TBILISI, Georgia — On Sunday afternoon in the village of Khurvaleti, a jetlagged but gritty-as-ever John McCain walked up a snow-covered hill to meet an aged Georgian man, Dato Vanishvili, who waited on the other side of a 52.5-kilometer razor-wire barrier. Sen. McCain leaned into the fence, reached over and shook Vanishvili’s hand. In doing so, the senator’s gnarled grip passed through the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) into Russian-controlled South Ossetia.
This small gesture was the most geopolitically provocative move that McCain made during his weeklong tour of countries on Russia’s frontier.
With McCain, the Republican from Arizona, were Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, on an excursion over the holidays that looked like a pregame lap before they face off with President-Elect Donald Trump and his buddy Russian President Vladimir Putin on Capitol Hill, where it really counts.
The trio traveled from the Baltics to Ukraine to Georgia—“the near abroad,” the Kremlin calls it, but it’s rapidly becoming “the fear abroad” as Trump appears to be signaling none of these countries can rely on American protection anymore.
The senators made both their rhetoric and their actions more pointed as they passed from country to country, laying the groundwork for their hearings into Russian hacking later this week. McCain’s handshake moment seemed like some kind of peak in that escalation—he was literally crossing the line.
But there is only one thing that John McCain can do for Dato Vanishvili: Stop Trump from lifting sanctions on the same guys that put a fence through Dato’s yard.
Dato went to bed one night in Georgia in 2009 and woke up in South Ossetia. The fence was originally erected (passing behind his property) after the war in August of 2008 to mark the newly recognized (by Moscow) South Ossetia.
But the Russian security service, the FSB, has a penchant for sporadically moving the fence further into Georgian territory in the middle of the night—a process referred to as borderization. That’s how Dato woke up in Russian controlled territory.
The 85-year-old farmer told The Daily Beast in an interview last spring that he was detained by the FSB for crossing into Georgia to collect his pension in October 2012, three years after discovered he was living in occupied territory. “Georgian police helped me pass over the fence onto their side. But the FSB waited for me, and as soon as I crossed back over, I was detained. They put my cap in my mouth and took a knife and threatened me with it.” Dato claims, “They have threatened my grandson, who lives in South Ossetia, and say they will take me to Moscow if I talk again.”
But, clearly a stubborn man of the land, he still does talk, and even shakes hands through the fence with senators.
McCain and Co., attempting to reassure American allies of their support, know full well that the U.S. president who will be inaugurated on Jan. 20 does not share their views about Russia and could care less about people like Dato Vanishvili.
Meanwhile the FSB is watching all of this. There are state-of-the-art FSB telecommunications outposts all along the administrative border. From where the senators stood they could see one of the many FSB bases that pepper the area. This base in particular is so close that you see the Russian soldiers hanging their laundry out the windows to dry in warm months. The front side faces Georgia, and looks like a brand new hotel, giving the impression of a Potemkin-esque military base.
Indeed, the Russians are doing everything they can to create an impression of permanence—and menacing proximity.
In local terms, according to the Jamestown Foundation, “Russian forces stationed along the current occupation line could capture and block that section of the East-West highway within 15 minutes. Needless to say, were Tbilisi to lose control over the highway, it would split Georgia into two parts, causing a major political as well as humanitarian catastrophe in the country.”
But in a broader sense, it is the creeping process of invasion, intimidation, “borderization,” and the menacing facades of power that McCain, Graham, and Klobuchar found wherever they went.
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Giga Bokeria, an opposition leader and former secretary of the Georgian National Security Council who met with the senators, said, “The visit is a very important signal at this point in time. There is a very risky international environment for everyone and particularly for Georgia. There is a new administration in the U.S. and their policies are not clear yet. So the visit of our friends… is a very important signal.”
The operative term here is “signal.” If this congressional delegation (a CODEL in diplospeak) teaches us anything new, it is how quickly the language of foreign policy has changed—and how little diplomacy relies on actual conversation. President-Elect Trump’s use of tweets to state his position on nuclear weapons or to praise Putin’s decisions reflects this new reality.
In a world where countries are hacked each day or pinged (in constant displays of the ability to hack demonstrated by both enemies and allies) and where senators reach across fences and visit front lines, the new language of diplomacy is one of dramatic actions and visible, social-media-shareable signals.
The guy at the fence, Dato Vanishvili, has probably done his routine 100 times. In his own way McCain has, too. The roles are not unlike that of theater. McCain and Graham are weathered old Cold Warriors who have been performing for decades now. But suddenly their routine is back in vogue. Their signals are in demand. Or so they hope.
No one is getting any younger, however, and at times it seems both sides of this new Cold War are going through the motions.
Fortunately, they have Sen. Klobuchar, the spry 56-year-old second-term Minnesota Democrat, with fresh energy and perspective. On tour, she was an especially sharp new voice and also a subtle reminder that this isn’t some partisan hawk-fest of old white dudes saying “Mr. Putin, tear down this fence.”
“We just left Ukraine, where we’ve seen firsthand what happens when Russia crosses over into a country’s independence,” Klobuchar told reporters succinctly outside the Tbilisi airport. “And we saw it in our own elections with the attempt to influence our elections.”
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As the senators moved from the Baltics to Ukraine to Georgia, edging ever closer to the front lines of conflict, their rhetoric about the hacking scandal escalated dramatically. Russian interference in America’s elections was “an act of war,” as McCain put it.
In Estonia, they were some 130 miles from the Russian border when McCain called for U.S. troops to be permanently stationed in the little Baltic nation. And few venues could so clearly represent the coming together of threats to sovereign soil and to cyberspace.
In 2007 Estonia was crippled by a series of Russian cyberattacks. A decade later, all the Baltic states need genuine reassurance of the American commitment to NATO, after Trump freaked them out during the election campaign by saying that before he would come to the aid of any NATO country, he would first consider that country’s financial contributions to the alliance.
Trump’s statement controverts Article V, the mutual-defense clause without which the North Atlantic Alliance becomes meaningless. As NATO puts it, “The principle of collective defense is at the very heart of NATO’s founding treaty.”
“Vladimir Putin is a thug and a bully and a murderer... He understands strength, and that’s all that he understands,” McCain told Fox News.
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On Thursday, while the senators were in the Baltic States, and after weeks of Oval Office handwringing over Russia’s attempt to influence the U.S. presidential election using “Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities,” (that’s Treasury Department language), the Obama administration finally struck back.
The president expelled 35 intelligence operatives, sanctioning the FSB and the GRU, Russia’s military-intelligence agency, along with nine other entities and individuals.
The Obama administration also sealed off two lavish waterfront compounds, which apparently were well known but tolerated Russian spy haunts. (The two mansions—one formerly owned by a 19th-century oil magnate and the other by the builder of the Empire State Building—look like ghostly Cold War versions of Jay Gatsby’s demesne.)
Tellingly, Putin announced he would wait until Donald Trump is inaugurated to retaliate against Obama’s retaliation—or not. The subtext, of course, is that Putin seems to think Trump will lift the sanctions by executive order once he is president.
Speaking from Kiev, McCain called any deal between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin a “Faustian bargain.” In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty the senators were adamant that the very notion that Trump might lift sanctions “would interfere with and undermine the freedom and democracies that exist today,” as McCain put it.
Meanwhile Trump has suggested recognizing Crimea and lifting sanctions. When asked by German reporter Mareike Aden last July, whether a President Trump would recognize Crimea as Russian and lift sanctions imposed on Moscow for annexing the Ukrainian territory, Trump replied, “Yes. We would be looking at that.”
On Friday in Ukraine, not far from Maidan Square, the birthplace of the pro-Western Euromaidan Revolution in 2014, the senators told RFE/RL that within the United States Congress there is strong support for providing Ukraine with “lethal defensive weapons” in its war with Russian-backed separatists.
This, too, was a refutation of the incoming president’s approach. Trump’s campaign—ever mindful of Putin’s feelings—specifically removed the exact same language calling for lethal defensive weapons for Ukraine from the Republican platform last summer.
On Saturday in the port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov between the Russian frontier and Russian-annexed Crimea, the senators were 15 miles from an active front line where mortar fire thumps back and forth between Ukrainian nationalist troops and the Russian-backed insurgents.
With Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and a group of Ukrainian Marines, the senators spent New Year’s Eve in Shyrokyne, on the forward defense line protecting Mariupol from the rebels.
On New Year’s Eve, Poroshenko announced that “211 Ukrainian servicemen of the Ukrainian Armed Forces” had been killed in 2016, and McCain was quoted by Poroshenko’s press service saying, “I send the message from the American people: We are with you, your fight is our fight and we will win together.”
Meanwhile President-Elect Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate told fellow vacationers they should forget about Russian hacking and we all should “get on with our lives.” Once again he blurred any lines of confrontation with Russia over the issue: “The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on,” Trump said.
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With statements like that coming from the new leader of what used to be called the Free World (as opposed to the Russian/Soviet dominated one) there often seemed to be a kind of sad irony in the senators’ trip through Putin’s back yard.
Many in the region saw the hawkish senators as the last vestige of American policy against Russian authoritarian expansion, and even as their rhetoric and actions grew bolder, the senators’ promises couldn’t help but seem empty on an anachronistic magical mystery tour. They could be right about everything, and powerless to stop anything.
We have entered this new world of post-truth, post-diplomacy, post-ethics with a new American president who seems utterly unable or unwilling to acknowledge Putin’s borderizing ambitions whether on land, at sea, or in cyberspace.
All the way from Palm Beach, Trump was the huge orange elephant in the room in Kiev and Tbilisi. Somehow even there he was stealing the show.