When he was a U.S. diplomat in Moscow during World War II, before famously developing the U.S. containment policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War, George Kennan wrote in his journal, “The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.”

After years of trying to be neither, the government of Georgia, a neighbor of Russia, has chosen to be a vassal rather than be labeled by Moscow, however unjustifiably, as an enemy. Georgia’s current rulers, for reasons of self-preservation and even though the country was granted European Union candidate status as recently as December, apparently have made the strategic decision to placate Russian President Vladimir Putin and demonize the West, and to use force and intimidation against those protesting in favor of an EU direction instead. The only question is whether and when Western leaders will respond to this and impose tough measures to deter the ruling Georgian Dream party from further repressions against its opposition.

In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, four months after NATO issued a statement declaring that Georgia (and Ukraine) will become members of NATO, but without specifying when or how. After a ceasefire mediated by the European Union to end the fighting, Russia never fulfilled any of the conditions, including withdrawing from the two regions in Georgia’s north that it continues to occupy to this day. The government in Tbilisi, then headed by Mikheil Saakashvili, treated the Russian occupying power as an enemy, breaking diplomatic relations and cutting off most links to it, including all direct flights.

Georgian Dream, headed by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, defeated Saakashvili’s party in the 2012 elections, after revelations of gross human rights abuses in Georgian prisons that were blamed on Saakashvili. The incoming Georgian Dream (GD) government sought to take a more pragmatic approach to Moscow than Saakashvili. While stopping short of restoring full relations, GD established a regular diplomatic channel and allowed direct flights from Russia to resume. By early 2019, more than a million Russian tourists a year were bringing in much-needed revenue.

At the same time, the new government, while cutting back on its predecessor’s anti-Russian rhetoric, continued with plans to grow closer to the EU and NATO. In particular, it increased security cooperation, especially with the United States. In 2015, NATO established a training program in Georgia called the Joint Training and Evaluation Center. U.S. Marines prepared alongside Georgian armed forces there for a joint deployment to Afghanistan. In 2018, the U.S. Army began its own training program, the Georgia Defense Readiness Program, focusing on deterring further Russian aggression by strengthening Georgia’s territorial defense capabilities.

New Russian Threats

In February 2019, Russia’s then-Deputy Foreign Minister Grigoriy Karasin issued a not-so-veiled threat about this growing defense cooperation with the West. Complaining about “NATO’s growing military presence” in Georgia, Karasin told a Russian newspaper, “Tbilisi needs to decide; they can choose to establish an atmosphere of regional cooperation… or they can choose a Euro-Atlantic agenda.” In a reference to the period leading up to Russia’s invasion, when Saakashvili pushed hard for NATO membership, Karasin said that “history shows that attempts to play two games at the same time lead to disarray and… sooner or later … to complications.”

While Karasin’s threats drew little notice in the West, they registered loudly in Georgia. In June 2019, perhaps seeking to curry favor with Russia, Georgian Dream invited a Russian Duma member, Sergey Gavrilov, an outspoken supporter of Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, to address the country’s parliament. Their gesture backfired, sparking large and vociferous anti-Russian protests in the streets of Tbilisi. Moscow called the protests “Russo-phobic hysteria” and demanded an apology. When none came, Moscow backed words with actions: Russia announced that all direct flights from Russia were cancelled, hitting Georgia in its pocketbook.

GD got the message. Later that same year, it sunk two projects that would have improved regional trade connectivity with the West and reinforced an information corridor that bypassed Russia. The first was the Anaklia deep-water port project, which would have allowed Georgia to become a major Black Sea hub for trade between Asia and Europe. In the second, the government reversed a deal to build an East-West fiber-optic cable from Azerbaijan to Georgia that would have furthered the Caucasus region’s digital independence from Russia. While there is no proof that these projects were scrapped because of threats from Moscow, the country that benefited most from the cancellations was Russia.

In 2021, the U.S. military training programs ended, and the GD government did not try to extend them, perhaps because they sensed that Moscow had had enough of GD playing both sides.

Impact of Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion of Ukraine

Georgian Dream’s accommodation of Moscow’s interests kicked into a higher gear after Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Seeing the invasion as a grave threat to the international order, the United States and its allies united to deliver billions of dollars of arms to Ukraine and impose sweeping sanctions to isolate Putin and cripple his war machine.

The Georgian government saw it differently: to them, the invasion was another signal to back away from Western-facing (or, as Moscow views them, anti-Russian) nations and organizations. Accordingly, the government distanced itself from Ukraine. Other than joining 140 other nations that overwhelmingly supported a March 2022 United Nations General Assembly resolution demanding Russia end its illegal assault on Ukraine, Georgia has refused to provide it any assistance, either political backing or security aid.

And far from isolating or joining sanctions against Russia, GD increased contacts and trade with it, raking in profits in the process. While pledging not to permit arms transfers to Russia, Georgia has profited from increased trade with Russia. In the first six months of 2023, Georgian imports from Russia increased by 31 percent ($344 million), with the flow of oil increasing by 75 percent. Moscow rewarded Tbilisi by allowing direct flights again, and Tbilisi reciprocated by permitting Russians visa-free travel. Russian businesses in Georgia have flourished, with the number of Russian business registries more than tripling since the start of the war in Ukraine. One can hear Russian spoken all over Tbilisi.

There are also reports that Tbilisi is helping Russian importers avoid Western financial sanctions by settling accounts in rubles, not dollars or euros. The Financial Times reported last week that the Bank of Georgia informed customers “that transfers to Russia in ‘technology, construction, industrial and aviation’ would only be made in rubles.”

“The Global War Party”

GD has congratulated itself for supposedly saving Georgia from the “site of another Mariupol.” Relations between Tbilisi and Kyiv became so bad that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in April 2023 recalled the Ukrainian ambassador from Tbilisi.

One of the more pernicious lies the GD government has spread is the one claiming that the U.S. was part of a “Global War Party,” trying to drag Georgia into the war against Russia. This lie has persisted despite denials by the United States, noting that the opposite was the case, as the West has tried to contain the war – and in fact weathered criticism that it hasn’t rallied even more support for Ukraine.

When President Joe Biden visited Ukraine in February 2023 to signal solidarity with the embattled country, he was rightly greeted as a hero. That same week, Georgian Dream officials sent a very different signal. The prime minister at the time, Irakli Garibashvili, declined an invitation to join Western colleagues in Kyiv to mark the one-year anniversary of the invasion. On the same day, two U.S. senators sought meetings with parliamentarians in Tbilisi to dissuade them against passing proposed pro-Russian legislation, but while members of the Georgian opposition parties agreed to meet with them, Garibashvili was the only GD representative to do so.

Furthermore, despite the strong desire of Georgian citizens to join NATO – opinion polls consistently show about 80 percent of Georgians support membership in NATO — its government has maligned the alliance’s role in the war in Ukraine. At a security conference in Slovakia last year, weeks before a NATO Summit, Garibashvili delivered a Russian propaganda talking point regarding the invasion. He told the conference that “one of the main reasons” for the conflict “was NATO expansion … the desire of Ukraine to become a member of NATO.” Garibashvili, breaking with tradition, declined to attend the NATO Summit.

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

De facto leader Ivanishvili also has copied Putin in his repression of his own citizens. Putin has employed despicable but effective tactics to first marginalize and then destroy his opposition at home and abroad, including attempted and successful assassinations and, more broadly, a domestic crackdown on independent media and civil society organizations. Noting how successful those tactics are to help ensure regime survival, GD has developed many of its own home-grown versions.

Borrowing from the Putin playbook, it has introduced anti-LGBTQ legislation and used fake social media accounts to demonize the opposition and the West. Ahead of the 2020 Georgian elections, Facebook took down hundreds of inauthentic pages that were critical of opposition leaders and biased toward the United States. (Facebook asserted the pages were “link(ed) to the Georgian Dream-led government.”)

But for many Georgians, the final straw was the introduction of a Russian-style law, “On the Transparency of Foreign Influence.” Putin used a similar law, requiring civic organizations and independent media receiving financial support from abroad – aid once welcomed in Russia to assist in its democratic development — to register as “foreign agents” with the leftover Soviet-era stigma such a label carries, as a tool to eliminate the Russian opposition. Recognizing the dangers a similar law would have inside Georgia, thousands have taken to the streets of Georgian cities nightly since late April to demand the “Russian Law” be withdrawn. GD, refusing to compromise, passed the law today.

Ivanishvili, in a scathing, anti-democratic and anti-Western speech  on April 29, promised “harsh political and legal judgment” against those who oppose him, and the government has doubled down on intimidation and violence against the protestors. And Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze and Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili have stubbornly determined to see the legislation pass.

From Ally to Adversary: Why Now?

Georgia has elections this fall, and Georgian Dream’s priority is regime survival. It realizes that it personally, irrespective of the Georgian citizenry, has much more to lose than gain from continuing down the path to the EU, because accession demands institutions that guarantee pluralism and checks and balances. Georgian Dream controls all three branches of government, and so Georgian civil society, with its election monitors and other watchdogs, is one of the last institutions keeping the government accountable. Losing those elections means transferring power and even risking jail time (after all, GD has imprisoned Saakashvili, the leader of the previous government). But aligning with Russia, emulating its style of one-party, unaccountable rule, offers more opportunities to wield power indefinitely and with impunity.

But the Georgian people have shown the courage to stand up for democracy and Western integration, and against their increasingly authoritarian, pro-Russian ruling power. Will the West do the same?

A decision to show the same determination would start with targeted, individual sanctions against those who vote for the “foreign agents” legislation, as well as against all leaders of Georgian Dream, including Ivanishvili and current Prime Minister Kobakhidze. The United States should coordinate with the EU on financial sanctions against these individuals. They also should combine efforts in messaging to the Georgian people that the West stands with them and that the measures taken are specific to culpable individuals, not against the Georgian people or the country as a whole.

The hour is late – the law has passed, and while President Salome Zourabichvili has vowed to veto the law, Georgian Dream apparently has enough votes to override the veto. Despite all, firm action by the West can still have the desired impact of showing solidarity with the Georgian people and support for their Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

IMAGE: Students take part in a strike and march towards the Georgian Parliament Building protesting against a “Foreign Agent Bill” on May 13, 2024 in Tbilisi, Georgia. The bill, which says media, NGO’s and other non-profits must register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if more than 20 percent of their funding comes from abroad, is due for its third and final reading this week. (Photo by Nicolo Vincenzo Malvestuto/Getty Images)