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‘War in Ukraine: Lessons from Georgia’

The West can better help Ukraine by learning from its mistakes with Georgia, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

A statute of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy


Alexandra Hall Hall on how the West can better help Ukraine by learning from its mistakes with Georgia

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One of the most revealing conversations I ever had as a diplomat was with the German Ambassador to Georgia, shortly after my arrival there as the British Ambassador. After exchanging a few pleasantries, I asked him what were his main objectives. “Promoting German culture and trade” he said, and then asked me the same question, to which I replied “promoting democracy, peace and security”. 

An awkward silence ensued, during which we both looked at each other nonplussed. A wider gulf in perceptions and priorities was hard to imagine between two countries that were ostensibly allies.

His response didn’t mean he didn’t care about democracy, peace, or security, or that I didn’t care about culture and trade. However, where I felt that the former were necessary preconditions for the latter to flourish, he felt that these were long term goals, that should not get in the way of Germany’s short-term interests.  

I went on to discover that he had previously been posted to Moscow, and that, like many diplomats who had been posted to Russia, he tended to view most regional issues through the prism of that experience. He was also strongly influenced by the history of Germany’s policy of Ostpolitik (engagement) with the Soviet Union, which most Germans credit with managing tensions during the Cold War and facilitating the peaceful reunification of East and West Germany. 

In particular, he had assimilated Russia’s view that Georgia fell within its ‘sphere of influence’, giving it legitimate concerns about Georgia’s trajectory, including its aspirations to join the EU and NATO. He worried that encouraging these hopes risked ‘provoking’ an angry Russian response, and would exacerbate, rather than ease, the security situation. He felt the safer course was to hold Georgia at bay – as had indeed been German policy for many years, including at the now notorious NATO summit of 2008 in Bucharest, when Germany and France effectively blocked US efforts to grant Georgia (and Ukraine) Membership Action Plans, which would have put them both on a formal path to NATO membership.

The German Ambassador also genuinely believed that former Georgian President Misha Saakashivili was to blame for the 2008 Russian war with Georgia, even though it was Russian troops which invaded Georgia, not the other way around. He was not alone in that view – many other analysts feel Saakashvili mishandled relations with Russia, needlessly goaded Putin, and over-estimated the degree to which the West would come to Georgia’s rescue. Nevertheless, the conflict was undeniably triggered by a build-up of Russian troops around Georgia in the months before the war, and Georgian sensitivities understandably heightened by Russia’s constant meddling in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

I could not have disagreed with my German colleague’s analysis more profoundly. I firmly believed that Georgia’s uncertain limbo between Russia and the West was precisely what encouraged Russian aggression, exacerbated instability, and impeded Georgia’s development. Russia’s belief that it had a right to dictate Georgia’s future was also what drove Georgia’s efforts to join the EU and NATO, not the other way round. Russia’s imperialist attitude was the problem, not Georgia’s efforts to protect itself. As an independent, sovereign country, Georgia was within its rights to seek EU and NATO membership, and if it was able to meet the criteria, we should not stand in its way. 

Towards that end, a major focus of the embassy’s work was funding programmes to support Georgia’s democratic development, including stronger institutions, more transparent and accountable government, an independent judiciary, and an active civil society. We felt this mattered not just to help Georgia towards the EU and NATO, but also because it would make Georgia more resilient against Russian pressure.

I regularly encouraged Georgian politicians to spend less time bickering with each other, and more time engaging with their constituents, and developing sound policies. I gave many speeches stressing UK support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, and its right to determine its own future, free from Russian interference. However, I was not shy about speaking out where I felt there were shortcomings in Georgia’s democracy and human rights record. 

This effort took on renewed importance after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when the UK launched a new ‘Good Governance’ programme across the region, covering Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Moldova. The UK beefed up its military cooperation with Georgia – offering training courses and the like – and expended significant capital to underscore its diplomatic support for Georgia through repeated ministerial visits, sponsoring of resolutions at the UN, and the establishment of a formal annual bilateral government-to-government dialogue.

 The US, the Nordics, and above all, the Baltic and Eastern European embassies, who had direct experience of Soviet rule, had similar priorities and approaches.  

The German and most other EU embassies, with the French somewhere in-between, were far less visible or vocal on these political matters. I sometimes suspected that they even quite welcomed setbacks in Georgia’s democratic development, because it made it easier to argue that Georgia was not ready for EU or NATO membership.  They also applied a Catch 22 argument to Georgia’s situation, that as long as part of its territory was occupied, it could not join NATO; overlooking the fact that this only increased the incentive for Russia to maintain its grip on Georgia, making Georgian progress well-nigh impossible. 

While Germany and France were the most openly reluctant to admit Georgia (or Ukraine) into NATO, it’s fair to say that their position had the benefit of sparing all of us from having to make hard decisions. The Obama administration was much less enthusiastic about the project than the Bush Administration, and had even sought a ‘reset’ of relations with Russia, before its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. The UK’s priority was to preserve NATO unity. Georgia’s state of limbo allowed us to pay lip service to NATO’s ‘Open Door’ policy, and give Georgia just enough aid to say we were doing our bit to support it, without ever having to bite the bullet of letting it in. 

However, one unfortunate consequence of this Western hesitancy was that it fed Georgian uncertainty about the extent to which it could truly count on our support, and made it reluctant to carry out the toughest reforms necessary for EU and NATO membership. This only fuelled the argument that it was not ready, which in turn created further doubt in Georgian minds about whether they would ever be accepted. 

This ended up creating a self-fulfilling negative cycle, whereby Georgia today remains stuck in a grey zone, its democratic reforms stalled, its current leadership vacillating between Russia and the West, its territory still occupied, and its security situation unstable. The country is effectively ruled by an unelected oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who pulls the strings of the ruling Georgian Dream party from behind the scenes. Where once Georgia was considered a front runner amongst the group of post-soviet states seeking to join the EU and NATO, it is now lagging seriously behind. In a landmark decision in June last year, the EU granted Ukraine and Moldova formal candidate status, but only offered Georgia the much lesser status of a ‘European Perspective’. Former President Misha Saakashvili, who did so much to drive Georgia’s initial reform agenda, now languishes in prison, no doubt to Putin’s delight, but at the cost of further damaging relations between Georgia and the West. 

I share this history as a way of shedding light on the differing responses and instincts of the various EU and NATO member countries to the current conflict in Ukraine. The same US, Baltic, Nordic and Eastern European countries who were concerned about democracy, peace and security in Georgia led the way in supporting Ukrainian efforts to defend itself against Russia. They, together with the UK, immediately recognized it as an existential battle for the right of independent countries to determine their own future, for democracy against autocracy, and for the principles of international law, including the prohibition against changing borders by force. 

By contrast, the initial instincts of Germany and many other EU countries were to worry about the economic consequences of the war, its ripple effects across the continent, and how to end it as quickly as possible, rather than the underlying principles at stake. Just as President Sarkozy flew to Moscow to negotiate an end to the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, but at the cost of forcing Georgia to accept quite humiliating terms, including the stationing of so-called Russian ‘peacekeepers’ in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so President Macron and Chancellor Scholz immediately tried to engage President Putin to stop the war, even if it meant Ukraine accepting the loss of even more of its territory to Russia. 

What changed the dynamic, and forced them to recalibrate their approach, was the extraordinary courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people, under the inspiring leadership of President Zelensky. While questions hover over Georgia’s commitment to democracy and alignment with the West, Ukraine answered these questions decisively for itself. The Ukrainian people’s valour, their refusal to surrender, and their insistence that this is a moral cause fought on all our behalf, has made it impossible to overlook their position. We have been compelled to accept that Ukraine has agency, that no peace can be forced upon it by great powers negotiating over its head with Moscow, and that Ukraine will determine its own future. 

The sheer scale of Russian atrocities in Ukraine has also played a role. The Western alliance has remained remarkably united in supporting Ukraine. Even Germany and France are now meaningfully increasing their military assistance to it, in some aspects beyond what the UK is offering. 

The question remains, however, whether all truly understand that if we want the war to end, then Ukraine has to be given enough help to actually win. We need to learn the lesson from Georgia – that allowing Russia a partial victory, or trying to find a way to allow Putin to save face only emboldens Russian ambitions, and makes renewed conflict more likely. Ukraine needs to be able to score a decisive victory, and Putin needs to be forced to admit defeat. 

For the same reason, we should not blame Ukraine for also insisting that it wants to reclaim all its territory, when it can see how continued Russian occupation of parts of Georgia has stymied progress in that country.  

This war should end the canard that it was NATO’s action in holding open the prospect of membership to Georgia and Ukraine that triggered Russian aggression against both countries, rather than the other way round – Russian aggression driving Georgia and Ukraine to seek NATO membership. As long as Ukraine and Georgia are stuck in a grey zone, Russia will keep trying to get them ‘back’. Once the war is over, Ukraine must be given massive aid to rebuild itself, and be allowed to join NATO, to put an end once and for all to Russia’s imperialist ambitions.  Renewed attention should also be paid to Georgia.

Finally, while the war in Ukraine has posed difficult questions for many in the EU and NATO, there are uncomfortable lessons for the UK as well. In my last few months in Tbilisi, it became apparent that the then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was lukewarm about Georgia and Ukraine, and interested in renewing dialogue with Russia. As an example, it took much longer to get responses to our requests for British statements of support for Georgia. But it was only years later that I learned just how close Johnson and some other members of the Conservative party had become to Russian figures, how much funding they were receiving from sources connected to Russia, and how much Russian money was swilling around the British economy. This ran counter to everything that British embassies across the region were trying to do, in order to hold back Russian aggression. 

If our genuine actions in support of Ukraine now are to have any lasting meaning, we must never allow Russia to gain such a foothold in the UK again.

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