Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. Photo: VOA
Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served on the National Security Council from 2014 to 2017. Voice of America’s Anna Kalandadze had a wide-ranging interview with a prominent scholar.
How would you recall the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, what precipitated it and what lesson did the international community learn from it?
I think the war in 2008 was yet another instance of Russia using military power and coercion to spread influence and maintain its influence over the so called near abroad. The particular incident was a product of an escalating rhetoric that was taking place between President Saakashvili, the Georgian Government and the Russian Government at the time. There are some who believe that Georgia actually provoked the Russian military action through its own military threats and actions toward South Ossetia, but in general what we saw was yet another instance of Russia using power to keep hold of its near abroad, very similar to what it did in Ukraine in 2014.
Was there enough international reaction to this conflict at the time? If yes, in what way, and if not, why?
I think that the reaction was certainly more muted than the reaction to the Russian intervention in Ukraine. Some would argue that the United States did not respond forcefully enough, nor did its European allies, and I think that in some ways the desire was to try to keep the relationship with Russia on an even keel, but certainly the actions that took place in Ukraine in 2014 made that impossible, and since then we have seen a serious erosion in relations between the West and Russia.
What is Moscow’s ultimate goal when it moves down its border posts along the administrative line with Georgia? Would you agree it is a creeping occupation of Georgia?
Well, I think that Russian behavior in Georgia is a piece of its broader behavior in the region, whether we’re talking about Donbass, whether we’re talking about the Transnistria area, and the Kremlin is essentially using the military force as a way of preventing Georgia, Ukraine and other areas that are close to Russia from moving in a pro-Western direction, whether that means joining EU or joining NATO, and yes, I do think that the moving of the border on the southern part of South Ossetia is a part of creeping occupation and some 20% of Georgian territories effectively now under Russian control.
Do you consider Russian President’s visit to Abkhazia just recently as his reaction to VP Pence’s trip to Georgia, as well as America’s support for Georgia’s NATO aspirations?
I’ts hard to know exactly what motivated Mr. Putin to go to Abkhazia. It was the anniversary of the war, so it may have had something to do with that. But clearly what we are seeing over the last month or so is an escalation between the United States and Russia. We had Congress pass, by overwhelming margins in the House and Senate, new sanctions legislation against Russia, which the President signed. We’ve seen increasing tension over the whole issue of an expulsion of diplomats, with the Russians recently expelling over 700 Americans, well, actually, not just Americans, but causing significant decrease in the staff of the American outpost in Russia. And now you’ve had this dueling trips with Vice-President, going to the Baltics, going to Georgia, going to the Balkans, Mr. Putin then going to Georgia and all of this I think takes place against the backdrop of what appears to be an increasing tension along the line between NATO and Russia, with NATO deploying several thousand additional troops in Poland and the Baltics and Russia preparing later this year for what will be a very, very substantial military exercise in Belarus.
How do you explain the energetic pace of U.S.-Georgia relations? Is this some sort of reorientation, or rather a continuation of the forgone policy?
Well, I would not call it a reorientation, because the United States has been strongly supportive of Georgia from the days of George W. Bush, when the war broke out with Russia, right through the Obama years, and certainly since the invasion of Ukraine there has been a renewed focus of the United States on Russian near abroad. I do think that when President Trump came into office, there was concern about the U.S. commitment to Central and Eastern Europe, because of some other things that President was saying about rapprochement with Russia, about dropping sanctions against Russia for its behavior in Ukraine. But since he has been in office, and especially over the last few months, the U.S. Administration has made clear that it is going to continue the policies of the President before Trump - Mr. Obama - to be strongly supportive of the new democracies of Europe. Georgia is in a somewhat awkward position, in the sense that it would like to join NATO but there is no consensus on moving ahead with NATO membership for Georgia in the Alliance, in part because there are Russian troops occupying chunks of Georgian territory and there is no consensus, at this point, about membership for Georgia. That’s partly why, in some ways, there is an effort to do whatever else is possible and tha’ts bilateral context, bilateral U.S.-Georgian military context, NATO-Georgia military context. So there is a thick network of relations with Georgia to support Georgian democracy and to support its aspirations to align itself with the Western democracies.
In your recent article in the Washington Post you said that it would be “a massive mistake” to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons. Can you please share your arguments with our audience?
I think that the situation in Ukraine remains very dangerous, continuing to lead to bloodshed in the Donbass region - the line of contact between Ukrainian forces and separatist/Russian forces. And although I believe that U.S. and its allies should support Ukraine financially and provide not only military assistance and training, I do worry that supply of lethal weapons, of anti-tank weapons, could lead to a military escalation. The bottom line is that the Russians have military superiority over Ukraine, just as they have military superiority over Georgia. Therefore, I worry that any effort to supply more arms to Ukraine could lead to a military escalation that would not work to the benefit of Ukraine. At the end of the day, Ukraine borders Russia. Russia will always be willing to escalate beyond what the United States and its NATO allies are willing to do. One final, or the two final issues are that, number one: to provide weapons to Ukraine is to play to Russia’s strength while we should be playing to Russia’s weakness, which is its ailing economy and tha’ts when the sanctions come in. We should continue to maintain those sanctions and increase them if necessary, to get a diplomatic solution. And also we need to make sure that we remain solid, unified with the European allies. There is not much support in Europe for the provision of weapons to Ukraine and I do fear that if the U.S. heads down that road, it could lead to a split between the U.S. and Europe on Ukraine policy which would again work to Putin’s advantage.
In your book “NATO’s Final Frontier”, you postulated that it would be a historic mistake to treat Russia as a strategic pariah. How would you describe the current state of U.S.-Russian relations in this context?
Well, I think, that the relationship is very tense right now and the Russians seem to be upping the ante. The Trump administration has made clear that it’s not going to act on its earlier statements, of some kind of rapprochement between Trump and Putin. So right now I would say the relationship is as tense as it has been since the end of the Cold War. I do think that there are core issues that need to be resolved and they include the situation in Ukraine, which will continue to poison the relationship between Russia and West, as long as the fighting continues in Donbass and Russian troops remain in Eastern Ukraine, the situation in Syria where Russia has joined Iran, Hezbollah and other parties in supporting the Assad regime. There needs to be an end to the civil war, a political solution, and I think we also need to grapple with the increasing military tension that exists between NATO and Russia. Until those three issues are tackled, it seems to me that the relationship between Russia and the West is going to be very difficult indeed.
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