When Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution broke out in 2014, Western leaders should have recognized right at the outset that Russia would employ the same playbook there as it has in another vulnerable slice of the old Soviet Union — Georgia.
With its small neighbor in the Caucasus, the Kremlin invoked the excuse of the need to “protect” Russian-speaking populations in Georgia to spark a separatist movement in Georgia’s South Ossetia region, leaving Georgian troops no choice but to intervene to protect their sovereignty in 2008.
The effort didn’t end well for Tbilisi. Russia invaded and overran large parts of the country, destroyed infrastructure and defeated the Georgian army in four days, increasing the level of Russian regular forces in both South Ossetia and the separate ethnic enclave in Abkhazia. The build-up continues to this day. In another bite at the Georgian apple, Russian troops recently moved a critical border fence which marks the contested territories further into Georgian territory, giving Russia access to critical infrastructure, pipelines and transportation networks. It’s the same technique we have seen in East Ukraine and the Crimea — a sustained push to regain Soviet territory that continues until Russian forces run into significant resistance. Once a new pseudo-border is established, Moscow works to foment instability in the remaining parts of the country, to prevent any further integration with the European Union and NATO.
In spite of the reforms and efficiencies put in place by former President Mikheil Saakashvili, the Kremlin has doggedly pursued this strategy in Georgia, using its intelligence services to support the government opposition and block reforms.
NATO, for its part, has repeatedly stated it will allow Georgia to join — as long as all preconditions are met. And here’s the rub: Georgia is slowly slipping back into the Soviet model of corruption and stagnation (with Russia’s help of course), preventing NATO’s preconditions from even being met.
According to Georgian sources, the Obama administration hasn’t helped the situation by neglecting Georgia and its effort to fashion a more free and open society. Democratic reforms have not been abandoned, but they are stagnating. Inefficient bureaucracies are regaining lost governmental territory.
Georgian reformers are crying out for Western assistance and attention, desperate to prevent a backslide into the dark past. There’s a strategic angle to their arguments, as Georgia sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and shares a border with Turkey, NATO’s southern firewall.
For its part, Russia obviously sees the territory as strategic as well. Neighboring Armenia has been moving closer to Moscow and is bristling with Russian troops and weapons, an ominous development with strategic and military implications for the Caucasus, Turkey and even Syria. Georgians view Russia as unpredictable, capable of anything, which is exactly how the Kremlin wants it. Uncertainty is the goal.
So it comes as no surprise that, absent a significant push by the West, Georgia is slipping back into the old Soviet ways. The rule of law seems nonexistent. Corruption is once again on the rise. The economy is stagnating. Georgia, according to internal reformers, has lost direction.
NATO would be wise to see Russia’s textbook Soviet strategy for what it is — a way for the Kremlin methodically but relentlessly to reclaim its lost empire. The neighboring Caspian states of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are at risk as well.
Russia now has de facto control over a fifth of Georgian territory. With the recent moves on borders and the subversion of Georgian reforms, that percentage is likely to grow.
The United States used to stand for freedom and democracy overseas. This focus needs to return. To do this doesn’t require a war with Russia, just firm leadership — something we have been lacking for two presidential terms.