Georgia’s Balancing Act Between Russia and the West

Is it possible for small states to get an upper hand over great powers amid a new rising world order?

24 November 2022

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Ambiguous positions from Tbilisi allow for the relatively small nation of Georgia to counteract encroaching initiatives from Moscow. However, with Russia’s capabilities greatly diminished, now is the time for them to become more embedded with Western institutions like the EU and NATO.

Vladimir Putin’s unjustified invasion has shaken the international rules-based (IR) order in a dramatic and unprecedented way: the old supranational institutions stand abashed and impotent in face of the fallouts flowing from the Kremlin’s vicious gambit whilst the new security guarantees for Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic security architecture are still underway. Against this backdrop, the pressing question begs itself: will it be possible for small states like Georgia to survive in the upcoming geopolitical turmoil and strengthen its foreign agency vis-à-vis big powers?

It is essential to reevaluate the role of the small states in the international system and grasp their opportunities/limitations so as to expand their influence abroad and make it possible for them to have a firm say at the international table. For, in such challenging times, the role of the small states should not be underestimated but rather be pooled and used to tip the scale in favour of peace, stability and Western liberal values.

How Russia’s hybrid warfare in Ukraine affects Georgia

The transit country of Georgia stands out in this regard due to the South Caucasus geopolitical curse, a post-Soviet legacy and various interests which the South Caucasian countries pursue themselves. Georgia is sandwiched between the appetites of more powerful external players with various agendas such as “Russia, the EU, Turkey, US, China, Central Asia (particularly Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan), Iran”, which aim to project their power on the whole region and dictate their own rules of the game, squeezing Georgia’s foreign policy room for manoeuvre.

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In 2008, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili turned towards the West and improved Georgia’s brand on the international fora, which Putin could not tolerate. Such a rapprochement with the West is a “red line” for Russian national interests, prompting Putin to look for any pretexts to defend the Russian-speaking population and its historical borders, including the brutal use of force.

Fortunately, a peace deal was swiftly brokered by the EU in five days with 20 per cent of Georgian territories temporarily occupied by Russia. However, Russia still wields many options to destabilise Georgia and could turn the “frozen conflicts” in South Ossetia and Abkhazia into hotspots at the drop of a hat. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sceptically reacted to Georgian help to Ukraine and signalled clearly to the Georgian authorities: “There’s enough out there to sort of say, ‘We’ve got an eye on you”.

Another implication is the waves of Russians immigrating to the country in order to flee Putin’s so-called partial mobilisation as the sheer number of individuals can cause disruption in a society the size of Georgia’s.

Georgia’s Security Resilience

Anders Wivel‬ highlighted a tried and true feature for all small states: “the capability deficit as the main driver of the foreign policy.” Hence, President Salome Zourabichvili points out that Georgia is not in NATO, unlike the Baltic states or Poland, which spearhead a more hardline approach to tackle Russian aggression and corner Putin more on the international arena. It is commonsensical as there is no NATO Article 5-style security guarantees and 20 per cent of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali are already occupied by the Kremlin. When a small state is in such a situation, the issue of preserving its sovereignty tops the foreign policy agenda and limits its manoeuvrability.

Thus, Georgia did not join the Western sanctions or provide any sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine, but it has supported all UN resolutions against Russian aggression, provided humanitarian help and gave shelter to Ukrainian refugees.

On the other side of the coin, the Georgian economy is still heavily dependent on Russia, particularly due to its wine exports and the vast number of Georgians working in Russia, which gives Putin extra leverage over Tbilisi.  Furthermore, despite the Russian invasion, Georgia has actually increased its trade with Russia by 50 per cent, helping Moscow circumvent sanctions. These statements were confirmed by the head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, Andriy Yermak, but the assertion lacks hard evidence and was severely criticised by Georgian policymakers.

When it comes to security, Georgian military capabilities are limited and there are constant fears of punching above its weight,  clearly articulated in the National Security Concept of Georgia. Even worse, some political elites in Georgia have continued faith in a “liberal Russia”; this can have a malign effect on Tbilisi’s foreign policy, diminishing its position on the international fora and fuelling Putin’s imperialist agenda.

This ambiguous stance could be explained by what political experts, such as Natalie Sabanadze, term the “misplaced state” concept implying a “cognitive dissonance between its geographical location and its sense of place/belonging.”

On the downside, despite all fears and limited structural power due to its size, Georgia was considered to be among the champions of the Eastern Partnership initiative along with Moldova and Ukraine, comprising the Association Trio. The state continues to deepen its strategic cooperation with NATO and the EU to the most possible extent, presenting itself as a “reliable partner” and contributor to the international security order, walking on a tightrope not to irritate Moscow.

Unlike Ukraine and Moldova, a serious blow to the status of Georgia and the morale of its nation was the rejection of the candidate status to the EU and the promise of the European Perspective, which means that more homework should be carried out by the Georgian authorities.

By and large, security and resilience for Georgia is not a distant dream, with mutual buy-ins for all actors involved, which will only contribute to the strengthening of the whole Euro-Atlantic security architecture in times of war and the rising new world order. While nothing may match NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee, the jury is still out on whether the Alliance will be poised to open its doors for such small states like Georgia amid invasion.

Opportunities in Chaos

Georgia cannot escape its dicey security environment and the South Caucasus region will not stop being a powder keg in the foreseeable future. Putin’s rhetoric implies that there is no off-ramp and the war is set to escalate. This means each state, especially the small ones, needs to find its own niche, its strong cards to play at the international table.

Georgian people strongly support more help for Ukraine and a harsher stance towards Russia from its government. Despite Russian aggression, Georgians continue to pursue their Euro-Atlantic trajectory, demonstrating their European identity.

By and large, the South Caucasus region is on Putin’s menu as well, but with the degrading Russian military potential due to severe losses in Ukraine, the Kremlin will not be able to open another military theatre, except in Belarus bordering on Northern Ukraine or the Suwaki region closer to NATO. Thus, the possible fast-track Georgian NATO/EU membership bid is an opportunity, which should be grabbed by the government, despite all the deep divisions among the inner political elites, the ruling Georgian Dream and the United National Movement.

Likewise, there are more options for Georgia to finally join international sanctions, continue its strategic cooperation on hard and soft security issues with Western institutions and diversify economic partnerships to limit the Russian economic leverage, which squeezes Georgian room for manoeuvre and rise as a “state-entrepreneur“. Despite its limited soft power projection, it is of critical importance to strive for becoming a “smart power”, to combine its hard and soft tools so as to upgrade its status. The key to this survival lies not only in more robust participation in multilateral platforms, in particular in the UN, OSCE, PACE, NATO Foreign Ministers Summit etc., but also in more articulated actions, such as adhering strictly to the balancing act or staying neutral can produce ambiguous results.

The EU together with NATO must translate unfulfilled promises for Georgia into prudent steps by providing the country with a clear-cut roadmap on how to achieve real full membership via the accelerated procedure, exemplified by Sweden and Finland. However, this requires political consensus and a willingness among the divided EU Member States, which are cautious to overhaul treaties and are feeling enlargement fatigue. It should be noted that any radical steps to accept Georgia will definitely be opposed by Hungary, Serbia and Turkey.

The EU and NATO must not turn a blind eye to the Black Sea region but set a tone for its stability and upgrade the EU CSDP. It is of a paramount geostrategic position for all players to develop a proactive and more assertive strategy in the foreseeable future as the possible transformation of the region into the Russian “inner lake” will bear more costs for the whole Euro-Atlantic security architecture.

In a similar fashion, the bilateral cooperation with the US should also take place in the framework of the US-led Three Seas Initiative and Georgia Defense Readiness Programme in regards to demining of the Black Sea, upgrading reconnaissance cooperation and increasing US maritime presence, provided that sufficient funding and strong bipartisan Congress support are envisaged.

Moreover, Georgia will have to diversify its economic relations with other players, in particular with China. Chinese investments and Georgia’s position in the One Belt – One Road initiative could serve as a point of departure to wean off Russian economic hegemony.

New Alliances

Ukraine together with Georgia, the Baltic states and Poland can be at the core of the new regional alliance under the possible leadership of the UK. As the NATO “open” door is not so open yet, Ukraine and Georgia will need to boost their own defence capabilities and continue their strategic cooperation with the Alliance until their full integration.

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Returning to my initial question, will it be possible for small states like Georgia to survive in the upcoming geopolitical turmoil and strengthen its foreign agency? As Timothy Snyder acutely argues  “we all know what happened before in old dusty books, but even if you read all dusty books about the year 2021 and you became the world-leading expert on this year you still would not know what happened in 2022…It is the level of unpredictability of history and the IR”.

The ongoing global power dynamics are torn apart not only by Russian aggression but also by China’s rise, erosion of the international law system, Cold War logic of alignment with a superpower etc. All these negative IR trends compel small states to be on board with a more powerful side so as to flourish. The balancing act and the conduct of the foreign policy in a piecemeal fashion might not be an option for Georgia anymore. The state will oscillate on the edge of its total destruction by big power games or rise like a Phoenix. In turn, the smart “multiplex foreign policy” concept gives an opportunity to develop strategic cooperation with multiple actors on the most burning issues. Being a small state is a charm, in some circumstances, as not everything is about size or economy, it is about the ability to adapt to global political dynamics, find its niche in the system or find a compromise with various medium, large and superpowers.

For the time being, Putin is obsessed with Ukraine, but his battle is bigger for him: a personal vendetta to destroy a democratic Ukraine and crush NATO. Will he succeed and take down Georgia on this path or will the West manage to beat the old KGB agent? The answer will be determined on the Ukrainian battlefields.

 

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Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

A Polish translation of this article was published in Onet and Res Publica Nowa.

 

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Christine Karelska is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. She is also an alumna of the College of Europe in Natolin and the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv. Her main specialization is the European Neighborhood Policy. Christine was an intern-analyst of the Public Association “Community Associations” in Odesa. Her main academic spheres of interest are security studies, international relations, gender equality and local governance. Currently, she is working as an Advisor on International Relations of the Vice Mayor of Odesa and as an Assistant to the Deputy of the Odesa City Council. Previously, she worked as a Project Manager of the Ze!Women movement aimed at gender equality and promotion of the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska’s projects in the Odesa region.

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