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The stakes of the war in Ukraine for Georgia, still marked by 2008 Russian invasion

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Tbilisi, Georgia, which has an uncomfortable number of things in common with Ukraine. Neither belongs to NATO. Neither belongs to the EU. Both are former Soviet republics, and both have a history of being invaded by Russia. So what are the stakes here in Georgia as war devastates Ukraine? And what's the U.S. role in helping ensure that Georgia's history of Russian invasion is not repeated? Those are questions we're going to put to our next guest just behind these big gates. We have just pulled up to the U.S. Embassy here in Tbilisi. Let's go in and meet the ambassador.

Inside, we get settled in the embassy's media room, where U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan has been holding Zoom meetings during the pandemic. And we dive in.

What are the stakes for Georgia? For Americans who don't know much about Georgia, what should we know?

KELLY DEGNAN: Georgians are watching what's happening in Ukraine with, I would say, a particular pain and perspective. They, 14 years ago, were invaded themselves by Russia. There's a long history in Georgia of Russian invasions going back centuries. But this one in 2008 is still very raw for many Georgians today. This is also a moment of opportunity for Georgia. I think Sun Tzu said out of chaos come opportunities. And here is an opportunity for this deeply polarized country to unite, to unite around the principles that - and shared values that Georgia has loved for centuries.

KELLY: Let me pick up on something you just said. You just described this as a deeply polarized country. And without getting too into the weeds of Georgian politics, there is at the moment this, I think fair to call it, strange situation where Georgia is threatening to sue its own president for her support for Ukraine. What's going on?

DEGNAN: President Zourabichvili really has represented this country very well. She has articulated the Georgian people's support for Ukrainians - for what they're going through, for sovereignty, for territorial integrity, both on the international scene...

KELLY: She's flown to various European capitals to say, look; we Georgians, we stand with Europe and the world...

DEGNAN: That's right.

KELLY: ...For Ukraine.

DEGNAN: And domestically, where I think there are a variety of feelings here - both the concern of becoming a target of Russian retaliation or aggression, as well as that fierce commitment to freedom and watching the courage of the Ukrainian people.

KELLY: So why does the government - by which I mean the ruling party and the prime minister - why do they want to sue her?

DEGNAN: Here is again a moment where they can be coming together, where they need to be coming together. And that was the president's message in her speech on March 14 to Parliament. Only Russia benefits when Georgians are divided. And that has been her strong message. She has earnestly represented this country, as I said, domestically and internationally, calling on all of the Georgian people, and certainly their political leadership, to come together. And I hope her message will be heard.

KELLY: Yeah. I don't want to dwell on divisions, but I am trying to understand and trying to help Americans listening understand what's going on here. There's this situation where the president and the prime minister are at odds over quite how firmly Georgia should stand with Ukraine. Is that fair to say?

DEGNAN: Yes.

KELLY: OK. I've also noticed another few things - just, you know, in the few days that we have been here, we've been hearing about President Zelenskyy of Ukraine wanting to address Parliament here. And Georgia said no. Georgian volunteers wanting to go help fight in Ukraine, help defend Ukraine. And their plane was not allowed to take off. What is informing? I know you don't speak for the prime minister or the ruling party here in Georgia. But how do you understand these divisions in society here?

DEGNAN: Georgia has spoken out quite forcefully in international fora - like the U.N., OSCE, Council of Europe - in supportive of Ukraine, against the Russian aggression. So they are speaking out and standing with the United States and the West at this critical time. There is a balancing that I think we're seeing the government do, which is to ensure that Georgia doesn't attract Russia's retaliation. It's their responsibility as the government, and they are representing the views of a portion of the population. So Georgia is taking the steps that it can. And we have been encouraging the government to look for the ways that Georgia can show its support for Ukraine and show its support for the fundamental security principles that are at stake.

KELLY: The balancing act that you described - is that in a nutshell that if Georgia stands too firmly with Ukraine, or tilts too far toward the West, toward the EU, it will risk antagonizing Russia, risk putting itself in danger yet again?

DEGNAN: No one wants Georgia to be the next target. And I think what we are seeing is balancing. At the same time, this government put forward an early application for European Union membership. So by submitting that application, Georgia has started on - taken a very important step forward on its path toward European Union membership. There's a great deal of work to be done, a lot of reforms, a lot of hard work. But this is the moment - again, as President Zourabichvili said, this is the moment when the country can come together and really walk down that path toward European and Atlantic integration together.

KELLY: To zoom out from Georgia, are you in contact with your colleague in Moscow, U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan?

DEGNAN: Not regularly. We are in contact with his team.

KELLY: Yeah.

DEGNAN: We are in contact with our colleagues in - from Embassy Kyiv. We're supporting...

KELLY: Asking because of these reports that he has just been warned that the relationship is about to be severed.

DEGNAN: That's one of the reasons I'm not in regular contact. He's got his hands full with that - managing that relationship, that very important relationship between the United States and Russia. But we are supporting both Embassy Moscow and Embassy Kyiv in important ways. For instance, we are taking on a lot of their consular affairs work to make sure that American citizens continue to get the support that they need overseas. We're looking for other ways that we can support those missions, including supporting sometimes the Ukrainian colleagues that used to work at Embassy Kyiv and that right now are relocated maybe to Tbilisi.

KELLY: How would it impact your work if the diplomatic relationship between Moscow and Washington were severed?

DEGNAN: Georgia doesn't have diplomatic relations with Russia, so there is not formal relations here. So our connection is probably less so than in other countries. I think the main thing is continuing our work to help Georgia find new partners and markets, so that they can reduce their reliance on a country that has, over the centuries, never come through for Georgia at its moments of need. Georgians know Russians very well.

KELLY: Ambassador, thank you.

DEGNAN: Thank you very much. It's wonderful to have you here in Georgia. You're here in time for the 30th anniversary of our diplomatic relations. The United States is very, very proud of what we've been able to do together with Georgia over the last 20 years. And we're very excited about what's to come in the coming years.

KELLY: Well, happy anniversary.

DEGNAN: Thank you so much.

KELLY: Thank you for taking the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.