In July 2014, when the war in eastern Ukraine was becoming increasingly intense and bitter, former president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili accused the new Georgian authorities of persecuting “the officers of the armed forces that came to Ukraine to consult the Ukrainians during the fighting.” Saakashvili expressed his indignation about the fact that these Georgian officers “were questioned by the counter-intelligence department of the Ministry of Interior after they returned home and where [Georgia’s] officials hinted at the undesirability of their stay in Ukraine” (Kommersant, July 23).
In an interview with The Jamestown Foundation, former Georgian deputy minister of defense Nodar Kharshiladze had difficulty identifying which people Saakashvili was actually referring to. However, he said that “it was unlikely they were active servicemen from the Ministry of Defense” (Author’s interview, August 17). The editor-in-chief of the news-analysis magazine Arsenali, Irakly Aladashvili, shared the same opinion. According to Aladashvili, “It can be said with a high probability that Mikheil Saakashvili did not mean the officers that are serving in the Georgian army at the moment because the current Georgian authorities, of course, did not send anyone to fight in Ukraine” (Author’s interview, August 28).
Yet, sources in military circles confirmed for Jamestown that while Saakashvili was still the president of the country, he ordered military specialists, such as armed forces officers and advanced weapons developers to be dispatched to Ukraine. Moreover, in August 2014, Saakashvili along with the Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov participated in the presentation of Ukrainian-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to Kyiv. Saakashvili told journalists that Georgia was prepared share with Ukraine its experience of developing and using military drones. Notably, the Georgian UAV developer Revaz Charbadze, the former CEO of the arms firm DELTA, accompanied the former president in Ukraine (tzona.org, August 11).
However, the possible participation of Georgian volunteers in the war in the Luhansk-Donetsk region (Donbas) draws the greatest interest. The appeal of the Georgian ambassador to Ukraine, Mikheil Ukleba, to Georgian citizens present in the conflict area to leave these regions immediately served as circumstantial evidence of Georgians’ involvement in the hostilities (interpressnews.ge, August 29). Indeed, Ambassador Ukleba was not addressing ethnic-Georgian citizens of Ukraine residing in the Donbas area, but specifically directed his appeal to citizens of Georgia. David Sergienko, the Georgian healthcare minister, declined to comment on information coming out about Georgian fighters trapped in Donetsk province, when the Moscow-backed forces surrounded one of the Ukrainian volunteer fighter groups. Sergienko, however, reiterated Ukleba’s appeal to Georgian citizens “to leave the dangerous zone” (interpressnews.ge, September 5).
At this moment it can be said with certainty that a Georgian volunteer unit of the Abkhaz war veteran Mamuka Mamulashvili is fighting in Ukraine. According to Mamulashvili, he arrived in Ukraine four months earlier, along with his associates who also fought in Abkhazia in 1992–1993, “to help [our] Ukrainian brothers to defend the independence of their country.” The unit’s commander particularly emphasized that his group had not suffered any casualties to date, although it had taken part in intensive fighting. Mamulashvili’s group receives arms in Ukraine itself, while a “commercial organization” provides financing to the group. The commander understandably refused to name the organization. Mamulashvili asserted that his group was not part of any specific Ukrainian volunteer unit, but rather “migrated from one battalion to another” (kvira.ge, August 28).
An emblematic figure of the Georgian civil war of 20 years ago and one of the leaders of the Mkhedrioni paramilitary group, Dodo Gugeshashvili, is also in eastern Ukraine (kvira.ge, August 29). Apart from that, a Georgian fighter nicknamed Doberman is also certainly in Donbas. In a video posted on the Internet, Doberman says that in Ukraine he mostly fights the Chechens who were dispatched by Ramzan Kadyrov on the orders of Vladimir Putin to suppress Ukrainian independence (YouTube, August 4).
Doberman reveals that he was employed in law enforcement in the past. Possibly, he is one of the people that Saakashvili was referring to in his statement about “Georgian officers in Ukraine.” According to information collected by this author, neither Tbilisi nor any other Georgian cities have centers for signing up volunteers to fight in Ukraine. And Georgian media has never made any announcements about this matter. Volunteers apparently connect with each other only via social media, including Facebook and other Internet forums.
No organized or mass-scale movement exists in Georgia to send volunteers to Ukraine. At least in part, this may be due to the current Georgian authorities’ willingness to cut short any such attempts in order to avoid providing Moscow with a formal excuse to undertake new aggression or resume its trade embargo against Georgia.
Georgian society’s sympathy for the Ukrainians’ fight for independence and territorial integrity is clear, and helps explain why, despite great risk, some Georgians still go to eastern Ukraine to fight. First, Georgia has encountered remarkably similar aggression from Russia. And the country continues to face pressure from Moscow, which uses its unilateral recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as leverage against Tbilisi. Second, many people in Georgia still remember that Ukrainian volunteers actively participated in the wars for the territorial integrity of Georgia in 1992–1993 (warandpeace.ru, January 14, 2010). Additionally, during the five-day Russian-Georgian war of August 2008, Ukrainian missile specialists helped the Georgian military use anti-aircraft systems, supplied by Ukraine for combating Russian forces (utro.ru, August 13, 2008).
According to Georgian experts, the volunteer movement in Georgia will not likely have a serious impact on the course of hostilities in Ukraine. “This is not a mass movement. Apart from that, the authorities are prepared to take extraordinary steps to prevent this movement from interrupting the [Georgian government’s] dialogue with Moscow,” GHN Informational Agency columnist Gela Kalandadze told Jamestown on September 4. Nonetheless, the people-to-people ties and feelings of solidarity such assistance is likely to engender between the Georgian and Ukrainian nations could positively impact their bilateral relations in the long term.