Georgia and Ukraine Viewed Through Russia’s Anti-Western Strategy
by Zviad Adzinbaia
On November 16, Fletcher launched a series of conferences with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) on U.S.-Russia Relations. The joint Fletcher-MGIMO initiative brought together prominent scholars and practitioners from the US and Russia, and provided excellent fora for discussing some pressing issues relevant to both parties. The event also touched upon Ukraine and Georgia within the context of broader Euro-Atlantic relations and Russia. In a nutshell, the conference emphasized the role of these two NATO-aspirant countries as inseparable parts of and major obstacles to Russia’s grand strategy to re-emerge as a superpower out of its Soviet remnants.
Russia currently occupies 20 percent of Georgia’s sovereign territory, including Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region (South Ossetia). Moscow considers both territories as falling within its “zone of privileged interests,” and has thus installed several military bases there. In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to pursue several geopolitical objectives including the de-facto annexation of the Georgian regions, overthrowing Georgia’s democratically elected government, and—most significant to Russian grand strategy—preventing NATO’s further enlargement in Eastern Europe.
Russia’s war against Georgia demonstrated the division in the West, which failed to respond amply to the Kremlin’s forcible redrawing of the European map and shortly after the invasion, effectively returned to business as usual with Moscow. While Berlin, Paris and Rome showed their reluctance to take strong measures against the Putin-Medvedev government and treated the war as a nuisance, the leaders of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine flew to Tbilisi during the active war and showed their unwavering support to Georgia. Polish President Lech Kaczynski, in his speech to the Georgian people, famously said: “We know very well that today it is Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after, it will be the Baltic states. And, who is to say that my country will not be next?”
In fact, President Kaczynski was right to predict that Russia’s end-goal would not be Georgia. Following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin’s regime engaged in conventional and hybrid warfare against Ukraine to finally dismember the country. To date, Russia’s war with Ukraine has killed over 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. Moreover, Moscow supplied the weapons to its separatist cronies, who shot down a commercial aircraft over Ukraine in July 2014, claiming the lives of 298 innocent civilians. After the war in Ukraine gained global attention, a majority of Western leaders realized the seriousness of Russia’s revisionism – perhaps most importantly that the Russian threat is not solely directed at Georgia or Ukraine; but rather, it targets Europe, the US and the West at large.
In addition to invading the NATO-aspirant countries, Moscow has directed its military forces in a provocative manner near the Alliance borders, asserting the right to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers regardless of their current location or citizenship. Guided by such a policy, Russia has already annexed Crimea. This endangers NATO’s Baltic members, who have significant Russian-speaking minorities.
Although Western sanctions in response to the Ukraine war has impaired Russia’s economy, Moscow has been persistent to destabilize the international system. Putin has proudly harbored the Syrian dictator Assad and killed perhaps more civilians with its continued bombings of Syria than ISIS ever has. In addition, Moscow, with its weaponized corruption and money laundering schemes, supported Brexit and anti-EU movements in Europe, which has seriously damaged the EU’s credibility and unity. Furthermore, without any proportional response from the West for these actions, Russia’s security services attempted to debilitate democratic institutions of the US, France and Germany by employing active cyber and propaganda techniques.
In achieving its grand strategic objectives vis-à-vis the West and its allies, Russia has utilized a whole host of information and hybrid warfare, including intelligence, counterintelligence, disinformation, deceit, electronic warfare, psychological pressure and propaganda. These asymmetrical capabilities, coined by Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief hybrid warfare strategist, have been deployed to sway European and Euro-Atlantic political agenda by undermining the democratic principles and institutions the West is built on.
As Michael Crichton asserts, “The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.” Understanding that Moscow’s conventional and unconventional strategies pose direct threats to the Euro-Atlantic security and stability beyond single countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, the West must act in concert and defend itself and its allies. Doing so is both necessary and feasible given the West’s overwhelmingly superior resources and capabilities over Russia. At the strategic level, the United States and its Euro-Atlantic allies must pressure Russia to a point that changes the current hostile behavior of Moscow and its revisionist policies. In fact, having already experienced the tragic failure of normalization with Russia, NATO and its members should not negotiate any deal with Russia at the price of their allies’ sovereignty. Rather, resumption of normal relations with Russia should only happen once Moscow recognizes the rules-based international order that has already provided more prosperity, security and peace to the Euro-Atlantic community and the world for the last 70 years.
Zviad Adzinbaia is a MALD Candidate 2018 at the Fletcher School, focusing on International Security Studies and Euro-Atlantic Relations. Recently, his paper: “NATO in the Black Sea: What to Expect Next?” was published by the NATO Defense College.