Twelve years ago this month, Russian tanks and troops marched into Georgia, imposing illegal new borders that stripped Georgia of 20% of its sovereign territory. At the Kremlin’s orders Russian forces continue their de facto annexation of these territories while attempting to eradicate Georgian heritage in the occupied regions.
Recently, hybrid warfare has become Russia’s weapon of choice, aimed at spreading disinformation about Georgia’s widely applauded response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The impact of the Russian invasion in 2008 remains horrifically vivid. Russia’s occupation displaced tens of thousands people, and human rights violations, kidnappings, even murders, of Georgians in the occupied territories are common.
Russia has moved relentlessly to incorporate the occupied regions into Russia by supporting artificially empowered local governments, futilely seeking international recognition of the territories as independent states, and handing out Russian passports to their inhabitants. Full-scale Russian military bases now exist in both territories. Russia also runs off-the-grid financial networks through these territories to avoid international sanctions.
Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted the Georgia Support Act, condemning Russia’s activities in the occupied territories and imposing sanctions on persons involved in human rights violations against Georgians. The Senate should now pass this legislation that will provide critical support for countering hybrid threats and building Georgia’s resilience.
Russia has intensified its aggression against Georgia through hybrid warfare familiar to both European and American targets of Russian influence operations. In 2019, Russia launched powerful cyberattacks against thousands of Georgian websites, which forced government, media, banking and medical sites, among others, off-line for an extended period.
Russian disinformation against Georgia has gone into high gear during the pandemic, with a particularly virulent campaign being directed at the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, a transformative institution started with funding from the people of the United States.
The Lugar Center has been operational in Georgia since 2013; it has played a pivotal role in Georgia’s widely praised success in containing the COVID-19 outbreak through effective testing and diagnostics.
While the Lugar Center has received accolades from world health and political leaders, Russian disinformation has portrayed it as a stealth testing ground for toxins and viruses the United States is manufacturing to strike Russia. In the Russian telling, the Lugar Center is responsible for a number of wild conspiracies such as Ebola virus production and outbreaks, and the breeding of bats that can carry COVID-like viruses into Russia.
Far from intimidating Georgia, Russia’s actions have united our desire and accelerated the tempo of Georgia’s march into NATO, the European Union and the American-led trans-Atlantic alliance. Despite disinformation aimed at undermining support for these attachments, Georgians overwhelmingly support the country’s EU and NATO aspirations, with support for membership at 76% and 69%, respectively.
At every summit since 2008, NATO has recognized that Georgia belongs in the alliance. We have exceeded the criteria for membership by demonstrating our commitment to places like Afghanistan, where Georgia is one of the largest per-capital troop contributors, and dedicating more than 2% of our budget to defense. Whenever NATO or the United States ask for help, Georgia answers the call. Now is the time for NATO to answer our call for membership.
As we increase security ties to the West, the Georgian government has been working diligently with our international partners to bring pressure to bear on Russia in order to resolve this conflict. The European Union-mediated August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement provides a workable framework.
But, so far, Russia has blocked all efforts and refuses to fulfill its obligations by keeping troops in Georgia and preventing international observers from entering the occupied regions. The Russian Federation has not reciprocated any of our offers to put this conflict, the occupation and its pathologies behind us.
Far from posing a threat to Russia, a Georgia cemented into the West will enhance stability in the Caucasus and the Black Sea region. This security could encourage Russians to abandon their past imperial designs, security neuroses and self-imposed geopolitical isolation, and give them an opportunity to evolve as partners to the West rather than as adversaries.
A good place to start would be for Russia to remove its troops from Georgia, return our sovereign territories, and stop the disinformation campaigns and intimidation.
• David Bakradze is Georgia’s ambassador to the United States.
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