Daniel Hamilton was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 election and is Managing Director of a business consulting firm.
Ten years ago this month, Russia launched its ground invasion of Georgia.
In the nine days leading up to 16th August 2008, close to 230,000 people were displaced from their homes. Few of them have ever been able to return.
The conflict also resulted in a decision by the Russian Federation to extend formal ‘diplomatic relations’ with the leaderships of the separatist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Beyond Russia, recognition of the two entities as supposedly independent states remains limited to the likes of Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and Bashar al-Assad’s junta in Syria.
Indeed, the reality for Abkhazia and South Ossetia is that they have been de facto annexed by the Russian Federation whose military has absorbed the separatist forces into its ranks and operates military bases on occupied Georgian territory, provides Russian citizenship to its residents, and funds the near-entirety of their ‘state’ budgets.
The Russian Federation’s actions towards Georgia a decade ago ought to have served as a wake-up call to the international community as to the policy the Putin administration would adopt across the wider region – instead, they went unheeded. The result is plain to see: today’s crisis in Ukraine.
Delivering his final remarks to the UN General Assembly as President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili spoke of the way in which the “family of free and democratic nations are facing constant pressures” from a Russia that, from the days of its empire in the 1700s and 1800s to the horrors of the Soviet Union, has rejected the notion of “borders” but instead sees only “margins”.
The reality of Moscow’s focus on exercising control over these “margins” can be seen in the practical consequences on the ground today in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Central Asia, where democratic advancements and integration with the west are constrained by a cocktail of military occupations, cyber warfare and attempts to ferment unrest among ethnic minority communities.
In Ukraine, the popular uprising against the previous government’s decision to pursue closer political and economic ties with Russia – a decision that led to the removal of the Yanukovych administration, fully in line with the country’s constitution – has been met with an unacceptable reaction from Moscow. Just as in the case of Georgia’s occupied regions, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and endorsement of Moscow-backed separatist administrations in Donetsk and Luhansk has effectively taken the country out of contention for NATO membership for the foreseeable future.
The situation is identical in Moldova, where the ongoing presence of the Russian army in the province of Transnistria along the country’s eastern flank with Ukraine has bolstered separatist forces and retarded the country’s ability to move beyond its Soviet past. Baseless misinformation campaigns, led and funded by Russian interests, have seeded fears in the minds of Russian speakers and the minority Gagauz community about their rights in a majority ethnic-Romanian state.
Mindful of this paralysis, it is critical that western powers remember the critical lesson of Georgia’s 2008 invasion: that a failure to meet Russia’s aggression with a practical and concerted response will only embolden Moscow further.
Since 2008, the west has been strong in its promises to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – from the expansion of visa-free travel to the realisation of comprehensive free trade deals to bolstering military alignment with a view to ultimate NATO membership – and on a less sure footing when it actually comes to delivering practical results.
The EU’s Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas – which the UK should seek to replicate post-Brexit – have had a positive impact on trade in the three states but a limited impact upon state revenues or reducing unemployment. Indeed, much of the economic data the agreements are based on dates back to 2007 and fails to take into account new technological developments from which both sides can benefit.
On a security level, NATO continues to both send troops and equipment to Georgia and Ukraine, as well as receiving troops from the two states into its mission in Afghanistan, yet Russian military occupations of, and further encroachments into, their territory remain a daily threat.
In short, the biggest threat to the west’s goal of ensuring the economic prosperity and security of former Soviet states may well be its own rhetoric. It has overpromised and under-delivered.
Against the backdrop of a failure to deliver upon its promises to the three ‘at-risk’ states, there is a clear opportunity for Russia to reassert economic and political dominance through its Eurasian Economic Union; a closed-shop customs union with a clear interest in integrating with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, to the detriment of western interests.
The weak economic situation in each country poses many opportunities for pro-Moscow parties to seek to reverse hard-won gains. For a growing portion of Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldovan society, the attractions of the Eurasian Union are clear, if short-sighted – cheap Russian gas supplies, protectionist agricultural policies that drive up rural incomes, and subsidies for failing industries.
The answer to this is to intensify political, economic and military support to former Soviet states, with a focus on security mutual economic gains – from joint natural resources, logistics and agricultural cooperation projects, to the implementation of a solid timetable for NATO accession.
This won’t be easy. Regrettably, scepticism towards the utility of NATO and the value of integrating Eastern European states into “western” institutions has gained traction in recent years – seemingly driven by concerns at “alienating” Russia.
The same such concerns were, to a lesser extent, expressed in relation to the accession of the former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to NATO and EU structures in 2004 yet were clearly misplaced.
Estonia has long met its two per cent GDP contribution to defence, with Latvia and Lithuania on track to do so next year. Similarly, per capita earnings in the three states almost doubled in the past fifteen years; a factor which has seen trade with western states soar and rendered their societies and governments less susceptible to Russian economic threats.
As Britain prepares to leave the EU, our focus on building stronger bilateral relationship with the east will take on an important new dimension.
Our history of proud internationalism, thirst for new trading relationships and passionate defence of sovereignty must lead us to champion Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine’s inviolable path towards the west.