Release peace: the magazine
Release peace: the magazine
Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs
Where There is Light There is Darkness: Russian Hybrid Warfare Against Georgia
Article by: Tamta Pantsulaia
Winning Wars Without Battles
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the last 30 years of Georgia-Russia relations have been tense. The Russo-Georgian war in 2008 set the scene for a continued Russian occupation of two Georgian territories (Tskhinvali and Samachablo) and the use of internationally recognised acts of aggression, not least kidnapping in borderland regions. But the tactics of the Russian Federation have often been more somewhat more opaque. The creeping occupation of Russia into Georgia demonstrates power through control of information and perception, which may indeed lead to Russia winning wars without fighting battles.
The tactics in question are known as hybrid warfare. They include combinations of various types of direct and indirect warfare strategies: Military confrontation is supplemented by information warfare, cyber attacks, or political and election manipulation. To break down these issues in more detail, we will take a dive into the means by which Russia has been able to edge further into Georgian minds and institutions and the specific elements of hybrid warfare which have enabled this.
The 2008 War
Conventional military tactics were used by Russia in the 2008 war through the deployment of ground, air and naval forces. The conflict began when Georgia attempted to regain control of its Russian-backed separatist regions. Russia’s military entered into the conflict on a “peace enforcement operation,” advancing into the conflict zone and even into undisputed Georgian territory.
Disinformation campaigns featured heavily in the news and accompanied the war. The Georgian State Minister for Reintegration at the time (a position now known as the State Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality), Temur Yakobashvili, accused Moscow of spending hideous amounts of money on a propaganda campaign to undermine Georgia’s credibility and alter perceptions of the 2008 war and the events leading up to it. It is the focus of the ministry today to reintegrate the conflict-affected regions and their populations with the rest of Georgia.
The Media Sphere of Influence
Soviet cultural influence is longstanding in Georgia. Alleged propaganda and disinformation was and is still shared through TV channels and other media platforms. A public opinion survey conducted by CRRC Georgia in 2022 found that 20% of the population watch at least one pro-Russian TV channel once a week (Obiektivi, PosTV, Alt-Info, Channel One Russia, Russia 24). And public opinion polls show that the main source of information in Georgia remains television. According to the 2016 survey of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), 77% of the Georgian population names television as the first source of information about politics and current events. Surveys also show that almost half (47%) of Georgian TV viewers watch foreign channels in addition to Georgian channels. By far the most popular foreign channels are Russian ones (HTB, ORT and RTR). The same study found that anti-Western comment sections were prominent on a plethora of websites, streamers, and publications. Anti-western and/or pro-Russia narratives are also spread quickly online through social networks who are able to find audiences on these platforms. To limit the spread of false or non-democratic narratives, it has become a priority for Georgia to strengthen privacy and security regulations for media platforms, promote critical thinking, and establish mechanisms to counter pro-invasion discourse.
The Political Sphere of Influence
This messaging is not only found in the TV and digital spheres. Just as in other European countries, even EU members, Russia has been accused of supporting far-right groups in Georgia. Pro-Russian political parties help shape the narrative which questions the Euro-Atlantic preference strongly expressed by the majority of the population of Georgia. Western-style democracy and full integration into the Euro-Atlantic space is loudly and openly opposed by the ultra-right Georgian group Alt-Info, the extreme right political party Georgian March and the Alliance of Patriots. The dominant message of these pro-Russian political parties is to portray the aspiration towards Western institutions as infutile and promote the idea of neutrality as the most rational choice. In geopolitical practice, such neutrality may very well be exploited by the Russian Federation as it was with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a country that likewise was neither a member of the EU nor NATO.
Cyber-security is a chronic challenge for the Georgian government. The 2008 war highlighted how vulnerable Georgia was to cyber attacks due to limited resources and weak technological infrastructure. During the war, Russian cyber attacks targeted critical infrastructure, government networks, and mass media platforms. The goals of this tactic were to disable communication and military capabilities and ultimately to reduce the capacity of Georgia to respond to the invasion effectively. The 2008 war was the first deployment of cyber warfare in any armed conflict globally.
The ’Diplomatic’ Sphere of Influence
The separatist movements in South Ossetia (Samachablo) and Abkhazia are strongly supported by Russia and it recognizes the independence of these regions from Georgia. In both regions the Russian Federation has established military bases, implying a permanent Russian military presence on internationally recognized Georgian sovereign territory.
In support of the self-proclaimed independent regions, Russia simplified the process of granting Russian citizenship to the population living in disputed regions of Georgia. This was preceded by the establishment of direct relations with Sukhumi (Abkhazia) and Tskhinvali (Samachablo, so-called South Ossetia). Even prior to 2008, Russia was actively building military bases in non-controlled territories of Georgia and training and organizing separatist groups.
The tactics Georgia has faced force the country to admit its vulnerability in the fields of cyber security, internal divisions, disinformation and propaganda, and moved it to establish defence strategies and ministerial units to counter these threats.