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Georgia on the margins of the Russian war in Ukraine

After the illegal recognition of “Luhansk” and “Donetsk” separatist regimes and the direct invasion of Ukraine, the Putin regime could further its aggression not only against Ukraine but also Georgia.

March 13, 2022 - Vakhtang Maisaia - Analysis

Photo: Nelson Antoine / Shutterstock

As a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Georgia has been pulled out of the daily political agenda. This is largely due to the appeasement policy stipulated by the incumbent ruling party of Georgia – the Georgian Dream party – who controls the government and parliament. Even recently, having adopted the resolution on the situation in Ukraine, the ruling party majority did not mention in the document the phrase “Russian Federation”. Despite this, Georgia and Ukraine are considered in a common geopolitical “basket” regarding its Euro-Atlantic and European integration policy perspectives. According to the constitution of Georgia adopted in 2020, Article 78 directly stipulates that Georgia has an irreversible position towards integration policy and adherence in NATO and EU structures. Meanwhile, the Kremlin set up its own so-called “red lines” in two of their security documents shared with the United States and NATO earlier this year which in essence declared both Georgia and Ukraine as its own “special zone of influence” and pointed out its geostrategic plans for encroachment in case of necessity.   

The above-mentioned scenario has been operating against Georgia as a hybrid war for some time. This includes tactical and sub-tactical operations of military capabilities in the occupied territories of Georgia and on the operational-strategic level in the case of information-psychological and cyberwar operations. In the occupied territories of Georgia, particularly in the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region (so-called South Ossetia), units of the Russian occupation forces have been already stationed and deployed (7th and 4th military bases) and the process of “creeping occupation” is underway.

The Tskhinvali region has become a national security deadlock for Georgia. The  tense political and economic situation in these territories can be described as “managed chaos”. It has to be mentioned that the unrecognised government of the Abkhazian region is acknowledged as a separatist de facto government. The Tskhinvali regional irredentist de facto government is represented by the so-called “Institute of the President” (The rest of the official structures are formed as relevant branches of the Russian government).  The political unstable processes that are taking place in the occupied Abkhazia region where a confrontation between the so-called  “president”  and the representatives of the united opposition, creates a so-called “government vacuum” which is vividly triggered by Kremlin officials (Ruslan Temirbulatov, the deputy head of the administration of the Russian Federation, who is in charge of Abkhazia, and the occupied Tskhinvali region, is overseen by Viktor Shargaev, the deputy head of the Russian Federation). The Kremlin’s oversight of the political processes in the de facto occupied Abkhazia is being handled by the Kremlin. There is a deep political crisis going on in this area. As for the de facto region of Tskhinvali, it is kept under the control of the Kremlin, its law enforcement agencies and other so-called “government segments”, incorporated in the relevant official structures of Russia.

Taking into account all of the above-mentioned facts along with the difficult geopolitical situation, several specific threats can be outlined in the occupied territories of Georgia.  These threats can be formulated as follows:

Geostrategic threats: In this context, the Russian military strategic command seeks to prepare for further combat-operational activities with special “military centres” – the first is located in the occupied Tskhinvali region in case of the 4th military base together with the FSB border guard forces through which the “creeping occupation” is being carried out.  A military centre mission is being devoted to the joint military coalition of Abkhaz-Russian Armed Forces (around 8,000 personnel) created in 2017 and the main mission is to create a military menace on the Georgian seashore zone of the Black Sea and western parts of Georgia.

As for the first “military centre” created in occupied Tskhinvali Region (South Ossetia), the main military strategic objective would be to gain control of the Tbilisi-Gori strategic highway and controlling the key transit corridor as far as possible. Other goals include: imposing a menace of rocket-artillery strikes in the direction of Tbilisi and Gori; carrying out operative-intelligence and tactical subversive activities; and carrying out reconnaissance missions within 500-2,000 km from the occupied territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions in Georgia. Regarding the Russian-Abkhazian joint military coalition group, operating in the occupied territory of Abkhazia, the mission would be to set up monitoring and in case of intervention to occupy the territory of western parts of Georgia, as it happened in August 2008.

Geopolitical threats: These refer to the process of annexation of both regions – the direct annexation of the Tskhinvali region similar to Crimea, and the annexation of the Abkhazian region as an associate member, for example, via the creation of a union state (like Belarus-Russia). This could also include Abkhazia being allowed in the Eurasian Union on the principle of “limited sovereignty”. In this way, Russian can use these two occupied territories against Georgia as a counterweight to its Euro-Atlantic and European integration foreign policy, just as we see now in Ukraine. Russia could also increase political disorder in these region which would spillover onto the internal territories of Georgia. Lastly, the threats also include the creation of a proper geopolitical background for exploiting the so-called “soft power” instruments by Russian structures from the occupied territories (i.e. sponsoring pro-Russian political movements and parties in Georgia, promoting pro-Russian media structures, etc.) and their coordination from these two territories and a policy of discrimination and “ethnic cleansing” of the Georgian-speaking population.

Geoeconomic threats: First and foremost, this is the direct subordination of the economy of both regions to the economic system of Russia. This would cause serious challenges for Georgia. This could include control over of the two-kilometre line of the Baku-Tbilisi-Supsa oil pipeline, for example, and could easily lead to further energy and economic warfare.

In order to protect against these three main threats, it is necessary to establish a unified national de-occupation strategy, as well as a political platform for Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region (similar to the Crimean platform). The goal should be to prevent Russian information tools to build trust among the local population. Like the case of the invasion in Ukraine, the Russian armed forces together with their cosy allies from Abkhazian and Ossetian separatist ones could launch offensive operations in Georgia.

The efforts by the Georgian ruling Georgian Dream party to appease the Kremlin is similar to that of the then ruling Social-Democratic Party in 1920-21 towards the Russian Bolshevik rulers. At that time the policy completely failed and the Russian Bolshevik Red Army intervened in Georgia and deposed of the ruling party and changed the regime with an occupation and further annexation of independent Georgia. The current policy of the incumbent ruling party will have the same consequences if Russia defeats Ukraine and implements a power change strategy there. As for the military strategy for possible intervention into Georgia the following steps should be considered:  

  • The military campaign (probable) could be based on two military strategies endorsed by the Russian/Soviet military schools: a “manoeuvring war” concept which was elaborated in the middle of 1970s by Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov and the “subversion war” concept developed by Russian military theorist Evgeny Messner during the late 1960s and early 70s. Russia is already waging a hybrid war with Georgia with the “creeping occupation”, abduction of Georgian citizens and imprisonments in occupied territories of the Tskhinvali region, the activation of pro-Russian political and public groupings, cyberattacks and visa rejections for Georgian citizens.
  • Russia’s strategic command HQ / National Defence Centre decision to shift from “Battalion-Brigade” to “Tactical Group-Division” and its endorsement of the operational-strategic command HQ “South” indicates that Russia has transformed its military doctrine from defensive to offensive strategies and certainly emerges in the 58th Army Divisions which indicate a clear intention of the Russian leadership towards Georgia;
  • Recently a rising number of military drills in the occupied territories of Georgia conducted by the Russian armed forces with special tactical tasks being performed (i.e., how to manoeuvre and operate in urban-city tense locations) also underscores this trend.

After the illegal recognition of  “Luhansk” and “Donetsk” separatist regimes and the direct invasion of Ukraine, the Putin regime could further its aggression not only against Ukraine but also Georgia.

Possible military campaign scenario in Georgia

To understand how a possible military crisis in Georgia could be prevented and what a response might look like by the national political leadership, we can use “The Five Critical Tasks of Strategic Crisis Leadership” framework formulated by Swedish Professor Eric Stern in his book The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure. As it is known, Russia aims to end Ukraine’s sovereign and constitutional decision to join NATO. The same scenario could be simultaneously developed towards Georgia, as the country has the same aim of NATO membership. Hence, it is important to review the readiness level and awareness perception of the military crisis from the Georgian national political leadership perspective via the criteria below:

Sense-makingdue to a lacking strategic political institutions like a national security council and uncoordinated military and security institutions and structures, Georgia is unable to even consider the possibility of an evolving military conflict. The Georgian government and political leadership (including the president, prime minister, defence minister, etc.) will be key in facing a concrete strategic dilemma. The national government does not perceive that such a military scenario could be erupting and is unprepared react properly.

Decision-makingat the national level there is no military crisis management coordination institution at highest level of political leadership like a national security council. Therefore, should Russian armed forces intervene in Georgia, there will be no strategic decision-making body.

Meaning-making – in case of miscommunication and lack of strategic analytical approaches, including political and emotional skills underdevelopment, is it clear that preparedness for a military crisis is very low.

Ending and accountability – in conjunction with the military crisis development and low perception of understanding of the strategic situation of intervention (with high probability), the Georgian national political authority’s ability to provide any defence management plan would be very chaotic.

Learning and changing – having not properly considered consequences of the 2008 August War in Georgia when Russia intervened and occupied the country, and not completing a “lessons learned” strategic document, severely harms the national security landscape and directly infringes on the national interest of Georgia.

PreparingPreparing for any type of military crisis, mainly with a possible Russian military campaign against Georgia, is very low and not properly considered. This will be detrimental to the protection of Georgia’s national sovereignty and ability to deal with crisis management scenarios. 

Vakhtang Maisaia PhD is a professor of Caucasus International University (Georgia) and honorary professor of the University of Business and Entrepreneurship in Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski (Poland).

P.S. I would like to convey my personal full support to Ukraine and Ukrainian people in the most dramatic period and condemned the occupation of sovereign Ukrainian territories.

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