Georgia Walks a Fine Line After Ukraine Invasion

Tbilisi has its own history with Moscow. So why the cold shoulder to Ukraine this time?

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Demonstrators hold placards and wave flags in support of Ukraine.
Demonstrators hold placards and wave flags in support of Ukraine.
Demonstrators hold placards and wave flags during a rally in support of Ukraine in Tbilisi, Georgia, on March 1. Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s War

As Ukraine’s allies in Europe and around the world lined up to impose punishing sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine last month, there was one notable holdout: Georgia, which was itself invaded by Russia 14 years ago. 

Justifying the move, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said joining Western sanctions “would only damage our country and populace more.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recalled his ambassador to Georgia over the move, describing it as “immoral.” 

The decision was neither the first nor the last in the Georgian government’s response to the crisis to prompt outrage in the country and head-scratching among analysts. The Georgian government has also refused to allow volunteers to leave the country to fight in Ukraine while prominent Kremlin critics and independent journalists have been turned back at the border despite its visa-free travel regime with Russia. 

As Ukraine’s allies in Europe and around the world lined up to impose punishing sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine last month, there was one notable holdout: Georgia, which was itself invaded by Russia 14 years ago. 

Justifying the move, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said joining Western sanctions “would only damage our country and populace more.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recalled his ambassador to Georgia over the move, describing it as “immoral.” 

The decision was neither the first nor the last in the Georgian government’s response to the crisis to prompt outrage in the country and head-scratching among analysts. The Georgian government has also refused to allow volunteers to leave the country to fight in Ukraine while prominent Kremlin critics and independent journalists have been turned back at the border despite its visa-free travel regime with Russia. 

Georgia’s strategy is either a clumsy attempt to shield its economy and avoid provoking Moscow or a dangerous game of appeasement by a government that increasingly feels less accountability toward its public, experts said.

“I think it’s appalling. I actually have a problem finding the right words for it,” said Sergi Kapanadze, a professor at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University who served as deputy foreign minister under the former government. 

In 2008, then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stumbled into a disastrous war with Russia, after an attempt to retake the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia by force. In response, Russian forces quickly moved into Georgia, coming within 30 miles of the capital, Tbilisi, before a cease-fire ended the war after five days. 

The question of who caused that war—whether Russian provocations or Georgia’s hot-headed president—is still in dispute. But after the war, Russia recognized the independence of Georgia’s two breakaway regions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, stationing troops in both enclaves, giving Moscow de-facto control over almost 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. Many of the tactics deployed by Russia in a bid to destabilize Georgia, which has long sought NATO membership, would later be deployed in Ukraine. 

One Western diplomat, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity to give a candid assessment of the situation on the ground, said officials have not seen signs of a renewed risk of Russian military activity in Georgia. But the Kremlin would not need a massive troop buildup to cause trouble, with Russia’s Black and Caspian Sea fleets nearby and contingents of troops along the Russian border and neighboring Armenia, thousands of forces in nearby Syria, and peacekeepers in Azerbaijan. 

“Before you know it, the entire place is stitched up,” the diplomat said. “The Georgian argument is that they [Russia] don’t need a buildup because it’s here, and they’re held at risk. [Russia] could drive their tanks a few hundred yards at the drop of a hat.”

Top Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, have also mentioned Georgia in public comments in recent weeks. “They’ve done just enough in the runup to Ukraine to keep the Georgians on their toes,” the diplomat said. “There’s enough out there to sort of say, ‘We’ve got an eye on you.’”

After 10 years of pursuing a breakneck pace of reforms, Saakashvili’s United National Movement party was ousted in elections in 2012 by the Georgian Dream political party, which has held power ever since. Although the new government continued to seek Western institution membership, it sought a less confrontational relationship with Moscow. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, another aspiring NATO member often mentioned in the same breath as Georgia, has raised the stakes significantly for Tbilisi. 

“The government is looking at the situation in terror that they will be next, and so they’re trying to walk the line of not overtly antagonizing the Kremlin while still using this historic moment to formally apply for EU membership and do as much as they can for Ukraine,” said Laura Linderman, a senior nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. After initially insisting that the country would stick to its original timeline of applying for European Union membership in 2024, the Georgian government did a U-turn in the face of mounting public and parliamentary pressure and joined Ukraine and Moldova in submitting a formal application to join the bloc since the invasion began. 

But even as Georgia has courted European Union membership, there are increasing concerns in the West about perceived democratic backsliding in Tbilisi. Once the regional poster child for democratic transformation, the country has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years. Tensions boiled over last year when opposition leaders boycotted their parliamentary seats, alleging that the Georgian Dream party had committed electoral fraud during October 2020 polls. (International observers noted irregularities but concluded the vote was fair). 

“The ruling party, they don’t believe in Ukrainian victory, and they try to use this pro-Putin propaganda that ‘OK, it’s not our war. It’s Ukraine’s war,’” said Khatia Dekanoidze, a member of parliament in Georgia close to Saakashvili. “This is totally Russian propaganda. ‘OK, just dance with me. Be close to me, [but don’t] irritate me.”

Tens of thousands of Georgians have taken to Tbilisi’s streets in recent weeks to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Georgian government’s muted response. 

Like almost every other political crisis in Georgia, disagreements over how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been refracted through pitched partisan battles between the Georgian Dream party and the opposition. “They’re locked in this same political battle, and they cannot see beyond their own political fight at times to what’s in the strategic best interests of Georgia,” Linderman said. After Kyiv recalled its ambassador to Georgia, the chair of the Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, accused the Ukrainian government of being under the influence of the Georgian opposition. 

The Georgian Embassy in Washington said the country has been steadfast in its support for Ukraine. “Georgia continues to be a strong advocate of Ukraine. An assertion to the contrary is inaccurate and shameful,” the embassy said in a statement, noting that the National Bank of Georgia is set to conform with international sanctions imposed on Russian banks and other entities. 

Both Georgia and Ukraine were offered NATO membership at the alliance’s 2008 summit in Bucharest, Romania, but no concrete deadlines have ever been set for either state’s accession—to the deep frustration of officials in both countries. “Frankly, we’ve become all too comfortable with the idea that Georgia and Ukraine were basically never going to join NATO or the European Union,” said Michael Cecire, a senior advisor on the South Caucasus to the congressional Helsinki Commission. “I think this war ought to give us an opportunity to reevaluate what we mean when we say that.”

Despite Tbilisi’s hesitancy to join Western sanctions, Georgia has sent 140 metric tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine and has joined international efforts at the United Nations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to condemn Russia’s actions. 

In a statement last week, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan, welcomed the country’s statements of support for Ukraine in international forums and underscored the need for unity. “That is important whether it’s here in Georgia as an opportunity to put aside this polarization and come together around an issue that is vitally important for Georgia, vitally important for the region, vitally important for the Euro-Atlantic community,” she said. 

Despite fears that Kyiv would be quickly overwhelmed by a Russian attack, it quickly became apparent that Russia’s advance has been hamstrung by logistical challenges and Ukraine’s fierce resistance, which appears to have eased Tbilisi’s fears somewhat. 

“Russia has clearly, to an extent, overextended itself in Ukraine,” Cecire said. “I think that’s why we’ve maybe seen evidence of some slight evolution in the way the Georgian government has approached the conflict. I think at the outset, they were much more cautious than they are right now.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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

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