Muted Georgian Response to Military Situation Around Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 63

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Source: Sputnik)

According to Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani, Tbilisi is ready to return Ambassador Teimuraz Sharashenidze to Kyiv. The diplomat was recalled from Ukraine last year, after former president Mikheil Saakashvili repeatedly called on his Georgian supporters to disobey the authorities, organize defiance actions against the government, and put an end to the rule of the Georgian Dream (GD) party of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (Kommersant, April 15). At that time, the Georgian authorities argued that those statements by the former president, who lost his Georgian citizenship after becoming a citizen of Ukraine, were interfering in the country’s internal affairs. Moreover, the GD government pointed out, Saakashvili was not speaking as an ordinary citizen of Ukraine but as the official head of the Executive Committee of the National Reform Council under the president of Ukraine (see EDM, March 10)

Despite the recall of the Georgian ambassador from Kyiv, Saakashvili never halted his transnational live broadcasts on Georgian TV channels. At the same time, he did not withhold his insults against the authorities and continued to urge Georgians “not to put up with the rule of the Russian oligarch [sic] Ivanishvili” (Kommersant, April 24, 2020).

The Georgian government repeatedly protested to Kyiv in the intervening months. But over the past several weeks, as the Russian military began massing large forces near Ukrainian borders, Tbilisi realized that a joint struggle with Kyiv against Moscow’s aggression should trump the political struggle against Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) party.

The most recent symbolic gesture of returning Georgia’s ambassador to the Ukrainian capital means little, however. Even at the level of official rhetoric, Tbilisi has not yet condemned the concentration of Russian troops around Ukraine. Nor has the government sought to more forcefully make the case to its Western partners about the connection between Moscow’s policies toward Georgia and Ukraine, as well as other post-Soviet countries. Saakashvili, meanwhile, makes such appeals almost daily. In turn, some influential European politicians, for example, former president of Estonia Toomas Ilves, openly expressed bewilderment that Georgia, which has faced Russian aggression and occupation since 2008, today is not raising its voice in defense or in support of Ukraine (Netgazeti, April 4).

Political consultant Gela Vasadze argued, in an April 17 interview with this author, that inaction vis-à-vis the rising tensions in the Black Sea region will not help Georgia reduce the risk of Russian belligerence toward itself later. “On the contrary, the more passive our country is today, when Europe is on the verge of a new war, the higher the chance that Moscow will carry out a new aggression not only against Ukraine but also against Georgia,” Vasadze warned.

Other Georgian experts note that the country lacks resources to resist the Russian troops deployed in the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Irakli Aladashvili, the editor-in-chief of the military-analytical magazine Arsenali, emphasized that any army in the world must always be ready to resist aggression, especially if its neighbor is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “In 2008, during the ‘Five Days War,’ Russia was forced to transfer several military groups to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Now Moscow does not have such a need, because in South Ossetia, only 35 kilometers from Tbilisi, there is the 4th Military Base, and in Abkhazia—the 7th Military Base. Each of them hosts 4,000 [Russian] soldiers with the latest weapons,” Aladashvili pointed out (Author’s interview, April 17).

The Arsenali editor asserted, however, that “Georgian military activity in such conditions may turn out to be the wrong tactic because our country has too many security challenges.” Aladashvili recalled that after the Russian aggression of August 2008, Georgia no longer has a naval fleet, but only a coast guard; and in the ensuing years, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States “missed the opportunity to strengthen the Western alliance’s position in the Black Sea by increasingly utilizing the infrastructure of Georgia and Ukraine” (Author’s interview, April 17).

After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, about a thousand Georgian military personnel participating in NATO’s Resolute Support Mission will permanently come home and Georgia’s “defense capabilities will slightly improve,” he observed. But Aladashvili does not consider it realistic to send any Georgian combatants or weapons to Ukraine at the moment, since the country “does not have enough for its own needs.” That said, the expert did not rule out that in the event of Russian aggression against Ukraine, some Georgians with military experience might voluntarily travel to Ukraine to help the Ukrainian people fighting for their freedom and independence (Author’s interview, April 17)

Meanwhile, David Avalishvili, an expert with the analytical outlet, told this author that, amidst the growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the Georgian Armed Forces have not raised their readiness level nor put any of their units on special alert. Moreover, Tbilisi has not sent emergency military or civilian envoys to Kyiv for special consultations; and the Georgian authorities have not sought to participate in any multilateral consultations or in international efforts to develop a joint position regarding the potential brewing crisis in its immediate region. Avalishvili also drew attention to the fact that there is no exact information yet about whether the Georgian Ministry of Defense is planning to send military units to participate in large-scale NATO-led military maneuvers Defender Europe 2021, which began on the European continent last month and are set to last until June (Author’s interview, April 17).

Doctor of Military Sciences Vakhtang Maisaya agrees with the above-cited experts that, so far, there are no indicators of Georgia’s preparation in case of even more negative developments around Ukraine. “The government of [Prime Minister] Irakli Garibashvili is now trying to balance on the diplomatic field, hoping that Russia will not be able to carry out two aggressive operations simultaneously—against Ukraine and Georgia. The Georgian state has no resources to change the “rules of the game,” Maisaya asserted (Author’s interview, April 17).

The coming weeks may prove critically decisive for Georgia and for whether it can demonstrate readiness to participate in and positively shape a process of European significance. But so far, Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgian Dream party as well as the “United Opposition” under Saakashvili’s leadership seem more preoccupied with the outcome of negotiations to resolve Georgia’s internal political crisis that began after the last parliamentary elections (see EDM, February 24, March 1).