Is History Repeating Itself? The Russo-Ukrainian War, the Russo-Georgian War, and Eurasia’s Path Forward

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As the stories about horrors in Ukraine grip international headlines, too much attention is focused on troop movement and scenes of military might, but not enough attention is paid to the internally displaced people and the humanitarian situation on the ground. I had seen Ms. Tinatin Japaridze, VP of Business Development for Critical Mass, give a lecture at Harvard University about how the current situation in the Ukraine was similar and different to Russia’s invasion of Georgia about a decade ago. During this presentation, she focused not only on Russia’s military prowess but also on the real long-term impacts that Russia’s conflicts would have for the people of Georgia and Ukraine. Therefore, when she agreed to sit down for an interview, I was thrilled because I knew that her treatment of the theme “undocumented” with respect to this situation would be comprehensive and thorough.

 

Tinatin Japaridze serves as Vice President of Business Development and Strategy of the Critical Mass, a government consulting agency that assists the US government with various projects.  Prior to work at The Critical Mass, Tinatin worked for the City of New York, first as the Field and Digital Community Engagement Specialist at the NYC Census, a Mayoral initiative, and later as the Press Secretary for New York’s COVID-19 Response at NYC Health & Hospitals. Previously, she was the United Nations Bureau Chief for Eastern European media outlets and U.N. Radio host and producer of her own radio show on current affairs and security in the international arena.  Her work has been widely published by various media outlets, including The Moscow Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. In 2019, she became a Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs Student Ambassador on Cyber Ethics and Digital Leadership. Tinatin holds a Bachelor’s degree from Columbia University’s School of General Studies, and a Master’s Degree in Russian Regional Studies with a focus on cybersecurity and digital diplomacy from Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.

Michael Pecorara is a Junior at Harvard University studying Economics with a Secondary in Government and a language citation in Mandarin Chinese. On campus, he is the Deputy Director of US-China Initiatives for the Harvard Undergraduate Foreign Policy Initiative, the Chief of Staff for the Intercollegiate Model UN Team, the Director of the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China Conference, a member of the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, and a member of the Harvard College China Forum. Michael plans to pursue a career in law, specializing in international law and constitutional law. Currently, he is a Shuddhashar Intern, having been selected through the Oslo Scholar’s Program. He conducted this interview with Ms. Tinatin Japaridze for Shuddhashar.

 

Interview:

Michael Pecorara: Without further ado, let’s jump right into the interview. So, the first question I have is as a result of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, obviously that’s in the headlines. What lasting impacts do you think this invasion will have on the people whose homes and businesses have been destroyed? What is the path forward for citizens of affected regions? Where will people go after they’ve been displaced by fighting?

Tinatin Japaridze: So, it’s such a big question. I suppose we could spend hours and hours talking about it and just so that I can sort of make this as concise an answer as I can, are we primarily focusing on people in Ukraine or people in the surrounding countries because obviously the repercussions will be different for each of them.

 

Michael Pecorara: For now, we can focus on Ukraine.

Tinatin Japaridze: Yes. So I think because we are very much still in the midst of an actual hot war and because we don’t really know how much longer the actual kinetic actions are going to last on the ground, we know that, of course, there will be long-term repercussions and implications for Ukraine for the people of Ukraine, but what really will sort of allow us to talk more concretely about the longer implications is seeing how this war further develops. I feel that at the beginning with Russia’s Invasion on the 24th of February, no one really thought that this would last for as long as it has, me included. I think in many ways, Putin and his administration thought that perhaps this was going to be a Georgia Playbook 2.0. When we talked about in the early days of the war, of whether or not the Georgian lens was going to be used and thinking about the war and thinking about its implications, I suppose the one thing that we can say for certain is unlike the war in 2008, the ongoing war in Ukraine, well I think the last thing that Ukraine wants is another frozen conflict similar to the Georgian conflict, which in many ways, continues to hinder Georgia’s development and its path forward in the sort of EU and NATO context as well. That is something that is holding Georgia back significantly. So, a stalemate, frozen conflict rather, sorry, is the last thing that would be in Ukraine’sinterest, right? That’s one of the things that we’re seeing with ongoing talks about whether or not there will be a peace deal and what that peace deal between Ukraine and Russia could look like, and if there are any sort of concessions made by either side but more so, by Ukraine, I think this could be problematic in terms of mid to long-term prospects of Ukraine.

It’s a very tough one because people are continuously dying and they are sacrificing their lives, not just actual soldiers, but also the civilian population as well. So, it’s very hard for me to, sort of, be sitting in New York right now saying that the last thing Ukraine should do is agree to concessions, but on the other hand, if we were thinking, in the longer term, in terms of implications and repercussions, I think agreeing to give up anything at this point will be very tough for the Ukrainian leadership domestically, to sell it to its own people, and say that, you know, we did all of this in the name of what? Giving something away to Russia? That will be a very, very tough one for the leadership to survive and in terms of leaving the current Putin regime under the assumption and perception that, you know, they got at least some of what they wanted. So, the implications will be long-lasting certainly, it’ll be long-lasting for businesses doing business, in fact, in the region, broadly not just the Ukraine, but also for the people. I think psychologically and emotionally the implications will be very, very long lasting.

So even if we focus on the implications on Ukrainian-Russian relations, as we know, there are many mixed families,there are many Russians who have relatives in Ukraine, and a lot of Ukrainians who have faith in Russia. What does that mean for those relationships? Also, it’s something that we don’t talk about very much these days because we are so hyper-focused on the actual field, but it is something worth bearing in mind because even after the country is re-built, and if there is a Marshall Plan 2.0 and all of that, and there is a concerted effort in the west to help Ukraine rebuild itself, not just physically, but also in terms of just emotionally rebuilding itself on the rebels, on the ashes of a terrifying war. I think the psychological and cultural and social implications, and repercussions will outlast everything else, sort of, concrete on paper, and that’s something that we really, really need to bear in mind.

 

Michael Pecorara: Thank you so much for bringing that important topic up and that actually segues right into my next question. Right now, in the headlines, we’re talking about Western countries distributing arms and weapons to Ukraine, but what is the West doing to help Ukraine in terms of humanitarian Aid and its internally displaced people,and is this similar to what the west has done in in the past like with Syria or Afghanistan in the Middle East?

Tinatin Japaridze: Well, I think that this is another level of support that perhaps we have not seen thus far in a long time. In terms of, you know, we need to really think differently about this particular war because on the one hand, I find it very problematic, just purely on a human level, as much as my heart certainly goes out to the Ukrainian people because I am myself ethnically Georgian and so Ukraine and Georgia go way back in terms of having very, very close relations and I have a lot of Ukrainian friends and of course, it warms my heart to see that there is actual support for Ukraine as opposed to just words of support and diplomatic messages saying that we support Ukraine,because in the end, what does that really mean?

We are seeing concrete support from the West certainly, but on the other hand, on a human level, what I find very problematic is that when we see what what’s happened, and what is continuously happening in places like Afghanistan and in Syria, all of the displaced peoples in the other countries that are culturally, socially, and geographically distant from us, and when I say us, I mean, the United States and the West broadly, it’s not as dominant in the headlines, right? We sort of talked about it, but the general population feels, “Well, it’s all the way over there, so we are not going to devote much energy to talking about it”, but then, when Ukraine happened, Ukraine is still very much a part of Europe, isn’t it? It’s a huge country by European standards, so we are devoting a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of effort to this war and I’ve heard from friends of mine including friends in Afghanistan who wish that the Afghan people got that sort of attention that Ukraine is getting which, again, I’m playing devil’s advocate because I’m absolutely advocating and will continue to do so in terms of doing all we can and then some for Ukraine because if we don’t we are we are really going to regret it. So, I am happy that we’re doing a lot. I hope we will continue to do more if we can. But on the other hand, there is a constant gnawing feeling for me, where I’m thinking, “When we talk about the displaced people in Ukraine, the way we talk about them, it’s very sad because there are other displaced people in other more, remote by Western standards, part of the world where we don’t heed as much attention to them.” So that is something just on a human level when I think about the way we talk about this war versus other wars, that have happened over the last decade or two, but in terms of what we are doing, I mean we do know for certain what the US is doing and the UK and others in Europe.

In terms of the arms that we are supplying to the Ukrainian forces, which is, of course, very, very crucial that will take weeks to clear in terms of getting the arms to Ukraine. This is something that Russia continues to be very cognizant of, and one of the ways that the Russian forces are trying to stop the aid from coming into Ukraine is, of course by shelling, by attacking, the critical infrastructure including the railway system to, if not entirely stop, at least slow down the process of the arms getting to Ukraine during these very, very critical times. So that will be interesting to see how, if at all, Russia continues to be successful at delaying that process of getting the arms over to Ukraine. In terms of emotional pain, what we are going to do about actually rebuilding and reconstructing the country, after all is said and done, we will have to wait to see what that actually looks like, because there’s a lot of talk right now, and there’s a lot of packages being prepared. What we do know for certain is that there will be very, very significant support from ally countries for Ukraine to not just get to where it was, but I think the idea is for Ukraine to flourish after the war with all the support.

Of course, you cannot replace the lost lives, that’s the one thing that everyone agrees on. It’s not like we’re going to put a Band-Aid on Ukraine. On the other hand, whatever the countries can do to ensure that Ukraine is not, in the end, going to be victimized in the long-term is extremely important because one of the motivators for the Russian government going into Ukraine was, there were many, but one of them was to hinder Ukraine’s progress because it was beginning to progress to the point where it was going to outdo Russia in many areas, and of course, that does not make the Russian leadership look very good domestically. When a neighboring country is starting to do better than you and they [Ukraine] were going to do very, very well economically as well as everything else. So I think proving that this war did not hinder Ukraine’s progress, it will be a tough one but it’s something that, in terms of messaging, will be extremely important to show to Russia and to show to the world that Ukraine will continue to make progress.

 

Michael Pecorara: I hope that certainly does materialize and I thank you for your very thorough answer. If we can just shifttopics a little bit, my next question is why are people fleeing from Russia and what are these Russian refugees currently encountering when they flee Russia to neighboring countries.

Tinatin Japaridze: Well, when we say Russia or Russians in the United States and parts of Western Europe, I think we often don’t look at the nuance of what being Russian means. Not in the least, in terms of Russian ethnic ‘Russkiye’versus a Russian national which is ‘Rossiyane’. The Russian language, being one of the most beautiful languages I think, in the world, and it’s certainly one that I truly do admire, and for political reasons, that’s problematic these days, but I hope that we will be able to snap out of that at some point and that’s sort of beside the point, the Russian language does have that distinguishing factor of a Russian national versus an ethnic Russian.

When the word Russian is used in English, we don’t have that distinguishing factor, and I think that’s one of the important ways of looking at it. Looking at it through the prism of there are many kinds of Russians, and this huge country, and there are those, of course, who do support the Putin regime, that do continue to elect him, those whosupport the war in Ukraine or rather we should say “the special military operation”, which is what the Putin regime and the Putin supporters continue to use to describe what’s happening. The word “war” has not really been used officially by Russia even after the Victory Day speech, which was something that many thought would change the rhetoric used to be “war”. It did not. So, there are those who are trying to flee Russia. In fact, I met with a couple the other day here in New York who were among those who got out while they still could, and I absolutely don’t fault them because it’s not even about politics anymore. It’s sort of a moral question. It’s a question of morality. It’s a question of ethics and also, it’s that selfish question of survival because we are as human beings, programmed to survive. When we see that we’re being stifled, it’s very difficult to justify it. Some Russians will use that very cliche way of using the word ‘patriotism’ and say that, “You know what, I’m staying in Russia as a patriotic act, to sort of show the world that I believe in Russia, that I am a proud Russian and I will support Russia through and through including, in this military operation,” and they stay behind, arguably, if we’re playing devil’s advocate, they do also have a lot to gain from the Russian regime, from the leadership, because they have jobs and they have acomfortable life, that also depends on the regime surviving. So, there are those who will stay behind for that reason.

There are others who stay behind because they simply don’t have a way out. They cannot get out. They are stuck. It’s very easy to suggest “Why aren’t more people getting out right?” I was giving a talk at Columbia University yesterday, on the war in Ukraine and the Russian perspective as well, and one of the questions posed to me was: “Why aren’t more Russians getting out? Does them staying in Russia mean that they support the regime?”Absolutely not. There are many who wish they could get out, but they simply don’t have an out and it’s very, very tough, and it’s getting tougher and tougher. The regime is making it very hard for people to get out of Russia. So, we need to bear that in mind. When we look at those who stayed behind, that does not mean that they support what’s happening in Ukraine.

Of course, those who do support what’s happening in Ukraine, mostly for, as I said earlier, for selfish reasons of their living a comfortable life under the Putin regime, they don’t want to disturb, they don’t want to rock the boat essentially. However, those who did get out, got out because they don’t want to be stifled anymore and they’re afraid. There are certain signals that remind people of the early days of Stalinism, and I’m always very careful when people compare Putin to Stalin, and I don’t think Putin is Stalin. There are many differences, not because he’s better, or he’s worse, it’s just a very different leadership under very different circumstances, and a very different context and environment. However, there are also by the same token, a lot of undertones of the early days of the Stalin regime that are still very much alive within the living memory of the people of Russia, and they are afraid because they know that it is not going to get much better before it gets worse.

 

Michael Pecorara: I think that’s so frightening to realize. Thank you again. Just going back a little to your first answer. You mentioned the idea of a frozen conflict. What would we see on the ground in terms of internally displaced people living in affected areas, like the Donbas region, if this war were to freeze and become a frozen conflict like Georgia?

Tinatin Japaridze: Well, I think here we must, also, look at the difference between the breakaways in Georgia, and the difference in the current status and the current environment in the current reality of the breakaways in Ukraine’s Donbas region. I think the way that the Donbas region continues to be shelled and attacked has certainly surpassed what we saw in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. So, it was still livable, so to speak. There was a way that those who did stay behind could live a positive life, could live in a city, or maybe not under the best circumstances and the greatest comfort in the world, but, nonetheless, they could survive. We are seeing something very different in the Donbas region, and that, actually, I find very curious because if we look at it through the prism of: there were supporters of the Putin regime in the Donbas region, and of course, there were some Russian speakers who supported Putin, there were some who did not, but there is a viable argument to say that there was a support base there [in the Donbas regions]. I think the Putin regime and his intelligence officers and advisors did sort of overestimate the amount of support there would be when they went in because I don’t think they were met with balloons and flowers and open arms which was what they expected, sort of Crimea 2.0 to happen. That did not happen, of course.

However, in terms of a support base there, there were people living in the Donbas region who did support the Putinregime. Of course, having said that, what I find very curious from an intelligence standpoint is that knowing that there was a base of supporters, they’re continuing to shell and attack the Donbas region and the people who live there, some of whom were supporting Putin and the Putin regime. The armed forces, Russian forces, go in and attack, and shell both houses and civilians. This is very strange because you are essentially not just attacking your support base or those within that base that support you, but you are essentially alienating those who were supporting you because once Russia pulls out of the region, let’s say they don’t get Donbas, right? If we just, for a moment, imagine that Russia will not get a piece of Donbas, even when the war is over, there will be very, very few who will support Putin after who were perhaps, either supporting him, or those who were kind of on the fence. They were okay with Russia taking over, maybe they weren’t thrilled, but they were kind of okay with it. They could live with it. Now, how does Putin make a case to those people to say that I came in to liberate you, when all we saw was just shelling and shelling and shelling of homes, of houses? That’s going to be a very tough sell.

Up until now, Russia had a case for when it would say, “Look at what Ukraine was doing in the region and the Donbas and Eastern Ukraine over the last eight years.” It’s going to be a very tough job now, to say to those same people, “Ukraine was the only one attacking you but then we came in and we liberated you,” that is a very tough one to argue with. I think what we’re going to see is less and less of those who did support the Putin regime, will support the Putin regime in that part of Ukraine when the kinetic warfare is over.

 

Michael Pecorara: What a nightmare that would be for Putin. Thank you once again for that answer. So just moving to a different topic, when Russia invaded Georgia about a decade ago, what impact did this have for people living in those Breakaway regions in terms of displacement, and what freedom of travel exists into and out of these regions today? Are the borders fluid or are they pretty rigid?

Tinatin Japaridze: It’s pretty rigid, although it really depends on one’s passport, their citizenship, in terms of getting in and getting out. It’s easier to get into the breakaways with a Russian passport, for example, so they will let one through from what I’m hearing, but if one tries to sneak across the physical border back into Georgia with a Russian passport, well, good luck! That’s going to be a very tough one. So, because of the frozen conflict, the borders are also very much frozen, right? However, in a way, they’re kind of fluid. They’re in a flux. They’re also extremely unstable in the sense that it’s very hard to picture those two breakaways, as sort of countries or de facto countries,independent countries, with rigid borders. Also, notwithstanding the fact that we can’t forget that literally on, if not a day, a very, very regular basis, the border into Georgia keeps shifting and moving further into Georgia at a very frightening regularity.

Every now and then, I read horrifying stories and interviews with people in the breakaways, who tell these horrific stories…literally, I read one recently about an elderly man in Georgia, who woke up in the morning and realized that, quite literally again, his backyard was now not part of Georgia anymore, yet his house was still in Georgia.There was an actual border that moved in, which affected half of his property, which is scary. I am not just talking like in a psychological way, the conflict is ongoing. It’s frozen but it’s ongoing. The border keeps shifting into Georgia and very little is being done about it. What concerns me is that it’s really a shame that we ended up with this frozen conflict in Georgia because the interest of the international players who make up the international arena was lost very quickly. Once the five-day war was over, the West moved on to the next big thing, right? We saw that happen, and also there was the potential crisis and everything else. Obviously, priorities shifted and so did attention. However, what I really, sincerely hope doesn’t happen, and I don’t think we will, just the way that it’s progressing, I hope that we won’t see that in Ukraine as well.

However, once there is a concession from the Ukrainian side, and if any of the Russian troops stay behind inUkraine. Proper, what really scares me is that then we see the international community start getting used to what’s happening and we don’t notice anymore when the border keeps moving into Ukraine and a little more, and a little more, still on a regular basis because an inch here, an inch there, in the end, will multiply and add up, and when it does add up, that really scares me that the war is not over. It’s almost like Georgia, in our heads it’s sort of like, “Yeah well it has ended and now it’s just frozen.” when actually, it’s ongoing because Russia continues to occupy 20% of Georgia. The lives that were impacted, those internally displaced people, you can’t tell them that it’s okay and nobody’s shelling you anymore, so you’ll be fine. They lost their lives. They lost their homes. They have no way of going back to where they come from and it’s very, very scary to me how fast the international community moved on from that war. I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen in Ukraine.

I think that may have been Putin’s hope, but I don’t think so. Not in the least due to the sheer size of Ukraine, its importance geopolitically, economically, it is not as much as… I’m Georgian, and I’m proud of being Georgian, but Ukraine is of a different size and magnitude. So, this will not be a ‘Georgia Playbook’ by any stretch of the imagination. What I do wonder about, however, is whether what’s happening in Ukraine now, and how this war is eventually resolved one way or another, and how the conflict is resolved as well, whether or not that will positively impact the ongoing frozen conflict in Georgia. Will that make the international Community rethink how they should treat what’s happening in Georgia? At some point, Russia will be overextended which is why when some say, “Oh Russia will go into Moldova next. They’re going to focus on maybe another country in the region,” I frankly am not so sure because the Russian army is not as strong as the regime wants us to think it is, and we’ve seen that. We’ve seen that just purely from the actions on the battlefield and whether it is its artillery, I mean, a lot of it is legacies from the Soviet era, and some of it, frankly, does not work as well as they would want it to, in terms of the machinery. So when we see Russia using mercenaries from Syria and trying to recruit more troops, that shows me that they are already overextended, and any idea of them going into another war and opening up another front is going to crush them. So, I don’t think that they can afford to move, and I don’t genuinely think that they’re going to really, in a realistic way, consider doing that.

What they will continue to do more of, is the things that they’re very, very good at. The Russian regime is very good at misinformation and I think that they will continue to spread that across the region. They don’t need to do it as much in Ukraine, but they will do more of it in the region, broadly in Eurasia. So, they will use that as one of its tools that is very successful. The second thing that they will do more of, I think, that they haven’t been doing as much of is not what is cyber-attacks. It is significantly cheaper, of course, than actual kinetic warfare, so they will revert to doing more of that, and I think we’re going to see more cyber-attacks, so continuing to build up the resilience of Western countries like Georgia, like Moldova, like others in in the region, is extremely important because it’s just a matter of time, and I don’t think it’s going to be a matter of a lot of time before we start to see a lot more cyber-attacks than we have been seeing thus far in the ongoing war in Ukraine.

 

Michael Pecorara: That’s a fascinating response. Such a scary response as well. I don’t think anybody wants to see more disinformation from Russia and more cyber-attacks, but I think that’s such a fascinating perspective on the issue. I want to respect your time, so I have just one final question. If we could just end on a little bit more of a solution-based note, what long-term solutions are there in Georgia, potentially, that can help with internally displaced people, and the refugee crisis that Georgia is facing and its progress in general?

Tinatin Japaridze: So, because this is obviously not my domain of expertise, I will leave it to the experts to really think about solutions and actual concrete recommendations, but I think the one thing that sucks that we can agree on is that the Georgian government has to, sort of, be a Georgian government. Within the population, some very strongly supportthe ruling party while others very, very strongly are opposed to the ruling party and support the various opposition parties and the opposition Coalition more broadly. There’s such a vast and pronounced segmentation within the population, and there’s such a lack of jobs within the government, right?

Because at the end of the day, the parliament is not just comprised of the Georgian Dream. There are opposition representatives within the Georgian Parliament, as well, and let’s not forget that it’s a parliamentary system after all, it is no longer a presidential system. So, in that respect, I think we do need to be aware of. When I say ‘we’ I say that because I’m ethnically Georgian, but I’m not a Georgian citizen, I’m a US citizen, so I will reiterate that I don’t work with or for the Georgian government, but the country of Georgia should really try to have a more concerted effort of being on the same page within the various areas of the government, the opposition, the civilian heads, where there are certain issues, including the refugee crisis, including the IDPs and solving that ongoing crisis. Also, cybersecurity, also countering disinformation, all these issues should really, really not be political. They are politicizing these issues and we’ve seen that in our own country, in the United States, how very important day-to-day existence issues such as public health, with the outbreak of Covid-19, it can be political. We’ve seen how whether or not one wears a mask became such a political issue over the last couple of years in our own country, right? So, in Georgia, that’s even more pronounced because it’s smaller, so everything is more visible in a small country, and we disagree so much on politics within the country, on issues that should not be either/or there is also division. We need to take care of the frozen conflict. We need to take care of countering the Russian threat in a concrete manner where the two sides, and now there’s multiple sides because the opposition has a coalition, so there are multipleparties within the coalition, of course, and the Georgian government, they need to come to the negotiating table, and just come to a joint table on more issues such as the IDPs.

A lot of the bickering, a lot of the political disputes and arguments, and it’s sort of very petty at this point. We are forgetting about the major issues of existence that need to be addressed. We spend so much time bickering that we forget that there are human beings that are being impacted by this, and there is a common ground in terms of tackling these issues. If we just see past the politics of it and not politicize absolutely everything including public health, including the IDP issues and the refugee crisis, including countering misinformation, if we just put political ambitions and egos aside for a moment, I think we will, as a country, my native country, will do much, much better. However, there is very little unison, and there is no unifying Georgia and voice that is coming out of Georgia. We have this polyphonic culture in our music, in Georgian music, and I think polyphonic music is great, but polyphonic politics for a small country in the international arena, is not going to serve the Georgian people and the country of Georgia in the best way possible. Publicity is great in some aspects when we talk about culture, but it is not so great when we’re talking about speaking in unison as a small country in the international arena on a global stage

 

 

 

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