BACKGROUND: In July, Russian troops moved border markers further into Georgian territory, again altering the location of the so-called “border” with the Russian-occupied breakaway region of South Ossetia. According to some estimates, about 130 acres of Georgian territory have been absorbed as a result. Farmers woke up to find that pieces of their land had been sliced off overnight. An even larger section of the Baku-Supsa pipeline now lies outside of Tbilisi’s control, approximately two hundred meters more than after the end of the 2008 Russo-Georgia War. Although there have so far been no disruptions to the operations of the pipeline, this is nonetheless an obvious cause for concern.
Furthermore, the border is now alarmingly close to the strategically vital East-West highway, which is the main transportation corridor connecting various regions of the country. The border marking activities have understandably led to outrage among Georgia’s population. While government officials, including the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, have condemned Russia’s actions, they continue to preach patience and caution, going so far as to say that Georgia is “winning the diplomatic war.” The opposition and much of the population, however, complain that the administration is essentially appeasing the Russians. Thousands gathered in downtown Tbilisi on July 18 to protest primarily Russia’s “creeping annexation,” but also the Georgian government’s weak and “cowardly” response.
IMPLICATIONS: To many, Russia’s actions are directly aimed at punishing Tbilisi for its continued close relationship with the West, exemplified by moving forward with plans to open a NATO training center in Georgia by the end of the year. Although this could indeed be the case, the border marking activities are also clearly part of a wider warfare strategy on the part of Georgia’s northern neighbor. Contemporary Russian military theory is replete with clues that explain Russia’s recent actions on the international stage.
In a now-widely read article from 2013, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov argued that military action in the modern world begins without an official declaration of war, with groups of troops operating in peacetime, and that the previously well-defined lines between the states of peace and war have become blurred. The role of nonmilitary methods, such as propaganda, informational and psychological means, has increased, while the open use of force is often concealed behind the veils of crisis regulation or “peacekeeping.” Strategists Sergei Chekinov and Sergei Bogdanov stress the importance of morally and psychologically depressing the enemy’s civilian population and armed forces, as well as fomenting internal divisions and fueling chaos. Russian actions near Georgia’s “border” with South Ossetia have managed to stir domestic strife within Georgia, while causing a sense of helplessness and alarm. In addition, the Kremlin has stepped up its soft power and propaganda efforts by pouring funds into increasing its influence on Georgian media and non-governmental organizations.
The strategy is employed in Russian actions in other parts of the world as well. The annexation of Crimea is perhaps the most obvious example, but it is also manifested in the war in the Donbas, dangerous airspace violations against Finland, and increasing activity in or near the Baltic Republics. The Kremlin’s willingness to issue passports to ethnic Russians living in Estonia and Latvia, and its push to make Russian the second official national language in those counties, certainly fits the mold of the new type of warfare strategy. In eastern Ukraine, the strategy has transitioned from what Chekinov and Bogdanov define as the first phase – namely, unconventional operations including manipulating public opinion and deploying Russian forces disguised as domestic “rebels” – to the second, conventional phase. This second phase includes Russia’s efforts to force Kyiv to constitutionally legitimize the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” on an international level through the use of the Minsk process, so as to have a pseudo-legal premise for a future full-scale intervention if the need arises.
In a 2013 book titled General Theory of War, Major General Alexander Vladimirov echoes Gerasimov’s sentiments regarding the new permanent state of war, which transforms the distinction between peace and war into a transitional state of fear and insecurity. Specifically, he goes on to explain that in contrast to the old wars guided by territorial conquest and destruction of the opponent using direct military engagements, the new eternal war is an existential crisis guided by the exertion of political, economic and cultural influence by contactless means. Russian military theorist Vladimir Slipchenko stated as far back as 1999 that the main objective of the new kind of warfare is to destroy the enemy’s economic potential. Keeping these assertions in mind, it is not difficult to see Russia’s recent actions in Georgia as part of a broader warfare strategy. The border marking puts enormous political pressure on the Georgian government, while simultaneously raising the daunting specter of the potentially damaging economic consequences that could result from Russian forces taking control of the crucial East-West highway.
CONCLUSIONS: The Georgian government must be cautious yet firm in its response. All involved parties realize that a repeat of what happened in 2008 must be avoided. However, the government cannot sit idly by and allow the Russian forces to continue annexing sovereign Georgian land. Together with opposition parties and the international community, the government has a responsibility to reassess its strategy and formulate a comprehensive plan to avoid the loss of additional territory. This may involve placing troops and more international observers near the so-called “border” on a rotating basis around the clock, so as to deter further border marking activities. It may involve a military mobilization that makes the Kremlin believe that if it attempts further incursions into Georgia’s sovereignty, there will be consequences. If the latter option is chosen, the presence of international observers and unimpeded information-disseminating technology is imperative. The Russian side as well as their client governments in the occupied regions have made it clear that they will continue to push as much as they can get away with; thus, some sort of deterrent has become absolutely necessary. In the meantime, Georgians must bear in mind that part of the Russian warfare strategy is to provoke distrust, disunity and chaos from within their country.
AUTHOR’S BIO: George Tsereteli is an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, focusing on strategic studies.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons & Boris Ajeganov