- Lasha Tchantouridzé
A professor and director of the graduate programs in diplomacy and international relations at Norwich University, Tchantouridzé, 55, was born and raised in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. He attended a Ukrainian naval academy in Kyiv, then served in the Soviet army in the mid-1980s before moving to Canada in the early ’90s. In 2000, Tchantouridzé wrote his doctoral dissertation on a resurgent Russia and its efforts to reestablish itself as a dominant power in Europe.
Tchantouridzé’s warnings about Russia’s territorial ambitions proved prescient. In the summer 2011 issue of the Canadian Military Journal, he wrote, “There exists a very good chance that one of the next ‘regional’ wars Moscow currently anticipates would be either with Ukraine or involving Ukraine.” Fearing an expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Ukraine’s membership in it, he wrote, Russia “will do everything in its power to prevent that from happening.”
But Tchantouridzé doesn’t think the West is entirely blameless in allowing the Ukraine invasion to happen. At the end of the Cold War, he said, 80 percent of Russians believed NATO was a neutral or even benevolent organization.
That changed with NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo War in 1999, he noted, which caused as much shock and alarm in Russia as the current war in Ukraine has caused in the West. After Kosovo, he said, 90 percent of Russians saw NATO as a major threat to Russia’s security and well-being. NATO’s involvement effectively killed all pro-western political parties in Moscow and contributed to the downfall of then-president Boris Yeltsin, who resigned in 2000.
So, when Yeltsin went looking for his replacement, he found one in Putin, a former KGB agent and authoritarian whom Tchantouridzé bluntly called a “psychopath.”
“And the rest is history,” he said.
Last week, Seven Days interviewed Tchantouridzé about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Tchantouridzé will be a featured speaker later this month at Norwich’s annual Peace and War Summit, which this year is titled, “Deciphering the Russian Riddle: National Interests and Geopolitical Competitions.”
SEVEN DAYS: Is Putin’s goal in Ukraine to rebuild the Russian Empire?
LASHA TCHANTOURIDZÉ: Mr. Putin is essentially looking to secure strategic depth. If you’re facing a mortal enemy, which is how he sees NATO, you need as much space between them and you as possible. You need to have as much room as possible to retaliate and to keep your armed forces ready.
SD: Do you think that Putin believes the U.S. or NATO will invade Russia?
LT: No, he’s not afraid of NATO going into Russia, but he’s afraid of NATO putting pressure on Russia in the coming decades. His rationale is, NATO will be at its borders, just as it was for decades with the Warsaw Pact. And NATO can chip off one piece here, one piece there, guide those countries into policies the Russians don’t agree with, manipulate their leaders and then trigger the collapse of the Russian Federation.
SD: As we speak today, the invasion doesn’t seem to be going as Russia planned. Why not?
LT: I think Mr. Putin was misled by his advisers and his generals that they would win this war very quickly and easily. The Russians sincerely believed, apparently, that this would be over in three to five days, though I don’t know how anyone could seriously believe that. But there is a bad tradition in Russian military experience called “shapkozakidatelstvo” — literally “throwing hats in the air” — or celebrating before winning the battle. It’s akin to the American concept of “shock and awe” and implies that if you attack someone with massive force, they’re going to lose, which is nonsense.
SD: Like George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner during the Iraq invasion?
LT: Exactly. This happens because the Russian generals want to show themselves as brave and courageous and decisive. So they tell their boss, “We can do this very easily; the Ukrainians will greet us with flowers,” and so forth.
That proved to be wrong, and after three days they had to take an operational pause because they ran out of supplies and couldn’t support their troops. They couldn’t continue to fight without food and water, and their tanks don’t move without fuel. When that happened, they changed their strategy. So now they’re leveling Ukrainian infrastructure — power stations, water supplies, hospitals, schools, radio and television stations.
SD: Could the U.S. or NATO have averted this war by having acted more decisively after the Russians invaded Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014?
LT: Well, the United States has been pursuing an appeasement policy toward Putin. I had a paper on this in 2016 that was universally condemned and never published because I was told, “Oh, you’re just imagining things.”
SD: I assume you use the word “appeasement” as a deliberate reference to Britain’s policy toward Hitler in the 1930s?
LT: It’s exactly that. In the early 1990s, Ukraine was the third largest nuclear power in the world. In 1996, under the Budapest [Memorandum], the U.S. gave Russia a security guarantee, which is why Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. Even half of these [sanctions against Russia] would have prevented 2014 and especially this invasion now.
SD: Continuing with your World War II analogy, where does Putin go next?
LT: What Russia is practicing now in Ukraine is warfare supply and quick movements using trucks. This is important. Normally, the Russian army depends on railroads. The reason they’re using trucks is, their trains won’t work in Poland or the Baltic countries. In Ukraine and Russia, the railroad tracks are the same gauge. In Poland they are different. So if they were to invade Poland, which is smaller than Ukraine, they would have to supply their army with trucks. How do you fight a more decisive war if you don’t have practice?
SD: So Ukraine is a rehearsal for invading Poland?
LT: Absolutely. Poland or the Baltic republics, depending on how this subsequently evolves. Russians clearly are moving to the West, which is why the Europeans have dramatically changed their positions, especially the Germans. This is a rude awakening for them.
SD: And you think Putin would attack a NATO country?
LT: What’s the difference? You could wake up one morning and see the Russians in Poland, which would be easy to crisscross with infantry troops and planes. And they could launch thousands of missiles from Russian territory.
It’s not going to happen tomorrow. But 10 years from now, 15 years from now? What are you going to do, attack Russia? They’ll use nuclear weapons. The NATO agreement is just a piece of paper, as much as the 1996 Budapest agreement was. That’s why appeasement doesn’t work.
SD: Will the Russian people feel differently about this war than they did about Georgia, Chechnya or Crimea?
LT: Unfortunately not, because about 70 percent of Russians are supporting this, just like the majority of Americans supported the war in Kosovo, and I don’t remember what percentage supported the war in Iraq, with all that talk about weapons of mass destruction. Now the Russians are brainwashing their own people. They control all federal TV stations. In the last eight years, they’ve dehumanized Ukrainians, compared the United States to Nazi Germany and prepared their people for this kind of venture. Where are Russians supposed to get other information?
There is one independent TV channel, Dozhd, which means “Rain.” They have covered this war as much as they can. Now they’re being partially banned from Russian cable providers. There’s one independent radio station, Echo of Moscow, and they’ve been taken off the air. And that’s it. There’s nothing else.
SD: How would you advise western policymakers to deal with Putin?
LT: Putin is the kind of character where, unless you spit in his face and piss on his carpet, he’s not going to respect you. And we are sending him these gentle intellectuals from the United States or the United Kingdom who try to reason with his people. It’s never worked and it’s not going to work. Sanctions are not going to stop the war.
SD: So the only way to respond to Putin is in kind?
LT: Exactly. That is why Mr. Trump was more effective, because Trump was crazy enough and unstable enough to scare the Russians. Someone like Trump, who is very goal-oriented, not well-educated but has tremendous willpower, was very dangerous to the Russians. Obviously, Trump was very dangerous to us, for other reasons, but that’s another story.
Russians study Americans very closely and pay attention to what we do, and this helps them be better prepared. On the other hand, for most Americans, especially American leadership, Russia remains a riddle. Hence, the title of this upcoming conference.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Norwich University’s 2022 Peace and War Summit, “Deciphering the Russian Riddle: National Interests and Geopolitical Competitions,” Monday, March 21, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Tuesday, March 22, 9:25 a.m. to 12:05 p.m, Mack Hall Auditorium, Norwich University. Free and open to the public, in person and livestreamed. Learn more here.