European Affairs

Perspectives: Georgia—Another Target in Russia’s “Near Abroad”     Print Email

CornellSvanteRussia went to war with Georgia in 2008, in a manner that, at least with the benefit of hindsight, appeared a trial run for this year’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, Russia has stirred trouble in Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and as far as the Baltic States, while bankrolling right-wing extremist parties in European Union countries. It is remarkable, however, that after the 2008 war, Georgia seemed off the target list.

Does that mean Moscow had given up on Georgia? Far from it. Moscow may have adopted a more gradual and sophisticated approach, but the objective remains the same: subjugating Georgia and thereby asserting Russian hegemony over the Caucasus region, thereby blocking Western access to the Caspian basin and Central Asia.

In recent months, Russia has again turned more overt attention to Georgia.

Setting the Scene

The 2003 “Rose Revolution” in Georgia was an opening shot in a new geopolitical battle in Eurasia. Not only did it bring to power an assertively pro-western government in Georgia; it also injected an element of ideology into regional geopolitics. Before Mikheil Saakashvili’s supporters walked into the Georgian parliament carrying roses, the domestic affairs of Eurasian countries had not been a key issue in their foreign policy alignments. Indeed, the most pro-American former Soviet state in the 1990s was arguably authoritarian Uzbekistan. But the Rose Revolution realigned matters. Suddenly, with George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, authoritarian regimes had reason to fear that the West would seek to unseat them; and Russia moved in to pose as their protector. The following year, the Ukrainian revolt brought in another government deeply suspicious of Russia, leading Vladimir Putin to conclude that democracy in Russian neighbors was not only a threat to Russian interests in the neighborhood, but also a potential threat to his own regime’s hold on power. After all, if Slavic Ukraine would become a normal European state with accountable leaders, why should Russians continue to accept the corruption of Putin’s Russia? As a result, Georgia and Ukraine became serious targets. It is no coincidence that the only two countries Russia has invaded in the past decade are those two Orthodox Christian countries.

In Georgia, this logic led to a gradual escalation, culminating in the Russian invasion of August 2008. Subsequent research has made it clear that Russia planned the war as early as 2006, and Putin has publicly admitted as much. War was launched after a sequence of events, beginning with the western recognition of Kosovo’s independence in February and the ill-fated NATO Bucharest summit in April that denied Ukraine and Georgia NATO Membership Action Plans. The war led to Russia’s occupation of the two breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russian-monitored cease-fires had kept an uneasy state of no war, no peace, following conflicts Moscow helped instigate in the early 1990s.

Yet that war was followed two months later by the global financial crisis, which shook Russia’s economy to the core. Moscow suddenly put on a conciliatory face to the world, particularly indicating a willingness to compromise on a variety of issues with the West. The sanctions on Russia resulting from the Georgian war were soon dropped, and the incoming Obama administration rewarded Russia with the now notorious “Reset” policy, which effectively relegated disagreements on issues like Georgia to the backburner.

As much as U.S. officials would reject that notion, Russian leaders clearly interpreted the Reset policy as a license for Russia to re-establish its “sphere of exclusive interests” in the former Soviet space. In 2010, Russia directly triggered a coup against the government in Kyrgyzstan, helping unleash ethnic violence in the country’s south that killed close to a thousand people. Sensing western weakness, Putin also put in overdrive his project of Eurasian integration, beginning with a Customs Union and leading to the Eurasian Economic Union, due to be formally created next month. Officials from a variety of countries in Eurasia from Moldova and Azerbaijan to Tajikistan began reporting to western interlocutors the contents of increasingly threatening conversations with Russian officials, involving demands to join that Union. But remarkably, Georgia was largely absent from these considerations. The Russian security services have been credibly linked to a series of terrorist attacks in Georgia in 2009-11, including one targeting the perimeter of the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi. But apart from that, aside from cementing its control over the two occupied territories, Moscow kept a low profile in Georgia.

Ivanishvili Arrives

In 2011, Georgia’s politics were rocked by the entry into politics of the country’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili had made his fortune of around $6 billion in Russia from interests in metals and banking in the 1990s, but had left the country soon after Putin’s ascent to the presidency. An eccentric and reclusive person born in poverty in the mountains of western Georgia, Ivanishvili had been a supporter of Saakashvili’s, bankrolling many of the new initiatives launched after the Rose Revolution. For reasons that are not yet fully understood, Ivanishvili parted ways with Saakashvili at some point after the war, and eventually decided to confront his former ally. Saakashvili and his allies immediately branded Ivanishvili a Russian stooge; but the accusations never got traction either in Georgian society or abroad, possibly because Saakashvili had a record of overusing that accusation. Ivanishvili also made a point of recruiting as his main political allies the most pro-western politicians that had parted ways with Saakashvili at some point in the last seven years. That provided him with the necessary legitimacy to emerge as a credible challenge to Saakashvili’s party, and his coalition – dubbed Georgian Dream – won the October 2012 parliamentary election.

Ivanishvili’s victory was based on domestic concerns, including large-scale violations of property rights in Saakashvili’s last three years in power and a prison abuse scandal that undermined the government’s credibility. But he also pledged to take a different approach to Russia: Saakashvili had been too rash, and unnecessarily irritated Moscow, he argued; the new government would approach Russia without illusions, but with less emotion. Ivanishvili pledged continuity with the policy of EU and NATO integration that Saakashvili (and his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze) had followed; but claimed he could simultaneously improve relations with Russia. The Georgian people liked the sound of that, and so did many of Georgia’s western allies.

Russia decided to combine carrots and sticks. On the one hand, it removed its embargoes on Georgian wine and mineral water, and went along with Ivanishvili’s attempts to improve economic relations. On the other hand, while Moscow increasingly focused its energies on Ukraine, it began a multi-pronged effort to undermine Georgia’s pro-European stance, in what then appeared a slow, gradual policy to veer Georgia away from the West. That policy assumed that the 2008 war had created enough of a deterrent effect on the West to ensure that Georgia would not be provided with concrete opportunities to join the EU or NATO anytime soon. Besides, Georgia’s economy was not excessively linked to Europe’s, as Moldova’s was. The Georgian fruit could, for now, be allowed to ripen on the tree, while Moscow tended to other business.

Upping the Ante

But recently Moscow decided to speed up the process to bend Georgia away from the West. First, the Kremlin unleashed hundreds of operatives of various shades and types, mostly Georgians that had been on their payroll during the Shevardnadze administration, but lived in exile in Russia during the Saakashvili era. Some managed to get appointed to senior positions in the interior ministry and prosecutor general’s office; most were deployed in civil society, to create NGOs supporting “Eurasian” ideas and the like. A former Georgian cabinet minister in June 2014, told this author that he had counted at least 17 different Russian-created NGOs popping up like mushrooms across Georgia.

Second, the Kremlin poured money into pro-Russian political parties. The chief beneficiary was Nino Burjanadze, a former speaker of parliament under Saakashvili, who had twice served as interim president. After falling out with Saakashvili, Burjanadze established her own party, moving into radical opposition and overtly establishing ties to Putin’s United Russia party. Burjanadze made a half-hearted attempt at orchestrating a coup in May 2011, but was caught in a wiretap released by Georgian authorities to discuss the prospect of Russian spetsnaz forces helping her overthrow Saakashvili. Lately, her Democratic Movement party has been buoyed by what one observer aptly termed “an enormous influx of vaguely sourced money” that everyone assumes to be of Russian origin.

Against this onslaught of Russian subversion, Georgian counter-intelligence has made zero arrests. In 2006, Saakashvili’s government’s very public arrest of Russian spies generated an economic embargo by Russia, suggesting the current government may have reason to be cautious. But for over two years, it appears that the Georgian interior ministry has done very little, if anything, to counter the very visible efforts of the Russian special services to undermine the country’s sovereignty. By 2014, this had become a sore point in the government, with pro-western forces arguing for action, while Ivanishvili’s loyalists refused to act.

Not limiting itself to subversion, Moscow also began to engage in military shows of force, and to tighten the screws in the occupied territories. In March 2013, Russia conducted unannounced naval exercises off Georgia’s Black Sea coast, coinciding with U.S.-Georgian training drills conducted the same week. Beginning in 2013, the Russian Federal Security Service began building barbed wire fences on the administrative boundary lines separating Georgia from South Ossetia. In March 2014, Moscow orchestrated the overthrow of the leadership of Abkhazia, which – while having little love lost for Tbilisi – had sought to maintain a modicum of independence vis-à-vis Russia. In its place, Russia ensured the election as President in a special election of Raul Khajimba, Moscow’s closest ally in the territory for a decade. And in November, Moscow announced new bilateral “treaties” on the further integration of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Russia.

These developments, and especially the simultaneous Russian invasion of Ukraine, gradually exacerbated the built-in contradictions in the Georgian government’s approach to Russia. Clearly, the aim of simultaneously pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration and improved relations with Russia was no longer realistic. This deepened the rift in the Georgian government between forces leaning toward appeasement of Russia, and those insisting on further integration with NATO and the EU. The political divide was made worse by the fact that Ivanishvili had left the government in December 2013, retreating to private life and entrusting the premiership to his loyal confidant, 31-year old Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili. Yet it remained common knowledge that Ivanishvili would still be consulted for every political decision of some importance.

In September 2014, the NATO summit in Wales did not provide Georgia with a coveted Membership Action Plan; but it did agree on a substantial “package” for Georgia, which included the opportunity for the country to finally procure defensive weaponry from NATO countries, something the alliance had long been reluctant to do. Defense Minister Alasania seized on this opportunity, for which he and his ministry had long been preparing: among others, Alasania cultivated close ties with the French Ministry of Defense, including coming to Paris’s aid in effectively rescuing the French-led peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic. As Le Monde reported in April this year, it was Georgia’s decision to commit 150 soldiers to the mission, which other European countries were reluctant to commit to, that made it viable.

By late October 2014, Alasania had concluded negotiations with the French defense ministry and French defense industries to purchase one of the world’s most advanced air defense systems: the Aster-30. This system, consisting of vertically launched surface-to-air missiles, is designed to counter a broad range of targets, ranging from high-flying aircraft to sea-skimming cruise missiles. Crucially for Georgia, it would be capable of defending Georgian airspace against the Russian air force – which immediately took command of Georgia’s airspace in the 2008 war – as well as against the Tochka-U (SS-21 Scarab) ballistic missiles that Russia deployed in South Ossetia after the war, within range of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi 60 miles away. The deployment of the Aster-30 system would effectively deny Russia the advantage of control over the airspace in the case of a renewed conflict, and thus make any new invasion of Georgia a much more complicated operation.

This proved too much for Moscow. While the procurement had been agreed on in the Georgian government, a glitch emerged at the last minute. Multiple sources in Georgia independently confirm that Alasania received a phone call from Tbilisi an hour before the signing of a memorandum of intent, from a subordinate of the prime minister, urging him not to sign the agreement. The sequence of events suggests that the decisive factor in this development was an external pressure rather than any domestic rivalry. Indeed, it is fairly clear that that the Kremlin managed to bring to bear its levers of pressure on Ivanishvili to rein in his pro-western defense minister, thereby potentially stopping Georgia from the a historic opportunity to provide for the defense of its territory.

When Alasania (who reportedly tried and failed to reach the prime minister personally) signed the agreement on the basis of the authority he had received, Georgian prosecutors the next day launched two separate judicial proceedings against the Defense Ministry, arresting several high civilian as well as military officials. Within days, Alasania had been fired from the Defense Ministry along with his deputies, and the leading pro-European ministers responsible for foreign affairs and European integration resigned in solidarity. Following this crisis, Georgian politics and foreign policy are in flux – the government continuing to voice its rhetorical commitment to European integration and to NATO. Credibility on that score, however, has been strongly damaged. A key indicator will be whether Georgia follows through on the air defense agreement with France.

In Russian strategic thinking, the Caucasus occupies a place second only to Ukraine, and from the Yeltsin era to the present, it is in the Caucasus that Moscow has been most assertive in its efforts to maintain its sphere of influence and to deny western presence. As the situation in Ukraine moves toward a stalemate, it is clear from the developments over the past year that the Kremlin is once again refocusing its attention on Georgia and the South Caucasus. Aside from the events in Georgia, Moscow in September 2013 succeeded in pressuring Armenia to drop its attempts at an Association Agreement in favor of joining the Eurasian Union. The same year, but with less clear results, it drastically increased its pressure on Azerbaijan to desist from a pro-Western foreign policy. Worse, in August 2014, Moscow was very likely involved in triggering the largest escalation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict since the cease-fire in 1994.

The Kremlin appears to be calculating that any successor to the Obama administration, whether Democratic or Republican, will be a tougher adversary – and it is thus plausible that Moscow will want, once and for all, to finish its unresolved business in the South Caucasus in the next two years. How exactly this will happen, and what instruments Moscow will be using, is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that Georgia will figure prominently in these plans, for Moscow still views Georgia as the weakest link in the east-west corridor connecting the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.

Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Center affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy.

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