In the context of parliamentary elections in Georgia, slated for October 31, 2020, Russian pressure on this small Caucasian state continues, both through increasing land seizures and massive propaganda campaigns.
As the spotlight turns to Nagorno-Karabakh, a secessionist territory of Azerbaijan whose dormant conflict was revived in September 27, 2020, there are other secessionist territories nearby in the Caucasus, Georgia, which deserve media attention just as much. It has now been more than twelve years since Russian forces invaded Georgia and occupied 20% of its territory. Russia continues to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia with its aggressive “moving border” policy, a strategy that involves the gradual annexation of small segments of Georgian territory through the expansion of its already illegally occupied areas. The timid Western response to this blatant violation of international law may have encouraged Moscow to annex Crimea in a similar land grab in 2014.
The mobility of borders in a context of what many have called a “frozen” conflict shows, on the one hand, that the conflict is precisely not “frozen” and, on the other hand, that it continues to cause human losses. Indeed, the suspicious death of a 29-year-old Georgian, Mr. Kvaratskhelia while visiting Gali in March 2019, is one example. Although the Abkhaz authorities alleged his suicide, examinations of the remains clearly show indications of torture. On March 17, 2019, just a few days after the death of Mr. Kvaratskhelia, another Georgian, Givi Beruashvili, was arrested by the occupying forces in Ditsi, a village bordering the Tskhinvali region, for visiting his elders. -parents who live 500 metres from the contact line. The absence of an international monitoring mandate makes these abuses invisible, as secessionist groups and their Russian backers continue to employ extra-legal methods of coercion with impunity.
Since the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia and the latter’s recognition of their independence, a so-called administrative border separates the seized territories from the rest of Georgia. Behind these scarcely veiled secessionist territories hides Moscow’s hand without which it would be impossible for them to maintain their artificial independence. Having achieved the status of de facto states, i.e., without recognition from the international community, but with the support of their Russian sponsor, the two secessionist territories maintain territorial claims on plots of land in their autonomous territory, such as it was limited to the Soviet regime which had disappeared for thirty years, which still eludes their control. The mobile nature of this “border” allows Russia to scavenge more small chunks of territory as it sees fit, thus expanding its area of occupation. The territorial claims of the secessionist authorities are up to Moscow, which thus increases its territorial control indirectly. This policy of border mobility is based on an elastic understanding of Soviet law (and in particular of the Constitution of 1977), which would allow these entities to recover all of the territories they enjoyed during their Soviet autonomy.
This mobile border takes on the appearance of a real front – i.e. a non-definitive administrative border which temporarily separates territorial entities such as empires, a concept which is also at the origin of the word border. Georgians are being evicted from the newly occupied lands and risk kidnapping if they cross the new administrative border which has been arbitrarily established with the blessing of Moscow. This border, the course of which is often changed without warning, further increases the insecurity of the Georgian population. Stories like that of Dato Vanishvili, whose land was incorporated into South Ossetia overnight in May 2015, nearly seven years after the 2008 war, are multiplying. Between 2008 and 2018, it is estimated that Russia unilaterally changed the border to the detriment of Georgia 56 times. Other researchers arrive at the count of 54 unilateral border changes by Russia between 2011 and 2018.
This moving border policy exploits Tbilisi’s concern about the lasting loss of a large segment of its territory, pushing the Georgian government to the negotiating table with the Kremlin. In 2015, border markers were moved to the village of Tsitelubani, which hosts a small 1,605-meter section of the 830-km Baku-Supsa pipeline, operated by the BP oil company in a territory that Russia now partially occupies. Despite its very small size, this small segment of the pipeline is enough to allow those in control of the area to disrupt the flow of oil as needed. The occupation of the area thus acts as a sword of Damocles on the managers of this strategic infrastructure. Similarly, the advance of the mobile border towards the only highway that connects western Georgia with the rest of the country allows Moscow to exert greater pressure on Georgia by threatening to disconnect Tbilisi from a portion of the Georgian territory. The border is currently only 400 metres from this highway.
Illegal arrests by the occupation forces have become more and more frequent in recent years. Between 2017 and 2019, 327 Georgians were arrested for “illegally crossing the border.” Such cases show not only a continued hostile intention by Russia against the Georgians, but also the violation of the 2008 ceasefire agreement negotiated by the European Union (EU) and the maintenance of an illegal presence of Russian troops on Georgian soil, all measures which prevent Georgia from restoring its territorial integrity.
Georgia’s pro-Western foreign policy – including deepening relations with the United States and the popular plan to join NATO and the EU – is obviously generating frustration in Moscow. Yet the choices made by a large majority of Georgians remain unshakeable. Recent polls compiled by the US National Democratic Institute (NDI) show that 83% of Georgian respondents support Georgia’s membership of the EU and 78% support NATO membership. These two organizations cleverly maintain the hope of eventual membership, without however seeking to upset Russia head-on. Moscow’s tactic of creating enough trouble for Georgia to put its foreign policy ambitions on hold therefore seems to be working. Designed to undermine this desire for integration, this strategy also aims to show that the Euro-Atlantic community is not very willing to integrate Georgia quickly, nor to intervene to prevent Russia from expanding its area of occupation.
At the same time, Russia thus makes it impossible for Georgia to regain its territorial integrity and to fulfill the essential conditions for its accession to both the EU and NATO, that is to say the establishment of harmonious relations with its minorities and the mutual recognition of borders with its neighbours. The indefinite waiting of Georgia’s coveted membership of these Western organizations and the territorial predation that continues with impunity illustrate that, through these mobile border policies, Moscow has succeeded, for the moment, in dissuading both the EU and NATO to expand their influence in the region.
Yet this Russian deterrence strategy does not work perfectly. Georgia’s strategic partnership with the United States reached new heights when in 2017 the US State Department authorized a military sale to Georgia of Javelinman portable anti-tank missiles and Javelin command launch units (CLU), equipment that had been on Georgia’s wish list for many years. Likewise, Washington’s plan to sell FIM-92 Stingers, a portable air defense system to Georgia, underscores the United States’s commitment to continue close cooperation in defense and security. Georgia is advancing in cooperation with NATO as it is currently the largest non-NATO contributor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and the third total country contributor. Another example is the joint NATO-Georgia 2020 exercise held last month. These intensified relations between Tbilisi and Washington fuel Georgia’s hopes of one day joining the Transatlantic Alliance, which can be seen as a certain failure of Russia’s efforts to get the Georgian people to reject Western values by causing social disruption in Georgia.
Apart from physical and military threats, Russia continues to use more subtle methods to exert its influence over Georgia and the Georgian people. In recent years, Russian interference in the elections and political processes of other countries has become a major concern in the West. In the immediate vicinity of Russia, however, this phenomenon is not new. Along with its direct military action, the Kremlin has embarked on a continuing information war campaign aimed at undermining democracy and destabilizing the political situation in these countries. It is therefore no surprise that Georgia is among the countries subject to operations of Russian influence aimed at derailing its foreign policy and increasing political polarization at the national level.
Georgia is indeed a prime target for cyber-attacks and propaganda from Russia. Since the breakup of the USSR, many phases of tension between the two countries have given rise to various information campaigns by Moscow in a multitude of forms. The Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 was certainly the most obvious form of such attacks characterized by the ingenious coordination of traditional military operations on the physical ground with cyber-attacks and information operations. Moscow’s disinformation campaigns against Georgia have never really stopped since. It is not uncommon for these campaigns to directly involve senior officials in Russia’s foreign and defense ministries as well as President Vladimir Putin himself.
More recently, for example, Moscow launched an information operation against the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, based in Tbilisi and funded by the United States, on September 11, 2018. The Lugar Center is a part of the laboratory of Georgia’s public health care system. Russian commander of radiological, chemical and biological defense troops, Igor Kirilov, alleged that the Lugar Center was a laboratory where the United States carried out illegal experiments on humans, killing more than 73 people there. Moscow also accused Washington of developing biological weapons at the Lugar Center. It is entirely plausible that such a high-profile attack such as the one on Lugar’s laboratory constitutes a strategic move aimed at arousing Georgian and international public mistrust of the United States in an attempt to undermine Georgia’s integration into the transatlantic community.
As the Georgian parliamentary elections approach on October 31, 2020, it is no wonder that Tbilisi is on the alert. After all, Russia has quite a long history of intervening in electoral and referendum campaigns in foreign countries, including the US presidential election in 2016, but especially in the former Soviet republics. As for the Georgian elections, disinformation campaigns from Russia began in 2019 by supporting pro-Russian groups in Georgia, such as the Alliance of Patriots, and disseminating ideas that Azerbaijan and Turkey are enemies of Georgia, while Russia is a good neighbour who can support friendly countries.
As is the case elsewhere, the Russian propaganda campaign in Georgia seeks to exploit existing vulnerabilities in society. Traditional values, religion, and land disputes are some of the issues that provide fertile ground for voter manipulation in Georgia. To advance its interests, the Russian government supports various pro-Kremlin actors, such as political parties, media, NGOs, and radical extremist groups, which often act as vehicles for disseminating anti-Western narratives. The country’s most influential institution – the Georgian Orthodox Church – is also subject to significant Russian influence, and the Orthodox clergy often serve as sources or amplifiers of pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives. However, not all of these actors have direct and open ties to Russia, and some may act as natural amplifiers or “useful idiots,” contributing to the pro-Kremlin narrative, conveyed through soft power and propaganda, that spreads conspiracy theories and divisive fake news.
A Media Development Foundation (MDF) study on anti-Western propaganda observed that anti-Western narratives take a three-tiered approach: sowing fear, instilling despair, and offering alternative solutions. According to the MDF report, Russian anti-Western propaganda points to the risk of war and loss of territory, as well as the threat of an erosion of national identity to promote fears in Georgian society. The main messages used to instill despair center on skepticism about the willingness of the EU and NATO to support Georgia and the narrative of “liberal decline” in the West. In this context, direct dialogue with Russia and political and military neutrality are offered as solutions to territorial problems and a pro-Russian orientation is presented as a means of protecting Georgian identity and ensuring economic stability.
Russia’s propaganda ecosystem has relied heavily on Facebook, Georgia’s most popular social network. Pro-Kremlin actors have extensively exploited the infrastructure of social media to spread disinformation and fake news. As part of its social media monitoring, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) – a Georgian watchdog of elections and democracy – says it has discovered organized networks on Facebook that are said to work in a coordinated fashion to artificially amplify and disseminate pro-Russian content from News-Front and Sputnik.
News-Front, an open and aggressive Russian disinformation vehicle, established in occupied Crimea in 2014, was launched in Georgian in October 2019, engaging in news operations on Facebook soon after. More precisely, according to the results of the ISFED survey:
News-Front has attempted to arouse antagonism and aggression among Georgian Facebook users, dividing society, creating political polarization […] and employing a range of tactics to spread anti-Western and pro-Russian messages. As part of its operation, News-Front used fake accounts that shared News-Front content in a secret, organized, and targeted manner with at least 31 open Facebook groups with a combined audience of over half a million [users]. In addition to promoting anti-Western and pro-Russian content, this network targeted both pro-government and pro-opposition Facebook groups “with tailored provocative messages that could have served to divide society into two camps and ignite confrontation.
It is certainly no coincidence that the Georgian News-Front service was launched a year before the October 2020 parliamentary elections in Georgia. It is highly likely that a fabricated Facebook network has been set up to influence pre-election rhetoric and further fuel polarization in Georgia, where political debate is already very heavy. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing global health crisis provided an opportune time for News-Front to launch a new information offensive in Georgia. News-Front and its Facebook network quickly mobilized to spread disinformation, conspiracy rumours and anti-Western messages in Georgia. Russian disinformation related to COVID-19 in Georgia has attempted to distort reality and promote the view that Georgia should distance itself from the West while implicitly attacking state institutions and measures taken to contain the virus. Once again, Russian disinformation has attempted to discredit the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, accusing it of being involved in the spread of the virus and undermining confidence in its efforts to fight the coronavirus epidemic.
ISFED also claimed that, like News-Front, another Russian media outlet, Sputnik, also used fake Facebook accounts to artificially amplify the content of this propaganda in Georgia.
Facebook removed News-Front’s global infrastructure from its platform in April 2020, barring the organization from relocating to the network. The fake accounts associated with Sputnik found by ISFED were also deleted around the same time. This may have limited some of the capabilities of the Russian disinformation infrastructure on Facebook ahead of the parliamentary elections in Georgia, but these investigations demonstrate that Russia is and will continue to harness the capabilities of social media to influence public discourse and elections in Georgia.
Georgia’s Place in Putin’s Strategy
Russia’s use of the “salami tactic” is not new. In recent years, however, Moscow has more proactively used violent means to undermine Georgian sovereignty. Putin’s recent decline in opinion polls about how satisfied Russians are with him may be one factor behind the increase in such provocations. Putin’s approval ratings have fallen to their lowest level since 2006, with just 33.4% of those polled in Russia saying they trust his regime, according to a recent survey by Russian polling institute the Levada Center. Unpopular proposals, like increasing the retirement age and sluggish economic growth, frustrate the public. It was precisely the military intervention in Chechnya and the economic miracle of the early 2000s that won Putin’s broad popular support and it cannot be ruled out that he tries to repeat this feat by betting on Russian nationalism and adopting a certain adventurism in foreign policy: the occupation of Georgian territories and, more importantly, the annexation of Crimea raised its popularity ratings which had already experienced a certain decline. Obviously, this is a dangerous gamble on Putin’s part, because in doing so he adds to the sanctions directed against the Russian oligarchs, who also are among his most important supporters. However, while these interventions may be seen as simple geopolitical policies that have succeeded, this concern of Putin’s declining popularity cannot be dismissed out of hand. Although less problematic under international law, as Russia is intervening at the invitation of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, the military intervention in Syria could follow this same logic. So far, Kremlin strategists have skillfully entertained audiences by presenting exploits of Russian military force abroad.
As ordinary Russians begin to question Putin’s efforts to restore Russia’s “past greatness,” the loss of domestic confidence and political isolation infuriates Putin. Georgia appears to be the preferred location to achieve its goals, being the most overtly pro-Western country in the region, yet without being protected by the NATO umbrella. Also, there is no need to invade the country again to have an effect, it suffices to enlarge the territories which are already occupied, an inexpensive measure which Georgia cannot afford to oppose.