Shota Utiashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
The Russia-Ukraine war, despite its apparent similarities, does not resemble the August War of 2008. If Russia’s tasks in the August War were more local (strengthening control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, punishing Georgia, demonstrating to the West that the Kremlin remains hegemonic in the region), in the Ukraine war, Russia has global goals- goals that aim at changing the world order.
The conditions set by Moscow in December-January to avert the war, namely, refusal to expand NATO, and the return of the NATO military infrastructure to its pre-1997 borders, in effect, were not just about seizing additional territories or even overthrowing the Ukrainian government and substituting it with a puppet regime; rather, it was as an attempt to revise the aftermath of the Cold War.
In fairness, it should be noted that there is also a second view, according to which Putin never had a realistic expectation that NATO would meet his demands; he simply demanded the maximum to get the minimum – an obedient Ukraine. However, the process of subjugating or splitting up Ukraine by military force would have inevitably led to a change in the existing liberal rules-based, world order, whether it was the main goal of Putin’s reckless venture or not. The Russia-Ukraine war would have automatically turned into a Russia-West confrontation, even if the West did not dare to intervene in the conflict at all.
What would have happened if Russia were to achieve its original goal of occupying Kiev and overthrowing the Zelensky government? Russia would assert its military and political superiority over the West and consolidate its hegemony over the former Soviet lands. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which Russia defeated Ukraine, trampled international law, forced the West to retreat, established a full-fledged totalitarian regime inside the country, and then contented itself only with Ukraine’s subjugation. The de-sovereignization of Ukraine would have inevitably been followed by the enslavement of Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and other former Soviet republics.
What scenario was Russia preparing for Ukraine? Clearly, Russia would not have been satisfied with Ukraine’s neutral, demilitarized status, and I dare to assume that the same would apply to Belarus. A Russian-controlled Ukraine means a country without elections, without a military force; an active part of the population would be dead, in exile, or in a concentration camp; it would no longer have its own education system and media; its borders would be closed; and loyalty to Russia would be based upon the severe repressions, upon Kadyrov’s ravages. As one Russian lawmaker put it, control of Ukraine requires the elimination of 5 percent of the population – “just” 2 million people.
I repeat, Russia, which is carrying out such repressions in the midst of Europe, cannot hope for a normal relationship with the West. That is why Russia simply would not have any other incentive but to follow up with the conquest of other countries, including Georgia.
The West, especially the United States, easily deciphered this not so well-disguised intention, so it promised maximum support to Ukraine and fulfilled that promise. The $40 billion and Land-Lease Act showed everyone that the West [U1] will not allow for the military defeat of Ukraine. However, this was clear from the very beginning, after Ukraine proved that it would fight for its own freedom.
The formula for Ukraine’s victory is clear: fight to the last drop of blood, Western military aid, and growing economic sanctions on Russia. At the same time, to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction by Russia, the West should apply the even more severe economic and military measures which still remain at their disposal.
How the war will end, of course, no-one knows, but it is clear that Russia’s goal of achieving the abolition of Ukrainian statehood or the annexation of its entire eastern and southern parts already seems impossible. It appears Russia is now fighting to occupy Donetsk, Lugansk, and Kherson, and freeze the conflict for several years to prepare for a new military assault. However, this also seems to be an unattainable task, more so while Ukraine and its allies categorically declare that they will not agree to a Minsk-3.
How should Georgia proceed in this environment?
First of all, it is quite obvious that as long as there are active hostilities in Ukraine, there is practically no threat of Russia opening a second front in Georgia. This is obvious to everyone, the very least because Russia has withdrawn most of its combat-ready military units based both in the occupied territories of Georgia and in its vicinity. But this danger in any case did not exist at the start of the war, nor before. We have not seen (and most importantly, nor have American, British, nor any other military intelligence) even an attempt to deploy armed forces in the direction of Georgia. Russia’s principle is simple – “Divide and Conquer” – first Ukraine, then Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and so on.
As for Georgia’s opening of a second front, it is pointless to even discuss it. We have neither the military nor political resources to pursue such actions.
One thing must be said quite clearly: as long as Ukraine is fighting, Russia has no resources to invade Georgia. The more casualties the Russian army incurs in Ukraine, the less likely it is to invade Georgia.
At the same time, if Russia prevails convincingly in Ukraine (which is already practically impossible), Georgia is doomed. In that case, neither the Georgian army nor the West will have a chance to stop Russia.
In other words, no matter how cynical it may sound, we are fighting for our independence to the last Ukrainian soldier.
How can we help Ukraine?
There is nothing the Georgian people need be rebuked for. At the time of this writing, 12 of our compatriots have been killed in the struggle for Ukrainian independence, and many more Georgians are fighting heroically on the front line. A single glance at the streets of Georgian cities is enough to ascertain that our people are in full solidarity with the Ukrainians. Georgia has sheltered and respectfully hosted thousands of Ukrainian refugees. Further, Georgia always stands by Ukraine during votes in international organizations.
Yet, despite all this, it is still believed that Georgia is taking an ambiguous position in places where everyone expected a strong position from our country. The reason for that is the statements offered by the Georgian government, first of all, the statement of the Prime Minister on February 25, where he questioned the expediency of imposing sanctions on Russia, providing military aid to Ukraine and, in general, the fight for freedom by Ukraine through military means. In addition, Georgia demonstratively did not join the international sanctions against Russia and did not deliver even symbolic military assistance to Ukraine. This naturally raised suspicions that the ruling regime might be being used by Russia to circumvent sanctions.
No less, or perhaps even more important, is the second circumstance. Shortly after the start of the war, Azerbaijan declared it would help Ukraine with critically important fuel, and at the same time began military maneuvers in Karabakh. It is unknown whether Azerbaijan has occupied any additional territory, but Russia has received a completely unequivocal message: Azerbaijan will not be an easy target for Russia and will resist any attempt to subdue it.
Moldova, which has virtually no troops, chose the diplomatic route to send the same message: it sharply intensified relations with the West.
Which path does Georgia choose? We have not indicated that in the event of an invasion we would defend ourselves with arms. However, we could have clearly demonstrated this by purchasing weapons. And it is no secret to anyone that we have deteriorated our relations with the West; that is, we have rejected both military and diplomatic means of demonstrating our resilience.
And what did we get as a result? A referendum in Tskhinvali.
Of course, we do not yet know what the aftermath of this referendum might be, if any, but let us recall that in 2017, Russia blocked a similar referendum, and now, obviously, it is being held with its consent.
It is unacceptable to use the Ukrainian issue to polarize society. One might think that this is a way to acquire political points, but when that happens in this difficult situation, in the face of such dangers, such polarization works against the interests of the state.
What should we do now?
First and foremost, the unbridled anti-Ukrainian rhetoric on the part of the ruling regime and its media outlets must be stopped immediately. The anti-Western rhetoric must also come to an end.
The Georgian government should unequivocally support Ukraine.
We should not refuse to buy Western weapons. This is very important now.
All doubts about the use of Georgia to circumvent sanctions should be dispelled.
The government should remove all obstacles that make it difficult to obtain EU candidate status, more so when there are suspicions that some of the obstacles were deliberately created by the regime. All political prisoners must be released.
Otherwise, Georgia’s chances of gaining candidacy and finding itself in the winning Western camp will unfortunately become close to minimal.