From Helsinki to Vilnius: what should New Europe expect from the West



Amb. Tedo Japaridze


“We are very pleased to present an interview by Ambassador Tedo Japaridze, the advisor at Geocase, with Ambassador Kornblum, an eminent expert on U.S.-European political and economic relations, in particular in Central and Eastern Europe. Ambassador Kornblum has a long record of service in the United States and Europe both as a diplomat and as a businessman. He served as the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2001. Before that, he occupied a number of high-level diplomatic posts, including U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs, special envoy for the Dayton Peace Process, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Process), deputy U.S. ambassador to NATO, and U.S. minister and deputy commandant of forces in divided Berlin. Hence is our privilege at Geocase to make an interview with Ambassador Kornblum public with his unique insights on a number of issues so critically meaningful for Georgia. And, many thanks again to Ambassador Japaridze for this remarkable opportunity“, - Victor Kipiani, Chairman of Geocase think tank.


From Helsinki to Vilnius: what should New Europe Expect from the West

An Interview with Ambassador John Kornblum By Ambassador Tedo Japaridze

In the aftermath of the Vilnius Summit, the feelings are mixed. The communique signed by the leaders of NATO member states reassures Ukraine of membership without committing to a process. It articulates solidarity but fails to project a strategic vision. It is unclear where New Europe fits in the picture of the Euro-Atlantic partnership. Again.  
Ukraine is fighting a war backed by NATO. The message emanating from Vilnius does not consider the fears of post-Soviet states who are looking at change and are trying to position themselves in a fluid and yet-to-be-defined status quo. Instead, the NATO communique reflects domestic concerns such as the need to keep on board the German left or the (US) Republican far-right, who still believe that the “endgame” for the West must entail a golden bridge for the Kremlin or a dignified way out that cannot include Ukraine’s NATO membership without explicit Russian consent. 
Who do you talk to when you try to make sense of what just happened? My preference is Ambassador John Kornblum, an old friend. He is retired but almost somehow involved in the diplomatic scene and has been a voice to be reckoned with when it comes to how the Euro-Atlantic community engages with Russia. We first met in Helsinki, in 1991, while I was serving as the Deputy Foreign Minister of the newly independent Republic of Georgia, as Europe was taking its first steps towards the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He was leading the US delegation and I watched him tearing into pieces Russian positions on how Europe’s security landscape should be constructed, with particular reference to the South Caucasus. Then, and many years later, in 2009, I met again John Kornblum at the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI), organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, gathering for the first time, former policymakers, diplomats, generals, and business leaders from Russia, the United States, Canada, Central Europe, the European Union, including former Soviet space countries to try and chart a roadmap of practical actions that would allow the huge area to leave its past behind and to start to build a more secure future based on mutual trust and cooperation, again with certain and peculiar effort how to make Russia a “cooperative partner”. We worked hard and discussed vibrantly those sensitive issues and just a couple of us (including Ambassador Rene Nyberg from Finland) led by John Kornblum did our best to promote an idea that nobody in the world will have a “cooperative Russia” till Russia herself does not settle and fix her relations with her former satellites, currently independent and sovereign states. Our ideas have not been fully received and supported and John Kornblum and us have not signed the EASI final document. The statements and interventions made by John Kornblum at the EASI session echoing and resonating especially now after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At one of the EASI gatherings I approached John Kornblum and asked him whether he would help the newly emerging “Georgian Dream Coalition” (GD) to navigate properly through the poisonous terra of Georgian politics and confront forcefully but through political and democratic means the semi-authoritarian Saakashvili regime. And in that regard the pieces of advice delivered by John Kornblum to the leaders of GD were essential and proper – institutionalized democracy, the rule of law, an active engagement of civil society in a political process, to be responsible and constructive and all that helped a big way to win 2012 election though whatever John Kornblum advised in 2012 is still strategically relevant to make Georgian democracy stronger.
And now and in the context of the war in Ukraine and in the aftermath of the Vilnius Summit, I had the feeling we needed to reflect on what is happening. This feels like a similar moment for Europe, although not necessarily infused with the same sense of confidence and ambition. 
1. T.J. Days prior to the Vilnius Summit, on July 10, you published an Open Letter co-signed with opinion leaders in Euro-Atlantic relations. There were 25 of you and I can only note people like General Ben Hodges, Brigadier General Wittman, Stefan Meister, and others. What expectations did you have from the leaders at the Vilnius Summit?
J.K. The signatories to this statement presented NATO leaders with the following observation: “After Georgia, Moldova and Syria, Russia have made it clear in Ukraine that it will not tolerate democratic, pro-Western tendencies in its claimed sphere of influence.”
We then posed a simple dilemma: “Either the West decides to accept a growing number of so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ permanently, or it {will} take an offensive stance against Putin's policies with a resolute strategy of opening up and expanding NATO that has been coordinated within the Alliance.”
We side with the second option and we wanted NATO leaders to commit on six concrete steps:

I.    Reaffirm Ukraine’s right to restore its territorial integrity and sovereignty within the internationally recognized 1991 borders. 
ii.   Commit to sustained military assistance to Ukraine – hardware and training – for as long as it takes to win the war. 
iii.   Exhausts all possibilities below a formal alliance entry, which would allow the Ukrainian armed forces to increase their cooperation with NATO troops.
iv.   Considers the deployment of purely defensive air defense formations of national alliance members in Western Ukraine, in particular, to protect Lviv and Odesa.
v.    Commit NATO member states in the EU to a more integrated approach to foreign and security policy. 
vi.   Last but not least, commit to restoring partnership and peaceful cooperation with the Russian people – but on the basis of reciprocity and the foundation of the Charter of Paris.
TJ. And you feel these expectations have been met?  
JK. In short, the message that came out of Vilnius has left the Ukrainian forces unsure of which strategy will support their position vis-à-vis Russia. It was not a good day. Let’s leave it at that.
2. TJ: Given the escalation of the security situation in Ukraine, what should the countries in the Caucasus learn, particularly Georgia?  
JK. Ukraine has surprised many in the West, not only with its patriotism but also because of its determination to become a modern Western society. Regardless of its strategic importance, Ukraine would not be receiving so much Western support if it had not demonstrated dramatically its will to modernize, politically, culturally and economically. 
Unfortunately, Georgia’s failure to build on the worldwide admiration that followed the Georgian Dream success in 2012 has caused many in the West to doubt that Georgia is ready to become a modern nation.   
As we can see from the demonstrations in Georgia and Armenia, citizens of the Caucasus see in the West personal freedom and quality of life. They are less interested in grand strategic issues which often dominate press coverage.
Thus my answer would be that Georgia and its neighbors should concentrate on building successful civil societies, based on the premise that democracy works better than any other system to guarantee freedom, security, and prosperity to a country’s citizens.  
Quite honestly Tedo, Georgian official behavior and treatment of democracy in Georgia has been so weak latley that hardly anyone in the West believes that is should move forward on either NATO or the EU right now.  
3. TJ. Yes, but given the experience of war in Georgia and now in Ukraine, do you have any sympathy for those who talk of a “multi-vector” policy? 
JK. My impression is that Georgians have a clear understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of being a neighbor to Russia.  It is the translation of such awareness into successful policy which is lacking. In the current situation, Georgia is being flooded by Russians escaping the war and I am sure that these Russians are amazed at the wonderfully prosperous and democratic country they are entering. Even though I know that there is some resentment among Georgians about the many Russians who are coming, I would work with these people and with the West to establish Georgia’s commitment to freedom and to the West, while at the same time working pragmatically with Russia.  
Therefore, the answer to this question does not need to be black or white. Georgia is in a difficult position and a very tense point in history. It would not be realistic to adopt a totally negative approach to Russia. But at the same time, it is important that Georgia does not abandon the principles which it has supported for such a long time.  
It is important that whatever concessions they feel it necessary to make, Georgians regularly recall that their future lies with the democratic West.
4. TJ. Public opinion in Georgia is pro-Western. However, there is a sense the government is pursuing a policy of appeasement vis-à-vis Russia. Given the fluid nature of security arrangements in the region, what is a viable Georgian security policy? 

JK. You chose the right word.  Security arrangements are “shifting” rapidly in the South Caucasus.  Not just for Georgia.  Armenia is reconsidering its approach after being let down by Russia in the conflict with Azerbaijan.  At the same time, Azerbaijan is looking eastwards for energy cooperation. Turkey is in the midst of a great upheaval, as is probably also the case for Iran.  
In other words, nothing will stay the same. That is why Georgia needs to make sure it is committed to Western democracy. If it doesn’t Russia will capitalize on your uncertainty in every possible way. 
Overall, Americans do not think in terms of security systems, rather they focus on how best to build security itself. Viewed from this point of view, Georgia and its neighbors face a dilemma.  They know how important it would be to join the West.  But we also know that Russia will threaten consequences if Georgia in particular moves closer to the West.  
I continue to believe that the most important security influence in your region, after Russia, comes from Europe and the United States. Turkey is after all a member of NATO and is closely related to the EU. Close cooperation with Turkey is essential for Georgia, but I consider this to be part of cooperation with the West, rather than a new direction for security.
5. TJ: Iran will join the Eurasian Union's market in September 2023. There is more discussion of countries moving away from the dollar, particularly following the freezing and potential confiscation of Russian reserve assets. Do you feel there is any substance for those who feel that the global monetary architecture is about to shift away from the dollar as the single most important reserve currency?   
JK. The dollar has been declared dead several times.  It never happens.  The strength of a currency depends primarily on the economic, financial and technological strength of the nation which stands behind it, not only the sort of fuzzy strategic considerations which are now spreading across the globe.

This does not mean that Georgia should not take Iran seriously.  There is a strong feeling in the West that Iran is approaching the end of an era.  That society wants to modernize and democratize.  And that there are many opportunities there.  But again, pragmatic cooperation is the best way, both to profit and to build relations with a dictatorship which is nearing its demise. 
6. TJ. Given the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict, do you feel it is accurate to note that the Caucasus is experiencing a security vacuum? Are we in need of Russian peacekeeping? Is the West in general and the United States in particular motivated to fill this vacuum?
JK. The tragedy is that both Azerbaijan and Armenia have allowed Russia to foment conflict in their region, rather than coming to a common sense understanding over contacts, transport, culture etc. I blame Armenia for some of this and Azerbaijan for other problems, but the real villain here is Russia. You know that there was a firm policy, beginning under Stalin, to mix up nationalities and borders in order to stimulate these cultural conflicts, which only Russia could deal with.   
I still find it amusing when Western journalists talk of Russia “peacekeeping” in the region.  You will recall that we spent a good deal of time on Karabakh at the Helsinki Conference in 1992. Even then, the Russians played a divisive role. As I argued long ago in the EASI exercise, diplomacy has been of little value when the Russians are always there to undermine the work.  The only solution is to develop a civil society in the region which understands the importance of peaceful relations rather than nationalistic slogans. Sadly, none of the three countries has made much progress in this area in recent years.
The United States has a large strategic interest in Georgia. You mentioned the reasons in some of the questions you asked Georgia is at the center of a strategic triangle which contains Turkey and Iran in the South, Azerbaijan in the East and Russia to the North and West. Add to that the Black Sea and the oil and gas produced in the East and you have one of the most strategic regions on earth. The problem is that the countries of the region have been so consumed with rebuilding after the end of the USSR and with conflicts amongst themselves, that they have not spent enough time defining their strategic interests. Doing that – together if possible – should be the highest priority of all of the governments of the region.