As the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly unfolded, the Western leaders tried to rally the global South to Ukraine’s cause. The Presidents of France and the United States have notably addressed this matter head-on in their statements.
The international media reported on this extensively, with The Economist reporting on “How Russia is trying to win the global South”, and noting that the reaction from the states of Africa, Asia, and Latin America to Russia’s aggression has been relatively subdued.
Georgia faced similar challenges after the 2008 invasion left its two provinces, Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia occupied by Russian troops and formally recognized as “independent” by Moscow. The Kremlin attempted to cement the dismemberment of Georgia by achieving the international recognition of the two provinces it occupied. Yet, almost none came.
What is more, as of 2020, only 12 states align with Russia against the UNGA resolution tabled annually by Georgia, which is calling for the return of displaced persons to the occupied provinces.
How was that made possible?
To find out, we spoke with Dr. Eka Akobia, who headed the Department of Asia, Africa, and Latin America at the Georgian Foreign Ministry during 2012-2016. She serves now as the Dean of the Caucasus School of Governance at the Caucasus University.
Civil.ge: You held one of the pivotal positions at the Foreign Ministry when it came to countering the Russian pressure on the countries of the global south to recognize the independence of the two provinces Moscow occupied in Georgia. What was the approach you and your colleagues at the Foreign Ministry deployed?
Dr. Eka Akobia: Russia’s unwarranted military aggression against Georgia and its subsequent moves, illegal under international law, has served as a turning point for Georgian diplomacy. Russia’s illegal actions included sham referendums on independence in ethnically cleansed regions, aiding separatist entities to unilaterally declare independence and then augmenting offensive military presence there, as well as illegal “borderization” and creeping annexation under the guise of the so-called treaties on friendship.
These actions triggered the shift to Georgia’s more proactive and alert diplomatic engagement, which also had to be more global than ever before. Our approach rested on three pillars: value-based partnerships; proactivity, and selfless professionalism with a strong sense of mission imbued in patriotism.
In executing this new diplomacy oriented towards global outreach, our approach was both straightforward and proactive. It was straightforward in the sense that we appealed to the individual member states of the UN, arguing that Russia’s actions in Georgia were not a single, isolated case but problematic on a broader principle: as an example of one neighbor invading another in violation of international agreements that underline the modern international order and security, such as the Helsinki Final Act, the Paris Charter and most importantly the UN Charter.
We argued that if condoned, this kind of behavior would become commonplace and would threaten all the states.
This simple logic was easy for smaller countries to sympathize with, often simply because many live next to big neighbors. If international order unravels due to Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, it will harm them too, if not now, then in the medium- to long-term.
We appealed to the individual member states of the UN, arguing that Russia’s actions in Georgia were not a single, isolated case but were problematic on a broader principle. We argued that if condoned, this kind of behavior would become commonplace and would threaten all the states.
So, we rallied these states’ support for Georgia with the underlying logic that they were not doing it for Georgia’s sake only, but for the cause of all states who felt safer in the existing order, as enshrined in the UN Charter.
Our actions were proactive. That is, we worked actively and hard to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation and to deliver our message about the truth and the dangers of Russia’s behavior to every partner. We did it in all the possible ways, every time it was needed: by using global as well as regional multilateral forums as well as bilateral channels.
And talking of bilateral channels, did you have to increase the outreach?
Since 2008, Georgia concluded diplomatic relations with 58 additional countries, opened embassies in faraway states, and actively sought to augment the network of its diplomatic coverage. Currently, Georgia has diplomatic relations with more than 180 countries around the world.
The rationale was to have direct channels for the exchange of information even with faraway countries, to have them as friends and partners, by building cordial bilateral as well as multilateral cooperation.
Very few countries in the world enjoy – and can afford – such extensive, almost universal diplomatic coverage. Our diplomacy became a living embodiment of Georgian classical poet, Shota Rustaveli’s wisdom: those who seek no friends, are the enemies of themselves.
Another great author, JRR Tolkien also noted that not knowing enough about each other is sometimes the cause for misunderstandings and inner and outer group dynamics. The Lord of The Rings character says to the assembled guests: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve”.
We believe this was the advantage Russia had when it managed to get Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Syria to recognize the occupied Georgian lands as independent countries. Half of these countries knew so little about Georgia that they easily bought the Russian version of events. Others, like Syria, were isolated and in breach of almost every rule of the international game. Their stance does not represent the sovereign will of their people and has no international standing. Their government is only propped up by Putin’s support.
When we explained the difficulties of living with a neighbor which does not respect your sovereignty and freedom to choose your defensive alliances, many partners heard echoes of their own colonial past
However, when we explained the difficulties of living with a neighbor which does not respect your sovereignty and freedom to choose your defensive alliances, many partners heard echoes of their own colonial past and often were almost amused at how little they knew about the Russian Imperial and Soviet adventurism and military opportunism.
Through this new, wider outreach of our diplomacy and the Allied support, we were able to reverse Tuvalu and Vanuatu’s decisions: these countries withdrew the recognition and re-affirmed their recognition of Georgia’s international borders, territorial integrity, and sovereignty.
That was truly a remarkable feat, and obviously, that could not have been done just from Tbilisi. What was the engagement of international partners?
The biggest support to our cause and our message were, of course, firm support from the U.S., the EU, and individual member states to Georgia, but also their soft power attracting the interest of both Tuvalu and Vanuatu. It is in their interest to be counted as a part of civilized states and to enjoy the benefits of being part of a peace-loving, progressive and cooperative community, where there is trust, openness, and opportunities for trade, connectivity, and people-to-people contacts.
So, when we spoke to our partners about what happened in Georgia, how Russia has illegally invaded Georgia, and then conducted illegal referendums and committed illegal acts of recognition of these regions, we augmented their own sense of why principles matter. It was not only a case of Georgia but a case with the potential to unravel international order. Hence, it captured their national interest.
Our strong ties and partnership with the United States, the EU, and individual European partners significantly augmented and strengthened our positions. Without such overarching support, Georgia would have been defenseless vis-a-vis Russian resources.
That support stemmed from our value-based partnership as well as the overarching understanding that, ultimately, we were all protecting general principles and not an isolated case.
But it was still important for us to be proactive. Diplomatic channels are diverse and complex. Sometimes governments change, there are personnel changes and you cannot just rely on bureaucracies to carry over the message. One needs a personal touch. Ultimately, we were the ones to deliver, stress, and explain our problems. We did this hand-in-hand with our Western partners as well as other friendly partners, who had open hearts and minds to see what we saw: if left untreated, Putin’s malpractice had started to spread across its frontiers and could one day spread to their frontiers if the wrongdoers felt successful and saw their deeds rewarded.
It is important to be proactive…and one needs a personal touch.
So, our job was to be vigilant, active, and attentive and to work tirelessly to carry the message with all the means necessary. Of course, Russia had more resources, and greater reach and was also shamelessly engaged in “checkbook” diplomacy, but we had the truth and almost universal understanding that violating fundamental principles would plunge the entire world into disarray, where only power mattered, not the rights or justice.
So, in this North or South, rich or poor, all diplomatic circles were in agreement, they understood that this was not a case where it would be wise to take sides. There was only one side: support, at least in principle, for the fundamentals of modern state order. To sum up, in terms of de jure sovereignty, we weathered Russia’s malignant intent by being proactive and by maintaining strong value-based partnerships with our partners.
Ukrainian colleagues were quoted pointing to the intrinsic imbalance of power in their attempts to convince the hesitant governments – Russia has a much more extensive network of embassies and a much larger diplomatic corps. But Georgia’s network of Embassies was – and is – even smaller. Why was Russia not able to capitalize on its larger presence in Georgia’s case? What can be relevant from the lessons you’ve learned, for Ukraine?
It is hard to sell an act that is harmful and self-destructive, no matter how many Embassies one has, how many diplomats, charter flights, and bottomless checkbooks are used to carry out such diplomacy. Georgia managed to get its truth across the globe even with limited resources that were no match to the adversary.
It is hard to sell an act that is harmful and self-destructive, no matter how many Embassies or resources one has.
Apart from fighting the heroic and just defensive war against Russia, Ukrainian diplomats have their work cut out for them if the Kremlin continues to use the playbook they tested in Georgia. They would need to stay vigilant, stay informed, react to any malignant practice and preempt it – any practice that is undermining, de jure, Ukraine’s internationally recognized sovereign borders. For example, Ukraine would need to watch out for proliferating Russia-commissioned maps with national borders redrawn, for the country lists used by innumerable companies and public entities online and offline, for non-recognized entities pushed into forums and formats reserved for sovereign countries, and the like.
Sovereignty is not only a physical state of being but also an idea. That idea is kept intact as long as the absolute majority of the international community maintains it.
There will be many such instances and they should not remain unanswered, because sovereignty is not only a physical state of being but also an idea. That idea is kept intact as long as the absolute majority of the international community maintains it.
How can the key democratic powers best help the Ukrainian cause at the UN? What should they avoid doing?
The reason why the reaction from the states of Africa, Asia, and Latin America to Russia’s aggression has been relatively subdued both in the case of Georgia and Ukraine is twofold: first, Russia is a big country that has entertained a vast network of state-to-state relations; hence these countries are reluctant to dissolve ties completely, out of their self-interest. Also, Russia is known to be closer to rogue regimes or regimes that are prone to backroom dealings, hence the usefulness of the infamous “checkbook diplomacy.”
Second, in response to past violations, the price Russia paid for tramping the international law was so low, that many countries around the world wondered why it should be them paying the price when the aggressor acts with impunity.
The price Russia paid for tramping the international law was so low, that many countries around the world wondered why it should be them paying the price when the aggressor acts with impunity.
Such attitudes are strengthened by those people across the globe who present themselves as “pragmatists” and are, in their misguided vision, biding the time, waiting for weathering the storm.
If Russia was properly contained in 2008 and or 2014, there would not have been 2022. Therefore, the West can only take one path: containment, not appeasement. Russia’s nuclear blackmail is illegal in itself, in violation of several security agreements. While this is a complex and very peculiar matter, we already know that no other aggressor in history has ever been stopped or contained by appeasement, especially such an irrational actor as the current regime in Russia.
It is also important that the West continues to promote democracy and continues to play the leading and visible role in maintaining the world order, a sense that was somewhat dampened during the Trump administration. Only democratic governments are value-based, predictable, and in unison with international law.
The current Ukraine debacle seems more difficult for this very reason: democracy had been in decline in many corners of the World. Nonetheless, that order is an overarching goal and favors all states. Therefore, proactive diplomacy and vigilance should maintain Ukraine’s de jure status quo intact, while Ukrainian heroes are fighting to restore the de facto situation to its normal state: physically defending not only their freedom and justice but fighting for all the other freedom-loving nations as well.