Ukraine and Georgia: Together Will Prevail

By Zviad Adzinbaia, Ph.D. Student, International Security and Digital Diplomacy Fellow, The Fletcher School

The morning of February 24, 2022, was ironically warm in Zugdidi, a historic town on Georgia’s western Black Sea coast. As I drove toward Tbilisi, I reflected on my own history as an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) forced out of my birthplace in Russian-occupied Abkhazia. Despite the pleasant weather, bitter memories of the Kremlin’s orchestrated ethnic cleansing in 1993 remained fresh.

Being a melophile millennial, the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” played in my ears, representing hope and a more complete version of a “Europe whole, free, and at peace” outlined by Western post-Cold War architects. Such a Europe would be hard to see without a united and free Georgia and Ukraine; the two countries I equally consider my homeland.

I remembered the Russian tanks that had invaded through the same highway in 2008, and the emotional turmoil caused by Russia’s full-scale and baseless attack on Georgia. At the time, Moscow sought to impede NATO’s enlargement following the Alliance’s April 2008 Bucharest Summit, which promised Georgia and Ukraine eventual membership. As my car audio continued with Keith Jarret and Andrea Bocelli’s albums, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was about to happen. It was midday, and my Apple Watch, which I wore as a symbol of the Euro-Atlantic world, buzzed incessantly. BBC was telling me that Putin had invaded Ukraine.

Skin in the Game

Like in Ukraine, the Kremlin started its offensive in Georgia with cyber-enabled attacks and dispatched its media to curate a pre-invasion narrative: “Georgia launched a genocide against ethnic minorities in its own Tskhinvali Region. Moscow came to aid the South Ossetians.” With the world preoccupied with the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Moscow manipulated an information vacuum and sold the world an invented storyto justify its multi-domain invasion of Georgia.

Putin’s regime hoped for a repeat of the Georgia playbook fourteen years later. He assumed that the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, combined with the world being preoccupied by COVID-19, would provide just enough of a distraction for his so-called “Special Operation” in Ukraine to fly under the radar. Under a false pretext, one almost identical to that of Georgia in 2008, Moscow tailored another sham story that Ukraine was committing genocide against its civilians; Russia positioned itself as compelled to “defend the vulnerable.”

As Ukrainians, aided by a united Western community, globally exposed the grand perception of the once glorious Russian army, Georgians joined forces with their Central and Eastern European allies to fight what they perceived as their war against Russia. Mamuka Mamulashvili, the Founder and Commander of the Georgian Legion in Ukraine, leads a Georgian and multinational force of around 1000 soldiers. He was 14 when he first fought in Abkhazia and again in 2008 against the Russian invaders to defend the homeland.

David Arakhamia, a Georgia-born Ukrainian, who is now part of President Zelensky’s team of top decision-makers, comes from Abkhazia. A victim of the 1993 ethnic cleansing that displaced over 200,000 ethnic Georgians from their homeland, Arakhamia is fighting the war for his both homelands: Ukraine and Georgia.

Another leader that embodies Georgia’s reforms and Georgia’s continued struggle against Russian revisionism is Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s third President and former Statesman in Residence at the Fletcher School in 2014. A citizen of Ukraine and President Zelensky’s Chief Reforms Advisor, Saakashvili, is currently serving a prison sentence in Georgia, which the European Parliament and other international organizations recognize as politically motivated. Ill-treated and under rapidly declining severe health conditions, the European Parliament urges the Georgian government to release Saakashvili as “failure to improve the former President’s situation risks hampering Georgia’s EU candidacy prospects.”

Ashamed of the government

Despite massive civilian support in Georgia for Ukraine’s struggle for freedom, resulting in over 30 volunteers paying the ultimate price, continued public rallies, fundraising, and more, the Georgian government has been playing an embarrassing card: benefiting from the war. Since the invasion began, the Georgian government has admitted massive numbers of comfort-seeking Russian citizens to the country, primarily due to the Western sanctions and military draft.

As rental prices skyrocketed in Georgia because Russians acquired tens of thousands of new apartments, the Georgian Dream party government, controlled by the Kremlin’s proxy oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, praised itself for double-digit economic growth in 2022 thanks to the war-inspired cash inflow.

While Georgian soldiers in Ukraine’s armed forces gave their lives to liberate Kherson, Soledar, and Bakhmut, Zurab Abashidze, Georgia’s Special Envoy to Russia, where Georgia has no official diplomatic relations following the 2008 invasion, discussed new transport routes with Gregory Karasin, a notorious Russian senior diplomat.

The European Future at Stake

The Ukrainian fight for freedom has led to a significant opportunity for Georgia: just last June, the European Union offered Ukraine and Moldova candidacy for membership, while Georgia was presented with pre-conditions to meet before joining the group of three, which it led several years ago. In the EU language, Georgia experienced an outsized influence of the oligarch, needed to ensure transparency and institutional building from media to the judiciary and “implement the commitment to “de-oligarchisation.”

In June 2022, over 150 thousand Georgians took to the streets demanding that the government ensure fast-track implementation of the EU’s above conditions and not miss the country’s historical momentum. Instead of hearing the people’s voice, the government, which holds a grip on several key TV stations and mainstream media, and has mastered so-called troll firms, started an outright campaign calling European-American officials a global “war party.”

Frustrated by ongoing civil society efforts to establish transparent and accountable democratic processes, the government is considering a Russian-style foreign agent law to delegitimize Western-backed civil society and media. This law would allow the government to crack down on anyone who opposes its agenda in the name of national security, mirroring the Kremlin tactics at its core.

As Europe and the United States continue to sanction Russian oligarchs, governmental forces and their proxies in Georgia argue that the United States should show strategic flexibility toward Georgia, reducing the pressure on the oligarch for damaging the country’s hard-won democracy and reforms for the sake of geopolitical projects. Given that the U.S.-led Western coalition strives to ensure the victory of liberal democracy over the Russian and Chinese versions of the world, asking for realpolitik and business as usual in Georgia is at least premature.    

Ways Out

Against ongoing political turmoil in Georgia, U.S. Senators Shaheen and Durbin have led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Tbilisi to establish a broader U.S. policy toward the Black Sea region. In recognizing the critical importance of Georgia’s democratic institutions and civil society, they understand that a more comprehensive approach is required.

The incoming U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Robin Dunnigan, can play a crucial role in helping shape the new Black Sea strategy’s Georgia component. Such a document would support democratic forces in the country and simultaneously challenge, counter, and punish the oligarchic structures that have plagued Georgia for over a decade.

As Ukraine frees its land from the Russian invaders, Georgia should be considered in every major solution, including the post-war European security architecture. For Georgia, Ukraine’s victory is directly tied to its own ultimate victory. The Euro-Atlantic world would be better off with a united, secure, and democratic Georgia and Ukraine. As President Biden stated during his historic visit to Kyiv this week, the strategic message that “Kyiv stands. Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” must also extend to Tbilisi.   

This piece is republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

Leave a Reply