When does a conversation resemble an experiment in quantum mechanics? When that conversation involves Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian officials and the topic is European integration.
Because sooner or later, the participants are going to be inhabiting parallel universes.
This past weekend, I was honored to lead a discussion at the GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum on The European Neighborhood 2017: Times Of Turmoil Ahead.
The panelists included Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili; Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics; Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin; Andrea Thompson, national security adviser to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence; and (this is where it gets interesting) Russian State Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov.
You can probably imagine what happened. But you don't have to because here's the video:
As one would expect, two radically different visions emerged about what Georgia and Ukraine's efforts to integrate with the European Union means.
For Nikonov, the grandson of Josef Stalin's Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and one of the more articulate surrogates of Vladimir Putin's regime, this is part of a Western geopolitical gambit to exclude, isolate, and encircle Russia.
"For Russia, the definition of success in dealing with the neighbors is to make them as friendly to Russia as possible. The definition of success for many people in this room is how to distance these countries from Russia," Nikonov said.
And everything that has happened in recent years -- the Russian invasion of Georgia, the establishment of de facto protectorates in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the annexation of Crimea, and the military intervention in the Donbas -- was a result of the West's actions.
In this world, the Georgians and Ukrainians have no agency of their own. They are pawns in a grand chess match between great powers. What they want and aspire to doesn't matter.
But for myself and for the other four panelists, who see a different reality, the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine represent the free choices of sovereign nations.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Klimkin stressed that, "for us, joining Europe, going back to Europe, is about how we understand our history and how we understand our vocation."
Georgian Prime Minister Kvirikashvili added that "Georgia is committed to building a value-based partnership with Europe. This is something we aspire to...This depends on us."
Welcome to the parallel universes.
This was best illustrated by a memorable exchange between Nikonov and Klimkin about what "Europe" even means.
Nikonov set this up by asking the questions: What is the largest European city? What is the largest European country? His answer, of course, was Moscow and Russia. And the implication was that Russia was being excluded from its rightful place.
"If you play with geography," Klimkin responded. "Moscow can be considered a European city. But for me, the real division is about people and their values. And if you consider Kyiv and Moscow now, they are two completely different worlds. The reality we have in Russia is not a European reality."
In other words, it is Russia that is excluding itself from Europe.
And sticking with the notion that values trump geography, Kvirikashvili said it was well past time to get rid of the term "post-Soviet" once and for all.
"Georgia is no longer a post-Soviet country," he said. "We are an Eastern European country."
Likewise, Latvian Foreign Minister Rinkevics quipped that "we don't refer to the United States as a former British colony."
Beyond the parallel universes inhabited by Nikonov on one hand and everybody else on the other, the discussion also provided a powerful counternarrative to the Euroskepticism inside the EU itself.
"We are very enthusiastic about the future of Europe," Kvirikashvili said. "Europeans don't appreciate, with all due respect to all of them, the achievements of the European Union...We very much hope that the wider European spirit will be revived and that Georgians and Ukrainians will be a part of it."
Enjoy the video!