Russia has made myriad strategic blunders and military miscues during its aggression against Ukraine, blighting its prospects for victory. But that does not mean it is losing the geopolitical war to expand its sphere of influence, particularly in the old Soviet bloc.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been working hard to drag neighboring nations into Moscow’s fold through “hybrid warfare,” behind-the-scenes maneuvering designed to destabilize a country through covert and overt intervention, including subversion, propaganda and cyberattacks. He has had considerable success with the tactic in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and still effectively controls its Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, which together account for about 20% of its land. Georgia has severed diplomatic ties with Moscow, and anti-Russian sentiment remains strong among the public.
In a poll conducted in December 2022, 70% to 80% of Georgians expressed support for their country’s accession to the European Union and NATO. While the country has a population of less than 4 million, an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 Georgians have joined Ukrainian forces as volunteers to fight the Russian military.
Oddly, however, the Georgian government has become more conciliatory toward Moscow. On Feb. 25, 2022, the day after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili angered Kyiv by saying his country would not join Western sanctions against Russia. “I want to state clearly and unambiguously, considering our national interests and interests of the people, Georgia does not plan to participate in the financial and economic sanctions, as this would only damage our country and populace more,” he told reporters.
Many other Georgian leaders have also taken pro-Russian stances. Irakli Kobakhidze, head of the country’s ruling Georgian Dream party, criticized Russia nine times from Feb. 24 to July 27 in 2022 but made negative comments about Ukraine 26 times and about the West 57 times in the same period, according to local news agency OC Media.
There are signs that this trend has been accelerating. The Georgian parliament on March 7 gave its backing to draft legislation that would require any organizations receiving more than 20% of their annual funding from overseas to register as “agents of foreign influence.”
Critics argued that the envisioned law was similar to a regulation introduced by Putin to silence dissidents in his country. Thousands of protesters denouncing the bill as “the Russian law” took to the streets in Tbilisi, the nation’s capital, forcing the ruling party to withdraw the bill for the time being. Kobakhidze railed against the protesters, denouncing them as foreign pawns.
Georgia’s leaning toward Moscow did not stop there. On May 10, Moscow announced the lifting of a 4-year-old ban on direct flights between Russia and Georgia, and seven weekly flights were resumed. Putin was clearly eager to pull Georgia into Russia’s sphere of influence more tightly by increasing economic interactions, but Georgia offered little resistance, quickly accepting the plan. This touched off another wave of demonstrations, but the Georgian government has stood firm.
Security experts in Georgia and neighboring countries on May 18 and 19 gathered in Tbilisi to discuss regional security at the Rondeli Security Conference. Many participants voiced concerns about Russia’s deepening hold over Georgia. Some experts said Georgia has become a laboratory for Putin’s hybrid warfare and could end up a Russian satellite state.
Many pundits say Putin is pursuing a carrot-and-stick approach to achieve his goals, with a key carrot being expected economic benefits of closer ties with Russia.
Economic interdependence between Russia and Georgia is accelerating. According to Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization, some 15,000 Russian companies were registered in Georgia in 2022, a sixteenfold jump from the previous year. In the same year, Georgia’s imports from Russia soared 79% to $1.8 billion.
This is partly because many business owners in Russia moved their operation bases to Georgia to escape international sanctions and the draft. “The resumption of direct flights could make it easier for businesses and activists close to the Kremlin to promote pro-Russian campaigns in Georgia,” a Georgian security expert said.
Putin also uses the “stick” to achieve his goals by spreading the fear that defying Moscow could lead to the same fate as Ukraine.
After the ruling party in Georgia dropped the controversial foreign agents bill in the face of public protests in early March, an organization with a possible link to the Russian government tweeted that further protests could invite a fresh Russian invasion. In fact, in areas near the South Ossetia separation line, many Georgian citizens have been detained, according to the Georgian security authority.
Putin has strong allies in Georgia, most notably billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in post-Soviet Russia during the 1990s. Ivanishvili founded the Georgian Dream party and became prime minister in October 2012. Although Ivanishvili served in the post for only a year, he is believed to maintain a strong connection with Russia and has huge political clout in his own country. Ivanishvili is not necessarily anti-West, but he has adopted a conciliatory stance toward Russia as he is keenly aware of the danger of making an enemy of Putin, according to a former senior official in Georgia.
Russia’s deepening influence in Georgia shows how deft it has been in using human resources, information and intimidation to pull a country into its web. What has taken place in Georgia could happen to other former Soviet republics, including Moldova.
Source: NIKKEI ASIA