Mikeil Saakashvili says Putin cannot be trusted and urges West to continue supporting Ukraine to avoid war with Nato in the future
: IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/Reuters
Vladimir Putin will strike Moldova and the Baltic States if he is given Ukrainian land in exchange for peace, Georgia’s imprisoned former president has warned.
Mikheil Saakashvili, who led Georgia when it was invaded by Russia in 2008, told The Telegraph that the Russian president will not cease his expansionist ambitions if peace in Ukraine is bought with territorial concessions.
“If Russia manages to freeze its control over part of Ukraine, of course the war will spread to other parts of Ukraine, Moldova and Baltic countries shortly after this temporary freeze,” he wrote in a letter smuggled out of the prison hospital where he is being held in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.
“That’s why such a deal would never be viable.”
Putin is widely expected to demand Ukraine relinquish Crimea as well as the four occupied provinces he annexed to Russia in 2022 – Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk – as the minimum price of peace.
Volodymyr Zelensky has insisted that he will not give up any of its internationally recognised territory to end a war that was started by Russia, despite growing uncertainty in the United States and the European Union about how long they can continue to fund Ukraine’s defence.
“Zelensky’s peace plan is a rock-solid basis for any negotiated settlement,” Mr Saakashvili said. “Without respect for Ukraine’s sovereign and territorial integrity there can be no real peace but only further escalation of the conflict.”
Mr Saakashvili has lost half his body weight in prison since he was imprisoned for six years in 2021 on abuse of power charges, which his supporters say is a political punishment brought by the ruling Georgian Dream party, which is widely seen as pro-Russian.
During two terms as a pro-Western president of the ex-Soviet republic from 2004 to 2013, he introduced wide-ranging reforms and accelerated Georgia’s progress towards membership of Nato and the European Union.
In 2008, Putin invaded Georgia in support of Kremlin-backed separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two provinces that have been under Russian control ever since but remain internationally recognised as rightfully Georgian.
The war ended after five days with a France-brokered ceasefire which stopped Russia’s tanks 20 miles from Tbilisi and left 20 per cent of Georgia’s land occupied.
Mr Saakashvili believes that the West’s failure to punish Putin for the invasion emboldened him to seize Crimea in 2014 and invade Ukraine in 2022, and convinced the Russian dictator that the West is weak, impatient and can always be outlasted.
“In 2008, our partners limited their reaction to denouncing the Russian actions, but soon the world’s attention was diverted by the world economic crisis,” he said.
“That’s the lesson Putin learned – that if the world is in turmoil, the attention of democratic countries becomes diluted and their reactions weaken.”
He added: “The very last words Putin told me during our last meeting were: ‘Your Western friends promise you lots of nice things but they never deliver. I don’t promise you anything nice but I always deliver.’
“Putin sees all these conflicts as episodes of his main conflict with the United States, the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world, and Western democracy in general, and he is convinced that he can outlast and outsmart the Westerners.
“Can Zelensky trust him? Absolutely not. Nobody can.”
That perceived weakness is also why, in Mr Saakashvili’s view, the West must back Ukraine to the hilt now to avoid an even costlier war with Nato in the future, which the alliance’s military chiefs have predicted with increasing regularity in recent months.
“I also find the new narrative in Europe that they should prepare for Russian attacks in three or five years very dangerous,” he said. “That narrative assumes a Russia victory in Ukraine and further strengthening of Russian forces that will also integrate fighters from conquered Ukraine.
“I don’t think that the West can withstand an attack by this strengthened Russian army, so the only chance to defend itself is to make Ukrainian victory possible now.”
After being voted out of office in 2012, Mr Saakashvili became a Ukrainian citizen, advised then-president Petro Poroshenko and was appointed governor of the southern port city of Odesa.
He is a firm ally of Mr Zelensky, who restored his citizenship in 2019 after it was stripped by Mr Poroshenko two years earlier, and holds that the West has been too slow to give Ukraine the modern weaponry which he says would have secured significant advances if deployed earlier in the war.
“Ukrainians could have done it already if it was not for persistent Western hesitation at the initial stage,” Mr Saakashvili said when asked if Ukraine has a realistic chance of pushing Russia completely out of the five occupied provinces.
“Ukraine is perfectly capable of regaining control of its entire territory, but the battlefield status quo can only be tilted in Ukraine’s favour if twice as much financial and diplomatic effort is applied.
“Ukrainians have demonstrated miracles of resilience and they should be rewarded, not discouraged by permanent hesitation and talk of the ‘Ukraine fatigue’.”
Mr Saakashvili was arrested in 2021 when he returned to Georgia to lead anti-government protests. He is being treated at a hospital in Tbilisi and only eats meals brought to him by his mother after an alleged heavy metals poisoning attempt by Russian agents later that year.
Georgian authorities insist he is receiving adequate medical care and that he has lost weight because of a 50-day hunger strike.
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