„Putinism as a system is already dying“ | Interview with Stephen Jones
What is happening today is so significant that any country has to be willing to sacrifice something in order to stop Russia’s murderous war. It's a political decision, not an economic one or a pragmatic one. I was very disappointed to see Gharibashvili react the way he did. He does not have any emotional or political sense about the war’s significance, and he does not respond to ordinary Georgian sentiments on this issue either.
This is not just a question of geopolitics. It's a deeply moral question, as Zelensky persistently reminds us. There will be unpredictable geopolitical consequences, which make it even riskier than the Cold War. It is a “hot war” after all, and in the middle of Europe. There were rules during the Cold War, there were institutional contacts which regulated the rivalry between the Western states and the Soviet Union. Now the rules have been suspended. This is a cataclysmic event, after which Russia and the Eurasian region will never be the same again. It is going to affect China's relations with the West, transform European security, upend trade relationships and the energy markets, all of which will have a direct impact on the lives and security of ordinary people everywhere in the world.
We don't know how the conflict will finish, but if it ends in a dirty compromise like neutrality for Ukraine – which I don’t see as practicable in any case - I can see Georgia getting lost behind the wall Russia wants to set up, which will separate Russia from the rest of Europe.
What did the war in Ukraine reveal, what did we discover?
We can see two things right now. First, Minister of Defense Shoigu tried to convince us that the Russian army was modern and invincible. Well, that Potemkin myth has gone. And that will have consequences when Russia tries to bluff again, not just militarily but in all political and economic fields. Russia has lost credibility as a strong and powerful ally, and as a “normal” country. The scales have finally fallen from the eyes of the EU’s technocrats and politicians.
Second we can see for the first time that sanctions can work. Sanctions never had much effect before – they were weak and there were too many loopholes. Now there's a real threat to the Russian economy from unprecedented sanctions (though they have not gone far enough, in my view). Russia will default on its foreign debts. Sanctions are beginning to affect ordinary Russians too, as well as the best educated who are fleeing to Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. This, along with thousands of Russian soldiers returning home in zinc coffins, will lead to doubt and political instability in Russia. I don’t know when, but it will come. There are some very brave Russians who have partially salvaged Russia's credibility. But the vast majority of Russians are subject to the state’s massive propaganda machine. Over 60 % of Russians support Putin and his war, if you believe the polls.
Putin will tighten up the screws and increase repression as things get worse. The country will descend into an impoverished totalitarian dictatorship (which makes it potentially even more dangerous). But you cannot run a system simply on bayonets. Even if Putin himself survives, Putinism as a system is already dying.
What exactly did change in the West, among the politicians, societies?
There's has always been a very strong tendency in the United States toward isolationism. We've just come out of Afghanistan. The longest war that America ever conducted – and a defeat for the United States. Americans are not in the mood to commit to some sort of US costly military resurgence in Europe right now. Biden has made that clear. On the other hand, through TV and social media, Americans are now much more aware of Russia as a dangerous pariah state. The Cold War institutionalized conflict, but that’s not the case now. This war is so unexpected and so visible that it has shown Americans the danger Russia represents. The images of razed cities can only remind us of the devastation wreaked by the Nazis during WW2. Russia's past actions starting with Transnistria, Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea, have reached Europe’s borders, and Europe’s borders are borders for the US and its national security too. What Russia is doing in Ukraine now is part of a pattern. It is no accident that they bomb civilians and infrastructure, this is the Russian military strategy. We have seen it everywhere from Syria to Chechnya.
You mentioned Transnistria, Chechnya, Georgia, why is it different now?
Today, things are much more visible. Ukraine is in the heart of Europe. Its 44 million people, 10 millions of whom have already been displaced. It's different from Syria and Chechnya too because Ukrainians are considered Europeans, ”just like us.” Chechens were not, they were Muslim. Chechnya was also part of the Russian Federation, not a sovereign power like Ukraine. I can remember the devastating bombing of Grozny in the 1990s, first under Yeltsin, and then Putin (this is significant, by the way, because this is not just about Putin, these wars are the result of a degraded imperial system as well as Putin’s paranoid mind). The Chechens at that time were described broadly as “terrorists,” and the US under Presidents Clinton and then George W. Bush, gave Russia a pass to murder its own citizens, including civilians and ethnic Russian residents in Chechnya’s cities. And this began with the “liberal” Yeltsin, supported by John Major, Tony Blair, Francois Mitterand, Jacques Chirac and others. People are beginning to realize that there is something fundamentally different about Russian politics, it's not just a benign empire, it’s an active one.
The imperial mentality is deep in the Russian psyche, at all levels. It will take decades for Russia to become a friendly power with its neighbors.
How did the west react to the war in Georgia in 2008?
Chechnya was ignored by the West. President Clinton met with Yeltsin during the First Chechen War, and he told Yeltsin that the US had no intention of interfering in any way. Clinton condoned the idea of spheres of influence and accepted Russia’s hegemonic role in its backyard in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. President Obama adopted the same policy. After the 2008 war, Obama came back to Moscow in 2009 and asked for a reset of relations with Russia. The US wanted to get over 2008 and to reestablish a stable relationship with the other major nuclear power. The 2008 war was a warning, but it was ignored. Georgia was considered a small country, far away, too risky, led by a hotheaded president, beyond the European Union… None of this was relevant, but the West’s reaction in 2008 laid the foundations for Ukraine in 2021.
What about THE choice Georgia has to make?
Georgia has a choice. It's a small country and has limited power, but it should not be characterized as powerless. Georgia does have choices. It doesn't mean Georgia will have any great impact. But it can create a better society or better security for its citizens through an active foreign policy. Right now, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili believes the best way to ensure security for Georgia is to keep quiet, although Georgia took a stand at the UN General Assembly and voted for the resolution condemning Russia’s action in Ukraine. But in 2008, Georgia cultivated its alliances – they included strong partnerships with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the presidents of which came to Georgia in 2008 to express their solidarity. I would have expected that in 2022, Georgia should have shown the same sort of solidarity toward Ukraine. Georgia always has to preserve its security through alliances with other states and coalitions. But it has choices about these alliances. I would like to see, for example, more Georgian security collaboration with Moldova, Ukraine and Poland. There are major opportunities here to strengthen its trade alliances, as well as political and security partnerships. Georgia does not have to focus on the great powers like Russia or the United States, It has other options. Central Asia is becoming increasingly important to Georgia and the South Caucasus. At the same time, Europe is where Georgia’s future lies. But the most important thing for Georgian security is a legitimate government connected and accountable to its population. You can defeat a state that is internally divided and distrusted by its citizens far more easily than one considered a legitimate representative of its people and the nation’s interests. Georgia's future is with the European Union, economically and politically. But every country has multiple interests and alliances. Georgia has a free trade agreement with China, for example. That’s good too.
Can Georgia stay isolated in the 21st century? How to gain some power in Region?
One problem for Georgia has been its difficult relationship with its own neighbors. I have studied the period of the first republic, and it was clear then, as now, that regional cooperation is a very hard goal to attain. There are common interests in the South Caucasus, but when it comes to the region’s role in international politics, there seem to be no common interests. Georgia looks to Europe, Armenia to Russia, and Azerbaijan to Turkey. Between 1918 to 1921, when unity between the three South Caucasian states was essential to their mutual security, Armenia was constantly looking for salvation from the United States. Azerbaijan was looking to the Ottomans. Georgia was looking to Britain and Europe. This led to the collapse of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic almost as soon as it began its existence. We see the same patterns today.
Georgia has other advantages though. Soft power (a concept invented by Joseph Nye) is one of them. Georgia has already achieved recognition of its cultural contributions. It's obviously not something that will prevent Russia from invading, but it alerts Western powers to the importance of Georgia as a member of the global community. Another advantage is Georgia’s geography. Georgia is adjacent to the European Union, which is just on the other side of the Black Sea. Turkey is there too, an important Black Sea ally. Georgians historically have always been anxious about Turkish power, but this is a vital relationship for Georgia.
President Biden's been in power for a year now. He is trying to strengthen the security relationship between the United States and Europe, which Trump had so weakened. Biden is a pragmatist but he also has a strong moral sense. Realists argue international relations are all about power, not morality or normative values. But Russia has changed that. It’s time to take sides.