Volodymyr Kopchak, Head of South Caucasus Branch of Ukrainian Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament studies (Tbilisi)
Ukraine-Georgia relations need to be thoroughly reviewed, with an emphasis put on the practical, as it currently corresponds neither to loud declarative statements in the international arena, nor to the “strategic partnership” concept. With that in mind, the following areas need to be strengthened: correlation of efforts on both territories’ de-occupation and sanctions pressure put on Russia as an aggressor country; coordination of practical steps and “roadmaps” in the European and Euro-Atlantic integration processes; activation / implementation of bilateral economic projects linked to regional formats of cooperation.
In 2021-2025, Kyiv-Tbilisi bilateral relations’ formation and development will be influenced by the following starting points:
- Georgia continues to slide into a systemic internal political crisis, which is negatively affecting its integration into NATO and the European Union. The detention of Nika Melia, a key opposition politician, and the sharp reaction in response to Georgia’s Western partners (especially Washington) may undermine Tbilisi’s achievements in European and Euro-Atlantic integration. For many years, Tbilisi served as a kind of “lighthouse” for Kyiv in the information sphere (although not quite always fulfilling that role) to align on the path to joining the EU and NATO, but in recent years, Georgia has become a negative example for Ukraine. Currently, Tbilisi ruins preconditions for a significant breakthrough on the path to membership in the Alliance and obtaining a Membership Action Plan at the NATO Summit in Brussels in 2021. It is revealing that the Georgian crisis takes place against the backdrop of some signals from Brussels and relevant expert assessments of the real prospects for the Euro-Atlantic community to reach a consensus on the Georgia-NATO issue. The internal political crisis in Georgia will only intensify: a compromise solution in the form of early parliamentary elections is unacceptable to the ruling team, and the detention of Nika Melia became a unifying factor for the fragmented Georgian opposition. Even the most “calm” scenario, with the scheduled parliamentary elections in 2024, will be characterized by domestic Georgian turbulence. This will be inconsistent with the authorities’ declared intention to submit a formal application for EU membership in 2024.
- Kyiv is signaling at various levels that it is ready to agree on a Euro-Atlantic agenda with Tbilisi, in particular, to receive a MAP to NATO at the same time as Georgia. The Euro-Atlantic integration is enshrined in the Constitution of Ukraine, and Kyiv associates deepening cooperation with the Alliance with the de-occupation of Crimea and the occupied part of Donbas. Projects are being implemented both under NATO auspices and in a bilateral format with Alliance members: the United States, Great Britain, and the Republic of Turkey. The geopolitical situation, in particular Washington’s resolute approach to countering the Kremlin’s expansion through the restoration of Euro-Atlantic unity, forms preconditions for the Alliance to return to an “open door policy.” Under such conditions, the registration of Georgia and Ukraine membership in the NATO is gradually becoming not a problem of Kyiv and Tbilisi but rather of the Alliance itself. Against this backdrop, the domestic political crisis in Georgia and the further chaos of political life – regardless of the new Georgian government’s motives to act against the opposition – fuels the Kremlin, which, unable to drag Tbilisi into its own orbit of interests, relies on chaos as an alternative result. The formation of a “pro-Russian” information trend is a threatening factor for the authorities and will also actively underpin the Kremlin to increase Tbilisi’s “toxicity” toward the West.
- The Saakashvili factor continues to hamper the Georgia-Ukraine bilateral relations development. As the domestic political crisis deepens, this politician’s critical toxicity to the acting Georgian government, as well as his growing activity in the Georgian direction, will only intensify this negative trend. Tbilisi is unlikely to be able to remain neutral from this case when it comes to further strategic cooperation buildup with Kyiv.
- Against the background of a real lack of a truly unified EU security and defense policy, the Eastern Partnership is still unlikely to offer effective formats bringing about the de-occupation of territories to its participants, which is a key goal for Kyiv and Tbilisi in security and defense, a sphere prevailing over other areas of cooperation. Therefore, the practical part of bilateral formats against this background can contribute to the effectiveness of the Eastern Partnership project, whose initiatives, in perspective, can serve as ancillary factors in achieving the key goal of restoring the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia.
Kyiv and Tbilisi are entering 2021-2025 period with new bases for further bilateral cooperation development, namely:
– According to the new National Security Strategy of Ukraine (as of September 14, 2020), Georgia is in the limited list of countries for Kyiv to develop a strategic partnership with to protect its own national interests and strengthen regional security. Such positioning, in addition to clearly stated intentions, looks like an advance, a guide to action, and a start at a practical part;
– On December 13, 2019, the President of Ukraine V. Zelensky and G. Gakhari, who was at that time the Prime Minister of Georgia, signed Regulations on the High-Level Ukrainian-Georgian Strategic Council. The initiative should launch a comprehensive strategic dialogue between Ukraine and Georgia in security and defense, political, trade, economic, cultural, and educational spheres. The format of the Strategic Council needs to have a practical aspect;
– The Minister of Defense of Ukraine A. Taran paid an official visit to Georgia (in August 19-21, 2020), resulting in a number of agreements reached on the practical implementation of the defense and security mechanism of the Ukraine-Georgia strategic partnership . At the same time, military-technical cooperation (MTC) got some revival. In January 2021, Tbilisi hosted talks between the president of Zaporizhzhya “Motor Sich” V. Boguslaev and I. Garibashvili, who was at that time the Minister of Defense of Georgia (later, amid the political crisis, he superseded G. Gakhari, and he is now the Prime Minister of Georgia). During the visit, the JSC “Motor Sich”, the Georgian State Military Scientific-Technical Center “DELTA”, and the Tbilisi Aircraft Manufacturing (TAM) signed a tripartite memorandum on cooperation in the field of military entrepreneurship. Their plans include implementation of projects for the thorough overhaul and modernization of the Georgian Armed Forces helicopters;
– Three Eastern Partnership associates – Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova – jointly initiated the introduction of an enhanced EU+ 3 dialogue format within the framework of the Eastern Partnership. Through a differentiated approach and without questioning the Eastern Partnership’s inclusiveness, Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau outlined their priorities in this format which include: integration into the domestic EU market, rapprochement with the EU in transport, energy, digital market, green economy, healthcare, and strengthening security cooperation spheres.
During the specified period, Kyiv and Tbilisi bilateral relations can develop by several scenarios.
The most optimistic scenario should provide for the practical filling of the existing bilateral cooperation formats, first of all, the harmonization of positions in reaching the European and Euro-Atlantic integration final stage. Tbilisi should resonate with the West in a short time, through finding a way out of the protracted domestic political crisis, adequate response to the partners’ signals (optionally – through the consolidated pressure of the West). This creates a natural precondition for Georgia applying for EU membership in 2024. Against this background, Washington is bolstering its position in Georgia in the context of increased influence in the South Caucasus to counter the Kremlin under the new regional status quo following the “44-day war” in Karabakh (with a new Russian military base being de facto placed in Azerbaijan). By reviving its relations with Washington, Ankara is becoming for Tbilisi a separate communicator and key “lobbyist” on NATO integration. Already having practical experience with Ankara on security and defense (in the military and technical cooperation as well), Kyiv, in turn, intensifies bilateral projects with Tbilisi on security and defense. They also advance cooperation in other spheres in a natural way. This scenario currently looks to be the most idealistic and the one that Kyiv and Tbilisi should strive for.
The basic scenario for the bilateral relations development looks more mundane. While declaring its course towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration, the Georgian government will continue to live in the long-standing “do not mess with the Kremlin” paradigm and pursue a hopeless policy towards the aggressor, with the economy and other spheres being pushed beyond the security sector in countering the Kremlin’s hybrid influence. A sudden change in this approach due to the Western pressure (read: the United States) is unlikely, as well as Washington’s focus on the transit of power in Georgia when they do not have a unified strategy for the fragmented Georgian opposition. Early parliamentary elections will automatically mean the defeat of the Georgian Dream ruling party (it is important to note that this is the logic of the ruling team). It will be increasingly difficult for the authorities to support the dichotomy of the domestic political struggle with Saakashvili’s United National Movement. Against this background, the Kremlin ramps up its agency of influence on the Georgian front in two directions. First, they will do their best to disseminate a message stating that integration into the EU, and especially into NATO, will mean the denial of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions occupied by Russia. Against this background, anti-Turkish as well as anti-Azerbaijani (a separate case) hysteria will accelerate. At the same time, Moscow will try to draw Tbilisi into its orbit of interest as much as possible through speculation about some regional transport and infrastructure projects under its own auspices, launched as a result of the “44-day war” over Karabakh. The Saakashvili factor will only polarize society. In such conditions, restoring territorial integrity issue will certainly remain constant for Tbilisi. The authorities will not curtail the European and Euro-Atlantic agenda, but it can de-facto pause the development of strategic relations with Kyiv, which will formally revolve around traditional win-win declarations and loud statements. Whether these coordinates can be changed depends mainly on the Washington and Brussels tolerance and actions in containment of the Kremlin’s expansion in Ukraine, the Black Sea region, the South Caucasus, and so on.
We do not consider here the negative scenario when Tbilisi drifts toward Moscow, as well as the revolutionary scenario of the political crisis in Georgia. Both create ad-hoc dysfunction for Ukraine-Georgia bilateral relations.
The general coordination of bilateral relations with Georgia will be carried out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine. The dialogue with Tbilisi in the Eastern Partnership format “EU+ 3” is worth intensifying through the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine. The bottom-up initiative should come not only from Kyiv.
Keeping in mind what has been mentioned, while adhering to the unaltered partnership course they take with Tbilisi towards European / Euro-Atlantic integration and consolidation of international support for the de-occupation of territories, Kyiv should initiate Georgia’s involvement in some bilateral and multilateral projects on military-technical cooperation in the security and defense sector through the Ministry for Strategic Industries of Ukraine (the corresponding Deputy Prime Minister). In particular, Tbilisi joining in on Ukraine-Turkey cooperation looks promising. Georgian officials have already sent some relevant cautionary signals on its volition to develop the unmanned aerial vehicles segment. Alternative option is Tbilisi joining the already launched Ukraine-Turkey cooperation format, given intensification of Ankara’s activities in the South Caucasus. This will create natural conditions for closer cooperation between the defense ministries of Ukraine and Georgia.
Bilateral cooperation in the economic sphere through the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Agriculture of Ukraine should focus on intensifying key transport, transport and energy projects within the multilateral regional and geo-economic formats framework. In this context, the GUAM platform needs some practical agenda. The resuscitation of the Anaklia deep-sea port construction should became a marker for intensification of the bilateral cooperation within the Trans-Caspian Corridor project framework. At the moment, this project’s prospects look dim.
Bilateral activities at the level of civil society, non-governmental expert sector, etc. needs intensification. The key direction is to study hybrid threats and tools of the Kremlin’s influence in the post-Soviet space and inform the population about the Ukrainian / Georgian experience of counteracting these threats. The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine can join this initiative with some relevant initiatives.
Educational sphere should become a separate layer of cooperation since this is an ideal segment for small, visually apolitical, but win-win tactical steps realized through specific initiatives in the humanitarian sphere. In addition to cooperation intensification through higher education institutions (student exchange), the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine can raise an issue of restoring an Ukrainian secondary school in Tbilisi (as a school with a sector providing education in Ukrainian). In Georgia, the Ukrainian-Georgian school students’ potential is assessed as high.
It is attended by the children of Ukrainian citizens permanently or temporarily living and working in Georgia; children of mixed marriages, where parents prefer not to lose their Ukrainian roots and are interested in the “Ukrainization” of children against the background of warm apolitical relations between Ukrainians and Georgians; children of ordinary Georgian families (the school must operate according to the rules of the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sports of Georgia). A separate area of concern is Georgian citizens’ further higher education in Ukraine. They need to study and revive early obtained positive experience of the Hrushevsky school in Tbilisi, in particular, its cooperation with the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy on the targeted future students’ training for this higher educational institution. Development on this issue is worth adding to the socio-cultural and humanitarian international initiatives of the First Lady of Ukraine.