The rift in Georgia-Ukraine relations began to emerge following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The existing trends indicate the ties are unlikely to improve in the near future.
What seemed to be a solid relationship is now in a shambles. Reasons vary from internal Georgian politics to the shifts in the regional balance of power. The two countries always felt particularly close to each other due to their near-identical struggle against Russian military invasions and Moscow’s general approach to its sphere of influence. Both also border the Black Sea, making them two bastions against Russia’s ambitions to dominate the sea.
As such, it was only natural for Kyiv and Tbilisi to cooperate and become close partners, creating an arc along Russia’s southern and south-western borders that was able to resist pressure from the imperial power. The creation of GUAM reflected these aspirations. The organization (initially called GUUAM), which aimed at the development of democracy and economic progress, was established in 1997, and served as one of the first regional models linking the Black and Caspian seas, having a primarily economic role.
This was a time when the newly independent states were keen to get a geopolitical initiative in their hands. Russia was weak, while the West seemed powerful. The participant states of the project were interesting from a geographic point of view. Ukraine, controlling most of the northern Black Sea littoral, Azerbaijan as a starting point of crucial trade and a resource corridor, and Georgia in between serving as a connection point for the two seas. The GUAM member states had one common aim of limiting Russian geopolitical influence through being able to dispose of/export their own resources to world markets and not to Russia.
However, the project failed to materialize. The member states were still heavily reliant on Russian economic, military and, generally, political benevolence. These circumstances limited GUAM’s effectiveness. Indeed, Uzbekistan withdrew from the project in 2005 and Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, with all their weaknesses, were unable to keep up the prospects of the GUAM project. Moreover, although all member states shared an inner distrust of Russia, they still failed to coordinate their foreign policy moves with one another.
The GUAM initiative remained weak, and with the Russian invasion and tensions in Georgia-Ukraine relations, it might now be on the verge of total collapse. One of the rules for regional cooperation projects is that their effectiveness depends on foreign support and the geopolitical situation in the region. No such support followed, which further doomed the project.
One might argue that presently the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus and around the Black Sea no longer favors the reinvigoration of the GUAM initiative. All the member states share difficult relations with Russia, and Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova all have Russian troops on their territories.
Deterioration of Bilateral Ties
Difficulties in Georgian-Ukrainian relations were observed even before the 2022 Russian invasion. A number of former Georgian government (United National Movement) members found their second home in Ukraine after defeat in the 2012 elections in Georgia. This always caused tensions between the two countries, though differences were glossed over, as both remained threatened by Russian actions and were unified by a single goal: the “Associated Trio” to attain EU membership. The unofficial body, consisting of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, aimed at advancing the common pro-Western agenda. Georgia was a leader among them in the reforms implemented and in overall prospects regarding EU/NATO candidacy.
The February invasion of Ukraine, however, changed everything. Many expected Tbilisi to openly support Kyiv. Instead, the Georgian government chose to follow a more nuanced approach. Internal pressure and wider geopolitical motives put Georgia in a precarious geopolitical position. It needed to simultaneously look attentively at how Ukraine-EU ties developed, not anger Russia, and also respond to wider pro-Ukrainian sentiment globally and in Georgia. Many remembered how Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko enthusiastically supported Georgia in 2008, and even visited the capital when Russian troops were just 30 kilometers away. Similar actions were demanded from the Georgian government too.
By choosing this nuanced approach, Georgia has run a great risk. In an age of unified Western sentiment against Russia, neutrality could be harmful to a country that aspires to become a EU/NATO member. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of people demanded that the Georgian government become more supportive of Ukraine. Indeed, Tbilisi has supported Ukraine at international fora, sent a great amount of humanitarian aid, and offered help to Ukrainian refugees.
Yet, a rift has begun to emerge between the two countries. Geopolitically, Georgia feared that a successful Russian invasion could lead to Moscow demanding from Tbilisi a change in the country’s constitution, namely the removal of the stipulation on Georgia’s NATO/EU aspirations. The refusal to do so might push Russia to use the military force with likely devastating results for the Georgian economy and its population.
Thus, the reticence with which the Georgian side approached the war in Ukraine is not only based on the occasional tensions between the two countries because of internal Georgian politics, but mostly because of wider geopolitical changes. From Tbilisi’s perspective, the balance of power in the wider Black Sea region has further tilted in Russia’s favor, and as long as this scenario persists, Official Georgia’s position on the war in Ukraine will likely remain cautious.
Another factor which further pushed the two sides apart is their EU membership prospects. Ukraine has been granted candidate status, while Georgia only the European perspective. The “Associated Trio” has thus been unofficially disbanded. Tbilisi now has a different path and this will likely have further negative effects on its cooperation with Ukraine.
In short, it is the geopolitical reality together with internal politicking that has driven Georgia from Ukraine. How long-lasting the trend will be remains to be seen, but judging from the official statements from both countries, as well as the ongoing war, the tensions are likely to persist for as long as Russia manages to maintain control over large swathes of Ukrainian land it has occupied since February.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.