As Russian forces consolidate their gains in Ukraine over the flat protests of Western leaders, the specter of Russian revanchism is keeping much of Eastern Europe on edge. But lumbering tanks and legions of insta-separatists aren’t the only concern. Ukraine isn’t Russia’s only target.
Perhaps most alarming are the warning signs going off in Georgia, a steadfast Euro-Atlantic partner where a pro-Western political consensus has long been a foreign-policy calling card. A long-standing opponent of Russian military adventurism, Georgia sought escape velocity from Russian regional dominance by courting membership in Euro-Atlantic structures and earned a reputation as an enthusiastic and credible Western partner. But Western quiescence in the face of Russian territorial aggression is starting to have an effect. After decades of acrimony in which Georgians have watched Russian proxies occupy 20 percent of their territory and ethnically cleanse some 300,000 of their compatriots, certain groups are starting to ask if maintaining close ties to the West is worth all the loss. Increasingly, Georgians are beginning to think that it isn’t.
The groups spearheading Russian influence operations in Georgia fly beneath the international radar under the cloak of local-language media and the oft-repeated surety of pro-Western sentiment. But they can be seen protesting in Tbilisi streets, preaching in Georgian churches, and holding improbably well-funded campaign rallies ahead of elections. The evidence shows that Russian influence in Georgia is growing stronger. (In the photo, a Stalin impersonator poses at a memorial service for the Soviet dictator in his Georgian hometown of Gori.)
But at Washington roundtables and in private conversations, Western officials and experts tend to downplay the possibility of Russian-exported propaganda taking root in Georgia. The root of this complacency is tied to regular polling from the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) that has consistently showed public support for Euro-Atlantic integration at between 60 and 70 percent. Successive governments have relied on this popular approval to justify their Western-facing foreign-policy agendas.
So support for Euro-Atlantic integration is broad. But is it deep? Those who have spent time with ordinary Georgians say…