What the West Can Learn From Putin's Other Neighbors

The U.S. and EU have to think hard about why the countries of the former Soviet empire matter to them. 
Where have all the Kremlinologists gone? Photographer: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

David Usupashvili, the chairman of Georgia's parliament, thinks that his country's experience after Russia's 2008 invasion has some big lessons that are relevant now.

One is that the West cannot assume Russian President Vladimir Putin's appetite for invading his neighbors has been sated. Russia signed a peace treaty with Georgia in 2008 and has never met its terms or paid a price for doing so, Usupashvili told me at a German Marshall Fund conference in Brussels. Now, by annexing Crimea, it has breached the 1994 treatyin which it guaranteed Ukraine's borders. At the same time, U.S. and Europe aren't willing to enforce these agreements.

So what can be done? "Sometimes I think all the Kremlinologists in the West must have retired," he said, bemoaning how Western leaders consistentlyfail to understand how Putin and many Russians think: They are caught up in patriotic fervor -- if sanctions trigger 20 percent inflation, they will remember Stalingrad and survive.

What Europe and the U.S. need to do, Usupashvili says, is to think about why the countries of the former Soviet empire matter to them. Naturally enough, he focuses on Georgia. Look at a map, he says. Between the southern tip of occupied South Ossetia in Georgia and the border of Armenia, where there is a large Russian military base, the distance is roughly 80 kilometers (50 miles). That is the entire breadth of the non-Russian held corridor that connects Europe with Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. It is the corridor through which oil and gas are transported west. At some point, he assumes, Putin will want to close the door.

"Putin understands the importance of this, but I don't understand why Western leaders don't," says Usupashvili.

Instead of sanctions, he says, Putin understands commitment. So the main issue isn't punishing Russia so much as it is speeding up the commitment of the European Union, and more importantly the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to countries such as Georgia and Ukraine.

This comes with obvious dangers. The closer NATO moves toward embracing Georgia, say, the more likely it is that Russian troops will try to pre-empt the effort. NATO therefore should put assets on the ground in potential member countries. This would do more than economic sanctions to give Putin pause, Usupashvili says, because Russia does not want to risk war with the Western alliance. He cites as evidence the warship and aircraft that the U.S. deployed to Georgia in 2008, which he believes prevented the country from being overrun.

"I'm uncomfortable telling people what they should do," says Usupashvili. "Without the help the international community has given, we would already have been wiped off the map. But I'm also looking for answers for my people -- and in our part of the world, neutrality is not an option."

I think he asks a fair question: Does the West, in fact, care enough about these countries to take the risk of confronting Russia? One way or another, it will have to decide.

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