Ukraine 2022 and Georgia 2008, similarities and differences
(Update: I made a quick site to post clippings from the media on the war here)
What the fuck’s he thinking?? So asked a notoriously combative Russian politician after one of seemingly many recent unforced errors on Putin’s part (I’ve added profanity).
It’s a good question. Many commentators put it in terms of rationality (e.g. here): Putin’s previous actions, from the poisoning of Navalny to recent ramping up of branding any dissenting media ‘foreign agents’ were, while bad, understandable. It was because he had a basically totalitarian grip on the country — on its government, courts, media, army, even infrastructure and medicine — that Putin has been able for so long to repress his citizens who dare get out of line. The recent invasion of Ukraine isn’t understandable in this way. Writing on Saturday night, as the stragglers seem to have come to agreement on cutting Russia out of SWIFT, after its stock market was down at one point 50%, after its attempted coup de main on Kiev seems to have failed, after Nord Stream 2 (and its underlying axiom that Russian-European relations are tied together inseparately by fuel) has been (it seems) kiboshed, it seems Putin has made a serious of gigantic unforced errors, that he’s no longer the cold and calculating strong man he has so often seemed to be. He should have foreseen these responses; it’s hard to see any end to the war in which Russia furthers its aims.
Is this right? Has Russia blundered? Well, I don’t know. Below I present some material that I think helps frame what’s going on. I speak as an amateur just trying to make sense of a hard to fathom thing myself by seeing what Russia watchers say about historical reference points. A richer context would need to talk about the past 7–8 years in Ukraine and perhaps (as a domestic politics-motivating factor), the Chechen conflict, to name but a few things.
On the last days of the Bucharest summit in 2008, Putin, in a closed-doors session, said to George Bush “Ukraine just isn’t a state! Part of its territory is eastern Europe, and part — and a significant one — was a gift from us” (my italics, quoted in Zigar, Vsya Kremlevskaya Rat, chapter 9, I’m using a e-version so don’t have page numbers, sorry, but here’s the google books)
I think unpacking the italicised bits — Bucharest summit and the idea of Ukraine as a gift — provides a helpful way of understanding, partially, recent events in Ukraine and Russia.
The Bucharest summit was a NATO summit the agenda of which, inter alia, was the potential for accession to NATO of Ukraine and Georgia. Of the former, more later, but of the latter: the ‘historically coveted’ (Andrews The World In Conflict, 152) country on the coast on the eastern side of the Black Sea and birthplace of both Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria, was, in 2008, headed by its charismatic and a bit annoying (I’m editorializing based on the presentations of the books cited above and below) president Mikheil Saakashvili, and looking to join NATO.
Saakashvili was a committed Europhile who had the EU anthem “Ode to Joy” played at his inauguration (Conradi, Who Lost Russia?, 187); had overseen a rapid economic development of the country (Lucas, The New Cold War, updated pagination, 183–4); and Bush was steadfastly for its accession (WLR 192), in part because the small nation had sent an oversized amount of troops to Iraq.
Despite what it had going for it, admitting Georgia would have been, well, poking the bear — and both German and French leaders were reluctant to take that step, as well as partly for fear that the countries didn’t meet the adequate standards of rule of law and free elections, and partly because of two ongoing conflicts in its territory, in South Ossetia and Abkhazia (VKR, chapter 7).
South Ossetia and Abkhazia were two territories who had announced themselves separatists as the Soviet Union was dying and had, in the intervening two decades, retained that status without any bloodshed in a ‘frozen’ conflict (that Sarkozy and Merkel didn’t want to warm up).
Given this delicate balance — a country on the verge of NATO’s boundaries, on the verge of being the right sort of state for accession, with pros and cons — something weird happened at Bucharest. The hope and aim of the Ukrainians, Georgians, and some onlookers, notably the US, was that at the summit Ukraine and Georgia would be granted MAP status, which is sort of a preliminary, non-binding, indication that a country will eventually become part of NATO. For the reasons above, that wasn’t granted — remember, it’s non-binding — and instead it was simply stipulated that the countries will become part of NATO (with not so many details about the when) while not granting them the MAP status.
This set things off. Even as the hoteliers were fixing the furniture that Saakashvili smashed in anger (a detail found in Lucas 190), Russia issued a decree to formally recognize the independent statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
And then things unfolded in a way that has become familiar. Russian media began saying the Georgians were preparing for war against the statelets; they claimed a city in South Ossetia had come under attack resulting in many deaths; they called the actions of the Georgians genocide, saying that thousands or tens of thousands had died. It turned out in the end that 162 did (VKR).
Russia overpowered Georgia, where Martial law was imposed. The Georgians offered a unilateral ceasefire, and the Russians refused, and eventually Sarkozy concocted a ‘loosely worded ceasefire agreement’ (Lucas 193). The result, concludes Lucas, has been a ‘catastrophe’ for Georgia; Marshall (Prisoners of Geography), taking up the story, points out that in 2013 Georgians appointed a considerably more pro-Kremlin leader (27); Andrews tells us that ‘one significant outcome’ of the war is that it has ‘very much dampened’ the enthusiasm of NATO to offer membership to countries when such an offer might annoy Russia, although it seems as if it’s still on the table, and the current president is more pro-Europe (though I definitely don’t know what I’m talking about here). And that brings us to Ukraine.
The Georgian story has a lot of noteworthy parallels to the times we’re living through. Separatist regions of countries seeking NATO access; those same separatists, predominantly ethnically Russian (at least in South Ossetia, at least if having a passport suffices), being supported by Russia who claim ‘genocide’ perpetrated against them.
But then what are the differences? Why does it seem that the 2022 war in Ukraine is going very differently, and can we explain the question with which we began, namely what is Russia thinking?
Let me just be clear: I don’t have any answers to any of these questions.
Before not answering them, though, let’s note the similarities between Georgia 2008 and Ukraine 2022. The most noteworthy one is NATO. We can see this simply by reading Putin’s speeches of February 24th and February 21st (at the time of writing the Kremlin website is down so I can’t link to them; I will add links when it comes back up). It is especially clear in the 24th speech, which, though ostensibly about Ukraine, shows from the get go its focus on NATO. He has in mind the threat
unceremoniously created by irresponsible politicians in the West in relation to our country. I mean the expansion of the NATO bloc to the east, bringing its military infrastructure closer to Russian borders….The war machine of NATO is moving and, I repeat approaching our borders closely.
He goes on to castigate the UN security council for Iraq and other mistakes, before returning to his theme:
in recent days, the leadership of NATO has been openly talking about the need to accelerate, speed up the advancement of the Alliance’s infrastructure to the borders of Russia. In other words, they are hardening their position. We can no longer just continue to observe what is happening. It would be absolutely irresponsible on our part.
And again, having noted that NATO, “of course”, is just an instrument of US foreign policy:
The problem is that in the territories adjacent to us, I will note, in our own historical territories, an “anti-Russia” hostile to us is being created, which has been placed under full external control, is intensively settled by the armed forces of NATO countries and is pumped up with the most modern weapons.
We then turn to Donbas. A few days before he had recognized as independent the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics because:
It was necessary to immediately stop this nightmare — the genocide against the millions of people living there, who rely only on Russia, hope only on us.
But he needed to go further, and on the 24th he ordered the military action.
In a sense, it can seem as if this is simply Georgia redux. We have a (supposed) threat of ascendance to NATO, clear in 2008, less clear here (here is a recap of recent Ukraine-NATO stuff; this commentator points to among other things a 2010 agreement that annoyed Russia) we have independent Russia-supported enclaves, we have ‘genocide’, we have war. But to say this, to focus on the similarities, is arguably to miss out some important things: the different reaction from the West, but also the different relations between Russia and Georgia and Russia and Ukraine.
For that, we need to turn to the shocking 21st February speech. Maybe it was just that I happened to be awake for it, but its moments seem more cemented in memory. As commentators have pointed out, in that earlier speech Putin was re-presenting ideas that go back at least to the quotation from 2008 we began with, and certainly earlier. Perhaps he just made them more explicit; or more people were watching. Could that difference of expression or attention made the difference?
In the more recent (21st) speech, he famously said
So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia — by separating, severing what is historically Russian land.
Continuing, with classic Putin machismo:
Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.” He was its creator and architect. This is fully and comprehensively corroborated by archival documents, including Lenin’s harsh instructions regarding Donbass, which was actually shoved into Ukraine. And today the “grateful progeny” has overturned monuments to Lenin in Ukraine. They call it decommunization. You want decommunization? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunizations would mean for Ukraine.
This sounds and indeed is scary. After all, if Ukraine is Lenin’s Ukraine, and Lenin is a communist, then a decommunised Ukraine would be a deLeninised Ukraine, but that’s no Ukraine at all. It really can sound as if he’s calling for the annihilation of the country here.
If one looks at a slightly earlier article, however, this is called into question. Last summer, he published a 5,000 word article on the historical unity of Russian and Ukrainians. That speech goes deep into the weeds of Russian and Ukrainian history, and is much more conciliatory, suggesting that, as its title suggests, there is unity between Russia and Ukraine. He says
Russians and Ukrainians [are] one people — a single whole
And talking of the ‘wall’ that has emerged between the two countries, “parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space”, ending as so:
I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.
One thing, then, is clear: the 2021 article at least sounds considerably more tolerant of Ukraine’s existence. This is interesting in itself considering the 21st speech, but another benefit of attending to the earlier paper is that it makes clear — more clear, I think, than the 21st speech — is the underlying theory of state identity Putin assumes. He tells us that Ukraine gradually had accreted to it various terrorities during its time as a USSR republic, most notably the now annexed Crimea but also some places bordering Romania, as well as the ‘shoved in’ Donbas.
He thinks it’s “crystal clear” that Russia was “robbed”, or again that it overly generously bestowed “territorial gifts”. This makes salient a question, he thinks. Assume that a state exists; then it undergoes changes, let’s say expansion, under some now deemed illegitimate rule. What should we say about its borders now? And Putin has an answer, coming from his former boss Anatoly Sobchak. The latter suggested a “logic that is hard to refute” according to which
You want to establish a state of your own: you are welcome! … the republics that were founders of the Union, having denounced the 1922 Union Treaty, must return to the boundaries they had had before joining the Soviet Union. All other territorial acquisitions are subject to discussion, negotiations, given that the ground has been revoked.
In other words, when you leave, take what you brought with you.
If this were the case, then Putin might suggest that lands that came into Ukraine’s hands between 1917–91, such as the Crimea (a — to use his words here “gift” from Krushchev to Ukrainians in 1954) were up for negotiation, and that decommunisation didn’t mean annihilation, but border-negotiation.
So then, similarities, differences? Can we learn anything from this? Well, I don’t know. One could argue that the crucial differentia between the two cases is that today the theory of statehood Putin espouses has been made clear for all the world to see and also, in the absence of a Bucharest-esque motivating moment, it seems that the NATO motive is less salient. And so maybe one could conclude that it’s indeed that theory of statehood now made public and attached to war that has provoked such a differing reaction. But probably not. These things are too complicated to give neat monocausal explanations, and we should perhaps just get comfortable with uncertainty, and hopefully the above helps foster uncertainty in some by presenting some of the details that are easy to overlook.