This week marks the 12th anniversary of Russia’s wonton invasion of Georgia. While the world was fixated on the Summer Olympics in Beijing, an invasion force comprised of hundreds of Russian tanks and armored vehicles passed through the Roki tunnel on the Russian–Georgian border. In parallel, the Georgian port city of Poti was under attack by the Russian navy while Russian troops stormed through Inguri river crossing from occupied Abkhazia to Georgia proper. At the time, Russian troops got within miles of the country’s capital city of Tbilisi, and even bombed the civilian airport there. Hostilities were finally brought to an end after a Six Point Ceasefire Agreement was brokered by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The toll on Georgia’s security and economy has been great since the invasion.
Twelve years later, thousands of Russian troops still occupy Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region (commonly referred to as South Ossetia), which together equal 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory. If a foreign army occupied the equivalent one-fifth of the contiguous U.S., it would be comparable to all land west of the Rocky Mountains. Russia is still in violation of two main points of the Six Point Ceasefire Agreement. For example, Russian military forces must pull back to their locations before the start of hostilities and must provide free access for humanitarian assistance in the occupied regions. Moscow has done neither.
The Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia essentially have become large Russian military bases. Thousands of Russian troops equipped with advanced military hardware including armored vehicles, tanks, anti-aircraft batteries, and tactical ballistic missiles are stationed in both the Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia. Since Georgia’s capital is only 30 miles away from Tskhinvali, all of this is within striking distance of Tbilisi.
The Russian militarization of the Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia is beyond the reach of the European Union Monitoring Mission, established soon after the war to monitor the cease-fire agreement, because Russian authorities prevent it from entering the occupied regions. Even so, in some cases the construction of Russian military facilities can be seen with the naked eye from the Georgian-controlled side of the occupation line. I have seen this myself near the Georgian village of Odzisi.
Since 2011, Russian and separatist forces have implemented a policy of “borderization” in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. This includes constructing illegal fencing and earthen barriers to separate communities and further divide the Georgian population. Russian and Russian-backed forces have also installed “State Border” signs warning those on the Georgian side of the Line of Occupation not to enter. In some cases Russia has taken even more territory, often yards at a time, in what has been described as Russia’s “creeping annexation.” In extreme cases Georgians have been known to go to sleep in free Georgia and wake up in occupied Georgia.
Russia also continues to use so-called hybrid tactics in Georgia. Since the 2008 war Russia has used propaganda, funded non-governmental organizations, and employed Russian-language TV channels to advance a pro-Russia/anti-West narrative in Georgia. Most recently, Russia has used disinformation to undermine the great work carried out by the US funded Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even with the Russian invasion and its aftermath, Georgia has not been deterred from getting closer to the West. There are three main reasons why the U.S. should recognize Georgia has an important ally.
Firstly, Georgia is a proven and dependable U.S. ally in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not well-known that at the time of the 2008 Russian invasion, Georgia had the second-largest number of troops in Iraq after the U.S. In 2012, when many NATO countries were rushing for the door in Afghanistan, Georgia added hundreds of troops to the mission there. At the height of the Georgian contribution to Afghanistan, it had more than 2,000 troops serving in some of the deadliest places in the country, if not the world, in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces. On a per capita basis Georgia has suffered the most killed in combat—even though it has only had a sizeable presence in the country for about half the time of the campaign. Today, Georgia has 870 troops in Afghanistan, making it the largest non-NATO troop contributor to the NATO training mission.
Secondly, Georgia’s strategic location makes it important for U.S. geopolitical objectives in the Eurasian region. Located in the South Caucasus, Georgia sits at a crucial geographical and cultural crossroads and has proven itself to be strategically important for military and economic reasons for centuries. Today, Georgia’s strategic location is just as important to the U.S. For example, Georgia offered its territory, infrastructure, and logistic capabilities for the transit of NATO forces and cargo for Afghanistan. Over the years, Georgia has modernized key airports and port facilities in the country. This is particularly important when it comes to the Black Sea region. Key pipelines like the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline, the Baku–Supsa pipeline, and the Southern Gas Corridor transit Georgia as do important rail lines like the recently opened Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. The oil and gas pipelines are particularly important to Europe’s energy security, and therefore U.S. national interest in the region.
Finally, Georgia’s journey to democracy is an example for the region. Since regaining independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia has been on a journey to democracy. Over the years, successive Georgian governments have pursued an agenda of liberalizing the economy, cutting bureaucracy, fighting corruption, and embracing democracy.
Today, Georgia also represents the idea in Europe that each country has the sovereign ability to determine its own path and to decide with whom it has relations and how and by whom it is governed. Territorial integrity must be respected and no outside actor (in this case, Russia) should have a veto on membership or closer relations with organizations like the European Union or NATO.
Georgia’s fondness for freedom and liberty are nothing new. As the British diplomat and foremost Kartvelian, Sir Oliver Wardrop, wrote in his 1888 book, The Kingdom of Georgia: Travel in a Land of Woman, Wine and Song:
It is interesting to notice that the political ideas of the country are borrowed from Western Europe. Excepting in Japan, perhaps, there is no such instance of a people passing directly from feudalism to liberalism. The grandsons of absolute monarchs, the men who little more than a quarter of a century ago were large slaveholders, are now ardent champions of the democratic idea and loudly proclaim the freedom, the equality, and the brotherhood, of prince and peasant, master and man.
In a well-manicured and green public park in central Tbilisi, a smiling bronze Ronald Reagan is sitting on a bench looking off into the distance in the direction of Russia. He has the look of confidence and satisfaction. Inscribed on the statue is one of Reagan’s more poignant quotes: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”
Today, Reagan’s belief in democracy, free markets, a strong defense, and liberty are encapsulated in the reforms taking place in modern Georgia. This is in stark contrast to Georgia’s northern neighbor Russia, where democratic freedoms are in retreat, corruption is endemic, and the future is bleak.
The statue of Reagan is a reminder to all Georgians of how far they have come since the oppressive days of communism and of how bright their future can be. To the West, the statue is a reminder that the Cold War did not just end—it was won. The people of Georgia were liberated because the ideas of freedom trumped oppression, and the central planning of communism could not compete with economic freedom. In the end, the values, ideas, and vision of Reagan turned out to be more powerful than any military force that NATO could ever field.
So as we mark the 12th anniversary of Russia’s aggression we should never forget: Russia invaded Georgia, not the other way around. Russia is the aggressor, and Georgia is the victim.
Russia’s primary strategic goal in Georgia is to keep countries which were once under Russian or Soviet domination out of the Western community. This is why the U.S. must remain focused on deepening its bilateral relationship with Georgia and stand with Georgia firmly on its peaceful efforts of de-occupation and transatlantic path.
Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, where he oversees research on nations stretching from South America to the Middle East. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images