Ukraine’s appointment of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of its southern Odessa region amounts to a pointless provocation of Russia that will do nothing to end the violence in the east.
President Petro Poroshenko described Saakashvili as “a great friend of Ukraine” on Saturday and gave the former Caucasus leader Ukrainian citizenship to facilitate the move.
But it’s unclear what good Saakashvili can do.
Russia, which is fanning the flames of a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region, remembers the former president only too well.
In 2008, he attacked his country’s breakaway province of South Ossetia, knowing this would likely trigger a Russian response and apparently counting on the United States to support him.
In the event, Russia did respond — by invading Georgia. And the United States stood back and let it happen.
President George W. Bush had spoken admirably of Georgia’s 2003 “Rose Revolution” that saw Saakashvili take power from the Kremlin’s strawman in Tbilisi. The Americans also welcomed Georgia’s westward tilt and its support for their wars in the Middle East. But they were not going to risk a conflict with Russia to support the aspirations of the president of a small Caucasus nation that is of little, if any, strategic significance to the West. Saakashvili’s bet that they would shows how dangerous a man he is.
There are more parallels with today’s crisis in Ukraine. Like the Donbas region, South Ossetia is largely populated by ethnic Russians. Like the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics, South Ossetia is under de facto Russian control even if Moscow recognizes it and Georgia’s other breakaway republic, Abkhazia, as independent states. And as was the case in Georgia in 2008, the West welcomes the pro-Western intentions of Kiev — but won’t help them if the price is war with Russia.