Ever since Ukraine was attacked on 24 February, the Georgian people have expressed their full support for the besieged country through protests, volunteering, donations, etc. Ukrainian flags can be seen hung on every balcony, window and door in the downtown area, the suburbs, and so on. Every evening, thousands gather in the city center to display solidarity with Ukraine.
Parallels between the invasion of Ukraine and Georgia (2008)
For many Georgians, including myself, this invasion of Ukraine is eerily similar to that of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The parallels are indismisible. During the 2008 war, Russia recognised two Georgian breakaway regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – and stationed its troops there. Since then, Tbilisi has pushed even more strongly for closer integration with the West, via closer ties to the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), even if membership in neither body seemed immediately likely. Similarly, in Ukraine in 2022, Russia recognized the independence of two breakaway regions, Luhansk and Donetsk. In order to “defend” the two proclaimed independent states, Russia then conducted a “special military operation,” which lead to the current situation.
Despite these parallels and the broad public backing for Ukraine, the Georgian government has tiptoed around the crisis, fearing the consequences of provoking its powerful northern neighbor, Russia. The day after Russia invaded, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said his government would refuse to join any Western sanctions on Moscow, dismissing them as unproductive. Despite citizens’ anger, Gharibashvili has remained cautious. This is partly due to the real economic crisis that could occur if Georgia imposes sanctions, as well as the Georgian Dream Party’s proclivity to support Russian actions. But despite the government’s hesitance, its divisions with the Kremlin are increasingly on display. On 28 February, the National Bank of Georgia said it would act “in accordance with the international resolutions and standards and cannot and will not help evading implementing these sanctions”. On 3 March, Georgia, along with Moldova, followed Ukraine’s lead in filing a formal application for EU membership.
While building more contacts with Russia, Georgia has been feeling increasingly frustrated with the lack of real prospects of joining the EU or NATO. Since 2014, when Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the EU, it started adjusting its laws and economic policies to meet Europe’s criteria for accession. In an attempt to build support among NATO powers for its bid to join the alliance, Georgia kept its troops in Afghanistan until the very last weeks before the U.S. withdrawal. But these investments were not enough to overcome resistance among European and U.S. officials and politicians who see the downsides of Georgian membership in either organization as outweighing any benefits. Many existing members argue that Georgian membership would anger the Kremlin and deepen its conflict with the West, reducing rather than increasing security for all.
Georgians can feel the agony that a Russian invasion brings, having fought our own war with Russia almost fourteen years ago. But many in the country’s leadership believe saber-rattling and diplomatic protests could put Georgia high on President Vladimir Putin’s radar, leading to problems in the long-term. Hours before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, a senior Georgian official told civil society representatives that the leadership often has to choose between a “bad option and a worse option. Unfortunately, this is our reality”.Russia can easily, cheaply and effectively harm Georgian stability by leveraging its influence in the breakaway regions whose pursuit of self-rule Moscow champions and where its troops are already stationed. Its border guards patrol the South Ossetian line of separation with Georgia, including within a few hundred meters of a major highway linking Tbilisi to Georgia’s Black Sea coast and in close proximity to the Baku-Tbilisi-Supsa pipeline that delivers oil from Azerbaijan to Europe and elsewhere. The line of separation in this area seems to be creeping steadily forward into the Georgian government-held areas – and there may be little Georgians can do about it.
These aggressive tactics make the Tbilisi leadership wary. A small shift of the line that brings more territory under the control of the breakaway regions could displace thousands of people. Even more worrying to Georgian officials is the possibility that Moscow could exploit any small incident along the line to resume a military invasion and take even more Georgian territory. Georgia, like several other former Soviet states, can ill afford, militarily or economically, to pick a fight with Russia. Despite the show of Western resolve over Ukraine, as far as sanctions and military equipment are concerned, Georgia, smaller, less significant and farther away, fears being left alone to face Russia.