Despite setbacks in Ukraine, Russia eager to strengthen influence in old Soviet sphere
Moscow has made a string of strategic blunders during its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, reducing its chances for victory. But that does not mean it is in any way losing the geopolitical game to reassert its power in the old Soviet bloc.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been working hard to expand Moscow’s sphere of influence, and has had considerable success in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Russia invaded the neighbouring country in 2008 and still controls about 20% of its land. Georgia has severed diplomatic relations with Moscow and anti-Russian sentiment also runs strong among the public.
However, the Georgian government seems to have become more conciliatory toward Russia.
Georgia’s Leaning Toward Moscow
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili drew flak from Kyiv on February 25, the day after Russian troops entered Ukraine, by saying his country would not join Western sanctions against Russia. Several other political leaders in the country have also taken pro-Russian stances.
Although the head of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, criticised Russia nine times from February 24 to July 27 in 2022, he made negative comments about the West 57 times and Ukraine 26 times in the same period, OC Media reported.
Moreover, there are signs this worrying trend has been accelerating, unfortunately.
Massive Protests Rocked Georgia Lately
Thousands of Georgians took to the streets this year after the parliament on March 7 supported draft legislation that would require organisations to register as “agents of foreign influence” if they receive more than 20% of their annual funding from overseas.
According to critics, the law was similar to a regulation introduced in Russia to silence dissidents. The ruling party was eventually forced to withdraw the bill for the time being.
Fresh demonstrations erupted in Georgia a couple of months later after Moscow announced the lifting of a four-year-old ban on direct flights between Russia and Georgia. Consequently, seven weekly flights resumed between the two countries.
Putin’s Carrot-and-stick Approach
Georgia offered little resistance to Putin’s eagerness to expand its sphere of influence by increasing economic interactions.
A number of experts have voiced concerns over Russia’s growing control over Georgia.
While some say Georgia has become a lab for Vladimir Putin’s hybrid warfare, others stress the Russian leader is using a carrot-and-stick approach to realise his ambitions, with a major “carrot” being the potential economic benefits of closer interactions with Moscow.
Putin also seems to be using the “stick” through intimidation that defying Russia could invite a fresh invasion.