President Mikheil Saakashvili sees many parallels between the current situation in Crimea and his own war with Vladimir Putin in 2008, when the Russian premier whittled away at Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In a column for The Guardian, Saakashvili warns the West that Putin will not stop in Ukraine.
“I have no doubt that in Ukraine Russia’s goal is the same as in Georgia,” Saakashvili writes, warning that no referendum in Crimea to join the Russian Federation could be legitimate after decades of ethnic engineering that created a Russian ethnic majority in a territory formerly occupied by Tatars. Saakashvili’s column ran before the results of the Crimean referendum Sunday, in which the southern Ukrainian state voted overwhelmingly to join the Russian Federation. The vote followed a full-scale invasion by Russian forces that resulted in a completely new, Russian-controlled legislature. The President of Ukraine has already called the vote a “great farce” and refuses to move soldiers out of the state.
Saakashvili agrees with this mode of conduct, even encouraging stronger military action on the part of Ukraine. He predicts that “Vladimir Putin will claim he has legal justification for further military build-up and direct armed attack,” and eventually move into Kiev. Saakashvili would know; he faced the same problem in 2008 when Putin occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions also artificially deprived of their native Georgian population. Saakashvili writes that Putin moves in such a way because both Ukraine and Georgia have actively fought to remove the yoke of Russian rule, and “he regards successful reforms in Georgia, and Ukraine’s aspirations to achieve the same, as a direct threat to his own iron grip in Russia.”
He also notes that Putin’s confidence is a direct reaction to the lack of action from the West when he invaded Georgia. Had the West reacted more forcefully to his attempts to reclaim Tbilisi, “Ukraine would never have happened,” Saakashvili writes. The comments echo his sentiments earlier this month, when he told the Daily Beast, “I don’t think Vladimir Putin is going to stop where he is. He is not going to stop anywhere until he gets rid of the leadership in Kiev.”
Unlike Georgia, however, Ukraine has significant geographical advantages. Saakashvili was much quicker to use the military to directly attack Russian forces than the new Ukrainian government has been. “In Georgia’s case, if we had not responded then troops, which every impartial expert clearly identified as Russian special forces, could have easily reached our capital, Tbilisi, within 24 hours,” he writes. “We couldn’t afford to wait.” Kiev is at a much bigger advantage than Tbilisi in this war, one Saakashvili sees as very worth fighting, because if history repeats itself, any post-Soviet state might be next.
Saakashvili left office late last year in an unprecedented move: losing an election and leaving power peacefully, without contesting the results. He is currently working out of Massachusetts as a Senior Statesman at Tufts University and a columnist newly in demand thanks to the current Ukrainian crisis. That has not stopped him from making statements in support of Ukrainian protesters, even arriving in Kiev last December and shaking hands with protesters for whom his stand against Putin makes him a hero.