Thursday, 25 January 2018 15:26

Russian Hybrid Tactics in Georgia


by Niklas Nilsson

Silk Road Paper

January 2008


Click here for PDF version  


1801Nilsson-coverExecutive Summary

Since its independence in 1991, Georgia is the country in the former USSR that has been most frequently and harshly subjected to Russian hybrid tactics – a practice that gained considerable attention after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Russia has at times of confrontation with Georgia – a common occurrence throughout these 25 years – relied on a combination of multiple pressure points to influence the decision making of the Georgian government, particularly in foreign- and security policy.

These pressure points have included traditional sources of state power and coercion, including the use of military force or the threat thereof; leveraging geopolitical realities on the ground, most prominently Russia’s control over the two breakaway regions of Abkahzia and South Ossetia, as means to exert diplomatic pressure; and the exploitation of economic dependencies as means for establishing punishments or rewards for different policy choices. They have also encompassed subversive elements, including co-optation and subversion aimed at inserting agents of influence in Georgia’s political elite and society; cyber-attacks; and a concerted effort in the informational sphere to promote a narrative, in Georgia itself as well as in the country’s key partners in the West, on Georgia and its trajectory in domestic as well as international politics that is favorable to Russian interests.

The use of these measures, which this paper terms a toolbox for hybrid tactics, in order to attain foreign policy objectives are neither unique to Russia, nor to the twenty-first century. States have always deployed similar means at their disposal, and combinations thereof, in international interactions and several examples certainly exist of the use of hybrid tactics by the U.S. as well as European states. Yet this paper posits that Russia’s deployment of hybrid tactics, and particularly their expression in the case of Georgia, should merit special attention.

The standoff between Russia and the West following the former’s aggression against Ukraine has raised important questions about European security and particularly about the credibility of NATO as a guarantor for it. For NATO, originally designed as an interstate alliance with the purpose of defending its members against external aggression, and despite NATO’s rediscovery of this purpose over the last three years, Russia’s largely successful deployment of hybrid tactics in Ukraine demonstrated the complexities of modern-day warfare. Rather than embarking on an overt invasion of Ukraine, Russia deployed Special Forces without insignia to take over administrative buildings in Crimea in cooperation with local militias, and in combination with a sustained information campaign rendering outside assessments of on-ground developments highly ambiguous until facts on the ground were firmly established.

The key question for NATO to address is how quickly and decisively the alliance would be able to react to similar developments in one of its members, especially one of the Baltic States. Russia’s demonstrated ability to deploy subversive tactics such as the use of proxy groups in targeted countries and to leverage its general appeal among segments of their populations, fueled through government-funded information channels, can potentially reduce the need for conventional means of warfare or make them redundant altogether. The question is whether an attack in the guise of hybrid tactics against one of NATO’s members would be anticipated in time to clear NATO’s threshold for action in its defense.

It is therefore important to study Russia’s development and use of hybrid tactics in other cases aside from Ukraine. Improving the understanding of the various tools that Russia deploys to influence countries in its neighborhood, and especially of how these tools can be combined to reinforce one another, is helpful in order to assess and address risks and vulnerabilities that have emerged in the volatile security situation evolving in the borderlands between Russia and the West in recent years. This is relevant not only to countries in Russia’s immediate neighborhood, but in a much larger context. Although vulnerabilities associated with hybrid tactics are naturally felt much more acutely in countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan or in Central Asia, the use of similar tactics, or elements of them, could potentially be deployed also against existing members of NATO or the EU.

Georgia stands out as a particularly important case study of Russia’s deployment of hybrid tactics. The country’s longstanding conflict with Russia has over the years made it a target of the full spectrum of hybrid tactics that Russia currently deploys in Ukraine and elsewhere. In fact, Georgia can be said to have functioned as a testing ground for many of these tactics, making Georgia’s experience relevant far beyond the confined regional context.

The case of Georgia also serves to demonstrate how the vulnerability of regional states connects closely with the sustainability and credibility of Western engagement with these countries. For long, besides the Baltic States, Georgia has remained the post-Soviet country that displays the most unambiguous political and public support for pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration and departing from Russian influence. Yet the message that Russia seeks to convey to the Georgian government and public, through a combined demonstration of military might and economic prospects, is that the potential rewards of pursuing integration with the West – either through NATO or the EU – are not worth the sacrifices involved in terms of either security or economic adaptation. With regard to both organizations, Georgia has undertaken demanding processes to conform to military, economic and governance standards, whereas the perspective of membership in either NATO or the EU has failed to materialize. In turn, this means that the ultimate rewards for these adaptation processes – security guarantees under NATO’s article 5 and full access to the EU’s single market – remain distant and largely unrealistic prospects for Georgia.

This reality has slowly dawned on an increasing portion of the Georgian population – and voters – of which a steadily growing minority now expresses skepticism towards their country’s longstanding pursuit of Euro-Atlantic integration. This view is reinforced by pro-Russian political parties and NGOs, as well as a range of alternative media, all increasingly active in Georgia since 2012. The common message of these actors is that they denounce the attempt to make Georgia a member of the Western liberal order as damaging both to Georgia’s security, due to the conflict with Russia that it implies, and to the traditional and cultural foundation of Georgian society. Instead, they argue, Georgia should pursue neutrality in its foreign policy and develop economic relationships both westward and northward. This vision remains utterly unrealistic – Georgia would hardly gain room for maneuver in its foreign policy by claiming neutrality; this would in fact close off the source of support that has up until now allowed it to limit Russian influence in Georgia, Yet it is becoming increasingly attractive to the segment of the Georgian population most affected by the deep structural problems of Georgia’s economy and the country’s ongoing economic crisis, and a larger proportion of the public that has long been disillusioned with the continuous and unproductive infighting among the country’s political elite.

Georgia’s vulnerability to Russian pressure in the different spheres outlined above should not be exaggerated. Georgia has endured a military invasion and a sustained severing of economic relations for several years, while the vast majority of its population, likely in part as a result thereof, remains supportive of Euro-Atlantic integration. However, a source of concern is the political vulnerability of the current government. Although the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) made an unexpectedly strong result and secured a constitutional majority in the October 2016 parliamentary elections, opinion polls indicate low approval ratings of the government as well as the political elite in general, and public disillusionment with Georgia’s development and prospects. This could quickly translate into a difficult domestic situation, as has been the case on several occasions in Georgia’s post-independence history. The fact that GD has built much of its support among voters on its ability to normalize relations with Russia, potentially increases the leverage associated with the types of hybrid tactics discussed in this paper. Facing weakened public support for its hold on power, the government could come under pressure to make concessions to Russia in exchange for the latter’s abstention from utilizing the various levers at its disposal.

Such concessions could involve, for example, accepting infrastructure projects in which Russia wishes to involve Georgia, allowing Gazprom a share in Georgia’s gas market in order to avoid renewed import bans on Georgian agricultural products, or acquiescing further steps towards formal accession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While such actions on Russia’s part would be manageable for Georgia as a country, they would potentially be highly damaging to GD as a ruling party.

This study serves both as an inventory of the foreign policy tools that Russia is capable of deploying against countries in its neighborhood and beyond, and as an approximation of their efficiency and limitations. The picture that emerges is that the toolbox available to Russia is at the same time multidimensional, sophisticated, and adaptable to specific regional and national contexts. Indeed, the military and economic tools available to Russia in relation to Georgia are very much attuned to the specific geopolitical context and economic interdependency of this relationship, whereas information campaigns in the Georgian, largely Russia-skeptical context, aim primarily to discredit the West and promote Georgian social conservative values. Yet the effectiveness of Russian hybrid tactics also stand in direct relation to the gains, in terms of security, economic benefits, and overall perspectives of inclusion that countries in the Eastern neighborhood are offered by the West. It is clear that the growing appeal of Russia’s preferred narrative of international politics in this region goes hand in hand with the West’s inability to counter it, in words as well as actions.

Click here for PDF version of the full study.

Read 14762 times Last modified on Thursday, 25 January 2018 15:39





  • ASIA Spotlight with Prof. S. Frederick Starr on Unveiling Central Asia's Hidden Legacy
    Thursday, 28 December 2023 00:00

    On December 19th, 2023, at 7:30 PM IST, ASIA Spotlight Session has invited the renowned Prof. S Fredrick Starr, who elaborated on his acclaimed book, "The Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane." Moderated by Prof. Amogh Rai, Research Director at ASIA, the discussion unveiled the fascinating, yet lesser-known narrative of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment.

    The book sheds light on the remarkable minds from the Persianate and Turkic peoples, spanning from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China. "Lost Enlightenment" narrates how, between 800 and 1200, Central Asia pioneered global trade, economic development, urban sophistication, artistic refinement, and, most importantly, knowledge advancement across various fields. Explore the captivating journey that built a bridge to the modern world.

    To know watch the full conversation: #centralasia #goldenage #arabconquest #tamerlane #medievalenlightment #turkish #economicdevelopment #globaltrade

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Some Lessons for Putin from Ancient Rome
    Thursday, 04 January 2024 17:01
    By S. Frederick Starr 
    American Purpose
    January 4, 2024
    Vladimir Putin, having sidelined or destroyed all his domestic opponents, real or imagined, now surrounds himself with Romano-Byzantine pomp and grandeur. The theatrical civic festivals, processions of venerable prelates, cult of statues, embarrassing shows of piety, endless laying of wreaths, and choreographed entrances down halls lined with soldiers standing at attention—all trace directly back to czarism, to Byzantine Constantinople, and ultimately to imperial Rome. Indeed, Putin considers himself as Russia’s new “czar,” the Russified form of the Latin “Caesar.”
    But besides all the parallel heroics, Roman history offers profound lessons for today’s world. All of America’s Founders saw the Roman Republic as the best model for their own constitution. Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler, by contrast, found in imperial Rome a stunning model for their own grandeur. True, some of Rome’s ancient chroniclers, including the celebrated Livy, so admired specific politicians that they saw only their good sides and ignored the problems and failures. Yet there were others, notably the pessimistic Sallust, who not only wrote bluntly of history’s painful issues but delved deep into their causes and consequences.
    Is Putin likely to delve into the history of Rome for insights on his own situation? Unfortunately for Russia, Putin is not a reader, preferring instead to engage in exhibitionist athletic activities, preside at solemn ceremonies, or offer avuncular obiter dicta. However, if he would study the Roman past, he might come to realize that that model presents more than a few chilling prospects that he will ignore at his peril.
    To take but one example, a glance at Roman history would remind Putin that self-declared victories may not be as victorious as he and Kremlin publicists want to think. Back in the 3rd century B.C., when Rome was still a small state in central Italy, it was attacked by a certain King Pyrrhus, a rival ruler from Epirus, a region along today’s border between Greece and Albania. In his first battles Pyrrhus routed the Roman legions, and celebrated accordingly. But matters did not end there.
    Like Pyrrhus, Putin’s army scored some early victories in its war on Ukraine. As recently as December 1, Putin’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu was still claiming, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Russian forces “were advancing on all fronts.” Pyrrhus made similar false claims, only to discover that his own soldiers were no match for the determined Romans. As the Romans drove Pyrrhus’ army from the field, he groused, “If we win one more such victory against the Romans we will be utterly ruined,” which is exactly what happened. Pyrrhus’ statement gave Romans the term “Pyrrhic victory,” which we still use today. Putin should apply it to his “victories” at Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
    Another crisis in Rome’s early formation as a nation occurred when a peasant uprising threatened Rome itself and, according to the historian Livy, caused panic in the Roman capital. In desperation, the elders turned to Lucius Cincinnatus, who was neither a military man nor a professional politician, but who had earned respect as an effective leader. It took Cincinnatus only fifteen days to turn the tide, after which he returned to his farm. George Washington rightly admired Cincinnatus and consciously emulated him, returning after the Battle of Yorktown to Mount Vernon. By contrast, Putin’s “special military operation,” planned as a three-day romp, is now approaching the end of its second year. Putin, no Cincinnatus, doomed himself to being a lifer.
    Roman history is a millennium-long showcase of motivation or its absence. In this context, Putin might gain further insights by examining Rome’s centuries-long battle against the diverse tribes pressing the empire from the north. For centuries Rome’s legionnaires were well trained, disciplined, and committed. The list of their early victories is long. Both Julius Caesar and the philosopher-emperor-general Marcus Aurelius succeeded because they motivated and inspired their troops. But over time the Roman army was increasingly comprised of hirelings, déclassé men who fought not to save the empire but for money or a small piece of the bounty. Inflation and rising costs outpaced pay increases. Punishment was severe, in some cases including even crucifixion. In the end, Rome’s army eroded from within.
    This is what is happening to the Russian army today. Putin attacked Ukraine in February 2022 with what was then an army of several hundred thousand trained professional soldiers. But after the Ukrainians killed more than 320,000 Russian troops, their replacements were unwilling and surly conscripts and even criminals dragooned from Russia’s jails. Putin quite understandably fears such soldiers. Putin’s army, like that of the late Roman Empire, is collapsing from within.
    By contrast, Ukraine’s army at the time of the invasion was small and comprised mainly Soviet-trained holdovers. Both officers and troops of the line had to be quickly recruited from civilian professions and trained. Yet they quickly proved themselves to be disciplined and resourceful patriots, not tired time-servers. True, Ukraine is now conscripting troops, but these newcomers share their predecessors’ commitment to the nation and to their future lives in a free country.
    Sheer spite and a passion for avenging past failures figured prominently in Putin’s decisions to invade both Georgia and Ukraine. Roman history suggests that this isn’t smart. Back in 220 B.C., Rome defeated its great enemy, the North African state of Carthage. Anticipating Putin, the Carthaginian general Hannibal sought revenge. Acting out of spite, he assembled 700,000 foot soldiers, 78,000 mounted calvary, and a force of war elephants, and crossed the Alps. Though he was a brilliant general, Hannibal’s war of spite turned into a disaster.
    Why did Hannibal lose? Partly because of his sheer hubris and the spite that fed it, and also because the Romans avoided frontal battles and simply ground him down. They were prudently led by a general named Fabius Maximus, whom later Romans fondly remembered as “the Delayer.” Today it is the Ukrainians who are the Delayers. By grinding down Putin’s army and destroying its logistics they have positioned themselves for victory.
    The Roman Republic fell not because of any mass uprising but because of the machinations of Julius Caesar. A victorious general, Caesar looked the hero as he was installed as imperator. As was customary at such ceremonies, an official retainer placed behind the inductee solemnly repeated over and over the admonition to “Look behind you!” Caesar failed to do so and underestimated the opposition of a handful of officials and generals who feared the rise of a dictator perpetuus. Even if Putin chooses not to read Cicero, Plutarch, or Cassius Dio, he could productively spend an evening watching a Moscow production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.
    Turning to a very different issue, Putin seems blithely to assume that whenever Russia defeats a neighboring country it can easily win the hearts and minds of the conquered, whether by persuasion or force. This is what many Roman generals and governors thought as well, but they were wrong—fatally so. Speaking of the impact of corrupt officials sent by Rome to the provinces, the great orator-politician Cicero declared to the Roman Senate, “You cannot imagine how deeply they hate us.” Does Putin understand this?
    Finally, it is no secret that Russia today, like ancient Rome, is increasingly a land of immigrants; its economy depends on impoverished newcomers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia who fled to Russia in search of work. Yet Moscow treats them as third-class citizens and dragoons them as cannon fodder or “meat” to die by the thousands on the Ukrainian front. Rome faced a similar problem and wrestled with it unsuccessfully over several centuries. Over time the despised immigrants who poured across the Alps from Gaul demanded a voice in Roman affairs, and eventually took control of the western Roman Empire.
    Sad to say, neither Putin himself nor any others of Russia’s core group of leaders show the slightest interest in learning from relevant examples from Roman history or, for that matter, from any other useable past. Together they provide living proof of American philosopher George Santayana’s adage that, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” In Putin’s case, though, he seems never to have known it. 

    ABOUT THE AUTHORSS. Frederick Starr, is a distinguished fellow specializing in Central Asia and the Caucasus at the American Foreign Policy Council and founding chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute.

    Additional Info
    • Author S. Frederick Starr
    • Publication Type Analysis
    • Published in/by American Purpose
    • Publishing date January 4, 2024
  • CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr comments on "Preparing Now for a Post-Putin Russia"
    Friday, 03 November 2023 18:30

    Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin dies in office, is ousted in a palace coup, or relinquishes power for some unforeseen reason, the United States and its allies would face a radically different Russia with the Kremlin under new management. The geopolitical stakes mean that policymakers would be negligent not to plan for the consequences of a post-Putin Russia. On November 2, 2023, CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr joined a panel organized by the Hudson Institute’s Center on Europe and Eurasia for a discussion on how US and allied policymakers can prepare for a Russia after Putin.

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

    WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.

    Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

    He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.

    "I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.

    Key issues

    In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.

    Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.

    "Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.

    The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."

    During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.

    That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.

    Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."

    "The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.

    "This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."

    Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.

    'Possibility of positive change'

    Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.

    In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."

    This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."

    "Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."

    "Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"

    Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."

    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

    Click to continue reading...