The Free Russia Foundation team condemns the crimes of Putin's regime against Ukraine
Teona Akubardia

Deputy Chair of the Defense and Security Committee of the Parliament of Georgia

Mar 07, 2022
Russia’s Growing Influence on Georgia

Report is prepared as part of the Border Zone project

August 8, 2008 and February 22, 2022 were the dates when the Russian Federation redrew the borders of Georgia and Ukraine by force in violation of the fundamental principles of international law. Those acts of aggression were not used only to stomp out Georgia’s and Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations, but to alter the existing world order, revise European security architecture, reassert Brezhnev’s principle of “limited sovereignty”, as well as to legitimize spheres of influence.

Prior to February 22, 2022, when Vladimir Putin recognized the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent, western leaders tended to view the aggression against Ukraine as a continuation of the aggression against Georgia and spoke of using a similar playbook of hybrid toolkits in both states by the Kremlin.

On January 21, parallels were drawn between Ukraine and Georgia by the UK Secretary of Defense in the House of Commons while speaking about the Russian threat against Ukraine. “We have observed hardening Russian rhetoric, heightened cyber activity, and widespread disinformation that could serve to provide a false pretext for Russian military intervention. False narratives are very much part of the Kremlin’s playbook. They were used in 2008, before Russia’s invasion of Georgia; and in Ukraine in 2014. False narratives are being peddled again today.” [1]

The US Embassy in Kyiv compared the current events in Ukraine with the situation that developed in Georgia in 2008 and declared that the world would no longer be fooled by lies. “Russia’s execution of transparent, hackneyed plots to justify an invasion would be laughable if they weren’t so destructive and dangerous. False flag operations, disinformation, and now its own proxies “requesting” protection. It’s all straight from the Georgia playbook, and the world is no longer fooled by the lies,” reads the Embassy’s Twitter statement.[2]

It is clear that in 2008, western countries did not realize Russia’s true intentions and the revisionist nature of a policy implemented through war and occupation. Although, two months prior to the 2008 war, President Dmitry Medvedev had offered a Pan-European security pact to the West[3].

Therefore, the overt military aggression launched by the Kremlin against Ukraine has proved once again that Russian hybrid warfare does not shy away from using direct military force to reach political goals. Moreover, Western leaders have publicly stated that Georgia and Moldova are Russia’s likely next targets. Thus, unity of not only the West, but also that of Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova have become more vital than ever to protect the sovereignty, the way of life, and joint European aspirations. 

So far, Georgia has failed to demonstrate firm solidarity and support to Ukraine. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili’s clear-cut rejection of joining international sanctions against Russia and alleged obstruction of Georgian volunteer fighter efforts in support of Ukraine are the controversies that have ignited massive pro-Ukraine protests in Georgia. In response, President Zelensky has recalled the  Ukrainian Ambassador from Tbilisi for consultations. Georgian government has attracted widespread criticism for what many — both at home and abroad — regard as half-hearted stance during Russian aggression against Ukraine[4]. Therefore, the ruling party has been forced to take into consideration domestic pressure coming from ordinary people, politicians, as well as President of Georgia and openly announce that Georgia will officially send the request to join the EU.  

This article examines the increased use of Russian hybrid warfare tactics in Georgia in light of the Kremlin’s use of military-political leverage against Ukraine and the occupied Donbas and Luhansk regions’ declaration of independence. In particular, it describes the goals and tactics that define this unique instrument of Russian Hybrid warfare, namely creeping annexation of Georgia’s occupied regions and the “illegal borderization” process, which is used as leverage against Georgia’s national interests.

Using hybrid tactics against Georgia in tandem with intensifying the military threat against Ukraine at this particular time aims to:

• raise the threat posed by the creeping occupation and to influence the Georgian government
and people.

• weaken national resilience in Georgia and disrupt the possibility of unity in securing the declared national interests of the country.

• erode support for European and Euro-Atlantic integration within the country by strengthening disinformation and propaganda messages.

Illegal Borderization, as a unique instrument of Russian hybrid tactics

Whereas the Kremlin’s use of hybrid warfare against Ukraine and Georgia, as well as certain western countries, has been well-documented, the Kremlin applies a unique weapon from its arsenal against Georgia: Borderization. The Borderization process involves installation of artificial barriers, fences, barbed wires, so-called border demarcation banners, and excavation of trenches along the occupation line.[5]

The process dates back to approximately 2011 and is, in effect, extending the 2008 Russian occupation. In addition to its impact on the landscape, the borderization process directly affects the citizens living near the occupation line, whose gardens and houses have artificial barriers, and has a negative impact on the population of the whole country.

What are the Goals of the illegal Borderization tactics?

Borderization goals were officially defined by the State Security Service in its 2020 annual report.

Levan Kakhishvili, a research fellow at the Georgian Policy Institute, describes the goals of borderization as follows: “Borderization is a tactic in Russia’s strategy to make occupation not a condition but a process. This tactic can have several purposes, but there are two that are most important: cutting off the population living in the occupied territories from the rest of the population of Georgia, and causing a wave of dissatisfaction throughout society, targeted regularly against the Georgian government, NATO and the EU.”

According to the State Security Service’s 2020 Parliamentary Report, occupation forces and de facto regimes view hybrid warfare as one tool in the information warfare toolkit, deployed in order to intimidate the local population and create a pervasive sense of insecurity. The State Security Service also highlights the increased pressure these intimidation campaigns place on the central government: “Fixing the border, stirring up public protests and increasing pressure on the central government.”

According to the official data provided by the State Security Service, the length of the occupation line is about 149 km in the direction of occupied Abkhazia, and more than 350 km in the direction of the occupied Tskhinvali region. The Russian occupation regime periodically carries out illegal borderization campaigns in both directions and they are often linked to specific events. Every year, the State Security Service disseminates general information on instances of borderization, as well as the number of Georgian citizens who have been detained. However, specific details regarding these detentions are not made public, nor have any official maps of the ongoing borderization process been released.

According to the information provided by the State Security Service, in the direction of occupied Abkhazia, 192 people were detained on charges of illegal border crossing in 2012, 393 people in 2013, 375 in 2014, 336 in 2015, 193 in 2016, 52 in 2017, 28 in 2018, 27 in 2019 and 13 in 2020.

As for the occupied Tskhinvali region, 108 persons were illegally detained in 2012 on charges of illegal border crossing, 139 in 2013, 142 in 2014, 163 in 2015, 134 in 2016, 126 in 2017, 100 in 2018, 86 in 2019, and 64 in 2020[6].

In 2021, tens of hectares of land were occupied. Georgian citizens were again detained illegally near the occupation line. According to data provided by the State Security Service on December 24, 2021, 11 citizens were detained in the direction of Abkhazia, and 67 in the occupied Tskhinvali region.[7] It should be noted that these figures are probably incomplete because, according to the State Security Service, there may have been other cases about which the Georgian government does not have information. Since 2019, the occupation regime has also further aggravated the situation faced by vulnerable populations in the region. In addition to kidnapping people from the occupation lines and demanding ransom money, they have begun sentencing Georgian citizens to many years of illegal detention. Currently, six people are illegally jailed in the occupied Tskhinvali region.

In 2019, the Occupy regime of Tskhinvali region kidnapped Gennady Bestaev, a resident of the village of Zardiantkari, and Zaza Gakheladze, a resident of the village of Kvemo Chala of the Kaspi district. Their illegal long-term imprisonment are examples of this increasingly hardline policy. Gennady Bestaev, who was kidnapped from his own house, was handed over to the Georgian government after 2 years in Tskhinvali prison as his health had dangerously deteriorated; he died soon after. Zaza Gakheladze was released after one year of jail. His family staged protests against the Georgian government on the basis of a written appeal from the Patriarch of Georgia to the Russian Patriarch.[8]

Consequently, there are tough attitudes toward kidnapped citizens which the Kremlin uses, on one hand, to pressure the Georgian government, on the other to discredit Western efforts, and lastly to sow fear in the Georgian population, which in turn has a negative impact on national resilience in the face of Russian hybrid warfare.

Instances of illegal detentions have been used as fodder for disinformation and propaganda campaigns as well. The case of Khvicha Mghebrishvili — a resident of the village of Mejvriskhevi, who was detained for 86 days in 2019, was used by the occupant regime for an anti-US disinformation campaign. In a confession video released by the de facto security committee, Mghebrishvili said he had arrived in an Ossetian village to obtain bat shells, which were in a Red List, because Americans were offering $ 5,000 to $ 10,000 for the shells, in order to use them for laboratory testing. Mghebrishvili, who was released after 86 days in prison, says he was forced to say this.[9] This was part of the anti-West disinformation campaign launched in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and obviously, the US was the target.

Cases of illegal borderization and increasing pressure have continued in 2022. It is important to highlight what possible impact these processes had on political decision-making given the adoption of a resolution in support of Ukraine in the Georgian Parliament as well as the government’s statements or actions in this regard. On January 19, the occupation forces marked new areas in the village of Kirbali. On January 27, Formula TV reported that the Tskhinvali occupation regime had carried out an illegal marking process [e.g., physically altered the landscape in preparation for annexation] near the village of Mejvriskhevi in Gori Municipality, and the village of Jariasheni. On January 28, this fact was confirmed by the State Security Service. This process of illegal borderization coincided with a debate in the Georgian Parliament on the pro-Ukraine resolution between the parliamentary opposition and the ruling party, which ended with the ruling party avoiding any mention of the Russian Federation in the text of the resolution. The opposition refused to vote for this resolution given its wording and subtext and so, as a demonstration of unity, this effort was considered a failure. At the time of this writing, no visits have been made to Kyiv on an official level by Georgian government representatives. The ruling party explained the omission of any reference to Russia in the pro-Ukraine resolution in an interview with RFE / RL: “When asked why Russian aggression was not included in the text of the resolution, Mr. Mamuka Mdinaradze, (MP) explained that every word in the text of the resolution was weighted and “devoid of provocative rhetoric.” It can be assumed that the borderization process influenced the decision of the authorities not to mention even the name of the country posing a threat of war in its resolution in support of Ukraine.

New realities in the South Caucasus and 3+3 format

Russia continues to push Georgia to discuss the so-called 3+3 format. The 3+3 format was initiated at the beginning of 2021, by Turkey and Iran. The initiative originally envisaged forming a cooperation format between all the countries of the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) and three regional neighboring powers (Iran, Russia, Turkey). 3+3 was once again offered in the aftermath of the Karabakh war and actively supported by Russia towards the goal of finally excluding the West from influencing the South Caucasus Region. Despite the fact that the Georgian government officially rejected[10] participation in the 3+3 format, citing the fact that Russia, one of the member countries, is illegally occupying 20% of Georgian territory, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Grigory Karasin, Chairman of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, continues to call on Georgia to adopt the format.

Annexation Process of the Occupied Regions of Georgia and Additional Territorial Claims of the De-Facto Representatives of the Occupied Regions

In. the aftermath of the war and occupation in August 2008, has Russia recognized the so-called independence of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, illegally deployed Russian military bases and made the first steps toward annexation. The Russian Federation signed so-called agreements with the de facto leaders of the occupied Tskhinvali and Abkhazia. In 2021, the Parliament of Georgia adopted a new resolution, which described these actions on the part of the Russian government as concrete steps towards annexation.

“In May 2021, the Russian Federation officially formalized the annexation of the village of Aibga, which is part of occupied Abkhazia, but beyond de facto control. The area is marked as part of the Adler district of the Krasnodar region, more specifically, as one of the villages in the Kvemo Shilovka community. According to the Democracy Research Institute statement, the village of Aibga was entrusted to the supervision of the governor of Russia’s Krasnodar region, “so that it can be said that the territory of Abkhazia has become part of Russia.”[11] It should be noted that the issue of this village has been a topic of discussion for years. It was assessed as illegal by the resolution of the Parliament of Georgia on August 5, 2021.[12]

In parallel with the growing Russian threat against Ukraine, threatening rhetoric against Georgia has intensified, as evidenced by the de facto leader of the occupied Tskhinvali region, Anatoly Bibilov, as well as by Russian leaders. On February 7, 2022, Anatoly Bibilov announced the program “Five Steps to Russia” to enter the Russian Federation.[13] It should be noted that Tskhinvali has repeatedly made statements about joining Russia, often timed to coincide with Russia’s military-political activities against Ukraine and aimed to use it as leverage against Georgia.

Additional territorial claims made by Tskhinvali de-facto leaders are another threat to Georgia. This is not just empty rhetoric and is usually followed by the marking of additional territories for future annexation, as well as the use of disinformation, propaganda, and history falsification techniques.
In December of 2021, statements by de facto leaders regarding territorial claims intensified again. These claims regarded so-called “historic” lands, which were not occupied as a result of the August war and were never part of the former Autonomous District according to any official map. In particular, this refers to the territorial claims on Truso and Kobi gorge, which belong to the Mtskheta-Tianeti region of Georgia and are located near the Georgian-Russian border. Still, in 2018, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the de facto Republic of South Ossetia, Dimitry Medoev, confirmed to Georgian newspaper “Netgazeti” that in the last round of international discussions in Geneva, the Ossetian side made claims on the Georgian side in the Truso and Kobi valleys.[14] Historical “lectures” are usually followed by the physical marking of territory that typically precedes annexation, a process documented closely by the Georgian community-based movement “Power is in Unity”.[15] According to the representative of this movement, David Katsarava, a total of 209 square kilometers have been marked. It is impossible to predict in advance where the next instance of borderization will take place. This creates an additional threat for Georgia and emphasizes need for a renewed strategy against it.

The West is already talking openly about the repeated use of Russian disinformation techniques against Ukraine, especially in the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. If we compare Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the strategy the Kremlin applies in both cases not only serves as an “excuse” to start a war (based on Georgian lessons) but also to justify its actions by falsifying history.

On January 29, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke about RFE / RL journalist Goga Aptsiauri at a press conference where the main topic was Ukraine. He discussed in detail a story published by Euronews, about Russian aggression and recent instances of borderization. Goga Aptsiauri, one of the subjects of this story, spoke about the difficulties of people living in the conflict zone.

“I watched the story about the village of Dvani. Journalist Goga talks about how he has been working in the villages near the conflict zone for years. I specifically wrote down what he said. He said that 14 years have passed since the war that forced people to live in difficult conditions. And so on,” said Sergei Lavrov. He is dissatisfied with the fact that while speaking about separatism, the presenter did not tell the “truth” about “how Zviad Gamsakhurdia treated Abkhazians chauvinistically and never considered Ossetians as people in general.”[16] This fact should be discussed through the prism of Russian information warfare, particularly falsification of the history, which Russia widely uses both against Georgia and Ukraine. This informational assault should be deterred by factual and historical evidence reported by journalists, but it should also be part of a broader strategic communication effort, which unfortunately doesn’t exist in Georgia.

Conclusion

The day after the occupied regions of Donbas had been illegally declared as independent, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, questioned whether Ukraine had a right to sovereignty[17] because, as he said, the government in Kyiv did not represent the country’s constituent parts. Russia first initiates conflicts by using hybrid warfare tools, then it occupies the region, and later openly questions the principle of sovereignty.

The transatlantic community should not tolerate Russian hybrid tactics, as it is clear that it is used not only against Georgia, Ukraine, or Moldova but against the entirety of the rules-based international order. Thus, in a current security context, when Russia is at war not only against Ukraine but against the civilized world, granting Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova the EU candidate status is one of the significant ways to deter Russia’s further aggressive actions and support the people of Georgia, who, according to President Zelenksy, are better than their Government[18]. Teona Akubardia, Georgian MP, Deputy Chairperson of the Defense and Security Committee
This report is prepared within the framework of the Border Zone project.

Director of the project: Mr. Egor Kuroptev, director of Free Russia Foundation in South Caucasus.


[1]  Statement by the Defense Secretary in the House of Commons, 17 January 2022 (Gov.uk)
https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/statement-by-the-defence-secretary-in-the- house-of-commons-17-january-2022?fbclid=876IwAR1MtSKyFVjiuPyoUg88XYa6_at2hCwU74-8MuMXus0SQXakOWVD_Yml_kc

[2] It’s all straight from the Georgia playbook, and the world is no longer fooled by the lies, 21 February 2022 (Interpressnews)
https://www.interpressnews.ge/en/article/118345-us-embassy-to-ukraine-its-all-straight-from-the-georgia-playbook-and-the-world-is-no-longer-fooled-by-the-lies

[3] On June 5, 2008, the President of Russia put forward an initiative to develop a new pan-European security treaty, November 29, 2009 (Kremlin.ru) 
http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/6152

[4] Pundits on Georgian Govt’s Steps amid Ukraine War, 03 March 2022 (Civil)
https://civil.ge/archives/476975

[5] Borderization in Georgia, 25 December, 2017 (Netgazeti)
https://netgazeti.ge/news/242817/

[6] Amount of people kidnapped since 2012, September 20, 2021 (Parliament.ge)
https://info.parliament.ge/#mpqs/4620

[7] Borderization in Georgia, December 24, 2021 (Radio Liberty) https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/%E1%83%91%E1%83%9D%E1%83%A0%E1%83%93%E1%83%94%E1%83%A0%E1%83%98%E1%83%96%E1%83%90%E1%83%AA%E1%83%98%E1%83%90-%E1%83%93%E1%83%90-%E1%83%93%E1%83%90%E1%83%99%E1%83%90%E1%83%95%E1%83%94%E1%83%91%E1%83%94%E1%83%91%E1%83%98-%E1%83%A1%E1%83%90%E1%83%9D%E1%83%99%E1%83%A3%E1%83%9E%E1%83%90%E1%83%AA%E1%83%98%E1%83%9D-%E1%83%AE%E1%83%90%E1%83%96%E1%83%97%E1%83%90%E1%83%9C-2021/31634672.html

[8] Zaza Gakheladze is free, July 14, 2021 (Radio Liberty)
https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/31358481.html

[9] Detained on occupation lines in Georgia, 2020 (Radio Liberty) https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/%E1%83%93%E1%83%90%E1%83%99%E1%83%90%E1%83%95%E1%83%94%E1%83%91%E1%83%94%E1%83%91%E1%83%98-%E1%83%A1%E1%83%90%E1%83%9D%E1%83%99%E1%83%A3%E1%83%9E%E1%83%90%E1%83%AA%E1%83%98%E1%83%9D-%E1%83%92%E1%83%90%E1%83%9B%E1%83%A7%E1%83%9D%E1%83%A4-%E1%83%AE%E1%83%90%E1%83%96%E1%83%97%E1%83%90%E1%83%9C-2020/31024813.html 

[10] Georgia officially rejects 3+3 format, December 10, 2021 (Georgian Journal)
https://georgianjournal.ge/politics/37559-georgia-officially-rejects-33-format.html

[11] Aibga Village becoming a part of Russia, June 18, 2021 (Netgazeti) https://netgazeti.ge/news/549148/

[12] On de-occupation and Russia-Georgia conflict’s peaceful solvation, August 5, 2021 (Parliament)
https://parliament.ge/media/news/sakartvelos-parlamentis-dadgenileba-deokupatsiisa-da-ruset-sakartvelos-konfliktis-mshvidobiani-mogvarebis-shesakheb-sakartvelos-parlamentis-rezolutsiis-taobaze

[13] 5 steps towards Russia program, February 7, 2022 (Interpressnews) https://www.interpressnews.ge/ka/article/694662-anatoli-bibilovi-programa-xuti-nabiji-rusetisken-sachiroa-imistvis-rom-sheikmnas-garemoebebi-rusetis-shemadgenlobashi-samxret-osetis-shesasvlelad

[14] Tskhinvali position on Truso, July 26, 2018 (Netgazeti) https://netgazeti.ge/news/295087/

[15] New territories for South Ossetia? February 16, 2022 (VoA) https://www.amerikiskhma.com/a/teritorial-integrity-south-osetia-abl-russia-occupation-georgia/6440526.html?fbclid=IwAR247Jut14_39HwLYD8G8W6-MUTdPcLYlqrkmKrztxyctRoY9fKtd4FaYdw

[16] Lavrov speaks about Radio Liberty journalist, January 29, 2022 (Radio Liberty)
https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/31677545.html

[17] Russian FM says Ukraine doesn’t have a right to sovereignty,  February 22, 2022
https://english.alarabiya.net/News/world/2022/02/22/Russian-FM-says-Ukraine-does-not-have-a-right-to-sovereignty-Report

[18] Zelenskyy: Georgia’s People Better than Their Gov’t https://civil.ge/archives/475333