Mikheil Saakashvili, former president of Georgia, joined Antonio Mora on the March 3, 2014 edition of Consider This.
Antonio Mora: I’m joined from Kiev via Skype by Mikheil Saakashvili, who served two terms as President of Georgia between 2004 and 2013.
I want to start with asking you: Russia went to war with your country when you were President in 2008 over two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Do you think that pattern is repeating itself again, that this time it’s over Crimea, possibly East Ukraine? And do you think Putin was in some way emboldened by what happened in Georgia six years ago?
Mikheil Saakashvili: Well, first of all, for me it’s a totally feeling of déjà vu because exactly this same thing happened eight years ago — sorry, [in] 2008 — when what happened really was that there was preparation for this whole thing. [At that time], Russia was acting through, first with proxies — there were arming them, they were doing our provocations. Then, later, they came in with the pretext of safeguarding their minorities, which is to say, both in Russia and Ukraine — in Georgia and Ukraine — they are distributing Russian passports to these people so that they could claim that they have title to Russian citizens that were under threat there. In both cases, they had mass-scale military trainings and in both cases they conducted war propaganda.
Although, I have to mention that in both cases they didn’t go only after regions, I think the goal in Georgia was to depose my government, [cause instability, for their position in the region] and I think it’s exactly the same goal in Ukraine. Putin doesn’t really want Crimea or the Eastern regions. He wants to take over or at least generate permanent chaos in Ukraine under the government in Kiev and these are openly proclaimed goals. It’s not just my guess, the Russian government is openly saying that they are there to restore the Yanukovich government to power, which is not a realistic goal, [Skype feed becomes garbled] but in [?] and in [?], deposing existing Ukrainian government in Kiev.
Mora: You’ve said that, that you think that what he wants is chaos, that he wants to balkanize Ukraine, that he wants to separate it all and the chaos will serve his goals.
Saakashvili: Yeah, absolutely, except that I think this time he totally overplayed his hand because [Ukraine is] a much bigger country, 10 times bigger entire population-wise than Georgia, and he, I think that he’s emboldened by the fact that there was not much of a punishment that followed his invasion of Georgia or, even more, I mean, there was some Western interests and some Western experts — some, I would say, “useful idiots” to use Lenin’s words, when he called people who they could use inadvertently to their own goals to Communists — but it’s the same concept for Putin’s Russia. That would say, well, ok, Russia was not clean in that, Russia really acted badly, but Georgia was also to be blamed. ... Nobody can whitewash Russia, what Russia wants [is that the victim] also shares the blame.
So, actually, they are trying the same in Ukraine, there are all the people saying, well, maybe they have valid concerns, they’re quoting all kinds of different examples why they should be concerned, the Russians. Some people are starting to say, well, let’s de-escalate the conflict.
Well, it’s not about the escalation now. They occupy big chunk of a sovereign territory of an independent European country. They have it. They occupy it. It’s not about the escalation, escalation’s already there. What they need to do is de-occupy. This is a very important crisis, the gravest crisis in European history, maybe, after Second World War, and actually the further it gets, the longer it lasts, the bigger it will get. And this time, the Western powers will not be able — or some Western politicians will not be able, even if some of them would attempt so — to strike it away. It’s going. It’s right there at their doorsteps. It’s banging loud at their doors and even if they make music louder at home, they still cannot ignore it. It’s going to get into their existence. They have to deal with it, tackle it.
Mora: Well, and what happened in Georgia, there were very little consequences for Russia for what it did then and, in fact, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are still under Russian influence and really not a part of Georgia anymore. So, when we listen to President Obama warning Russia on Monday that the US is examining a series of economic and diplomatic steps that could isolate Russia and damage Russia’s economy if it fails to withdraw from Crimea, you have met with Putin many times, what effect do you think that will have on his thinking? Or, do you think it won’t have any effect, that he really doesn’t fear what the West will do?
Saakashvili: I met Vladimir Putin dozens of times and I remember at one of our last meetings he told me, “Your friends in the West promised you lots of nice things, but they never deliver. Well, I don’t. I don’t promise you nice things at all, but I always deliver.” And that’s his thinking that, you know, West is about talking and small talk and actually we are all about, he’s all about being strong. Though, having said that, I think that, you know, this, I have déjà vu because Western powers were also talking about sanctions in our case, but then after a while it was business as usual. But this time, this crisis is not going away. I think Putin did it because he’s desperate for some of the paranoid risks he sees inside his country, menacing his power. That, in general, I think would be troubling in Russia, despite that there is no obvious opposition, obviously from all the crackdown he did. So he really had to do something very dramatic. But I think, it’s not my wishful thinking, but I still think that this time he will not be able to, you know, overcome this kind of crisis which he himself generated with his own hand and he, basically, he was, it was [his own] conflict. There is no way he can carry through. Ukraine is too big, Europe and the Americans, all of these experiences, the world, in general, not only the Western powers, are not really going to tolerate this kind of behavior from the country which doesn’t have adequate resources to do this and similar things. So I think this time it will just signify the end of Putin. But it will be messy, it will be very — it will take lots of, it will take big toll — and I’m afraid it’s not going to be nice in there before [ending].
Mora: But Crimea itself is not that big and you have said that Western governments have much more leverage than they realize to move Russia. You said that they just need to apply it — what is the leverage and do you think they will apply it?
Saakashvili: Oh, yes, there are very simple things. You know, last time I was in Florida, it’s full of, you know, hints of Russian government officials, oligarchs. They have houses there, they enjoy a nice lifestyle there, they buy houses in Europe. Basically, most of them almost never go to Russia. But they are there on Putin’s money. I’m sure Putin has the biggest amount of cash that anybody has every controlled in world history. This is all black cash, but it is in Western banks. ... The West doesn’t have to send tanks to Russia, basically they can send fiscal agents to their own banks. They can shut off this hints of oligarchs and their family members, or just the oligarchs themselves from their Florida houses. ... I don’t think the West will go to war and hopefully, an even larger war can be avoided, but we are facing here protracted crisis, so you know, there are lots of leverages that West can use and once they use it, I’m sure at least [those] closest around Putin will start to defect from him. And he’s really standing on house of cards there. I mean, it’s not as stable as people think. One-man power in 21st century can never be stable, especially in a country where people are well-educated, well-traveled, and quite wealthy and there is a big middle class. So, his house of cards will start falling apart once West doesn’t underestimate its own power and I think West usually underestimates its power and Putin usually overestimates his power. So far he has been lucky, but in the end, I think common sense among the Western powers will prevail and they will have to do something. Even if they’re reluctant to do it for all their own, you know, local, small political interests. Connections with business lobby, connections with, all kinds of connections, but I think it’s not going to last.
This interview has been condensed and edited.