Thursday, 25 January 2018 15:26

Russian Hybrid Tactics in Georgia


by Niklas Nilsson

Silk Road Paper

January 2008


Click here for PDF version  


1801Nilsson-coverExecutive Summary

Since its independence in 1991, Georgia is the country in the former USSR that has been most frequently and harshly subjected to Russian hybrid tactics – a practice that gained considerable attention after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Russia has at times of confrontation with Georgia – a common occurrence throughout these 25 years – relied on a combination of multiple pressure points to influence the decision making of the Georgian government, particularly in foreign- and security policy.

These pressure points have included traditional sources of state power and coercion, including the use of military force or the threat thereof; leveraging geopolitical realities on the ground, most prominently Russia’s control over the two breakaway regions of Abkahzia and South Ossetia, as means to exert diplomatic pressure; and the exploitation of economic dependencies as means for establishing punishments or rewards for different policy choices. They have also encompassed subversive elements, including co-optation and subversion aimed at inserting agents of influence in Georgia’s political elite and society; cyber-attacks; and a concerted effort in the informational sphere to promote a narrative, in Georgia itself as well as in the country’s key partners in the West, on Georgia and its trajectory in domestic as well as international politics that is favorable to Russian interests.

The use of these measures, which this paper terms a toolbox for hybrid tactics, in order to attain foreign policy objectives are neither unique to Russia, nor to the twenty-first century. States have always deployed similar means at their disposal, and combinations thereof, in international interactions and several examples certainly exist of the use of hybrid tactics by the U.S. as well as European states. Yet this paper posits that Russia’s deployment of hybrid tactics, and particularly their expression in the case of Georgia, should merit special attention.

The standoff between Russia and the West following the former’s aggression against Ukraine has raised important questions about European security and particularly about the credibility of NATO as a guarantor for it. For NATO, originally designed as an interstate alliance with the purpose of defending its members against external aggression, and despite NATO’s rediscovery of this purpose over the last three years, Russia’s largely successful deployment of hybrid tactics in Ukraine demonstrated the complexities of modern-day warfare. Rather than embarking on an overt invasion of Ukraine, Russia deployed Special Forces without insignia to take over administrative buildings in Crimea in cooperation with local militias, and in combination with a sustained information campaign rendering outside assessments of on-ground developments highly ambiguous until facts on the ground were firmly established.

The key question for NATO to address is how quickly and decisively the alliance would be able to react to similar developments in one of its members, especially one of the Baltic States. Russia’s demonstrated ability to deploy subversive tactics such as the use of proxy groups in targeted countries and to leverage its general appeal among segments of their populations, fueled through government-funded information channels, can potentially reduce the need for conventional means of warfare or make them redundant altogether. The question is whether an attack in the guise of hybrid tactics against one of NATO’s members would be anticipated in time to clear NATO’s threshold for action in its defense.

It is therefore important to study Russia’s development and use of hybrid tactics in other cases aside from Ukraine. Improving the understanding of the various tools that Russia deploys to influence countries in its neighborhood, and especially of how these tools can be combined to reinforce one another, is helpful in order to assess and address risks and vulnerabilities that have emerged in the volatile security situation evolving in the borderlands between Russia and the West in recent years. This is relevant not only to countries in Russia’s immediate neighborhood, but in a much larger context. Although vulnerabilities associated with hybrid tactics are naturally felt much more acutely in countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan or in Central Asia, the use of similar tactics, or elements of them, could potentially be deployed also against existing members of NATO or the EU.

Georgia stands out as a particularly important case study of Russia’s deployment of hybrid tactics. The country’s longstanding conflict with Russia has over the years made it a target of the full spectrum of hybrid tactics that Russia currently deploys in Ukraine and elsewhere. In fact, Georgia can be said to have functioned as a testing ground for many of these tactics, making Georgia’s experience relevant far beyond the confined regional context.

The case of Georgia also serves to demonstrate how the vulnerability of regional states connects closely with the sustainability and credibility of Western engagement with these countries. For long, besides the Baltic States, Georgia has remained the post-Soviet country that displays the most unambiguous political and public support for pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration and departing from Russian influence. Yet the message that Russia seeks to convey to the Georgian government and public, through a combined demonstration of military might and economic prospects, is that the potential rewards of pursuing integration with the West – either through NATO or the EU – are not worth the sacrifices involved in terms of either security or economic adaptation. With regard to both organizations, Georgia has undertaken demanding processes to conform to military, economic and governance standards, whereas the perspective of membership in either NATO or the EU has failed to materialize. In turn, this means that the ultimate rewards for these adaptation processes – security guarantees under NATO’s article 5 and full access to the EU’s single market – remain distant and largely unrealistic prospects for Georgia.

This reality has slowly dawned on an increasing portion of the Georgian population – and voters – of which a steadily growing minority now expresses skepticism towards their country’s longstanding pursuit of Euro-Atlantic integration. This view is reinforced by pro-Russian political parties and NGOs, as well as a range of alternative media, all increasingly active in Georgia since 2012. The common message of these actors is that they denounce the attempt to make Georgia a member of the Western liberal order as damaging both to Georgia’s security, due to the conflict with Russia that it implies, and to the traditional and cultural foundation of Georgian society. Instead, they argue, Georgia should pursue neutrality in its foreign policy and develop economic relationships both westward and northward. This vision remains utterly unrealistic – Georgia would hardly gain room for maneuver in its foreign policy by claiming neutrality; this would in fact close off the source of support that has up until now allowed it to limit Russian influence in Georgia, Yet it is becoming increasingly attractive to the segment of the Georgian population most affected by the deep structural problems of Georgia’s economy and the country’s ongoing economic crisis, and a larger proportion of the public that has long been disillusioned with the continuous and unproductive infighting among the country’s political elite.

Georgia’s vulnerability to Russian pressure in the different spheres outlined above should not be exaggerated. Georgia has endured a military invasion and a sustained severing of economic relations for several years, while the vast majority of its population, likely in part as a result thereof, remains supportive of Euro-Atlantic integration. However, a source of concern is the political vulnerability of the current government. Although the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) made an unexpectedly strong result and secured a constitutional majority in the October 2016 parliamentary elections, opinion polls indicate low approval ratings of the government as well as the political elite in general, and public disillusionment with Georgia’s development and prospects. This could quickly translate into a difficult domestic situation, as has been the case on several occasions in Georgia’s post-independence history. The fact that GD has built much of its support among voters on its ability to normalize relations with Russia, potentially increases the leverage associated with the types of hybrid tactics discussed in this paper. Facing weakened public support for its hold on power, the government could come under pressure to make concessions to Russia in exchange for the latter’s abstention from utilizing the various levers at its disposal.

Such concessions could involve, for example, accepting infrastructure projects in which Russia wishes to involve Georgia, allowing Gazprom a share in Georgia’s gas market in order to avoid renewed import bans on Georgian agricultural products, or acquiescing further steps towards formal accession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While such actions on Russia’s part would be manageable for Georgia as a country, they would potentially be highly damaging to GD as a ruling party.

This study serves both as an inventory of the foreign policy tools that Russia is capable of deploying against countries in its neighborhood and beyond, and as an approximation of their efficiency and limitations. The picture that emerges is that the toolbox available to Russia is at the same time multidimensional, sophisticated, and adaptable to specific regional and national contexts. Indeed, the military and economic tools available to Russia in relation to Georgia are very much attuned to the specific geopolitical context and economic interdependency of this relationship, whereas information campaigns in the Georgian, largely Russia-skeptical context, aim primarily to discredit the West and promote Georgian social conservative values. Yet the effectiveness of Russian hybrid tactics also stand in direct relation to the gains, in terms of security, economic benefits, and overall perspectives of inclusion that countries in the Eastern neighborhood are offered by the West. It is clear that the growing appeal of Russia’s preferred narrative of international politics in this region goes hand in hand with the West’s inability to counter it, in words as well as actions.

Click here for PDF version of the full study.

Read 13150 times Last modified on Thursday, 25 January 2018 15:39





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.