Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.
Francis Fukayama is a U.S. political scientist at Stanford University. He is perhaps best known for his 1992 essay The End of History, in which he argued that the struggle between ideologies was at an end.
RFE/RL’s Georgian Service interviewed Fukuyama after his recent appearance at the Economic Policy Research Center in Tbilisi.
Fukayama talked about the right time for “real negotiation” between Moscow and Kyiv, what each side stands to lose, and how Georgia’s “neutrality really benefits Russia.”
RFE/RL: Let’s begin with discussing Russia’s war on Ukraine. In the grand scheme of things, what’s at stake there?
Francis Fukuyama: I think that the ground for a massive Russian failure has already been laid by the Ukrainians and their completely heroic ability to defend themselves.
We are currently at a stage in the war where there's been a pause; the Russians had been losing a tremendous number of people trying to take this one small town, Bakhmut, in the Donbas. But everybody's awaiting a Ukrainian offensive, and I think that's going to be critical for the way that this war may come to an end. Because if the Ukrainians can liberate these two oblasts in the south, particularly Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, then I think you'd be in a position for a real negotiation. And you could see a kind of cease-fire, armistice, that might have some chance of holding for a while.
Right now, I think if you had a peace negotiation, it would be very bad for Ukraine, because it would really give the Russians a good slice of Ukrainian territory. And that would not be a good situation.
RFE/RL: What fate do you envision for [Russian-occupied] Crimea in the event of any eventual negotiations?
Fukuyama: Well, I think that it could be an actual big point of Russian vulnerability. Because if the Ukrainians are able to liberate Kherson Oblast, they will basically have cut Crimea off [from other Russian-occupied land], you know. There's one rail line that goes from Russia into Crimea, and there's the strait bridge, and they'd be in a position to really cut both of those arteries. And they don't have to invade Crimea at that point, they can simply hold all of the Russian forces there hostage. And that is a big vulnerability that Ukraine would then have over Russia.
RFE/RL: From a geopolitical perspective, if Russia in any negotiations has to concede Crimea, can it be called anything but a loser, even by the domestic audience in Russia?
Fukuyama: Well, if they have to concede Crimea, it's hard to see how Putin survives that, given how much they've invested in taking it back. So yes, I think they will be in a very tough situation. But the thing is that the Ukrainians don't even have to take back Crimea. They can cut it off. And any moment, they can apply a lot of pressure that the Russians will feel. And so it would be a very big, strategic advantage for them to be able to do that.
RFE/RL: What I was getting at is,… let's take your scenario: They don't take Crimea, but they kind of lay siege to it, then there are negotiations and Russia is asked to give up Crimea. Can Russia agree to that in negotiations?
Fukuyama: Politically, it would be quite difficult. There's also a question of whether Ukraine would be willing to concede part of the Donbas [region of eastern Ukraine], because in many respects, it would be a nightmare for them to actually have to govern the Donbas under current circumstances. (Editor’s note: Russian forces or their separatist Ukrainian proxies since 2014 have controlled wide swaths of the heavily Russian-speaking Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where they have been accused of killing, expelling, and persecuting pro-Kyiv residents.)
So both sides at that point have vulnerabilities and things to lose. And that means that you could have a more realistic kind of negotiation at that point. But I don't really see either side formally agreeing either to concede Crimea or to concede the Donbas. And so I think you'd have to have a more informal kind of arrangement.
RFE/RL: You wrote more than a year ago that “Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine.” So, more than one year on, how has this prediction aged, do you think?
Fukuyama: At the time that I wrote that, Russian troops were still trying to besiege Kyiv and bring about the fall of [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy’s government. Since that time, [Russian troops] had to withdraw from northern Ukraine; they’ve had to withdraw from Kharkiv; they then had to withdraw from [the city of] Kherson, and so they showed incredible weakness.
There does appear to be a little bit of a stalemate at the moment, but I think [the Ukrainian military] is going to break out of that. So my general confidence in Ukraine’s ability to defend itself is still there, but it has taken a longer time than I was hoping for at that point.
RFE/RL: Onto Georgia now -- and, to echo the first question, we started with Ukraine, what's at stake for Georgia in the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Fukuyama: Well, everything's at stake for Georgia. There's a fork in the road that Georgia is at right now, where it can continue its effort to become part of Europe, part of the EU, possibly even join NATO, or it can go in the Russian direction. And there are forces in Georgia politically pulling it in both directions.
But whether it goes down one path or the other will heavily depend on what happens in Ukraine, because the stronger Russia is, the more the Russian path is determined.
And conversely, if Russia is really set back in Ukraine, every time [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is weakened, every country around Russia has more freedom of action. So I think that Georgia’s fate is bound up in this Ukraine war.
RFE/RL: Similar to many others, you're vocally critical about what you call insufficient support from Georgia to Ukraine. And not to play a devil's advocate here, but let me ask you what they could and should have done to, you know, not deserve such criticism?
Fukuyama: Well, it would have been nice if the Georgian government had taken a clear position in support of Ukraine. I think that neutrality really benefits Russia. And quite frankly, there are a lot of reports and evidence that Georgia is actually quietly helping Russia evade the sanctions that have been imposed by Europe and by the United States.
RFE/RL: Something that the Georgian government vehemently denies.
Fukuyama: Well, yeah, that's the problem: that this government is really not transparent about its motives and what it's actually doing. And so it can play a double game where it claims to be neutral but, in fact, is really helping one side rather than the other. And I think that's the consequence of the kind of pro-Russian tilt that this government has.
RFE/RL: You said during your speech that as long as [former Prime Minister and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party Bidzina] Ivanishvili and company stay in power, EU membership for Georgia would be unthinkable. Let me ask you a theoretical question: Had Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream displayed more of a Western bent in foreign policy, say, for example, toward Ukraine, would that have changed things? Would Georgia’s European future be more realistic then?
Fukuyama: I think it would have been more realistic. I think that what they've been doing is everything they can to make sure that they're not taken into the European Union. And so that's why I think they're mistreating [imprisoned ex-President] Misha Saakashvili, because that's something that's going to anger the Europeans. If he dies in their captivity, that's going to be an obstacle. And that's a real problem. Because all the poll data [and other] evidence suggests that an overwhelming number of Georgians are in favor of the European path and not the Russian path; and so the government really needs to figure out how to block that, and I think that's what they're seeking to do. And that means that the policy on the part of Europe and the United States has to be one that's not directed against Georgia as a whole country, but really…it has to be directed at the government that is causing this shift towards Russia.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty