The war in Europe has now been raging for more than a month. Day by day, it is becoming more violent. Lives of innocent people are sacrificed because of Vladimir Putin’s malicious desire to restore an old empire. At the 100th anniversary of establishing the Soviet Union on May 9, he wants to parade Russian troops in Kyiv.
Today many are asking: how could this war be settled? We won’t be able to find the answer if we don’t analyze our recent past and admit our mistakes. The core message is: There will be no lasting peace if this war does not end in a way that leads to stronger protection and security of all the countries that made themselves independent from the Soviet Union.
Let us start in the early 1990s. The Cold War had ended and the Berlin wall had fallen. The integration of Europe had started, and all across Europe the “Winds of Change” were blowing. The world started talking about the “End of History”. After a bloody century, there was now the prospect for a long-lasting peace.
When researchers recall that epoch they usually mention a number of reasons which lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but very few points to the huge sacrifices and contributions made by nations living under the communist regime in the destruction of the Evil Empire. Only few recall that the Cold War had never been “cold” for the nations living in Central and especially Eastern Europe. They have been victims of bloody repressions for decades. There was Budapest (1956) and the Prague Spring (1968), but there was also Riga, Vilnius, Tbilisi, Baku, and more. The West was less aware of repressions there.
These nations had gained their independence with fight and in 1991 they were given hope that they would be able to build free, independent, and democratic countries. However, at that moment, the West casted doubt on this historic process and slowed down the Winds of Change. Historic injustices needed to be aired and litigated, but they never really were. The Soviet regime has not been convicted for its crimes against humanity. Its successor, the Russian Federation, has never been held accountable for what happened in the name of the USSR.
The West wanted to deal with Soviet and find a peaceful accommodation with Moscow. While that attitude was understandable, many countries under the Soviet yoke that were fighting for their independence were dismissed. George H.W. Bush, the then-leader of the democratic world, expressed his support for the new model of the Soviet Union offered by Mikhail Gorbachev. He labeled as “suicidal nationalism” the fight for freedom of the conquered nations and stated that he would not support this fight. It’s symbolic that these words by President Bush were expressed in Kyiv – and only a couple of weeks prior to the announcement of Ukrainian independence.
The West continued to turn a blind eye to countries that were pursuing independence. Under Boris Yeltsin, for instance, Russia was instigating conflicts with Georgia and Moldova by using technologies of hybrid warfare: Moscow was conducting covert occupations. In 1993, Eduard Shevardnadze, the then-president of Georgia (the very Shevardnadze who contributed a lot to ending the Cold War and the unification of Germany) appealed to world leaders for help in Sokhumi (Abkhazia, Georgia), which had been bombarded by Russians. He called for assistance to “avert a monstrous crime, stop the execution of a small country and save my homeland and my people from the empire’s revenge. The world does not have the right to condone the destruction of one of the oldest nations, with a great culture and rich spiritual traditions. (translation)”
Unfortunately, nobody paid attention to his appeal. The world was busy with supporting the “New Russia” and was not cognizant of the oppression of small countries. Europe perceived Russia as a partner, a promising market that offered attractive business opportunities. The West made huge investments in rehabilitating the legal successor of the USSR and ignored early signs that the New Russia resembled its Bolshevik predecessor.
Many in the West were deceived or did not want to accept the reality of a new Russia gradually moving towards aggressive authoritarianism. When Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, world leaders “looked into his eyes” and instead of seeing a revanchist KGB officer, they “found him to be very straightworward and trustworthy”. When Putin stated that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”, observers and world leaders ridiculed him and made fun of the comment. They were laughing at the fact that Putin substituted the anthem of a new Russia with the melody of the old Soviet anthem. Restrictions of free media, the weakening the democracy, the massacres in Chechnya and other crimes committed by Putin were all responded to with diplomacy and Western attempts to “civilize” Russia by inflating the country’s importance. Europe was busy developing business projects in Russia and many dismissed calls for stronger action against Russia as fearmongering. Despite obvious examples of Russia moving dangerously to aggressive autocracy, Europe accepted to become more dependent on Russian energy resources. Just as the German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, recently admitted: we all knew how Putin’s regime viewed energy as one of the most efficient weapons to pacify Europe and make it averse to respond firmly to Russia’s aggression. Yet Europe went along with the notion that more dependence on Russia was strategically the right thing to do.
Putin also realized that it was possible to put powerful European politicians in the service of Russia by offering profitable deals and corruption schemes, and by employing retired European officials in Russian companies. That’s how the former Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroder, became one of the greatest lobbyist for Gazprom, and he was followed by many others. In 2007, a self-confident Putin could deliver a speech at the Munich security conference setting out his desire to divide Europe into spheres of influences. At the time, the West did not pay appropriate attention to this dangerous signal, and it was occupied by skepticism concerning the enlargement of the NATO and the European Union. The countries willing to extricate themselves from the Russian sphere of influence even had to prove their European identity.
These signals matter. In 2008, NATO refused to grant the Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia, and by doing so practically gave Russia the green light for conducting military aggression in Georgia. Later, this small country who was defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity was accused of being aggressive by some western politicians. But Russia, the real aggressor, has not been held liable for its invasion of Georgia. The West responded to the Kremlin’s aggression with the “reset” policy, the admission of Russia into the World Trade Organisation, the agreement on the Nord Stream II pipeline and new contracts on Mistral warships. These actions strengthened and emboldened Putin, and he could prepare for Russia’s next military operation.
History comes back to haunt us. In 1994, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal with the Budapest memorandum. In return Ukraine received assurances for its security and territorial integrity from the Russian Federation, the United States and Great Britain. On the 20th “anniversary” of signing this document, one of the guarantors – the Russian Federation – had cut Crimea off from Ukraine and created separatist hotbeds in Donetsk and Luhansk. On the 28th anniversary, the German Ambassador to Ukraine said about the Budapest Memorandum that “This format has no international legal obligations. It was just a suggestion”.
The world was outraged about the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, but the real sanctions were introduced only when a Russian missile had shot down a Dutch civilian aircraft in Ukrainian airspace. Still, these sanctions were insufficient to stop Russia. The impunity syndrome has made Russia much bolder and it started interfering in the internal affairs of EU and NATO member states by supporting separatism and interfering in election processes.
At the end of 2021, when Russia presented an ultimatum to the US and NATO, only a few people understood there was a real threat of a new Russian invasion. Most politicians considered that war was highly unlikely. Some European leaders met with Putin and there were attempts by others to accommodate the imperial view of Russia by admitting publicly that Russia had a “trauma” and “legitimate concerns” about its security.
Such rhetoric emboldened Putin and on February 24 he launched a war in Ukraine. He started it because he thinks that Ukraine (or Georgia, Moldova, and others) should have no right to exist as independent states. This war in Ukraine has brought to light the powerless of international law and modern security orders after decades of international acceptance of the Russian view of the world. Therefore, international organisations no longer command an influence in the region and now can’t even run the humanitarian missions they usually do in a way. Ukrainian cities are besieged, the civilian population is slaughtered – and among them children, infants, and pregnant women! But the international community can’t get Russia to accept a humanitarian corridor so that these people can leave war zones.
Given the past decades of Western desires to accommodate an increasingly aggressive Russia, we must ask: what will happen if Putin is successful in Ukraine and manage to placate Western leaders once again that they need to accommodate Putin’s Russia? Soon, Russia would move against Georgia and could conquer it (it is much smaller than Ukraine and has population of only about 3.7 million). Russia has already occupied 20 percent of Georgia’s territory and it won’t be a problem for Russia to launch a new aggression there. Yet again, Russia would be creeping closer to NATO. Georgia is a committed and burden-sharing partner of NATO and the European Union, and has been the greatest contributor per capita in the peacekeeping missions of NATO and the EU.
In this scenario, Russia would fully regain control over the northern and the eastern shores of the Black Sea, and could block those alternative routes of energy and goods that are of vital importance for Europe. Later, Putin would move yet again – and now perhaps even step into NATO territory. The West will have to either counteract a more powerful Russia or agree on a “new reality”.
This is why the future of security of Europe is now at the heart of the war in Ukraine. By supporting Ukraine, we are investing in our future security and prosperity. Yes, the price is high, but not as high as Ukraine and Georgia has paid. It is better to pay the cost now then pay it tomorrow when the price will be even higher. Europe cannot afford another “frozen conflict” and should not offer Putin to recover the international status of Russia.
The war in Ukraine is a fight for Europe, security and the chance to live by good values. That’s why Western action is needed now. The West should be proactive and creative, and not get stuck in the bureaucratic procedures and existing frameworks. Today we all pay for mistakes we have done in the past.
The West shouldn’t offer an “off-ramp” or through a lifebuoy to the Russian economy. Every penny we pay to Russia supports Putin’s aggression against Europe. It’s time to look for new opportunities and empower partners, including Eastern Partnership countries. That includes side-stepping Russia on energy but getting closer to partnership countries. The EU should reconsider and pay more attention to the projects like the Southern Gas Corridor, the Trans-Caspian Pipeline and the White Stream. The EU should invite Eastern Partnership countries in the Tree Seas Initiative to strengthen connectivity across the wider Europe and beyond, that will contribute to boost the exchange of goods and commodities between European and Eastern markets. Today Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have already signed the application to join the EU. Opening accession talks will give additional leverage to the EU to reinforce efforts to strengthen the democratic development in the Eastern Partnership countries and motivate their population to conduct more reforms and achieve higher standards of democracy and economic development.
Along with their NATO aspirations, Ukraine and Georgia have been developing fruitful cooperation with the EU in the field of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). In February 2022, the European Parliament recognized the contribution of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to CSDP missions and operations, and expressed support for closer defense and security cooperation with these “valued partners.” Therefore, when the EU greenlights a new security strategy, guarantees for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova should be integral parts of it.
NATO is now preparing for the Madrid Summit. Ukraine as well as Georgia have already proved that they are fully interoperable, committed, reliable and burden-sharing partners of NATO. They are standing unshakable and have made sacrifices for European security and welfare. In Madrid NATO should therefore go beyond regular statements and offer a path to membership for those countries. They could also enter legally binding bilateral agreements equal to the Article 5 of the North-Atlantic Treaty.
In short, we need robust and resolute responses of the Euro-Atlantic community to Putin’s illegal and aggressive actions. Only that can stop him and ensure peace in Europe.
Thirty years ago, the West failed to embrace freedom-loving Eastern European nations and today we are paying the price for our past mistakes. We cannot afford that again. The idea of “Europe free, whole and in peace” have to finally win! Protect Ukraine now and, as a result, safeguard the whole Europe!
Tengiz Pkhaladze is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE). He served as Advisor – Secretary of Foreign Relations to the President Giorgi Margvelashvili of Georgia from 2014-2018 and as staff member and Chief of Protocol to the President Eduard Shevardnadze from 1992-1995