Georgia and the American Strategy

2018 / 05 / 01

Author: David Batashvili, Research Fellow, Rondeli Foundation


The new U.S. National Security Strategy, issued in December 2017, is pleasantly refreshing thanks to plainly stating that two plus two makes four.

Some obvious truths are rarely pronounced at the political level. That is why it was exciting to read in a U.S. government document such sentences as: “A central continuity in history is the contest for power. The present time period is no different.” It is not indeed. In fact, the power contests related to the rise of China, Russia’s resurgence, and the complex geopolitical mess in the Middle East have now reached more vigorous stages than ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. And in all three cases things look like they are going to become even livelier before they calm down.

The NSS recognizes China and Russia as “revisionist powers,” adding “the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups” as the other two sets of challenges the U.S. is facing. Perhaps Iran would be more justly listed with China and Russia, rather than with North Korea – the latter is incapable of pursuing any sustained influence beyond its borders, while Iran is quite forcefully doing precisely that. But the main point is that the reality of great power competition, and of the revisionist challenge to the existing international order, is now formally recognized and prioritized by the U.S. government.

“China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests,” states the NSS, adding regarding Russia specifically that it “seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.” One particular country that Moscow intends to include in this sphere of influence against its will is Georgia.

Below I make an argument that Georgia is an endangered position on the geopolitical frontline of Russia’s attempted imperial resurgence. I also argue that the possible fall of this position to Russia would be a grave setback for America within the context of the present great power competition and the Russian challenge to the existing world order.


Georgia in a Dangerous Spot – The Russian Menace

While Tbilisi continues its Western-aligned foreign policy and there are some promising developments in terms of defense cooperation with the United States, the Russian menace is profound.

One line of attack is information warfare. Every single day numerous Georgians get potions of the subversive Russian propaganda, delivered to them through Georgian-language outlets that operate across the media spectrum – TV, radio, newspapers and online. This is a sustained and aggressive effort to convince Georgians that the West is decadent, evil and weak, that everyone around Georgia is a worse threat to this country than Russia, and that it is impossible to pursue liberty without giving up one’s national identity.

The majority of Georgians support their country’s western-oriented foreign policy and do not support aligning with Russia, which holds one fifth of Georgia’s territory under military occupation. Russia’s information war can hardly ever change this. Nevertheless, it is a threat. Even support among a significant minority of the population can be employed by Russia in its political influence operations.

Political organizations connected to Russia are also active in Georgia, including “Alliance of Patriots”, which obtained seats in Parliament in the 2016 election, as well as several smaller political parties. Other pro-Russian groups operate in the country too, such as the “Georgian March” (with the name analogous to the “Russian March” – an annual nationalist public event in Russia) that tries to mobilize parts of the Georgian public under xenophobic slogans.

Russia’s military posture is menacing for Georgia as well. The Russian forces based in the two occupied regions of Georgia are equivalent to two strong mechanized brigades with some added high-grade weapons, such as Iskander ballistic missiles, Smerch multiple rocket launchers and S-300 surface-to-air missile systems. They include thousands of troops with heavy weaponry and growing military infrastructure.

Russia also has large forces near Georgia in the North Caucasus that have been increased and strengthened with more powerful weapons during the last few years. But their most significant boost is to take place in the near future. In February 2018 sources in the Russian Defense Ministry told Izvestiya newspaper about the coming transformation of the 19th and 136th Mechanized Brigades, stationed in North Ossetia-Alania and Dagestan respectively, into divisions.

A Russian mechanized (or motor rifle, as they call it) brigade normally includes between three and four thousand troops. A Russian mechanized division has up to 10 000 troops, and significantly more armor and artillery. Moscow, which had previously opted for a brigade structure of its combat forces, began re-establishing divisions after the start of war in Ukraine. Russian divisions are supposed to be better suited for large-scale frontal combat than a brigade-based organization. In any case, if the 19th and 136th Mechanized Brigades are transformed into divisions, the sheer scale of the Russian battle force near the Georgian border is going to increase significantly. The launch of this transformation is reportedly planned for late 2018.

It is probable that the main target of this transformation is Ukraine. It follows establishment of new divisions on the Ukrainian border, while the Russian forces in the Caucasus would be expected take part in any major military action against Ukraine. Nevertheless, the growing and modernizing Russian military might in the Caucasus, which is much greater than that of the Georgian armed forces as it is, clearly represents a serious threat to Georgia.

Meanwhile, Russian diplomacy keeps aggressively attacking any moves directed at Georgia’s cooperation with the West. At the same time, Moscow continues to consolidate its political and military control over the occupied territories of Georgia, while periodically shifting the occupation line and taking over additional land as a result.


Georgia in a Dangerous Spot – Internal Developments

Along with Russia’s actions, internal political situation in Georgia also gives reasons for concern. The existing system of informal governance undermines democratic responsibility. Some members of the opposition are political prisoners. Growing problems within the law-enforcement system have been vividly exemplified by the brazen kidnapping and illegal transfer across the border to Azerbaijan of a journalist Afgan Mukhtarli. The country’s present rulers are largely controlling the media, while the only major exception – Rustavi 2 TV – has so far avoided falling into their hands only thanks to an intervention by the European Court of Human Rights.

The U.S. authorities apparently are concerned about these tendencies. The Worldwide Threat Assessment for 2018, issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has two sentences directly dedicated to Georgia, one of which says that “the ruling Georgian Dream party is likely to seek to stymie the opposition and reduce institutional constraints on its power.”

Strategic relationship with the West is Georgia’s primary hope of withstanding the ongoing sustained Russian effort to undermine its sovereignty. The country’s rulers’ present flirtation with oligarchic authoritarianism is dangerous, because if gone out of hand it has the potential to gradually eliminate Georgia from the list of democracies. That would damage Georgia’s relations with the western nations and institutions, further weakening the country’s already vulnerable position in the face of Moscow’s aggressive policies.


Why Georgia Matters

The combination of factors listed above, along with the Kremlin’s will to include Georgia into its sphere of influence, make it clear that the country is under threat. Meanwhile, the United States has significant reasons to contain Russia’s activities directed against Georgia and prevent Moscow from achieving its objectives in this country.

Geopolitically, Georgia is the central country of South Caucasus. In practical terms this means that if Russia were to exercise any form of political dominance in Georgia, it would be able to fully consolidate its existing influence over Armenia, and, crucially, spread its hegemony to Azerbaijan as well. The latter is in a state of war with Armenia, while its southern neighbor Iran is an adversary of the West along with Russia. As a result, Georgia is the only geographical conduit allowing Azerbaijan to maintain strategic communication with both the West and its ally Turkey. If Georgia were to fall under the Russian dominance, Azerbaijan would objectively have very little choice besides accepting the Russian conditions of its inclusion into Moscow’s sphere of influence.

The former Soviet states of Central Asia would also be fully geopolitically isolated from the West. On the map, Central Asia is a bottle surrounded by territories of precisely the states that are named in the NSS as America’s opponents – China, Russia and Iran, plus China’s close ally Pakistan. The neck of this bottle that allows for trade and other forms of strategic communication between the Central Asian states and the Western world runs across the Caspian Sea, through Azerbaijan and Georgia. If Russia seals this bottle by dominating South Caucasus, the Central Asian states will always have to deal with only two major foreign players – Russia and China.

Impact on Turkey, if Georgia were to fall, would also be profound. Developing its transit potential is a significant element in Turkey’s strategy. Being able to communicate with its ally Azerbaijan and the Turkic Central Asian nations is also important for Ankara. As a result, if the transport corridor running through Georgia were to fall under the Russian influence, Turkey would have to become much more accommodating to Russia than it is at present.

Besides, if Russia were to fully achieve its strategic goals in South Caucasus, it would have more attention and resources to direct elsewhere, in particular to Eastern Europe. Russian activity in this latter region during the next few years is going to be dangerous in terms of both the possibility of a wider aggression against Ukraine, and friction with NATO in the Baltic region. Moscow’s total hegemony in the South Caucasus would not help the chances of maintaining peace along Russia’s western borders.

Moreover, a Russian triumph in Georgia would carry a strong symbolic significance. Among the post-Soviet countries besides the three Baltic nations, Georgia is the only successful example of fundamental anti-corruption reforms and modernized state-building. It is a regional test case of a development model alternative to the Russian-style kleptocracy. If Russia smothered this test case, it would send the message that Georgia’s recent successful transformation was only a temporary anomaly and the old ways are the only thing that really works on Russia’s periphery. This is exactly the message that the Kremlin seeks to send to Russia’s neighbors, as well as, crucially, to its own population.

In global terms, Russia’s geopolitical domination of its neighborhood would not reduce its aggressiveness farther abroad. Far from it. Moscow deems itself one of the centers of the coming multipolar world order, in which its regional sphere of influence - a de facto restored empire - will be the base from which Russia is to engage geostrategically all over the world.


Weakness and Promise

While internal political situation in Georgia might be deteriorating right now, this state of affairs will not last forever. Democracy in Georgia is not imported foreign goods. This country organized itself into a democratic state as early as 1917-1918, on the basis of a political philosophical tradition developed in the 19th century. Eventually, modern Georgian society will regain its balance, thanks to both its political traditions and the character of its incoming young generation.

But for this to come to pass it is necessary that Russia does not succeed in its efforts to subvert Georgia during the latter’s present moment of weakness. And the United States can help. The ongoing American-Georgian strategic cooperation is important, but the gravest threat for Georgia right now is its internal democratic backsliding. This single factor might offer Russia a greater opening for action against Georgia than any other. The halt of this backsliding is a crucial matter of national security, besides the concerns for the state of democracy as such.

The U.S. enjoys huge political prestige and soft power in Georgia, along with leverage on the Georgian authorities. By stressing its presence in Georgia, and making it unambiguously clear that it is firmly committed to the health of Georgia’s democracy, the U.S. can exercise this leverage positively, increasing Georgia’s chances of maneuvering out of this dangerous historical moment onto the road towards security and prosperity, while at the same time reducing Russia’s chances to score a major coup in the Caucasus in its present competition against the West and the Unites States in particular.

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