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Kremlin’s Silent Victory

Whatever happens in Ukraine, Moscow has Georgia captured

Fifteen years after the Russian invasion of Georgia, Ukraine is experiencing the genocidal and scorched earth destruction at Russia’s hand that was unthinkable in 21st-century Europe. Yet, the precedent of 2008, albeit much less destructive, gave the world an insight into the Kremlin’s ideology, which many were unwilling to see.

Jelger Groeneveld is a Dutch foreign policy analyst of East Europe and the South Caucasus..

On the 12th of August 2008, the Polish president spoke the prophetic words on the steps of the Georgian Parliament in Tbilisi: “We also realize all too well that what has befallen Georgia today may befall Ukraine tomorrow, the Baltic States a day after, and then perhaps also my own country, Poland.” The view that political leaders and others, including friends, in East Europe and Georgia held at the time were dismissed by Westerners as being paranoid. After all, they thought, the war in Georgia was – at least partly – of its own doing.

Back in April 2008, just after the recognition of the independence of Kosovo by many Western countries, NATO decided to give Georgia and Ukraine an ‘open door’ invitation that ‘one day’ both countries would be welcome in the collective security organization. The backroom wheeling and dealing and the lack of consensus that both countries should get a more explicit invitation and roadmap into NATO gave Russia the signal NATO was not ready to offer both countries security guarantees.

For years, Russia had already provoked and punished the Georgian leadership under President Mikheil Saakashvili for its staunch pro-western course and its ambition to reunite Georgia by bringing the separatist areas back under central control. In the summer of 2008, President Putin seized the opportunity to provoke the Georgians into “restoring the constitutional order in the entire region” of South Ossetia. Those tactics of baiting coupled with massive military deployment masked as “exercises” were repeated in Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.

The parallels don’t stop there. In 2021 Putin spoke of the “historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” while on the brink of the 2022 invasion, he denied the very existence of Ukrainian statehood, similar to what he echoed at the 2008 NATO summit.

He said, among other things, modern Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia.” After the televised address, he signed the decree formally recognizing the two self-declared Donbas republics and announced the activation of a “mutual assistance” agreement – a euphemism for deploying the military. The two areas were formally annexed later in 2022 in a clear attempt to dismantle the Ukrainian state and deny its right of sovereign existence.

In August 2008, Russia refused to recognize the sovereignty of Georgia over its entire territory and denied Abkhazia and South Ossetia ever “were part of Georgia as an independent country”. Shortly after the war, Russia recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It signed friendship agreements to legalize the presence of occupation forces in violation of the six-point agreement that ended the war.

In July 2019, just after “Gavrilov’s Night” in Tbilisi and the re-introduction of a Russian flight ban against Georgia, Putin held a press conference in which he effectively said the modern Georgian state was a Soviet creation and denied it existed in the past including the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On all accounts these were obvious lies.

While Ukraine has proven to be the most important country for Putin to dismantle and recapture, Georgia is not out of the picture. In fact, the continuing occupation of roughly 20% of Georgia’s territory serves as an instrument of hybrid warfare and active measures against the people of Georgia and the state’s sovereignty.

Part of the play is how the Georgian Dream government has handled the Ukraine war. Against all denials from the government, it is facilitating Russian sanction diversion, if not in the letter, then at last in spirit, and it repeatedly accuses Ukraine and the West of trying to drag Georgia into the war as the “second front.” The Georgian government actively uses the 2022 invasion to widen its rift with the West, which has widened since the 2020 elections.

While the war in Ukraine has become a grinding affair for Russia, the Kremlin has effectively captured the Georgian government. The Georgian government parrots Kremlin talking points regarding the war. It has been putting a “peace agreement” between both sides first above a military victory for Ukraine and its territorial integrity while saying Ukraine’s NATO ambitions were the cause of the war. In an illustration of its break with the West, it has effectively embraced the BRICS and “global south” language emphasizing peace negotiations.

Moreover, it actively deepens economic reliance on Russia and easily succumbs to requests made. After the Kremlin decided to lift the 2019 flight ban, the Georgian authorities quickly granted various Russian airlines permission to fly to Georgia, which would typically take weeks and not days as it did. The city of Tbilisi ordered trucks and metro wagons that could easily be found elsewhere. Against the population’s sentiments and the spirit of international sanctions, the authorities allowed Russian cruise vessels to dock in Batumi. The latter were chased away by Georgian civil power, while it became clear Russia used the vessels to send propagandists that denied Georgian sovereignty.

The current government also has taken on Georgian society by attempts to mirror Russian legislation. Similarly to the cruise vessels in Batumi, the “foreign agents” law has been neutered for the time being by Georgian people power. Western pressure ahead of the bill didn’t stop Georgian Dream, but the regime’s fear of a revolution did.

The Russian imperialist aggression through hybrid actions or military interventions can only be stopped by a collective defense of its targets and by demilitarizing Russia and putting it under an international mandate, similar to post-war Germany and Japan. The latter is beyond our horizon, but the former is not.

For Georgia, the collective defense provided by NATO is the only way to prevent a Russian military takeover. However, the Georgian government is no longer interested in this path. They clearly see NATO accession as a risk, an invitation to Russian aggression. Meanwhile, NATO disconnected Georgia from Ukraine at the last NATO Summit. This did not seem to upset the Georgian government.

Prime Minister Garibashvili has recently embarked on a mission, in line with the “multipolar” world view, signing a “Strategic Partnership” with China. The agreement includes an “exchange of experience in governance,” and Garibashvili sees China as an “exemplary” country that brings economic prosperity and development. In recent years most Western partners of Georgia have become weary of partnering closely with China, have become reserved about its intentions, and certainly do not see China as a model of governance.

These are all signs that the Georgian government has abandoned its aspirations to become a transparent, non-corrupt, western-styled rule-of-law democracy. They show that the state has been captured by a clan that wants to rule Georgia in an authoritarian style – a fiefdom of an elite centered around Bidzina Ivanishvili. A clan that effectively serves Russia’s interests – either through fear, blackmail, or subservience – represents a soft power victory for Russia.

Even when Russia eventually loses the war in Ukraine, it has Georgia captured.

The views and opinions expressed on opinions pages are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of editorial staff. 


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