Russian tactics and narratives against Ukraine: deja vu for Georgians

Georgians are not surprised by what is happening in Ukraine right now, as similar events occurred in Georgia in 2008.The Georgian public is stressed and worried about Ukraine, and this situation has reopened their old wounds and revived war memories. To say it in a broad way, this dramatic situation in Ukraine is the part of Russia’s same foreign and security policy of expanding and demonstrating to the West that it is an equal player on the international stage. One of Russia’s main demands during bilateral negotiations with the US in January 2022 was that Ukraine and Georgia never join NATO and that NATO’s eastward expansion be halted. Russia made similar demands in 2008, and was successful in convincing some European states not to grant Georgia and Ukraine the MAPs. Some European leaders thought that appeasing Russia would make it less aggressive toward its neighbors. However, this was in vain because it gave Russia “permission” to invade Georgia and occupy 20% of its territory.

In general, the West should learn lessons from the August 2008 war, because Russia’s aggressive policy toward Ukraine follows a similar general trend. Putin’s regime gains confidence in being more aggressive as a result of the weak response from the West. When Russia began to show signs that it was planning military aggression, Georgian politicians found it difficult to persuade the West that these threats were too serious, and in the West, this was interpreted as paranoia. The situation in Ukraine is different right now; Western leaders have been vocal in their belief that Russia is capable of carrying out another bloody massacre in Ukraine. It is optimistic that Western countries are more prepared for Russian aggression than they were during the August 2008 war; this can help Ukraine in a variety of ways.

To focus on Russian narratives, it is important to note that, as in Georgia, Russians are attempting to make the victim appear to be the aggressor. It may sound simple and primitive, but this type of narrative worked so well that some European countries believed Georgia was the one who started the war, and this narrative continues to fuel heated political debates in Georgia after 14 years of the war, with even Georgia’s president claiming that Georgia bombed sleeping Tskhinvali. The president of Georgia will never be able to “erase” this from the minds of the majority of Georgians who hold negative attitudes toward her.

Russia will do the same in Ukraine, as Russian officials have repeatedly stated that Russia has never started a war on its own in its history; they will create a provocation to make Ukraine appear to be the aggressor and justify their military involvement in order to “protect the Russian-speaking minorities,” as they did  in Georgia’s occupied territories. It should be noted that the Ukrainian government is more patient and cautious when it comes to Russian provocations, and they handle them quite well so far.

However, this will not be an easy test, Russia will obviously amplify the disinformation narrative that civilians in occupied Ukrainian territory are in danger; they have already begun to evacuate civilians, and Putin has ordered that they be provided with housing and food. Russians did exactly the same thing in so-called South Ossetia. This type of propaganda is not for the West right now, because it no longer works as well as it did during the August 2008 war; instead, it primarily targets civilians in order to persuade them that the official Kyiv is their enemy and Moscow is their protector. In the response to this narrative, every major Western politician claims that Russia is simply staging a pretext to escalate the situation. This is helpful to Ukraine, because Russia clearly struggles to portray it as an aggressor in the eyes of the rest of the world. On the other hand, it is clear that this propagandist narrative can have an impact on Russian-speaking civilians living in occupied territory.

Another similar thing Russia is doing in Ukraine is fueling the conflict and raising tensions. While the Ukrainian government and people try to remain calm and not respond to provocations, Russia-backed separatists have blown up pipelines and even bombed a kindergarten. This is just a litmus test for Ukraine’s government and people. Ukraine should take a lesson from its friend Georgia and refrain from responding to such provocations. When the Russians began bombing ethnic Georgians in so-called South Ossetia, Georgian armed forces responded to protect civilians. Such a scenario in Ukraine could be extremely advantageous for the Kremlin to do what they do best: start slaughter.

Furthermore, other compelling narrative is linked to NATO. In 2008, Russia’s propagandist machine targeted its own population and international society by claiming that if Georgia joined NATO, NATO would build its own military bases in Georgia, which could pose a direct threat to Russia. Similarly, Putin demands that NATO should claim that Ukraine will not join NATO because it can be dangerous for world peace, because if NATO member Ukraine decides to start a war to reclaim Crimea, the West will be forced to intervene. During his meeting with Macron, Putin rhetorically asked, “Do you want a war between Russia and NATO?”

Another suspicious occurrence that Ukraine and the West should be aware of is a military exercise. Before starting the war against Georgia, Russia gathered its forces near the Georgian border, claiming it was only for a military exercise. The West was relieved when Russia said that part of the military forces began to return home, but the reality was different; the troops stayed after the exercise and attacked Georgia a few days later. As a matter of fact, it is concerning that the Russian soldiers did not leave Belarus following the exercise. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Defense announced that following the end of the exercise, all Russian soldiers and equipment would leave the country on February 20. However, on February 20, the country’s defense minister, Viktor Khrenin, stated that the exercises would continue. Regarding this the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania stated:

“Russian troops in Belarus remain in violation of all exit guarantees. This is a clear preparation for an attack on Ukraine in the direction of Kiev and a creeping annexation of Belarus: a turning point for security in Belarus’s NATO neighbors Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.”

To sum up, Ukraine is a larger international player in world politics, than a tiny Georgia. It is Europe’s second largest country, and a war against it could have a greater impact on the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. This will not be another five-day war for Russia, and its military and economic losses will be severe.

As a result, the West should respond more forcefully to Russia’s militarism, the optimist thing is that the West is better prepared and less “surprised “,than it was in 2008 when Russia launched the war, while all eyes were on the Olympic Games in Beijing. The West was shocked and confused as a result of this, “enabling” Russia to undermine Georgia’s territorial integrity. The situation is different now, and this may be helpful to Ukraine in the face of another wave of Russian aggression.

Lasha Gamjashvili

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