I arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia at 6 AM on a humid June morning after a 26-hour journey. The city was quiet, still asleep, and I remember quickly trying to analyze everything I saw outside the car window on the way to my apartment. I quickly learned that lived-in commie blocks built next to moss-covered medieval churches are entirely characteristic of the country. I was here for a greatly-anticipated nine-week-long internship at an economic policy think tank.
While I’d never been to Georgia, it wasn’t entirely foreign to me. I can’t say that Veep’s characterization of the country held true, but, as a history fiend, I was familiar with and fascinated by Georgia’s unique story. I was eager to experience its food, enchanting song and dance, and incredible landscapes. I’ve had the opportunity to explore a lot of the country by now, and my excitement has been more than rewarded.
The town of Mestia in the Svaneti region
Although many claim that Georgia’s beauty is partially because it’s off the beaten path, I’m not sure that’s entirely true anymore. There are visitors from around Europe and Asia here, and a growing interest in the country has been fostered by Georgians. Perhaps only in the US then, has the country been forgotten in favor of the state that shares its name. This, ruinously, extends to its politics.
On February 24th, 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in an escalation of the conflict that began 8 years prior, the world held its breath, as many called the assault the first war of territorial gain in recent memory.
Less than 14 years prior however, on August 7th, 2008, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Georgia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered an uneasy peace 5 days later, and a few weeks later, Russia recognized the occupied breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, approximately one-fifth of Georgia’s de jure territory, as independent nations.
Like in Ukraine, Russia claimed that Georgia was committing ethnic cleansing, and that this was a humanitarian conflict. Coincidentally, from the Russian perspective, Georgia had held a non-binding referendum on NATO membership a few months prior, with more than 3/4 of the population voting in favor. Moreover, Georgia, and Ukraine, were promised eventual NATO membership at the 2008 summit a few months prior. While the Russian government has repeatedly stated this had little to do with the conflict, which was called a “peace enforcement operation,” Georgian holdings outside of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were still attacked during the war, and many ethnic Georgians were expelled from the regions surrounding the time of the conflict.
The ethnic conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia have a long and complicated history, and the Georgian government is not without fault. Murder, intimidation, and coercion by the Georgian government were common after the fall of the Soviet Union in an attempt to build up a Georgian national identity. But, ultimately, there was no genocide in 2008, and there were no grounds for a Russian intervention.
Today, much of the United Nations body recognizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia as Russian-occupied Georgian territories, with discussions of integration into the Russian nation active in both regions. Georgia is still not part of NATO.
The West’s response to the invasion was remarkably muted, opposite of the response to the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Sanctions were not imposed on Russia, and the US extended only economic aid following the war. Moreover, shortly after the war, France sold Russia a powerful helicopter carrier, leading the Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff to remark that it would have been much easier to defeat Georgia with it. Conversely, the Bush administration rejected Georgia’s request for anti-tank and air defense weapons, and the Obama administration later began the “Russia Reset” policy, which largely ignored the repercussions of the Invasion of Georgia in hopes of improved ties with Russia.
This is partly why the West’s response to the invasion was so soft. Although today many Americans feel far removed from the Cold War, and sentiments against Russia have risen again, in the largely unipolar world of 2008, many Americans still hoped for a renewed strategic partnership with Russia. Georgia is a small country, and largely irrelevant to the international order. Simply put: the West did not think it was worth it to risk the possibility of positive relations with Russia for Georgia.
The controversy surrounding the catalyst of the war was further used as further reasoning for a lack of response. After the conflict, Condoleezza Rice, then-Secretary of State, stated that she had told then-Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, that Russia would be provoking him, and that he needed to resist escalation. It became easier to leave Georgia to its fate under the assumption that Saakashvili acted against himself.
The outbreak of the war itself began with an exchange of fire between Russian-backed South Ossetian and Georgian forces on August 1st following an explosion targeting a Georgian police vehicle near Tskhinvali, the largest city in South Ossetia. Ultimately, the culprit for the escalation of the skirmish over the following days is heavily contested, with no definitive way of concluding if it was Georgia or Russia.
However, regardless of if it was Saakashvili’s hubris or Russia’s aggression, today, it is widely recognized that Georgia was baited into responding, and that Russia had been preparing for the conflict as early as 2006. For many in the West, Saakashvili’s ultimate wish to assert greater control over the two breakaway states was impractical and warrants their lack of response.
Despite what many might consider the West’s abandonment of Georgia, Georgians still staunchly align themselves with the West.
On a visit to the Georgian National Museum, I saw the correspondence of a leading Georgian novelist from 1918, when Georgia became independent from the Russian Empire. In it, he stated that Georgia’s future lies West, not North or East, and that they must work to realize their future. Three years later however, the Red Army marched into Tbilisi and hoisted the flag of the hammer and sickle.
This sentiment was suppressed and largely dormant during the Soviet era, but flourished again in the 80s and 90s when Georgia declared independence from the USSR.
Today, Georgian volunteers are thought to be the largest contingent of foreign fighters in the Russo-Ukrainian War, and Ukrainian, EU, and NATO flags line the streets of Tbilisi and government buildings. Georgia was the largest non-NATO contributor to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and joined the US-led coalition in Iraq as well. Even in the face of dejection, considering that Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was thought to be especially retaliatory to the West’s recognition of Kosovo, Georgians believe in the ideals preached by the West.
The Georgians I’ve spoken to about this say that as they have first-hand experienced Russia’s bullying, and that their history for the past two hundred years has been more or less defined by Russia, they believe in the Ukrainian cause, and the West.
NATO, US, Ukrainian, Georgian, and EU flags graffitied on my street
Georgia struggles to make progress on the Euro-Atlantic aspirations, with the EU claiming that it worries about Georgia’s democratic institutional strength, judicial independence, and “oligarchization.” In June 2022, the commission stated that intranational political developments in the past few years were actually a move backwards, not forwards, and granted only Ukraine and Moldova candidacy status.
Still, as evident by polling, Georgians see a free future with Europe, and continue making efforts against backsliding into Russian influence. Putin on the other hand, seeks to bring Georgia back into his fold, and is working to achieve that. As a nation of less than four million people, they can be forgotten on the world stage. But, especially for Americans, as self-described leaders of the free world, it is important to remember them, and their historical efforts with the West.
Andrew Gerges is a student at Stanford University studying economics and international relations. You can read more of his work at The Stanford Daily.