Tbilisi, Georgia — With Russia bombing hospitals in Syria and supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, it is easy to forget that this current wave of Russian aggression actually began here, in the Republic of Georgia, in 2008. One could even argue the Russo-Georgian war, during which Russian forces invaded Georgia's regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and never left, marked the return of great-power competition—Washington's new favorite buzzword for its growing struggle with Russia and China for global influence. The Georgian people have not forgotten, however—indeed, they live every day knowing Russian soldiers are just a 45-minute drive away from here, the capital, and could block Georgia's major highway in minutes, splitting the country in two.
And yet, Tbilisi carries on as a vibrant city whose thriving nightlife, eclectic cuisine, and diverse, historic architecture help make it "the world's most bohemian city," to quote National Geographic. But still, Russia's shadow looms large, leading residents to resent Moscow. I experienced this resentment firsthand in an authorized Apple reseller, where I struck up a conversation with two workers. One looked to be in his late 20s, the other in his mid-30s. Both spoke fluent English, as many younger Georgians do. They were eager to decry Russia's malign influence in Georgia and the government's friendliness toward Moscow under the Georgian Dream party. "Seventy percent of the Georgian people are against the government and Russian influence and want to be part of the West," the younger worker told me.
Russia's shadow became more evident after I left another store. I noticed the bag with my purchased item had a little map of Georgia in the bottom-left corner with Abkhazia and South Ossetia highlighted red, accompanied by the words "Occupied by Russia." The people of Tbilisi are well aware of the Russian threat. And they want others to be aware of it as well.
Among the many worries is the occupation in the north, where Russian proxies are further entrenching. But there is also Russian influence within Georgia. The country's opposition accuses Georgian Dream, which holds a majority in parliament, of being too friendly to Russia. The opposition notes that Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who founded and currently leads the party, made his money in Russia in the 1990s, and that Giorgi Gakharia, who Georgian Dream lawmakers just approved to be the new prime minister, worked and lived in Russia from 1994 to 2013. Critics of the current government, both in Georgia and abroad, argue its actions on a range of issues—such as hindering the development of a deep-water port in Anaklia, on Georgia's Black Sea coast—serve Russian interests. Georgian Dream, the opposition says, has no will to counter Moscow's pressure.
Gakharia also carries other baggage. In June, Georgian Dream invited members of the Russian Duma to address parliament. One of those members, a communist who voted in favor of the independence of Abkhazia, sat in the chair reserved for the speaker of Georgia's parliament, enraging Georgians and triggering anti-government protests. The demonstrators soon demanded the resignation of Gakharia, who was the interior minister at the time and oversaw a crackdown by police that left hundreds of protesters injured.
The country is in danger of sliding further under Russia's sphere of influence—a threat that matters not just to Georgia and the region, but also to the United States.
Georgia's strategic importance to Washington stems first and foremost from its long coastline along the Black Sea. "Think of the Black Sea as an extension of the Atlantic and Indian oceans," Ben Hodges, a retired American lieutenant general, told me. "It drives Russia's strategic thinking. It is the launching pad for Russian influence." Hodges, who commanded U.S. Army Europe, added that the Black Sea is how Russia projects its power into the Middle East and allows the Kremlin to project power toward mainland Europe. Contesting Russian control of the Black Sea, he continued, is crucial to counter Russian aggression.
The Black Sea gives the Russian military access to most of the places where Russia is making trouble today—Syria, Ukraine, Libya. "By using the Black Sea as a springboard, Russia can project power beyond its immediate surroundings … and strengthen its reemergence as a great power," wrote Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Russia's military intervention in Syria, for example, is supported by its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, which in turn relies on Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
The Black Sea region is also a vulnerable point on NATO's eastern flank and an important crossroads for goods and energy. The more Russia controls the area, the more energy resources and key trade routes it can control, allowing the Kremlin to bully other countries into submitting to its will.
As Turkey flirts with Russia, Georgia becomes all the more important for U.S. interests in the Black Sea. Add the fact that Georgia is a real democracy with regular elections, and the United States has both moral and strategic reasons to care about a drift toward Russia.
One concrete step the United States can take is to nominate an ambassador to Georgia—currently, the post is vacant. A more ambitious step that has been long discussed is to push for Georgia to join NATO. Critics fear such a step would provoke Russia, but supporters of the idea see it differently. "Why does Russia get to veto what other countries want?" asked Hodges, who added there is a reason former members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact immediately tried to join NATO and the European Union when they could. Georgian strategists who support joining NATO tell me that, rather than lash out, Russia would be deterred from further aggression against Georgia.
Ultimately, however, Georgia's problems are internal. Georgian Dream dominates parliament, but the pro-Western opposition is optimistic it will do well in next year's parliamentary election. The opposition faces roadblocks, however. Georgian Dream has significantly more money at its disposal, and it uses the prospect of war with Russia to scare voters away from the more hawkish opposition. But more importantly, some members of the opposition fear the ruling party could buy votes or even try to intimidate Georgian voters with violence—as they have accused Georgian Dream of doing in the past.
The United States has a potential role to play to protect Georgia's democracy: leveraging the fact that Ivanishvili keeps much of his money in the West. So far, the West has yet to pressure the billionaire to rethink his approach to Russia.
The stakes in Georgia are high. Whatever happens, the implications concerning Russia and the health of democracy will be felt far beyond the Caucuses. Washington should be watching more closely.