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Georgia's Geopolitical Crossroads: Adapting to New Realities in the Aftermath of the Russo-Ukrainian Conflict

In the aftermath of the escalation of Russo-Ukrainian War in 2022 the attention of the Great Powers shifted towards the South Caucasus Region. Newly created situation, arisen from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and European Union imposed economic sanctions on Russia, gave geopolitical and strategical advantage to the Caucasian countries, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, but at the same time exposed them to the further security threats and risks, both internal and external ones. The impact of the protracted conflict in Ukraine deeply affected not only Ukraine, but also the geopolitical and security environment of the whole Black Sea region. Republic of Georgia, as a country that already has parts of its territory under the Russian military occupation, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has handled the newly arisen security challenges with a new, unexpected approach, applying the ‘Finlandisation policy’. Fear of the spill-over effect to its territories has endangered its domestic and foreign policies, and it has deepened the polarization within the society. With newly developed situation, the question of the Georgia’s future foreign policy orientation arises.

Pro-Western narrative or the Finlandisation policy

Since the secession from the Soviet Union in 1991 and ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003, Republic of Georgia has been vocal and decisive on its pro-western foreign policy. In its National Security Concept from 2011, Georgia defined itself “as a Black Sea and Southeast European country, Georgia is part of Europe geographically, politically, and culturally; yet it was cut off from its natural course of development by historical cataclysms.” From the 1994, since it joined Partnership for peace, Georgia has been one of few aspiring National Atlantic Treaty Organization country, and currently it remains in line with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ukraine.

Tbilisi’s foreign policy efforts, that were completely directed towards distancing this former Soviet Republic from the neighboring Russian Federation, led to the tensions rise in the Black Sea region and interruption of the air travel between two countries, Finally, the tensions have escalated in the aftermath of the Bucharest NATO Summit, in April 2008, when United States and Poland called for Georgia, and Ukraine, to be allowed to join the Membership Action Plan. As France and Germany feared, Moscow perceived the Allies support for the Georgia’s membership as an existential threat of NATO’s eastward expansion, and four months later the Russian response followed.

Russian military invasion of the Georgian territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in August 2008, even though it lasted only five days, it reshaped the geopolitical environment of the Black Sea Region and South Caucasus. And it led to the drastic severance of the diplomatic relations between these two countries. By occupying the strategically positioned Abkhazia, which represents the largest part of the coastal area of Georgia, Russia secured a significant foothold on the Black Sea. But, at the same time, recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which occupy about 20% of the entire Georgian territory, the Russian Federation on the one left its geostrategic foothold in South Caucasus and Black Sea Region and on the other hand assured itself from the potential spill over conflicts and potential damaging effects on the domestic, moreover security, affairs in the Northern Caucasus.

Russian support of the secessionism in Georgian territories, and growing support for the secessionism in the Eastern Ukrainian territories, Luhansk and Donetsk, in the years following the Russo-Georgian War, made NATO and EU countries rethink their approach towards South Caucasus region, and the Republic of Georgia’s accession to the Alliance and membership to the European Union. Russia's reaction to NATO's expansion into the South Caucasus Region posed a threat to Georgia's standing in the Western world. This led to key supporters of Ukraine and Georgia within Western circles withdrawing their support, thereby impeding Georgia's progress towards NATO and EU membership due to concerns over further Russian encroachment.

Prior to the outbreak of the prolonged conflict in Ukraine, Georgia's diplomatic efforts with Western nations have seen no extensive progress, and Tbilisi was met with ambivalent response from the NATO and EU member states. Even though they maintained proximity to Georgia, their reluctance to take decisive action towards Georgia’s admittance was evident. In the wake of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the tepid response from NATO and EU members, the Georgian government, amid domestic political considerations, began to re-engage with Russia to forestall potential invasion fears. Despite initial reservations, Georgia gradually adjusted to the shifting landscape, initiating more extensive economic cooperation with Russia. Since the outbreak of the protracted conflict in Ukraine, in 2022 Georgia’s economic dependence on Russia increased compared to the previous years. Considering the income received from the same trade sources, Tbilisi has received around 3,6 billion USD resulting to 14,6% of Georgia’s GDP, which is almost 3 times more than in 2021 when it amounted to 6.3% of countries GDP.

In 2022, Georgia experienced a significant influx of Russian businesses, about 15 000 companies were registered, which represent 66% increase since the onset of the Ukraine Conflict. Additionally, in the same timeframe the imports from Georgia surged by 79% to 1.8 billion USD, representing the highest percentage in the previous sixteen years. The increase of the import has also been noted in petroleum products, natural gas, primary food, carbon steel and coal. Even though the imports of the petroleum products and natural gas have taken a big share of the market, we cannot say the same for the import of energy resources. Even though that import of energy from Russian Federation has seen an increase of 46% since before war, it does not make a big difference on the Georgia’s energetical market.

Georgia's Economic Dependence on Russia: Impact of the Russia-Ukraine war, February 22, 2023

This increased economic dependence on Russia, diverges from Georgia's foreign policy trajectory of the past three decades, and at the same time it is the best indicator of the Tbilisi’s pursuant of the new policy of ‘Finlandization’. Newly found path for Georgia, might pose a threat to its independence and security, considering the well-known modus operandi of Russian Federation: strengthening economic relation to politically leverage independent countries and endangering the macroeconomics. As it was the case in Azerbaijan and Armenia, which have been under the Russian dependence for many years, through the import of Russian natural gas. Additionally, Russia’s ongoing war effort in the Black Sea Region, and plan of construction of a new naval base in Abkhazia, further endangers the security of Georgia, but also the interests of NATO and European Union in South Caucasus.

South Caucasus a New Geopolitical Hotspot

Russia’s continuous interest in geostrategic position of Abkhazia, even 16 years after the Georgian-Russian war, once again poses a threat to Georgian security, but also to the security and trade interests of NATO and EU. In October 2023, Russian Federation has announced its plans to construct a new permanent “point of deployment” for the Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Even though Russian military forces have had a historical presence in Georgia's territory, the construction of the base undermines its territorial integrity, but also reestablishes the power and influence of the Russian Federation in the South Caucasus Region.

Tbilisi until now has not been as implicated in the war in Ukraine as with the construction of the naval base in Ochamchire, Abkhazia. The threat of the spill over of this prolonged conflict to its territories has not been so probable, as much it is now since the construction of the base has started. President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky on the October 24, 2023, responded to the news about the new military base, stating that the Ukraine would not refrain from attacking Russian military ships in Abkhazia.

The definition of the base as a permanent, transmits to the international community that the Russian Military forces intend to maintain dominant presence in the Black Sea Region, on the opposite coast of the NATO’s base in Romania. And projects to all the NATO aspirant countries in the region, one of which is Georgia itself, or to the ones that are considering the application, the Russian power. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly on the October 9 adopted a resolution that condemns Russia’s declared intention for this base.

Construction of the base, at the Ochamchire port that has been under Russian control since the annexation of this Georgian territory, according to the de facto president of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, has already gone underway. The plans to expand the capabilities of the port have started, the Russian forces have started by widening the entrance to the port and deepening the sea by dredging, so that the base can host a ships with the displacement volume of up to 13 000 tonnes, which includes also cargo ships. The Russian naval base in Abkhazia it does not only play into Georgian fears of the spill over conflict, but it also endangers Georgia’s investment project of the Anaklia Deep Sea Port that distance only 35 km from Ochamchire, potential economic future and its role in the Middle Eastern Corridor.

Middle Corridor New Hope for Georgia and South Caucasus

Since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war and imposed economic sanctions on Russia, almost all viable transport routes through the Northern Corridor have been suspended. The European Union needed to look for alternative routes to maintain the safe and continuous trade with China and Central Asia, and they have found the best solution in the Middle Eastern Corridor, whose central point is the Republic of Georgia.

The multimodal land and sea transport route, also known as Central Asia-Caucasus route, stretches from China to the Black Sea. From the most Eastern point the route starts from China, passes through Kazakhstan, partly Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, across the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and it ends in Georgia that exits on the Black Sea and connects this route with the European continent. It consists of approximately 4 250 km of rail lines and about 500 km of maritime route. Additionally Middle Corridor connects with the Europe mainland through two points, landlocked route that goes through Turkey and Balkans, and sea route which goes across the Black Sea and Romanian port Constanta.

In comparison with the maritime route that connects Europe with China through the Red Sea, the Middle Corridor is time and expense saving choice. Current sea route through the highly volatile Red Sea is long approximately 16 000 km and the time required to complete the passage can be from 35 to 45 days. On the other hand, the passage along the Middle Corridor lasts from 13 to 21 days. This route is about 2 000 km shorter than the Russia’s Northern corridor, and it offers the solution for the imposed sanctions on Russian federation, access to the new market for European countries.

Map of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons by Tanvir Anjum Adib)

International interests in the Middle Corridor

Until the out brake of the war in Ukraine this transport route has not been in sufficient use due to the low transport capacities, infrastructures and instability in the region, none of which presented a major problem compared to the Northern Route since 2022. In past 2 years, the preference of the Middle Corridor could be seen in increase of shipments. As per the German Economic Team, the volume of the transportation increased by 3 times, to 970 400 tones, in the first eight months of war, with the prediction rise, following this growth trend, to 15 and 18 million tones in 2030.

Since the international shipping giants have introduced in their commerce the Central Asia Caucasus route, the new investments started to kick in and the infrastructure along the Route has been revamped. Danish logistics and shipping company, Maersk, one of the global leaders in the logistics and supply chain management introduced the Middle Corridor solution to its customers, not even 2 complete months since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The eco-friendly rail route that became operative on April 13th, 2022 starts from China’s Xi’an and ends Georgia’s sea port Poti, where the goods reach European continent through the maritime connection with the Romanian port Constanta. Overall time estimate of the whole route, according to Maersk managers, is approximately 40 days. Also, another major European logistics company, Nurmien Logistics from Finland., was among the first companies that started operating along the Middle Corridor route, in May 2022. Investments from the European Union partners, corelated with the Middle Corridor transport route, can be seen through various development project. In 2022, South Caucasian Countries, Georgia and Azerbaijan, along with Romania and Hungary, have signed the Black Sea Submarine Electricity cable deal, that gave Georgia important leverage on Russia.

The construction of the military base in Abkhazia, in the near vicinity of its most valuable port, seaport Poti, and future planned deep seaport Anaklia, along the Middle Corridor, represents a great risk for Georgia and future of this transport route, and its European and international supporters. The need for the Middle Corridor has augmented for European companies, in the light of the recent Houthi attacks on merchant vessels in the Red Sea region. The dedication of the European Union for the protection of the trade connection with China remains undoubtable and could be seen in the deployment of the EUNAVFOR operation Aspides, earlier in February of this year.

Besides EU, other regional powers used the opportunity of the revival of the Middle Corridor to invest and position themselves in the region. Turkey used the opportunity to establish itself as a regional power and trade center along the route and in South Caucasus Region. It did so by calling for diplomacy, inter-regional trade and by establishing various initiatives in the previous 2 years, one of which is the Black Sea Grain Corridor Initiative, that facilitated transport of Ukrainian grain to international markets. Turkey remains among the most important importer for the South Caucasian Countries, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Armenia, and thus maintaining the soft power over region.

Given that the Middle Corridor serves as a crucial link between the European continent and China, the South Caucasian Countries, especially Georgia, have become the point of interest for Chinese government. The revival of Tbilisi's long disputed deep seaport project in Anaklia in 2022, following the China-Georgia Business Forum in Beijing, underlines the importance of infrastructure development. The lack of deep seaport poses a significant obstacle to the further development of the Middle Corridor, particularly as Georgia is the only country along the Black Sea without such infrastructure. China’s interest in the partial investment of Anaklia deep seaport it is not surprising, considering that it is crucial for the expansion of the capacities of the Middle Corridor.

Even though the work on the expansion of the infrastructure has already been underway, its capacities are struggling to maintain the supply chain resilience. According to the Middle Corridor Logistics official, the capacity of this route equals to “3 to 5 percent of the total capacity of Northern Route”. The question is raised whether the Central Asia Caucasus Route manages to meet all the demands and expectations, partly from the infrastructure point of view and on the other hand security concerns that arise from the geopolitical uncertainties caused by the latest Russian involvement in the South Caucasus Region.

The geopolitical landscape of the South Caucasus Region, particularly for Georgia, has undergone significant shifts in the aftermath of the prolonged Russo-Ukrainian conflict. With the rising importance of the Middle Corridor, the region became a geostrategic hotspot presenting both opportunities and challenges for the countries – Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.

Georgia, with its strategic location and historical ties, has found itself at a crossroads, between competing geopolitical interests while striving to maintain its sovereignty and security. The adoption of a 'Finlandisation policy' in response to heightened security threats reflects Georgia's pragmatic approach to safeguarding its interests amidst geopolitical turbulence, and deeply polarized society from within. Georgia has been struggling to profit from the newly found geostrategic situation.

Comparing its position to before 2022, Georgia is now more valuable to Russia than it was previously: it allows safe transit to its partner countries Turkey and Armenia, with whom they still have the trade relations; improvement of diplomatic and economic relations prolongs Georgia’s accession to EU and deteriorates its relation. But also, it poses a threat, due to its strategic position in Middle Corridor, Tbilisi can balance between multiple powers to diversify its trade portfolios and open its country for foreign investments. Question remains whether Georgia will pursue its new Finlandization policy, or become once again a great advocate for the European Union and NATO.

This article was published in the May 2024 issue (14th issue) of the Eurasian World Journal.
The publication is available at the link

Tamara Urošević

Studentkinja master studija Univerziteta Sapienza u Italiji na programu Razvojne studije i međunarodna saradnja. Osnovne studije završila je na Fakultetu bezbednosti, smera Odbrana, na Univerzitetu u Beogradu. Glavne oblasti interesovanja vezane su za međunarodnu bezbednost, naoružanje i Rusku Federaciju. Od 2020. godine angažovana je kao istraživačica Centra za geostrateška istraživanja i terorizam.
Studentkinja master studija Univerziteta Sapienza u Italiji na programu Razvojne studije i međunarodna saradnja. Osnovne studije završila je na Fakultetu bezbednosti, smera Odbrana, na Univerzitetu u Beogradu. Glavne oblasti interesovanja vezane su za međunarodnu bezbednost, naoružanje i Rusku Federaciju. Od 2020. godine angažovana je kao istraživačica Centra za geostrateška istraživanja i terorizam.