Russia’s Grab for Ukraine, Georgia

russia grab for ukraine

(Tbilisi, Georgia) Feb. 28, 2014 -- IMAGINE if Washington state residents had been barred from the Vancouver Olympics because Canada refused to give us visas.

Imagine if we couldn’t get there anyway because Whatcom County was in revolt against the U.S. — and protected by Canadian troops.

Imagine if those same Canadian troops had massed on the outskirts of Seattle just a few years before and were still providing muscle for two other counties that were in rebellion.

Imagine all that and you get some sense of why there wasn’t much enthusiasm in the republic of Georgia for the Sochi Olympics, which took place just on the other side of the border with Russia.

And you get an idea why Georgians are watching events in Ukraine with growing concern. I was just in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, helping several universities improve journalism education in a country where free media is still evolving after decades under Soviet rule.

In the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, Georgia’s former president, Mikhail Saakashvili, said the other day that the Cold War may be over for the West but “It’s not over for Vladimir Putin.” That was underscored Saturday when Russian forces took over the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.

With limited options, President Obama told Putin that Russia should “de-escalate tensions by withdrawing its forces back to bases in Crimea.”

It’s worth noting that Putin once threatened to hang the Georgian leader by his genitals (the actual quote was a bit more graphic). That was back in 2008, when Russian tanks were massed on the outskirts of Tbilisi in the aftermath of a bloody conflict in a breakaway province just 30 miles from the capital. That rebellious province is one of two still under the protection of Putin’s troops.

Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, which overthrew a corrupt regime from the breakup of the Soviet Union, was an inspiration for Ukraine’s Orange Revolution the following year. And like Ukraine, Georgia is being pulled between East and West.

The current Ukrainian crisis was sparked by the ousted president’s decision to reject closer ties with the European Union in favor of a deal from Moscow he felt he couldn’t — or didn’t want to — refuse.

Georgia, which is strongly supported by the U.S., aspires to NATO membership. Both Georgia and Ukraine are geographically deep inside what was the Soviet Union and Putin sees the jockeying as Western meddling in Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence.

Critics here believe it’s much more than that. They think he wants to restore the Russian empire.

“Wire-mongering” was a headline in Georgian media this week. It refers to the practice of Russian troops moving border fences during the night in a creeping annexation of Georgian territory. Some farmers reportedly wake up in the morning to find their fields on the other side of the barbed-wire fence. The practice reportedly stopped during the Sochi Olympics, but as one headline put it, “Russia at it again.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Moscow to be “very careful” how it proceeds in Ukraine. With Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili at his side, Kerry also demanded that Russia withdraw its forces from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two breakaway Georgian provinces, adding that the U.S. “remains steadfast in our support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

It’s worth noting that there are U.S. military trainers on the ground in Georgia, working with Georgian units bound for Afghanistan, where 1,500 Georgian troops support the American effort.

That’s another reason the U.S. has an obligation to keep up the diplomatic pressure in the face of this latest crisis.

The Cold War may be over, but that doesn’t change the fact that the West has an obligation to support the aspirations of former Soviet republics trying to distance themselves from Moscow’s embrace — especially ones that are physically isolated from the West, like Georgia.

Georgians have reason to be nervous. This is a tough neighborhood. Stalin was born here. Chechnya is about a hundred miles to the north, next to several other Russian republics that are usually mentioned in the same breath as terrorism. To the West is the Black Sea, home of the Russian navy.

So you can imagine why Georgians are nervous watching the other shoe drop in Ukraine.

They may be 800 miles apart, but the two countries are linked by geopolitics.

Russian support for Georgia’s rebellious provinces is a template for what is happening in Ukraine. The Crimea region of Ukraine is home to Russia’s huge warm-water naval base at Sevastopol. Moscow’s reaction to the Ukrainian upheaval will reverberate in Georgia.

Remember Putin’s earthy threat against the former Georgian president? How Putin is reacting to the Ukrainian uprising gives a pretty good indication of what’s in store for Georgia and the rest of this region in the years ahead.

Veteran foreign correspondent Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. His latest book is “Islam for Journalists.”

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