Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Frozen in Time

By David G. Young

Miami Beach, FL, July 12, 2022 --  

Those pondering Ukraine’s future should look to its southern neighbor that has been there before.

Fourteen years after Russia's invasion of its smaller democratic neighbor, not much has changed.  The front lines remain fixed from shortly after the fighting ended.  The residents of the breakaway regions carry Russian passports and use the Ruble, but no major country besides Russia recognizes the de facto borders.  

While its democracy survived the Russian onslaught, its dreams of joining NATO and the EU were dashed.  With Russian forces occupying its territory, NATO candidacy is all but impossible.  Resolving territorial disputes is a prerequisite to membership.  And the alternative solution is unthinkable — any democratically elected leader who gives up on occupied territories faces political suicide.

Is this a vision of Ukraine in 2036?  Nope -- it is a description of the reality in today's Georgia.  Back in 2008, Georgia was a fledgling democracy with a charismatic leader.  That leader infuriated Russia with its NATO and EU ambitions.  Much like today's Ukraine, it faced a Russian invasion and lost 20 percent of its territory.

But the experience of Georgia was not identical to that of today's Ukraine.   Georgia was swiftly defeated and fighting ended before a month had passed.  There was no massive supply of Western arms and no serious attempt by the country to regain territory captured by the Russians. 

Instead of rallying his country against the invaders, Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili was blamed for the defeat by his countrymen  and sent to exile.  He then served as Governor of Odessa in Ukraine.  But that didn’t last — Ukraine's former president deported Saakashvili for daring to run for president against him.  Today, Saakashvili is in prison in Georgia's capital of Tbilisi for the dubiously vague charge of abuse of power.

Georgia's failure to fight off Russia is not all Saakashvili's fault.  Georgia was simply too small to fight back -- with a tiny land area smaller than the American state with the same name, and just 3.7 million residents.  Compare this to Russia's 144 million people.  By contrast,  Ukraine has 44 million people and has the second largest territory of any country in Europe, surpassed only by Russia itself.

But while Ukraine may be able to fight off the Russian invaders better than Georgia, its ability to "win" a war depends on the meaning of the word win.  President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has done a fantastic job of rallying the world to assist his nation, and the Ukrainians have used their limited forces admirably to extract punishing losses on their larger neighbor.  Five months into the war, the days were the world believed Russia would defeat Ukraine as quickly as it defeated Georgia are long gone.  

But unless an unexpected regime change in Russia leads to a withdrawl,  it is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to significantly reverse Russia's territorial gains.  This is especially true in areas that  have a sympathetic Russian-speaking population (think Crimea and the territories of  Donetsk and Luhansk that separated in 2014) or have been depopulated by war (think Mariupol and Severodonetsk).  That means that Ukraine in 2036 will probably look a lot like Georgia today -- with big chunks of its territory occupied by Russia in a frozen conflict, effectively locking it out of NATO and the EU.  The country’s fate will be frozen in time.

While Ukraine and Moldova were granted EU candidate status last month, Georgia was one again denied the same.  But Georgia shouldn’t feel too bad — this was probably just a sympathetic gesture for Ukraine rather than a serious step toward membership.  Consider that Turkey has been an EU candidate for over 20 years, with membership nowhere on the horizon.

Ukraine’s months-long furious fight against Russia shows no end in sight.  It will keep going so long as the Americans and Europeans keep paying for the weapons used to wage war, and as long as Russian discontent remains under control. 

Continued fighting will move the front line a bit, but it is unlikely to change the end game.  Sooner or later,  Ukraine and Russia will both tire enough that the battles will stop.  Fourteen years after that happens, it’s a good beacon that Ukraine’s future will look  a lot like what Georgia faces today.

Related Web Columns:

The Bridge to Odessa, June 28, 2022

Shattered Contracta, April 5, 2022

Ukraine's Grim Fate, March 8, 2022

Double Nightmare, January 25, 2022

Putin's Disaster, December 21, 2021

Ukraine's Long Path, October 21, 2017

Under Control? April 8, 2014

An Amicable Divorce, February 25, 2014