Georgia’s Struggle Against Russian Imperialism

Protests in Georgia and an Interview with General David Petraeus

The Kartlis Deda, a monumental statue in Tbilisi representing the Georgian nation.

Three decades after winning their independence from the Soviet Union, Georgians are again fighting to stay free of Russian influence.

Earlier this month, thousands of Georgians took to the streets of Tbilisi to protest a proposed law that would require any organization receiving more than 20 percent of its funding from foreign sources to be registered as a “foreign agent.”

The law might not sound very pernicious, but it closely mirrors a 2012 law in Russia that led to the harassment and ultimate closure of many independent organizations active in the country. “The [Russian] foreign agent law was not about regulating foreign funding – it was, and remains, a tool for arbitrary repression of independent media,” according to the International Press Institute

The Georgian bill was put forward by the the Georgian Dream party, which controls the government. While Georgian Dream openly favors joining the EU, it also maintains some troubling relations with Russia. The party founder and former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is the richest man in the country, having made his fortune in Russia during the privatization era amid the fall of communism. The European Council on Foreign Relations alleges that “Oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili appears to be largely responsible for this dissonance between Georgian foreign policy and public opinion” and that he “may be attempting to manoeuvre Georgia into Russia’s sphere of influence.” His former business partner and protégé, Irakli Garibashvili, is currently the prime minister. 

Protesters chanted “No to the Russian law” while waving Georgian and European Union flags. The overwhelming display of pro-Western sentiment forced the government to kill the bill after days of protests. It was a victory for democracy, but the struggle is far from over. While more than 80 percent of Georgians want to join the EU, the Kremlin isn’t giving up.

Caught Between Civilizations

Georgia is a small country in a precarious location, sitting along the borders of Europe, Russia, and the former Ottoman and Persian empires. The history of Russian occupation dates back more than 200 years.

Eastern Georgia was first annexed by the Russian Tsar in 1801, and the rest of Georgia came under Moscow’s control in the ensuing decades. The Russian revolution allowed Georgia to gain its independence in 1918, but that proved short lived. Just three years later the Red Army invaded Georgia to restore Moscow’s control for the new Soviet government. 70 more years of Russian rule followed.

As the Soviet Union fell apart, Georgia won its independence again. But in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, separatists with Russian military support refused to acknowledge the newly independent state. From 1991 to 1993 Georgia was at war with the Russian-backed separatists before reaching a stalemate.

After the pro-democratic, anti-corruption Rose Revolution in 2003, Georgia’s prospects of becoming a well-functioning democracy brightened. It charted a decidedly Western course, with EU membership the long-term national aspiration. The Kremlin saw that as a threat, and in 2008 sent the Russian military into South Ossetia and Abkhazia to extend their control. After five days of war, Russian forces and the separatists occupied 20 percent of Georgian land. It remains under Russian control today.

Ambitions for the West

Despite the costs incurred on Georgians for their European ambitions, public support remains overwhelming. A recent poll showed that three out of four Georgians identify as pro-Western, while just 2 percent identify as pro-Russian.

The experiences of the Georgians mirror those of Ukrainians. Despite both spending decades under Russian rule, when they were given the opportunity to move toward a more democratic future they both seized it completely. They’ve both gone through democratic revolutions, resisted Russian-backed coups and corruption, and fought wars against separatists and Russian forces trying to slice off portions of their countries for Moscow. Given their shared histories, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine warns of what Russia might one day plan for Georgia.

As Nina Vaxanski, a Georgian photojournalist, told EuroNews during the Georgian protests earlier this month:

Over the years, Russia has tried again and again to take Georgia. I worry now that if they continue this way in Ukraine, if we don’t stand up against this horrible power, they will come back to Georgia and try to ruin all that we’ve worked for… If Ukraine is strong, we can be too, this needs to be a wake up call for the world. We are in this war together with Ukraine and we stand strong with them. Just because the bombs don’t drop on us now, doesn’t mean that they won’t.”

General Petraeus on Ukraine

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to sit down with General David Petraeus for a 35-minute conversation on the war in Ukraine and his upcoming book with British historian Andrew Roberts, Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine

General Petraeus led the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which began 20 years ago this past Monday. In 2007 General Petraeus was promoted to four-star general, and led US and coalition forces in Iraq in 2007, US Central Command in 2008, and US and NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2010. He later served as the Director of the CIA. 

You can find that interview here:

Here’s an excerpt of General Petraeus on Ukraine, edited for clarity and concision:

We have to conclude by reiterating how impressive Ukrainian forces, Ukrainian citizens, and Ukrainian leaders have been, and also by noting that this is about as right versus wrong as a conflict can get. This was an unprovoked invasion. It has been carried out in a particularly brutal manner by forces whose culture seems to be to carry out essentially war crimes.

In the face of all this, Ukrainians have not only won the most critical battles, especially the battle of Kyiv, since the overall objective of Russia was to topple the government and replace President Zelensky with a pro-Russian figure, but also the battles of Kharkiv and Sumy and Chernihiv and Kherson and so forth. [They] have fought the Russians to a standstill, largely. [The Russians] had very incremental gains in their winter offensive at incredible cost.

[The Ukrainians] are poised to achieve for the first time in this war real combined arms operations, where you’ll see tanks supported by infantry and infantry fighting vehicles with artillery and mortar suppressing the enemy, defenses with engineers to dismantle obstacles, [Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians] to defuse explosives, air defense to keep the enemy’s air off, electronic warfare to jam the enemy’s command control communications, solid communications and command and control on the Ukrainian side, and additional forces right behind the lead elements to exploit the progress they make. [This] is very important, so that when they run out of steam you have another force to push through them. 

[The Ukrainians will] also [be] supported by logistics with additional ammunition, food, fuel, water, and medical supplies to keep the lead elements going and to try to exploit the success that they achieve. We have not seen the Russians do that. 

We saw glimpses of this in the Kharkiv offensive last fall from the Ukrainians, but this is going to be vastly more impressive. I have witnessed combined arms. I was privileged to command forces that achieved combined arms effects, and when you do that, it is fearsome to the enemy. It is absolutely intimidating. 

If that can get rolling, if it can punch through the defenses in the southeastern and southern areas of Ukraine, I think the Ukrainians can take away that ground line of communications from Russia proper through the southeastern part of the country to Crimea to begin to isolate Crimea and make the kind of progress that can really threaten the Russians in this war. 

You can envision this because of the extraordinary professional capabilities, the tenacity, the determination, the will, the courage on the battlefield––all of these unbelievable qualities really––in [the Ukrainian] forces that have been so impressive. I am very much looking forward to seeing the accomplishment of these Ukrainian forces who are currently in training in Germany and the UK and Poland and Ukraine proper when they’re all positioned for the spring and summer offensive.

Aaro Berhane

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