David L. Phillips

We were seated at the conference table in the office of Mikhail Saakashvili (aka “Misha”), the former President of Georgia, to discuss tensions with Russia. It was June 2008, just prior to the outbreak of war with separatist forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I noticed photos with Senator John McCain, stacked on the floor waiting to be hung on Misha’s trophy wall. Misha was the darling of US neo-conservatives (“neo-cons”) who welcomed his willingness to confront Vladimir Putin.

Tense Georgia-Russia tensions existed for years prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Georgia conducted a referendum on independence on March 31, 1991 with 93% voting for independence. The referendum was held on the entirety of Georgia’s territory, including both Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia. The international community, including the United Nations, recognized the outcome.

Very few ethnic Russians lived in either Abkhazia or South Ossetia prior to the Russian invasions of 1992-1993 and 2008. Ethnic Russians were resettled and manipulated by Moscow to oppose statehood for Georgia. The Georgia-Ossetian War erupted in the Tskhinval region of South Ossetia.

Beginning in 1992, Russia orchestrated an ethnic cleansing of ethnic Georgians living in both regions. The cleansing resulted in close to 300,000 people fleeing to other parts of the country or abroad.

After Georgia’s so-called Revolution of Roses, Misha vowed to restore Georgia’s sovereignty over the breakaway republics when he was elected president in 2003. His generous power-sharing plan provided substantial autonomy for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, the South Ossetians and Abkhaz refused to cooperate. They fortified positions, set up roadblocks, and voted for independence in 2006.

Putin issued a decree in April 2008 establishing “direct legal and humanitarian links with Abkhazia and South Ossetia”. In May 2008, Russia dispatched over 500 troops to Abkhazia in breach of the 1995 Moscow agreement and over 1,000 troops to Tskhinvali. In addition to deploying Russian troops, Moscow armed and trained local militias in violation of its responsibilities as an international “peace-keeper”. As a result of its 2008 invasion, Russia expanded its illegal military presence in Abkhazia’s Kodori gorge and the Akhalgori district in the Tskhinvali region.   

Many citizens of Georgia residing in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia were issued Russian passports. Russia had this same approach towards Russians in the Donbas region of Ukraine between 2014 and 2022. It also issued passports to ethnic Russians in the Transnistria region of Moldova. Protecting Russians was used as justification for Putin to invade Georgia and Ukraine. The same pretext is used today in Moldova.

I led a fact-finding delegation for the Atlantic Council and Columbia’s Harriman Institute to South Ossetia and Abkhazia in June 2008, just weeks prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Russia moved tens of thousands of troops to Russia’s border with Georgia and goaded Misha into conflict. In the early hours of August 7, 2008, as many as 150 Russian military vehicles passed through the Roki tunnel connecting Russia to the Tskhinvali region. While Georgia had broad bipartisan support in Washington, including Senators McCain and Biden, neo-cons convinced Misha that the US had his back. The US was never serious about defending Georgia in a war with Russia.

The 2008 Russia-Georgia war was a major setback. Georgia lost over 20% of its territory. Russia established permanent military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Government of Georgia made repeated good faith efforts to integrate South Ossetians and Abkhaz, but they were rebuffed.

The first meeting between Putin and Misha in 2004 was cordial. However, Misha became a thorn in Putin’s side. Putin became increasingly concerned about color revolutions, popular movements aimed at overthrowing pro-Russian regimes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova.

When Misha left the Georgian presidency in November 2013, he served as an advisor to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko on countering corruption. Misha was entrusted by Poroshenko with the governorship of the Odessa region. 

Misha loves the spotlight. He joined popular protests in Kyiv’s Maidan Square (i.e. the Revolution of Dignity”), calling for the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych. On February 22, 2014, Ukraine’s parliament voted to remove Yanukovych and he fled to Moscow.

Putin was incensed and blamed Misha for the “Orange Revolution”, which led to Yanukovych’s exile. Russia responded by invading and annexing Crimea.

The fate of Georgia and Ukraine are connected. Georgia and Ukraine hoped to join NATO’s Membership Action Plan at the Bucharest summit in 2008. Though the Alliance welcomed their aspirations, the final communique stated vaguely: “These countries will become members of NATO” (someday).

In October 2021, Misha reentered Georgia hidden in a refrigerator car full of dairy products. He was arrested, put in the Rustavi Prison and charged him with entering the country illegally. He was also implicated in the murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani and the beating of a member of parliament, Valeriy Gelashvili. 

In a statement dated November 9, Amnesty International said Misha’s treatment by authorities was “not just selective justice but apparent political revenge.” It noted that Mr. Saakashvili was “violently transferred to the prison hospital, allegedly threatened; denied dignity, privacy, and adequate healthcare.” Human Rights Watch criticized the Georgian authorities for treatment that “risks humiliation, inhuman and degrading treatment”. The European Court of Human Rights has recently decided to admit appeals by Misha’s lawyers on both rulings.

When assessing Misha’s role, the international community must beware conclusions that justify Putin’s aggression or claims of moral equivalency. Russia’s invasion of 2008 was part of Putin’s broader imperial ambitions. Misha predicted that Russia would target Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014. He feared that Russia would unleash a full-scale war in Ukraine and threaten other neighbors, such as Finland and Sweden.

Putin must be confronted and stopped in Ukraine lest Russia expand operations to Georgia, Moldova and other former Soviet states in the Baltics who have joined NATO. The pattern is predictable. Putin will create a crisis to justify defending Russian minorities.

Confronting Putin should be strategic rather than emotional. Misha cannot be blamed for Putin’s aggression and crimes. His experience, however, underscores the risk of reckless rhetoric and poking the bear.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Experts during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. His reports —  Post-Conflict Georgia (September 2008) and Restoring Georgia’s Sovereignty in Abkhazia (July 2008) — were published by the Atlantic Council where he served as Director of the Caucasus Forum (2008-2010).