Mikheil Saakashvili says America and "my friend John McCain" on verge of entering war on Ukraine's side
This article originally appeared in The New York Observer
Mikheil Saakashvili, ex-leader of the Revolution of the Roses in Georgia and ex-president of this very poor but beautiful country, was until not long ago having a hard time finding the proper refuge for himself.
Last time he saw the blue skies of Georgia was in 2013, because in his own state he is a wanted man, charged with corruption, abuse of power, violent crackdown on political protesters and other crimes that could put him in jail for at least 11 years. Among less significant charges: Use of public money to pay for his Botox injections and hair removal, hotel and flight expenses for his personal stylist and two fashion models, airfare and hotel bills of the American massage therapist (Mr. Saakashvili’s Dutch wife didn’t mind the €2,000 ‘bite massage’ he was given at the expense of Georgian taxpayers).
Mr. Saakashvili, a staunch supporter of the Bush administration, spent last year in the U.S., where he was visiting on tourist visa. He has family here—his rich uncle lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and his son studies at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Back then, he badly wanted to remain in America. A man on the run, the ex-president had big hopes to be rewarded with a position at his alma mater, the Columbia University Law School, or some other Ivy League school, for his loyalty and devotion to the cause of promoting democracy in his home country.
Mr. Saakashvili has influential friends in the U.S., like Sen. John McCain and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, former head of the CIA David Petraeus was even a guest at his house in New York, but, according to a New York Times profile by Observer alum Jason Horowitz that portrayed a coconut water-sipping president in exile, leaders of the Columbia Law School had concerns. What if he was going to be indicted one day by an international tribunal? It soon became a moot point: His application for the work visa in the U.S. was denied.
Mr. Saakashvili believes he is enemy No. 1 of the powerful and insidious Russian President Vladimir Putin, the former KGB agent whose long arms can reach around the globe. According to the French newspaper Le Nouvel Obsevateur, in a private conversation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, Mr. Putin declared a personal vendetta on Mr. Saakashvili, threatening to hang him by the latter’s presidential private parts.
This macho rhetoric, characteristic of the Russian president, was deployed at the time of a bloody conflict between Russia and Georgia, which lasted only five days. The Kremlin denied using the precise threat attributed to the president, although Mr. Putin, answering a direct question during a live call-in TV Q&A broadcast, indirectly confirmed the paper’s leak. The caller’s question: “Is it true that you promised to hang Saakashvili by one of his body parts?” Putin’s answer: “Why only by the one?”
In the meantime, during the war, the Georgian commander-in-chief showed himself in the demeanor of, say, General Patton. The most unfortunate image disaster happened while he was being filmed for a TV interview in Gori on August 11, 2008, when he was photographed hiding himself underneath the pile of bodies of his bodyguards, his face distorted and crazed with panic, at the mere illusion of the Russian military aircraft at the Georgian horizon.
At the end of the war, during peace negotiations that were conducted not by the Georgians, but by the Western powers, Mr. Saakashvili appeared on the verge of a nervous breakdown, feverishly chewing his own red tie while being filmed for the BBC news report. “The worries of one’s own country can make a person eat his tie,” he explained later.
At the time, the threat by Mr. Putin to hang Mr. Saakashvili by his “parts” had potential to become fulfilled. According to the leak by the French newspaper, the shocked French president asked Mr. Putin, “Why would you do that?” To which the latter cynically replied, “Why not? The Americans did it to Saddam Hussein.”
As a result of hectic diplomatic efforts, the Russian Army stopped its offense 20 miles from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Two of the jewel provinces of Georgia declared independence.
Mr. Putin didn’t forget the incident with the necktie.
“Take away all the ties if you want to invite Saakashvili one day for dinner,” advised Mr. Putin in 2009 to his then Ukrainian counterparts President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, “they are expensive nowadays and he can eat them all.”
As the time passed, Mr. Saakashvili himself started to take advantage of the fact of his “special relations” with Mr. Putin. During one of the numerous participations on live TV talk shows that he adores, he bragged that “Putin promised to hang me by some parts of my body, of which I am not going to talk now, but which are of vital importance for every man, and especially for the politician, and even for a lady-politician. This man publicly swore to hang me by them. Now he talks about my tie. Here we have good news, that he raised himself a little higher, up to the tie. This way I feel more comfortable.”
And now, Mr. Saakashvili has finally found a position worthy of his curriculum vitae in a country he can call home.
On February 13, Mikheil Saakashvili was appointed chairman of the Consulting International Council for the Reforms for the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in his new homeland—Ukraine. (A disgusted Georgian Foreign Ministry summoned the Ukrainian ambassador and demanded an explanation.)
The newspapers say that his prime responsibility is going to be negotiations on the supply of U.S. arms to Ukraine.
Not long before that happy change of events took place, the ex-Georgian president went on Ukrainian television to give his first nugget of advice. With happy smiles and witty winks, he explained to the gloomy and suspicious talk show host of the TV-24 Channel his vision for the most urgent challenge the Ukrainians believe they are facing—how “Russian aggression against Ukraine” can be stopped.
Recalling his own experience as a commander-in-chief of Georgian army, Mr. Saakashvili said that “The only thing that stopped Russians was … that Americans declared that they would put up into the air their aviation, they sent Sixth Fleet to the Georgian shores, they had passed Bosporus and they really said to the Russians: ‘Here is the red line, you will never go into the capital (Tbilisi), you will not only not kill Saakashvili but won’t destroy their state and will not destroy their government.'”
Mr. Saakashvili continued:
“Why do I tell here about this? [John] Kerry yesterday said, and the Americans confirmed, that they would give defensive weapons to Ukraine. (A smile.) This is a gigantic breakthrough and diplomatic triumph of Ukraine. And why is this happening? Hillary Clinton put it right – ‘Ukrainians deserved it because of their heroic resistance.’ The majority [of Americans] was against giving [the weapons]. But you fight so hard … and American people see, this is what democracy is, when American people see that somebody fights for their [American] ideals, fights on their own, ready to stand for themselves, they change their opinion… Unfortunately, America hasn’t taken part in your war until now, well, sanctions and so on, but she was not [part of the conflict] … Now they realized that something needs to be done, it’s time to save this [Ukrainian] nation, right? And at the time, the Soviet Union was destroyed by the prices on oil (a witty smile), and by the Stingers, the rockets that Reagan was giving to the Afghan mujahidin to shoot down Russian, eh… Soviet helicopters and planes. Now the major necessity you have is anti-tank weaponry – you don’t have good ones… Americans have newer advanced weaponry that they use. As soon as they [Americans] will burn down first 50 Russian tanks (a happy smile and a half-laugh) there will be absolutely different situation [on the ground]. And Americans are ready to give, Americans are ready to give the drones, the real ones, not the ones that are made here [in Ukraine] … and they will give you artillery, trucks with artillery. The most important task is the training of your troops (a big smile and touching of the tie). Our [Georgian] officers, that had been trained by the Americans and that now train your troops, they say that the spirit of the Ukrainian troops is the best in the world and that these guys that are fighting now if they are given the proper training and proper weapons they will conquer the entire Russia (a big witty smile). … My friend John McCain talks a lot about this, Chairman of the Arms Committee of the Senate, just three days ago I talked to him by phone and he says that he also hopes that now the chance is appearing [for the US weapons to be sent to Ukraine], and I believe it’s a big signal for Putin … who feels that American weapons could be going into [Ukraine], just put yourself in the position of a Russian officer that is shot by American rocket sent by the American instructor. Not just Putin’s lies about NATO instructors [right now] … but if the NATO weapons really will materialize and NATO instructors – American instructors (a wink), of course, because NATO is just a general term used for ‘American,’ the situation for you [Ukraine] will become absolutely different. You just have to stand your ground militarily [until American weapons and instructors arrive].”
What a different interview this one was from the necktie-chewing interview with the BBC in 2008! This time Mr. Saakashvili was beaming with joy, his body language the picture of self-assurance. He definitely demonstrated that he is a clever man and a good speechmaker. One has to wonder, though, if the shrewd Mr. Saakashvili erred in reminding the Ukrainians—a majority of whom used to be called Soviets—about the role the U.S. played in killing the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Also, while talking of American lethal and non-lethal weapons that, in his opinion, were soon to be supplied to Ukraine by the U.S., he pointedly “forgot” to mention two things to the Ukrainian audience.
First, the fate of U.S. and NATO-provided “trophies” captured by the Russians in his old country after the quick defeat by the Russians of the U.S.-trained Georgian Army while Mr. Saakashvili was the commander-in-chief. All the lethal and non-lethal weapons that had been supplied by NATO were sent directly to the military science institutes at the Russian Ministry of Defense for research purposes, first, and into the military, second, including dozens of perfectly functioning tanks. Multiple mobile power plants and other equipment found their use in newly “liberated” territories and in the Russian Army. Five U.S. armored Humvees and two containers with Marine equipment, captured by the Russians from Georgian border guards at the sea port of Poti, created international uproar and a big embarrassment for the Pentagon. Despite angry demands, they were never returned to the U.S. And U.S.-made small arms were exhibited in a number of museums all around Russia.
Second, Mr. Saakashvili failed to remind his audience of the fact that two of the most beautiful provinces of his country—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—were lost, declaring their independence from Georgia.
Having found safe haven in Ukraine, former man on the run and now Ukraine presidential adviser, Mr. Saakshvili personally has a lot at stake in not letting Ukraine fall into the hands of his archenemy Vladimir Putin whose emasculating threat toward the ex-Georgian commander-in-chief is still on the table. Meanwhile, Mr. Saakashvili seems to have recovered his sense of humor. As he confidently predicted victory beside the imminent arrival of overpowering American force, he had on the same red tie he was chewing on the BBC when his then-home country collapsed.