baltic states. The late Czech President Václav Havel likewise observed that while the Kremlin was annoyed by NATO expansion in Central-Eastern Europe, the expansion into the three Baltic states caused even greater concern to them. Now NATO was on the very doorstep of St. Petersburg. Havel specifically recalled in his 2007 memoir To the Castle and Back:

It was no longer just a small compromise, but a clear indication that the spheres of interest once defined by the Iron Curtain had come to an end. Yeltsin had generously supported Czech membership in NATO, but the Baltic republics must have been very hard for Putin to swallow.

Feeling threatened by the prospect of further NATO expansion and by the provocative behavior of the new “color revolution” governments in Kiev, and especially Tbilisi (with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili being especially antagonistic), Moscow redoubled its post-Soviet integration efforts. The groundwork for the present-day Eurasian Customs Union was first laid in August 2006 at an informal EurAsEC summit meeting in Sochi between Putin, Nazarbayev, and Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Efforts toward forming the actual Customs Union intensified in 2008, the year of the NATO Bucharest Summit, the South Ossetian war, and the start of the Eurozone crisis.  They intensified even more the following year, especially after the official formation of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program to bring ex-Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia into the EU. In November 2009, the Presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia officially agreed to form the customs union in Minsk. On 1 January 2010, the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia (today the Eurasian Economic Community Customs Union) was officially launched. In November 2011, the leaders of the three countries met and set 2015 as the target date for establishing the new supranational union. It also recognized the Eurasian Economic Commission, paving the way for the Eurasian economic space in 2012.

Mikhail Gorbachev (NBC)

Mikhail Gorbachev (NBC)

The primary Russian motive behind the establishment of the Eurasian Union is not historic imperial ambition. In fact, from a Russian perspective, some of the ex-Soviet countries can be viewed as a liability. However, for economic, historic, geopolitical, and security reasons, they are viewed as essential. For Moscow, their necessity has been even more pronounced in light of recent American and Western efforts to aggressively expand NATO into the post-Soviet space, despite earlier promises to the contrary. Yet none of this changes the fact that the prevailing popular perception of the Eurasian Union in the West and among some in the former Soviet countries is that it is a “new Russian empire,” a sad commentary on that which is a falsely propagated historical perspective. In his 2009 interview with RT, Gorbachev, referring to the US-backed “color revolution” governments, stated that “they keep thinking that Russia wants to create a new empire.” When asked whether or not this was the case, he immediately responded:

Not at all. Putin was giving an interview to Le Figaro. He got the same question about imperial ambitions. His answer was a definite no. Russia’s position [by Yeltsin] defined the fall of the Soviet Union. If it were not for Russia, the Soviet Union would still exist. This was the first time I heard this revelation from Putin. I think we need economic co-operation [in the former USSR].

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev expressed the same opinion in an interview with Georgian television in August 2013 where he stated that the CU “is not about restoring the Soviet Union. Who needs the restoration of the Soviet Union? We live in the 21st century.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The perception of the CU as a “new Russian empire” happily coincides with Western geopolitical distrust of Russia and with prevailing narratives in the Western media that Russia is engaging in “19th century diplomacy” and that Putin has “neo-Soviet” ambitions (which is a misnomer because Putin is a moderate nationalist, not a communist). Further, in April 2005, Putin himself publicly lamented the breakup of the USSR as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. In that quote, Putin was referring to the conglomerate of republics (USSR), not communism. Though this sentiment is widespread in the former USSR and has been even endorsed by Mikhail Gorbachev, many in the West have taken this quote as evidence of Putin’s clandestine neo-imperial agenda. The same quote has only heightened suspicions toward the CU among many in the former Soviet republics as to the real intentions of the Kremlin-backed geopolitical project. Also, a month later, Putin even clarified his remarks in an interview with German television by stating:

Germany reunites, and the Soviet Union breaks up, and this surprises you. That’s strange.

I think you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater – that’s the problem. Liberation from dictatorship should not necessarily be accompanied by the collapse of the state.

As for the tragedy that I talked about, it is obvious. Imagine that one morning people woke up and discovered that from now on they did not live in a common nation, but outside the borders of the Russian Federation, although they always identified themselves as a part of the Russian people. And there are not five, ten or even a thousand of these people, and not just a million. There are 25 million of them. Just think about this figure! This is the obvious tragedy, which was accompanied with the severance of family and economic ties, with the loss of all the money people had saved in the bank accounts their entire lives, along with other difficult consequences. Is this not a tragedy for individual people? Of course it’s a tragedy!

People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain. We do not regret this, we simply state the fact and know that we need to look ahead, not backwards. We will not allow the past to drag us down and stop us from moving ahead. We understand where we should move. But we must act based on a clear understanding of what happened.

Overall, the Eurasian Union concept is not new.  It is not a Russian imperial conspiracy rooted in Duginist neo-fascist tracts, but rather a liberal pro-market project aimed at opening borders and encouraging economic development among the former Soviet states.  It is this reality that the West should fundamentally understand when analyzing Russia’s Eurasian Union initiative.

Georgia Revisited

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

This past week, photographs of the late Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s body emerged in the press. According to the official investigation by the previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili, Zhvania died from a gas leak in his apartment. However, much of the Georgian public did not accept this finding. Suspicions arose when some former officials in the Saakashvili government questioned the formal explanation. The new photographs, disclosed this week on YouTube, show injuries on the former Prime Minister’s body, clear evidence of foul play. Lawmakers in Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), now in the opposition, immediately condemned the discovery as a “political act” by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

This weekend, the Georgian government ordered former President Saakashvili in for questioning. Saakashvili has refused to go, referring to the summons as an “Ivanishvili-Putin game.” He also stated the following:

As for your question, whether I will arrive in Georgia or not, I can tell you that I will arrive in Georgia not to fulfill Putin’s dream but to free my country of those who fulfill Putin’s orders. This will happen much sooner than Ivanishvili can imagine.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has stated that if Saakashvili does not arrive, that the prosecutor’s office will act in accordance with the law and declare the former President wanted. “Whether he will arrive or not is a different matter but, in my mind, he must arrive if he has any common sense left,” said Garibashvili.

Official Tbilisi has been condemned by the West for its summoning of Saakashvili. The British ambassador to Georgia, Alexandra Hall Hall, and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt both roundly criticized the move. More harsh were the words of former US Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, stating that Georgia does not deserve a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in light of the “politically motivated summoning” of Saakashvili. Estonian President Hendrik Ilves said that it would threaten Georgia’s chances of signing the EU-Georgia Association Agreement. In an inexplicable move, the summoning was also criticized by the US State Department late on Sunday, 23 March.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Regardless of what one thinks about Saakashvili’s summoning, it is extraordinary that the West is taking such a profound interest in the legal proceedings of a sovereign, independent country. This fact was underscored in Garibashvili’s response, in which he indicated that Georgia would stand firm on the issue:

I cannot understand where this hysteria is coming from. This is absolutely usual, democratic process. Similar thing is happening in the middle of Europe, as you probably know that there were questions towards former French president, I mean Chirac, Sarkozy, and also towards Berlusconi.

So it’s absolutely a normal process. Moreover, the prosecutor’s office is talking about very grave crimes. I think that we have not given any reason for suspicion, on the contrary, we reaffirm that we are guided by [the principle] of transparency and the rule of law is the most important for us. If someone tries to [demand from] Georgia to be more democratic country than France or Italy, I think this is a wrong assessment. No one should demand from us to be more Catholic than the Pope.

As for Saakhasvili, he is presently serving as an advisor to the Yatsenyuk government in Ukraine. His advisor status has been criticized by the government of Georgia and the government of Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. In Armenia, it has been lampooned on the popular satirical Armenian news program, ArmComedy (an Armenian version of The Daily Show).

Whatever the criticism from his home region, Saakashvili has certainly been relishing the role as a “seasoned advisor” in Ukraine. As one TIME reporter wrote, “the former Georgian leader is at home in Kiev, where he attended law school, served in the Soviet military and has countless political and social ties.” Indeed, Saakashvili has positioned himself as the man who “knows a thing or two about Russian invasions.” After the disastrous war in 2008, Saakashvili feels vindicated amid rising Western animosity against Russia and hysteria in the Western media over a “Russian invasion of Crimea.”

All of this is occurring as the West and Russia expand the frontlines of their geopolitical competition in the post-Soviet space to include Georgia. Most recently, there have been calls in the West for Georgia to receive an MAP at the next NATO summit at Newport, Wales in September. For its part, the EU has moved up the signing of Georgia’s Association Agreement from August to June. Meanwhile, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and his Georgian counterpart Zurab Abashidze are set to convene a meeting soon that will pave the way for a high-level diplomatic meeting between President Putin and the Georgian political leadership, the first such meeting since the 2008 war.

The stakes in this new front of the Russia-West geopolitical contest over the former Soviet space are considerably high. If the West succeeds, it will effectively drive a wedge between Russia and prospective Customs Union member Armenia. It would also give the West a continued open corridor to the vast energy reserves of post-Soviet Central Asia, posing a major threat to Russia as a European energy provider. Most significantly, it would permit the expansion of NATO squarely on Russia’s southern flank, paving the way for military bases within close range of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. Russia will never let this happen. Suddenly, there would be a new Cold War dividing line running directly through the Caucasus, one of the most volatile regions of the world.

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Such a scenario would be a nightmare for Russia. Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko has indicated as much, stating that “I was absolutely very clear; we are against [NATO membership for Georgia]. We believe that this is a huge mistake to do it. This is the position of my country.” He has likewise stated:

NATO is free to take any decision and Russia is free to take any decision to protect its legitimate security interest and from the beginning we were telling to all our colleagues and we were very outspoken in all our discussions that we do believe that if NATO goes with enlargement it will continue produce new dividing lines, moving dividing lines towards the Russian borders and we said very clearly also that in some cases these dividing lines will cross the countries, inside the countries and this was a very important signal.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Yet, regardless of the West and Russia’s competition over Georgia, the real power broker behind the future geopolitical direction of Georgia rests in the hands of Bidzina Ivanishvili. A Georgian patriot and a pragmatist, Ivanishvili is the bona fide force behind the present Georgian government, and he appears to be playing both great powers off one another in order to secure the best possible deal for Georgia. The Georgian billionaire, the son of poor Imertian peasants who made it big in Moscow by selling computers and push-button telephones, is likely well-aware of Russia’s strong disapproval of NATO expansion. As a businessman, he also knows that for Georgia to join the EU would be to join an economically sinking ship. However, as I have argued previously, he is keeping both the EU and NATO on the table as leverage in his relations with Russia.

Specifically Ivanishvili wants Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is something that only Russia, not the West, has the ability and mechanisms to resolve. Such a concession by Moscow would appeal to Georgian nationalism and would significantly diminish the perception in Georgian society of Russia as a “threat,” thus rendering any reason for future NATO membership completely moot.

Of course, Moscow would not just return these breakaway regions to Tbilisi nor would the populations of these regions simply assent to this. Rather, Moscow would need to work and promote the “reunification” of these “independent republics” to Georgia in a co-equal federal structure that would then accede to the Eurasian Customs Union. A resolution like this would ensure protection of Abkhaz and Ossetian ethnic rights by Moscow and freedom of movement between these peoples and those of the Russian North Caucasus.

Only time will tell what will happen next during this incredible roller coaster ride of the last several weeks. However, the summoning of Saakashvili by Tbilisi this weekend, and the strong Western reaction will undoubtedly affect future developments in the Caucasus. Through all of this, one thing is clear: Ivanishvili is the man who will make or break any future deal regarding Georgia’s geopolitical future. One can only hope that such a decision will be beneficial for the unity, stability, and security of the Caucasus as an entire region.

Addendum (26 March 2014): As it turns out, the Karasin-Abashidze meeting has not yet been rescheduled. I read earlier that it may have been rescheduled for this week, but this has not happened. There will be likely an official announcement on this soon. I have corrected my piece accordingly.

Further, my friend Benjamin Sweeney has informed me that Georgia has not been officially offered a NATO MAP by the US. Instead, it seems as though there has been a push by some in Washington and in Brussels to give Georgia an MAP at the upcoming NATO summit, though, this is not an official policy of the US (at least not yet). This has also been amended. Ben is a fellow-traveler in Russian and post-Soviet studies and has extensive experience with Georgia. He is an MPP student at the Ford School of Public Policy and an MA student at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREES) here at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.