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Russian Aggression and the West: What to Learn From Past Mistakes?

By Malkhaz Matsaberidze
Monday, June 13, 2022
Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, Western politicians have made statements that many mistakes have been made in the past, leaving the Putin regime's aggression against post-Soviet countries unpunished and encouraging new, larger-scale aggression.

The only question now is how firm the West will be in defending the countries that Putin is trying to swallow today. Today, Ukraine is the first on Putin's list, followed by Georgia and Moldova.

Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently spoke to Foreign Policy about the Alliance's mistakes in Georgia and Ukraine. The list of mistakes starts with the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit when NATO decided to make Georgia and Ukraine members of the Alliance, but did not give them a Membership Action Plan (MAP).

Putin concluded that the West would not attack Ukraine and Georgia, and in August 2008 attacked Georgia. This aggression was eventually stopped by the US reaction and the resistance of the Georgian army, but Putin's direct occupation of Georgian territories and the non-fulfillment of the August 11 agreement cost him virtually nothing. Russian propaganda was also spread in the West, leading some to believe that the war was caused by escalation and that the Georgian government Mikheil Saakashvili could have apparently avoided the Russian attack. As, for example, Poland could have avoided Hitler's attack in 1939.

Rasmussen considers the West's insufficient reaction to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 as a mistake. The light sanctions imposed by the West reaffirmed Putin's belief that he could continue his aggression. “We made a lot of mistakes and we were naive for a very long time,” Rasmussen said.

However, if we talk about the mistakes made by the West, which led to the encouragement of Russian aggression, we should start with an earlier period.

From the time when the Soviet Union was declared collapsed and many were delighted that the disintegration of the Soviet Union, this huge nuclear state, took place peacefully, unlike that of Yugoslavia.

Under Yeltsin, who used the image of a ‘democratic’ politician in the West, Russia waged an undeclared war against Georgia in the Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia. Russian special services in Georgia encouraged separatists, armed them, and sent North Caucasians and Cossacks to Georgia to fight. The Russian military was directly involved in the hostilities.

Georgians even managed to shoot down a Russian plane near Sokhumi, and Shevardnadze took journalists to show the world the Russian stars painted on the plane. He then sent appeals from besieged Sokhumi to Western leaders, but to no avail.

No one complained about Georgia then, turning a blind eye to a number of "undemocratic" actions by Yeltsin seemed to be a good solution. The Caucasus was then considered Russia's "backyard" and whatever was not forgiven to the Baltic republics remained "unnoticed" in the Caucasus. Russia was also forgiven for drowning in Chechen blood. This was Putin's first victory, thus starting his ascent.

The "peaceful" dissolution of the Soviet Union was gratifying to the West, but Putin called it a "mistake" and a "geopolitical catastrophe" and aimed to restore the Soviet Union. Blood is now being shed abundantly in Ukraine. Putin is now far more powerful than Russia in the early 1990s, and the "bloodless" disintegration of the Soviet Union turned into a bloody attempt to restore it. Looking back today, Russia's policy of intimidation and inadequate response to aggression has led to even greater aggression by Putin.

Rasmussen considers the decision made by NATO in 2008 a mistake, but not everyone considers this decision a mistake, for example, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Judging the mistakes of the past is useful for current policies only if we draw some conclusions.

The Russian army, albeit with difficulty, is advancing in Ukraine, and Western support has so far failed to help Ukraine stop the Russian army. Ukraine needs more help, and Putin will not stop there if he wins in Ukraine.

We have already talked about the decision of NATO in 2008, now the European Union will have to decide on granting candidate status to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.

There may be many arguments that these countries, or any of them, do not deserve this status, but if the EU ‘abstains’ here and does not receive candidate status from any of the named countries, even with many conditions, Putin will consider it a victory.