Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have run high since late 2013, when Russia resisted Ukrainian efforts to move out of the Russian sphere of influence and toward the West.
In late May, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko made a move almost guaranteed to further aggravate Russia. He appointed former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili as governor of the strategically important region of Odessa.
While he was head of the former Soviet republic of Georgia from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili pursued an ardently pro-US policy that deeply irked Russian president Vladimir Putin. Years of tension broke into war when, in 2008, Georgia tried to take back control of a breakaway region that Russia supported. Putin invaded Georgia in a brief but brutal conflict, after which Putin said he wanted to hang the Georgian president “by the balls.”
Saakashvili hasn’t been back to Georgia since his second (and constitutionally mandated last) term ended in late 2013. He’s wanted in Georgia on corruption charges which, he claims, are at Russia’s behest. Poroshenko asked him to join the Ukrainian government to spearhead reform efforts in Odessa, where Russia has been trying to stir up separatist sentiment.
A US-educated lawyer, Saakashvili has the almost unique qualification of having spearheaded one of the few relatively successful anticorruption efforts in the former Soviet Union. Although he is criticized for focusing more on public relations and wooing the West, during his time in office Georgia’s ranking in global corruption watchdog Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index improved from 124th in the world, to 55th. Saakashvili’s reforms in Georgia were “life-changing”and “radical,” wrote Natalia Antelava, a journalist and expert on the country, in a December 2013 article published in Foreign Affairs magazine.
But Ukraine will pay a high price for naming Saakashvili to its government. It will “reinforce [Russia’s] narrative of a Ukrainian government hostile to Russian national interests,” according to political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. What’s more, Moscow might try to reignite separatist efforts in Odessa specifically to damage Saakashvili’s efforts. The fragile peace that has held between Russia and Ukraine will be even more challenged with Saakashvili in the picture.