Q&A

12 Years After Russian Invasion, Georgia Sees No End in Sight

But far from being intimidated, Georgia’s envoy to the United States says Russia’s intervention has only redoubled the country’s desire to join NATO and the European Union.

A woman demonstrating for peace in Tbilisi, Georgia.
A woman demonstrating for peace holds a dove near a Georgian flag in Freedom Square in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Sept. 1, 2008. Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP via Getty Images

This week marks 12 years since Russia’s five-day invasion of Georgia allowed two provinces to break away, splintering the Caucasian nation. Now, its ambassador to the United States only sees further bad behavior from Moscow, which has used the coronavirus pandemic to harden borders and spread misinformation about the response to the virus. 

“Unfortunately, after six months of the aggression against Georgia, business with Russia went back to normal,” David Bakradze, Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, told Foreign Policy in an interview. But he says the international community has become increasingly wary of Russian involvement in the conflict. 

To mark the anniversary, the United States and seven European nations urged Russia to withdraw their troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as Georgian officials warn of an increasingly grave human rights situation. Russian-backed authorities have denied medical evacuations from the breakaway provinces, while Moscow has poured more than 10,000 troops into the area. 

“I think that at some point Russia will realize that far from intimidating Georgia they have also united once again the desire [to join] and very much accelerated the tempo of Georgians marching [into] NATO and the European Union,” Bakradze said.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: There’s a new push from the United States and Europe to help evict Russian forces. Where do Georgian officials see the U.N.-backed talks with the Russians in Geneva to end the conflict?

David Bakradze: Unfortunately, there is no progress. We see after 50-plus rounds of negotiations, Russia doesn’t want to abide by its own obligations. And today after 12 years of the invasion and occupation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, it still continues the process of creeping annexation, which includes the incorporation of local, so-called institutions into the Russian federal structures and also attempting to eradicate any Georgian heritage in the occupied region. 

And today hybrid warfare has become Russia’s weapon, something that we have seen in other countries. It is not new for Georgia. We have seen the different forms of it throughout the years. It was the energy and economic tools used in 2006, it was cyberattacks in 2008. In 2019, as well, cyberattacks took place against Georgia. There is misinformation and propaganda that now even attacks Georgia during COVID when everyone is united, the entire world to fight against the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. Russia has seized the opportunity, even in these times, to intensify its provocations. 

FP: The State Department has reported that Russian-backed authorities have put up more barriers to impede crossings, raising concerns about human rights violations. Is the situation getting worse?

DB: Since the occupation there are tens of thousands of new internally displaced persons in Georgia from the occupied regions of Tskhinvali [the capital of South Ossetia], South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. We see human rights violations on a daily basis. What needs to be underlined is a very grave humanitarian situation on the ground in those two occupied regions which [are being] depopulated. You can see that the population has decreased four or five times in these regions from 135,000 to around 30,000 in Tskhinvali region of South Ossetia, and from up to 350 to 400,000 to no more than 100,000 in Abkhazia. 

This took place mostly on ethnic grounds, and even today we see that this occupation line serves as a new kind of a tool for Russia to continue the kidnappings of Georgian citizens. Around 100 kidnappings took place last year and a year ago at the occupation line. There are closures of the so-called crossing points and continuous restriction of freedom of movement have also been used as another hybrid [warfare] instrument and extremely aggravated the humanitarian situation in the conflict-affected regions and occupied regions. 

The occupation regime in Tskhinvali specifically has denied medical evacuation from the occupied district. That has led to multiple fatal cases. Fifteen people have died since the closure of the occupation line in September 2019, due to the very irresponsible decision to deny patients to get emergency treatment. Now, on the other side the Georgian government is trying to extend the benefits that every Georgian citizen has to our citizens living in the occupied regions, which includes free health care. But they are denied this opportunity.

FP: Are the United States and Europe doing enough to stop Russia from further consolidating its foothold in Georgia’s breakaway regions? Has it made you rethink plans to enter NATO and the EU?

DB: Unfortunately, after six months of the aggression against Georgia, business with Russia went back to normal. But we see a very strong stance now, that is expressed in numerous documents and actions. Only in 2017 for the first time, Congress has recognized [Georgia’s breakaway] regions are occupied by Russia and put a restriction of any funding for any country which recognizes [their] independence. We have seen a very strong message of support that came from Congress last year when the House of Representatives unanimously adopted the Georgia Support Act, which includes the strong support to Georgia’s territorial integrity, but also put sanctions on those individuals who have clearly violated human rights in the occupied regions. We are strongly hopeful that the Senate will push forward this legislation and adopt it by the end of this year.

With the European Union, and from the U.S. side, we see a strong support to Georgia’s NATO integration, [they’ve] very much increased the number of exercises that take place. Around 76 percent of Georgians support Georgia’s [bid for] EU membership, and almost 70 percent [support] NATO membership, which is a strong demonstration of Georgia’s belonging to the European family of nations. 

So I think that at some point Russia will realize that far from intimidating Georgia they have also united once again the desire [to join] and very much accelerated the tempo of Georgians marching [into] NATO and the European Union. 

FP: How much direct support are the Russians providing to the separatist provinces?

DB: From the beginning, Russia has increased its presence in the occupied regions through a process that we call creeping annexation, which is incorporating local institutions into Russian federal structures. We see that illegal activities take place in both [separatist] regions of Georgia. We can easily say and predict that these activities are led by Russia in not only in Georgia’s two occupied regions, but also in the occupied or annexed territories of Ukraine. This is something that the U.S. pays very close attention to.

We see that all the social or military or other structures are becoming gradually something that Russia continues its effective control. We see that more than 10,000 Russian troops are today located in the military bases in the Tskhinvali region of South Ossetia. We see that the financial kind of obligations or payments from Russia, almost 100 percent of the local budget that is effectively used by Russia to continue and strengthen its policies. 

We see military equipment that is present in those two regions, the range of which goes far beyond Georgia and creates an important threat to the wider region including to the Black Sea security. 

FP: The Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, Georgia’s equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has also been targeted by a misinformation campaign…

DB: Right after the outbreak of the pandemic, we saw misinformation that attacked the public health care system in Georgia, but specifically the Lugar Center, which has played a critical life-saving rule in Georgia, [which has had] great success in containing COVID-19. While the Lugar Center has received strong support from the World Health [Organization] and political leaders, Russian misinformation has portrayed it as a testing ground for toxins and viruses. This was a very orchestrated attack that was extended on hundreds of different statements from the highest officials, or the media or blogs. In the Russian telling, the Lugar Center is responsible for wild conspiracies including the Ebola virus production or outbreaks.

Correction, Aug. 11, 2020: Fifteen people have died, most after being denied medical evacuation, since the closure of the occupation line between Georgia and its breakaway provinces. A previous version of this article misstated that number due to a transcription error.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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