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Prescient warnings of Russia’s ambitions

Shevard- nadze

Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister and Georgian president who died Monday at age 86, wasn’t an effective leader. Had Western leaders paid closer attention to what he said, though, they would have been better prepared for today in Ukraine.

For the last 18 years of his political career, Shevardnadze was mostly swept along by the tide of events. Mikhail Gorbachev pressed him into service as foreign minister in 1985. He played a key role in dismantling the brutal regime built by Josef Stalin. Germans are still grateful to both Gorbachev and Shevardnadze for their country’s reunification.

In December 1990, Shevardnadze abruptly resigned, ostensibly to warn Gorbachev that a backlash was brewing within the party. In 1991, Shevardnadze watched the attempted coup, returning to the foreign ministry only briefly to help Gorbachev with the futile task of salvaging the Soviet Union. He rightly saw the dangers in Ukraine’s decision to secede, noting Russian nationalists’ early calls for the return of Crimea.

In 1992, the field commanders who had deposed Georgia’s first president invited Shevardnadze to return to his homeland and lead it. As he freely admitted, he was never fully in control. Contrary to his orders, one of the military commanders who had brought Shevardnadze to power led troops to Abkhazia. Shevardnadze tried to stop the advance and even negotiated a peace. Then Abkhazians, backed by Russian warships and planes as well as well-trained “volunteers” from neighboring regions, struck back, and the weak Georgian army was crushed.

In other words, Shevardnadze was the first post-Soviet leader to see a Russian-backed unofficial military operation on his land. Like Ukrainian politicians today, he called it a war. Today’s military operation in eastern Ukraine is as deniably but transparently Russian-backed as Abhkazia was.

“The centuries-long process of expansion and ‘collection’ of other nations’ lands by Russia continues in the 21st century,” Shevardnadze wrote more than a year before Russian troops openly entered Georgia in 2008 and Moscow recognized the separatists states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Nobody was listening to him by then. In 2003, Shevardnadze was deposed by Mikhail Saakashvili, riding a wave of popular discontent with, among other things, Shevardnadze’s inability to bring the breakaway regions back into the fold. The veteran politician went quietly, telling Saakashvili: “Don’t worry, I have decided to resign and I’m not going to change my mind. You’d better think about tomorrow. Governing a country is a great art and a great responsibility. I would not like you to fail.”

For that, he got a letter from President George W. Bush but no sympathy. He lived on quietly in Tbilisi for more than 10 years, surrounded by photos in which he’s shaking hands with Ronald Reagan or meeting with Pope John Paul II. The memoir containing a clinically precise description of the roots of the Ukrainian crisis remained largely unread.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor and a Moscow-based writer.