Between barricades of tires and impromptu memorials to the victims of Ukraine’s revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili stops to pose for pictures and shake hands. “You showed us how to fight Russia,” says a gray-haired man in a camouflage jacket, embracing him on Institutska Street, a front line in last week’s climactic clashes in the capital.
As the former president of the ex-Soviet nation of Georgia, Mr. Saakashvili certainly knows all about confronting Russia and Vladimir Putin. He also lost a chunk of his country in the process. Now he is here in Ukraine, a country he knows well from his youth, to advise its new leaders on how they can revive the economy as well as keep their nation intact from Russian’s potentially crippling intervention.
Mr. Saakashvili studied law and served in the Soviet military in Kiev, altogether for seven years. He has many friends and knows the major politicians, who seek out his advice.
His own rise to power also began with the victory of a youthful street uprising over a corrupt and autocratic post-Soviet leader—Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003. Thirty-seven years old at the time, Mr. Saakashvili became the youngest president in Europe. As president, he overhauled Georgia’s government and economy, pushing the country hard westward, along the way making many foes, most perilously Mr. Putin.
Now it’s Ukraine’s turn to face the Russian’s wrath. In response to the downfall of a client in Kiev, the Kremlin has moved swiftly to cleave off the Crimean peninsula and perhaps the eastern border regions of Ukraine. Less than five years ago, Mr. Putin fought a war with Georgia, pledging to hang President Saakashvili by his testicles. Russian troops now occupy the country’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.
By Friday, Crimea’s local government and television station were in the hands of Moscow loyalists. Russian gunmen stood guard at the airports and controlled land crossings into the peninsula. Other reports put Russian special forces on the ground in Ukraine’s eastern border regions and some 2,000 reinforcements were flown into Russia’s Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol, the Crimean port. Back in Kiev, a transitional government barely a day old accused Russia of an “armed invasion.”
“Nobody knows quite what to do here, and it’s really messy,” Mr. Saakashvili says, “and Putin knows exactly what to do.” The Georgian has never hidden his contempt for the Russian leader, but his reading of Mr. Putin has been validated daily as the drama has played out.
“What does he want here? Chaos,” Mr. Saakashvili says. “He has good chances here this time to really chop up Ukraine. It’s going toward big-scale conflict. Big, big internal conflict. He’ll stir up trouble in some of the Ukrainian regions. It’s a very crucial moment. Russia will try to Balkanize Ukraine.”
Here’s how some of the chaos is sown: On Friday afternoon, deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned up in Russia, pronouncing himself still in charge. Russian state media is in war-propaganda mode, calling the new leaders in Kiev—many of whom worked with Mr. Putin in the past—”extremists” and “fascists.” In Moscow on Friday, legislators also moved to ease the procedures for outside territories to join Russia.
Mr. Saakashvili’s views of Mr. Putin weren’t always so hostile. In the early days of Georgia’s revolution, Russia didn’t meddle, he says. “Putin was more humble.” About a decade ago, the former KGB agent moved to tighten his grip on power. Domestic repression came with an aggressive anti-Western policy abroad.
In a 2005 speech, Mr. Putin said “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and “a genuine tragedy” that “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.” With its 46 million people and the seat of ancient Kiev Rus, Ukraine was the most painful loss for the Russian imperium. In a private conversation with George W. Bush in 2008, Mr. Putin averred that Ukraine wasn’t a real state.
“Putin never just says things,” says Mr. Saakashvili, who met with him often before the 2008 war. “Ukraine is a ‘territory’ to him and a territory needs to be divided. The problem with Putin is not just that he’s a revisionist. He’s revanchist. That’s why it’s a clash of interests. He wants it back.”
The collapse of the Yanukovych regime set back the Putin plan to control Ukraine through a crony. His $15 billion in aid, no strings attached, couldn’t prop up Mr. Yanukovych, who had done Moscow’s bidding by shelving an EU “association” treaty and moving Ukraine toward the Putin-led Eurasian Union.
“If Ukraine’s a success, a smooth transition, a nice government, doing nice reforms—for Putin, it’s the end of him,” says Mr. Saakashvili. Russians will see the contrast with their slowing economy dragged down by an oligarch-Putin complex that makes Mr. Yanukovych’s corruption look thrifty. “Putin is old fashioned,” says the Georgian, who is now 46. “He is really obsolete.”
Based on Georgia’s experience, Mr. Saakashvili believes that Russia will try to incite a clash in Crimea and then offer its services to restore order. He doesn’t believe Russia will provoke a direct military clash with Ukraine’s still-formidable military, which wouldn’t be popular in Russia itself. “It’s not Georgia,” he says. “Putin wants to be at the same time a peacemaker and a troublemaker,” he says. “He did it quite well in Syria.” The Russians shielded and armed Bashar Assad’s regime. When President Obama late last summer sought a way out of his empty promise to intervene militarily, Russia popped up to mediate with Syria.
Mr. Saakashvili’s presence in Kiev in December early in the Maidan protests and again this week were a poke in the eye of the Russian bear. One Western diplomat in town worried that it reinforced the Kremlin leader’s paranoia about Ukraine and Western involvement in the revolution. “I think Putin would believe anyway that the CIA is orchestrating all this,” Mr. Saakashvili says with irony. “For him I am just one of its affiliates. But if I’m here, then it’s really serious. Then it’s high-level CIA involvement.”
Only a few days ago, the Maidan’s victory prompted obituary notices for Russian imperialism. Mr. Saakashvili isn’t abandoning that hope. “It depends on what happens in the next month.” How the Ukrainians and the outside world respond will be determinate. “Putin has been so incredibly lucky several times in the past,” he says, “it’s almost diabolic.”
The Crimean crisis has brought back from diplomatic obscurity the “Budapest Memorandum” of 1994, in which the U.S., U.K. and Russia pledged to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Mr. Saakashvili says the outcome on the Maidan showed that the Russians overestimate, and the U.S. and Europeans underestimate, their leverage in the region.
The West dragged its feet on financial sanctions against the Yanukovych circle, but on Thursday last week a move by the EU—after 77 protesters were shot dead in broad daylight—helped bring down the Ukrainian leader. Fearing for their assets and visas, his cronies quickly dropped him.
If Russia keeps up the heat on Crimea, Mr. Saakashvili says, then the West should hit the Putin circle with sanctions. “It would be the same” reaction as in Ukraine. “The last time I was in Miami, it was full of rich Russians. If you tell them you can no longer come here and you have to freeze in Moscow, then they will turn on Putin.” Western governments have “much more leverage than they realize. They just need to apply it.”
Georgia’s experience suggests, however, that there are limits to the free world’s appetite for confrontation. Military help is off the table, as Mr. Saakashvili is the first to say. Since the Soviet collapse, the West has deferred to Russia’s dominance in its backyard. Mr. Saakashvili, who has a law degree from Columbia University, cultivated a friendship with President Bush and sent Georgian troops to support the U.S. in Iraq to win America’s support against Kremlin influence. A pendant around his neck inscribed with Churchill’s “never give in” speech was a gift from Sen. John McCain. Despite Mr. Saakashvili’s lobbying, the door to the West’s clubs never cracked open for his little country.
The 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and subsequent occupation of parts of it meant that the country had to shelve its EU and NATO ambitions for as long as Russia remains a hostile power. After his election, President Obama launched a “reset” in relations with Russia to smooth over the tensions from the Georgian war. The new president wouldn’t take calls from Misha, as everyone informally calls Mr. Saakashvilli. “It took me three years to get to the Oval Office,” he says. “Not that I enjoyed these tours to Washington, but it sent the wrong signal to the Russians.”
This time, he says, the U.S. should take a firmer line with Russia, and warn Mr. Putin to stay out of Ukraine. An invitation to Russia to work together on Ukraine—as extended by European and U.S. officials this week—only reinforces the impression of spoils on the table to be divided. “That’s totally misunderstood by Putin,” he says.
At every opportunity, Mr. Saakashvili says that Ukraine’s best defense against Russian pressure is a successful move to European-style rule. This is what the revolution was about. “Change must come fast,” he says. “I’m worried about Crimea, but I’m more worried about Kiev. If Kiev goes into protracted political crisis, then everything else will explode.”
Prone to mood swings late in his presidential term, the Georgian now seems unceasingly upbeat. But isn’t it frustrating to see Russia’s aggressive history repeat itself?
“I’m frustrated, sure,” he says, “but at a certain point it cannot be like this. Come on. Russia is in trouble.” He says this with a bravado that, given the events of the past few days, sounds like it could be wishful thinking.
Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.