Invasion of Ukraine & the Fragility of the Caucasus
The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022 and has since had profound effects on international geopolitics. One year on, the Caucasian nation of Georgia has been under the relative security threat of potentially becoming the next front of the war. Georgia and Russia have had a troubled past since the fall of the Soviet Union, and this tension had brewed in the buildup to the Soviet Union’s collapse in the form of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian disputes. Both had been Autonomous Oblasts under the USSR and feared losing this autonomy when Georgia declared independence on the 9th of April 1991 (Demetriou, S. 2002). The Abkhazian Armed Forces (AAF) and the Armed Forces of South Ossetia (AFSO) are two insurgencies that rose to prominence following these disputes.
The invasion of Ukraine has brought these issues to the forefront of the current Georgian political discourse, in the fear that there could be a repeat of the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict, in which nearly 1000 people died including both soldiers and civilians. This analysis will explore the legitimacy of these concerns, as well as conduct a risk-assessment for a potential escalation.
The invasion of Ukraine caused the Abkhaz and South Ossetian disputes to come into comparison, as there have been stark similarities between these cases. In the Russo-Ukrainian context, the Russian recognition of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic served as a prelude to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Although the Donbas region's self-declared states are recognised by no other nation, Putin sanctioned the use of military force under this pretence in order to ‘demilitarise’, per se, and overthrow what he dubbed a "Nazi" regime (Ahluwalia, P., & Miller, T. 2022).
In contrast, after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the partial recognition of the breakaway South Ossetian and Abkhaz states came following the weakness of Georgian sovereignty (as Georgia had lost complete authority over its territory).
Russia continued to boost both its financial and military support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 15 years to come. In addition, Moscow made the profoundly symbolic decision to acknowledge the independence of the regions, as a continued response to the 2008 conflict, putting it in a position from which it will be difficult to revert back (Gerrits, A. W., & Bader, M. 2016). “In addition, Russia granted citizenship to inhabitants of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and repeatedly warned that it would use military force to protect its ‘citizens’.” (Ahluwalia, P., & Miller, T. 2022)
When looking for the reasons behind this relatively new Russian approach to the creation of these de-facto states in the former Soviet Nations, it becomes symbolic of the fall in stature of the region, resulting in the decisions guided by hubris in current policy. However, this has happened before in Russian history, as there are stark similarities between Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the campaign against the Japanese that Tsar Nicholas II underwent in order to ‘unite his people’ against faltering domestic conditions. Russian actions were a representation of deeper forces, which can be outlined by four overarching security concerns:
→ A foreign policy based around opposition to the NATO alliance's decade-long eastward expansion
→ Panic over issues like Kosovo's independence and the deployment of missile defence systems in Europe
→ The assertion of the idea of limited sovereignty for former Soviet states
→ Newfound confidence and aggressiveness in international relations that are closely tied to the character and worldview of Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin.
(International Crisis Group, 2008 cited in Nielsen, C. A. 2009)
The Role of Separatist Insurgencies
The two aforementioned insurgent groups operating in Georgia alongside the Russian forces based in the two de-facto states – the AAF and AFSO – have yet to make a further incursion on Georgian territory. While the AAF and AFSO are likely content with the autonomy from the Georgian state they currently possess (although their capabilities are still somewhat ambiguous), the potential for Russia to abuse this lack of Georgian structural integrity is high. There has been an agreement amongst the Western coalition that Georgia will become an important part of the general security in the region. Consequently, Georgia has been an integral member of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group alongside being one of the biggest contributors to foreign troops for Ukraine. This uptick in relations can be noted with the United States' decision to declare its commitment to provide Georgia with security support worth 33 million USD (Vergun, D. 2023).
Alongside this commitment to funding, the US secretary of defence, Lloyd J. Austin III, stated "Georgia's participation in the contact group helps us all strengthen Ukraine's ability to defend itself and to bolster the rules-based international border that keeps us all secure. And that's crucial as Ukraine continues to fight bravely against Russia's unprovoked and unjust invasion." (Vergun, D. 2023)
Russia has indicated its intention to keep Abkhazia and South Ossetia outside of Georgia's jurisdiction by signing new accords with both areas since the start of the Ukraine crisis (Gerrits, A. W., & Bader, M. 2016). Russia not only supplies the de-facto state militant groups with arms and other supplies, but they also have a large number of troops stationed in them. For example, in South Ossetia, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Russian servicemen, while an estimated 1,500 FSB personnel are stationed throughout various border area bases (RULAC, 2022). Russia has more than enough troops in the breakaway regions to keep potential incursions, by the likes of Georgia and Moldova, at bay. In fact, “Georgia has been pursuing a peaceful resolution policy to restore its sovereignty and territorial integrity and there is no alternative to peace” (Garibishivili, I. 2023).
Georgia's Geopolitical Dilemma
Georgia understands that it is in a very difficult position balancing between the NATO and Russian spheres of dominance. Georgia's ruling coalition has taken a number of actions, particularly in the last 18 months, that appear to be intended to distance the nation from the Western sphere of influence, instead encircling it with the Russian geopolitical world once again. The pinnacle of these actions is the recent but infamous “transparency for foreign influence” bill (Sauer, P. 2023). This new law would require any NGO or media organisation that receives more than 20% foreign funding to register as a “foreign agent” with major penalties with refusal. This is a carbon copy of one that Russia passed in 2012, leading to the closing of many human rights, media, and civil society organisations (Raphael, T. 2023). The streets of Tbilisi erupted in protest following this new bill. According to recent polls, the Georgian body politic is relatively pro-western, with estimates suggesting that around 75% of the population supports strengthening ties with the West, while only 2% say the same for Russia.
Nevertheless, due to the threat of a Russian invasion (or escalations in the breakaway states supported by Russia), the Georgian Dream party and infamous billionaire oligarch MP, Bidzina Ivanishivilii, have decided to put forward a more pro-Russian agenda, despite what the Georgian population seems to seek (Genté, R. 2022). The balancing act that is on show by the government of Georgia is certainly ambiguous, as they continue proclaiming that they “treasure [the US-Georgia] partnership, [their] shared beliefs, values and interests, which [they] have been defending together over the past three decades” (Vergun, D. 2023). Simultaneously, the Georgian state has been jailing and outlawing various pro-western politicians and public figures, such as Saakashvili (Genté, R. 2022), or even introducing relatively unpopular laws regarding the registration of organisations receiving foreign donations, similar to ones passed recently in Russia (Tanno, S. 2023).
In conclusion, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had far-reaching implications on Georgia. The Abkhaz and South Ossetian disputes, which had already been brewing for years, have been brought to the forefront of Georgian discourse in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Russia's recognition of these breakaway regions and the deployment of troops there have made it difficult for Georgia to assert its sovereignty, and the potential for future incursions remains high. However, the Western coalition's commitment to supporting Georgia's security and participation in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group – alongside very high levels of public support – has provided some reassurance. The situation in Georgia remains tense and precarious, but peaceful resolution and restoration of Georgian territorial integrity must remain the primary goal.
Works Cited (MLA)
Agenda.ge (2023) Georgia pursues peaceful resolution policy to restore territorial integrity, no alternative to peace - PM
Ahluwalia, P., & Miller, T. (2022). Why did the World not learn lessons from South Ossetia and Abkhazia: Russia’s push into Ukraine? Social Identities
Demetriou, S. (2002). Rising from the ashes? The difficult (re) birth of the Georgian state. Development and Change
Genté, R. (2022) Broken Dream: The oligarch, Russia, and Georgia’s drift from Europe. European Council on Foreign Relations.
Gerrits, A. W., & Bader, M. (2016). Russian patronage over Abkhazia and South Ossetia: implications for conflict resolution. East European Politics
Nielsen, C. A. (2009). The Kosovo precedent and the rhetorical deployment of former Yugoslav analogies in the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies
Raphael, T. 2023. Georgia is a new front in Russia’s hybrid war. The Washington Post.
Sauer, P, 2023. Why did protestors in Georgia oppose the ‘Russian law’ bill? The Guardian
Tanno, A. (2023) Georgia: Caught between the West and Russia: Could Georgia be the next Ukraine? CNN
Vergun, D. (2003) Georgia Scheduled for More U.S. Military Assistance. U.S Department of Defence