There may be no way to stop Vladimir Putin from starting a hot war with Ukraine, so Ukraine and its Western allies must prepare for the worst and do it quickly, according to former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Saakashvili, who fought the Russian army in 2008 for five days after the Russians invaded, is in Kiev to advise the new Ukrainian government. He says he’s providing counsel on how to hopefully avoid an all-out war with Putin’s army. But Saakashvili is also there to deliver a warning to Kiev: Russia appears to be preparing for armed conflict in Ukraine and the world must be ready for that battle, just in case Putin can’t be dissuaded from the fight.
“Right now my advice to the Ukraine government is to maintain maximum restraint, but to prepare for the worst, because I don’t think Vladimir Putin is going to stop where he is. He is not going to stop anywhere until he gets rid of the leadership in Kiev,” Saakashvili said in an interview with The Daily Beast on Monday. “The West should be ready that there might be a war here.”
There several similarities between Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and its 2012 invasion of Ukraine and one main difference. Russia has yet to cross militarily into greater Ukraine, outside Crimea, and wage a full scale invasion of the country, as it did in Georgia. But Saakashvili said he sees plenty of signs that’s exactly what Putin plans to do next.
There are multiple Russian intelligence organizations stirring up trouble all over Ukraine’s south and east with a goal of preparing a pretext for a large-scale military intervention, he said. The huge military exercises currently ongoing on the Russian side of the border are of the same scale to those that immediately preceded the Russian invasion of Georgia, he pointed out. Russia is also putting out massive amounts of propaganda to establish a narrative that could support a large scale intervention, again eerily similar to their actions in 2008.
“Putin certainly has plans for large scale military intervention in the whole of Ukraine,” said Saakashvili. “I think Russia is looking for a hot war.”
There were reports out of Ukraine Monday that the Russian military was now threatening to attack Ukrainian military bases in occupied Crimea if Ukrainian forces didn’t surrender by Tuesday morning. Some Russian officials disputed those reports. Saakashvili said that the Ukrainians should not surrender those bases because it would only encourage Putin to become even more aggressive.
“The problem might be that no matter what the Ukrainians might do or not do, Putin might still go for military confrontation,” he said. “They shouldn’t give up anything. The more they give up, the more the Russia will ask for. I don’t think Putin will be happy until he has a full takeover of Ukraine.”
Right now, there are plenty of things the U.S. and the European Union can do to try to stop Putin from escalating the Ukraine crisis into all out war, he said. There should be immediate economic sanctions, with the West going after Putin’s vast personal wealth and that of his friends. The U.S. can also help Ukraine defend itself by sharing military intelligence, defending Ukraine from cyber attacks, giving Kiev’s armed forces training and even equipment, and moving NATO naval forces into the region as a show of strength, Saakashvili said.
Obama also has to elaborate on his Friday statement promising “costs” for Russia if it intervened in Ukraine militarily, he said. Statements by senior officials have been good but need to be backed up with action if the U.S. wants them to have any effect on Russian thinking.
“Putin does not take these statements seriously,” he said. “He thinks that ultimately the Western elite will see it as in their interest not to isolate Russia.”
The Crimea invasion shows that Putin’s government is paranoid and extremely unstable, Saakashvili said.
“That’s the main reason Putin is so engaged and proactive in Ukraine,” said Saakashvili. “I think he is really terrified for his survival because he is taking a huge gamble and this really shows his desperation and he thinks the best way to distract his people is to bring war to the people of Ukraine.”
Of course, Saakashvili is hardly an unbiased observer. He’s been a sworn enemy of Putin’s for years. And there’s a lot of controversy about Saakashvili’s 2008 decision to engage the Russian military. Many say he was tricked into giving Putin a pretext to invade Georgia. Others say he helped to provoke the Russian-Georgian war. But even Saakashvili’s harshest critics have to admit that the former Georgian president saw the invasion of Crimea coming and tried his best to warn the United States in advance.
U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Bass wrote in a confidential cable in 2009, released by Wikileaks, that Saakashvili was worried about a Russian invasion of the peninsula.
“Saakashvili expressed concern about Ukraine’s future, predicting that there could be trouble in Crimea after the election, and explicitly suggesting that Russia could use force to ‘secure Crimea,’ causing an immediate political crisis for whatever new President took office in [Kiev],” he wrote.
By 2011, Saakashvili was practically badgering U.S. officials to take seriously his warning that Putin would move on Crimea sooner or later. Another released cable revealed that Saakashvili pressed then Assistant Secretary of Defense Sandy Vershbow (now Deputy Secretary General of NATO) to prepare for this exact event.
“Saakashvili stressed repeatedly that he expected Russia to follow its 2008 invasion of Georgia with intervention in Crimea,” the cable stated. “He predicted that Russia would incite tension in the peninsula and then make a generous offer to Yanukovych (presumed as the next president) to help solve the problem. Saakashvili said that Putin wants to keep the pressure on Ukraine and Georgia as a lesson and a warning to others in the former Soviet Union.”
“Back in 2008 I was screaming to anyone who would listen that after the invasion of Georgia there would be an invasion of Ukraine and people thought I was a little delusional. So I feel vindicated now I’m not happy at all about it,” Saakashvili told The Daily Beast. “After 2008, the West still could not imagine that Putin was capable of such things. They should have known better.”