How War in Ukraine Has Shifted Fault Lines Across ‘Russia’s Backyard’

Nowhere is the upending of the global order more pronounced than among the Black Sea countries subject to Moscow’s unending wars

How War in Ukraine Has Shifted Fault Lines Across ‘Russia’s Backyard’
Asmat Pakeliani at the funeral of her son, Davit Ratiani, a Georgian who died fighting for Ukraine. (Mariam Nikuradze)

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In the mountainous landscape of western Georgia, in a region called Svaneti, there sits a house where the back room is stocked with grains, dried fruits and a large, single jar of amber liquid. It is here, in the quiet of the lightless space, where Asmati Pakeliani goes when she needs a moment of silence to remember her son, Davit Ratiani.

The jar is full of chacha, a pomace brandy found almost everywhere in the country. Ratiani was a keen distiller; the sweet spirit sloshing on Pakeliani’s lap is the last of the batch her son made before his untimely death on a Ukrainian battlefield almost two years ago. Within two days of Moscow’s assault, Ratiani had joined a group of fellow veterans, who loaded up a van and drove from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to Istanbul and from there flew into Europe before finally reaching Kyiv.

Not two weeks later, the 53-year-old Ratiani was killed under enemy fire at Irpin, after shrapnel from a nearby explosion tore through an artery in his neck. He and volunteer Gia Beriashvili became, on March 18, 2022, the first Georgian casualties of the bloodiest war to take place in Europe since World War II.

“When I saw the people [gathered outside our house], I knew then what had happened. The first thought in my head was [to commit] suicide,” his mother told New Lines. “I blacked out. You cannot possibly express it, it’s indescribable.”

To his mother and wife, Ia Shashiashvili, and so many others, Ratiani is a hero, a soldier who saw in Ukraine’s fight his country’s own. But to his government, he is a mercenary, one of several thousand guns-for-hire who endanger national security by the mere fact of stepping up to volunteer.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended the global order, disrupting everything from wheat supplies in Africa to U.S. relations with China. Perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than among those nations near the Black Sea, subject to Moscow’s forever wars. Across Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the war in Ukraine has pitted states against their people, stoked long-standing border tensions and thrown historic alliances into sharp relief.

Pakeliani and Shashiashvili, mother and wife, sit at the table in the living room of their apartment in Samgori in southeast Tbilisi. In the far corner, a photo of Ratiani hangs above a side table and a potted plant of yellow widow’s thrill, his gift to Pakeliani on Mother’s Day, carefully tended since. A career soldier before retiring in 2020, Ratiani served in Georgia’s wars against Russia in the 1990s and 2008, and during the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. With the subject decked out in camouflage and dark sunglasses, the portrait shows a stern-looking man, though his family remembers him as anything but.

“He was a little strict, as all military people are, though as soon as he came home he was transformed,” Shashiashvili says. “When he was at work he would call Asmati to tell her not to forget to take her pills. He was very attentive to everybody and very soft if he was not on the battlefield.”

When he died, “the world broke down around me.” Ratiani and Beriashvili’s bodies were returned to Tbilisi on March 24, 2022, six days after their deaths. Thousands turned out to pay their respects at the airport, where vast Georgian and Ukrainian flags billowed together in the arrivals hall and taxi rank outside, and at their funerals that weekend. Save for Kakha Kaladze, Tbilisi’s mayor, representatives of the ruling Georgian Dream party proved a notable absence from the crowds.

The reason for Ratiani’s winding journey — through Turkey, Hungary and Poland to the front line — was the Georgian government’s decision to deny entry to flights chartered by the Ukrainian state for transporting volunteers in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. According to the state narrative, these volunteers were not helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia but were instead wantonly risking the nation’s safety by provoking the Kremlin for the sake of a Ukrainian military salary. For supposedly violating the country’s constitutional provisions against illegal armed activity (claims dismissed as groundless by legal experts), such volunteers have been threatened with loss of their Georgian citizenship and, in many cases, were denied burial in a military cemetery, despite some having decades of army service behind them. Dozens of Georgian citizens have died fighting Russia in Ukraine.

For their families, it has been a bitter pill to swallow.

“That they call them hired killers, it’s a huge shame for the country to bear,” Pakeliani says.

“They are heroes to me, and I can’t imagine anything else,” adds Natia Chikobava, whose father, Bakhva Chikobava, a founding member of Ukraine’s Azov Brigade, was killed in Mariupol, also in March 2022. “Of course it is difficult. You have to deal with your own tragedy, and you know he has done the right thing by taking part in creating a better future not just for Ukraine and for Georgia but for the world. It’s hard when you don’t get the support from officials.”

Georgian Dream’s attitude toward volunteer service members in Ukraine offers only a glimpse of the bigger picture. The party has long avoided confrontation with the Kremlin, but critics say that, since Russia’s invasion, this has turned into a policy of outright appeasement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has praised Georgian officials for not becoming “another irritant” to the Kremlin, while Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has drawn international ire for attributing the invasion to NATO expansionism, a favored Putinist narrative.

There has also been a swing away from Western partners — with Georgian Dream widely accused of attempting to sabotage the country’s aspirations for European Union membership, supported by 90% of the voting public. For many, it’s no coincidence that several of the requirements for entry run contrary to the interests of Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream’s oligarch founder, who has faced calls from the U.S. and EU to be sanctioned for his ties to powerful Russian business interests.

None of this has sat well with Ukraine, which withdrew its ambassador to Tbilisi not long after the war began (he hasn’t returned). Officials continue to trade barbed words, often centered on the lack of Georgian state support for the war effort, or the declining health of Georgian ex-president and former governor of Ukraine’s Odesa region, Mikheil Saakashvili, whose lawyers claim he is being poisoned while serving time for graft.

Despite this rapid deterioration of relations with historic allies, Georgian public support for the Ukrainian cause is overwhelming, with many stepping up to do what their government has not. Take Levan Tarkhnishvili, a sociology professor at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University, who has raised about $730,000 to supply volunteer fighters with nonlethal military aid, including drones and bulletproof vests, because “all of the government’s statements and actions show they are taking Russia’s side.” Or Ani Kavtaradze, an anesthesiologist who has helped with crowdfunding about $50,000 for medical equipment and drugs to be donated to Ukrainian hospitals.

“It’s been so much harder [for us to do] than if the state had just done it themselves,” she says. “But historically, we were together, and the Georgian people haven’t forgotten this, even if the Georgian government has.”

Coordinating many of these initiatives is Lana Gvinjilia, founder of the Tbilisi-based NGO Populus Rei, who organized the first fundraising drives and has since established a direct, if informal, channel with the Ukrainian ambassador, thereby providing a conduit for the Ukrainian state to bypass Georgian Dream and tap directly into popular support in Georgia.

Gvinjilia has also taken charge of helping relatives of fallen Georgian volunteers secure the compensation they’re owed from the Ukrainian military, a complicated and bureaucratic process given the present state of Ukraine’s financial sector and one that the Georgian government has done nothing to expedite.

“We’ve finished with all the documents,” she says. “After that, it will be up to me to figure out a way of getting the money into Georgia, but there are added difficulties there because they will lose a lot of value transferring it into our currency.” In the meantime, many bereaved families remain stuck in financial straits, their relatives being unrecognized as active service members at their time of death, meaning they’re not entitled to additional state benefits. This would have entailed Ratiani’s mother and wife struggling to get by on about $120 a month, were it not for extra support from his sisters.

For Archil Khoperia, a volunteer service member with the pro-Ukraine Georgian Legion, whose son Jambala (named after Archil’s brother, who was killed while fighting Russian forces in the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia almost three decades ago) died after a suspected phosphorus attack against the regiment last August, these collective efforts speak far more loudly than the stark political messaging that has emanated from Tbilisi since the invasion.

“Governments come and go; people stay,” he explains. “The spirit of the Georgian people stays, their desire for freedom. The actions of different governments can do nothing to quell that desire.”

Sharing a border with Ukraine, Moldova has proven especially exposed to the fallout from Putin’s illegal war. Airstrikes launched by Russian vessels in the Black Sea have routinely passed over Moldovan territory, with several falling well short of their Ukrainian targets, while the influx of more than 1 million people into a country of less than 3 million initially left Moldova with one of the highest numbers of Ukrainian refugees per capita of any European nation (many have since moved on). During the early stages of the conflict, there were also concerns that Russian troops sweeping across the southeastern theater might have attempted to join up with residual forces in Transnistria — a Moscow-backed breakaway region within Moldova where Russian soldiers have been stationed since the fall of the Soviet Union.

At the same time as delaying Georgia’s bid for EU candidacy status, the first step toward actual membership, last June, Brussels enthusiastically waved Moldova’s and Ukraine’s submissions through. While many chalk this up to Moldova boasting a government that is avowedly and consistently pro-European in its outlook, there is nevertheless a danger of overlooking the decidedly more nuanced reality unfolding on the ground.

“It’s actually a very paradoxical picture in Moldova,” says Dionis Cenusa, a risk analyst at Lithuania’s Eastern Europe Studies Centre. “Unlike in Ukraine and in Georgia, where you have up to 90% public approval for EU membership, in Moldova, it’s only about 60%.” Protests against the country’s government have repeatedly been staged in the capital of Chisinau, with more than 50 people arrested at one such demonstration, backed by anti-Western elements, in mid-March this year.

Ana Pociumban, a Moldovan research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, described how financially vulnerable people are targeted by protest organizers. “In the village where my uncle lives, there’s a bus that goes every day to Chisinau. … People get 20 euros [approximately $22] when they go. It’s easy money.”

In March, a document that was leaked from inside the Kremlin revealed plans to bring Moldova largely under Russian control by the end of the decade, primarily by nurturing negative attitudes toward NATO and bolstering pro-Russian influence groups in politics and the economy. An important player in this context is the Shor Party, headed by the Israeli-born oligarch Ilhan Shor. Recently sentenced in absentia to 15 years for treating Moldovan financial institutions as personal piggy banks, he’s been sanctioned by the U.S. for his ties to the Putin regime, with representatives of his party making repeated trips to Russia since the full-scale invasion began.

Many of Moldova’s most vocal anti-European elements are therefore widely considered to be, if not actively in cahoots, then at the very least eagerly encouraged by Russian intelligence services. Moscow has also been repeatedly accused of using Transnistria as a launchpad for hybrid warfare, particularly with respect to the dissemination of disinformation through both widely viewed Russian television channels and the rhetoric of pro-Russian officials, such that Moldovan President Maia Sandu has even announced the formation of a public body specifically to quell the spread of Russian propaganda among the public.

“They’re manipulating these narratives about how the president wants to push us toward NATO, using the economic situation [amid the war] to create dissatisfaction, especially among the working class,” says Leo Zbanke, a filmmaker and LGBTQ+ activist who has attended many government-organized rallies, including a huge demonstration in May attended by some 75,000 people, many of whom waved blue-and-yellow EU flags as they listened to an orchestra. Dressed in blue, Sandu addressed the crowd, which went on to approve by collective vote a manifesto in favor of EU membership.

“It’s a powerful moment of joy and hope, but then you also contrast it with the protests organized by the Shor Party on the same day, where they were burning posters of Sandu,” Zbanke says.

There are, however, those who warn against painting Kremlin soft power and disinformation campaigns as the sole driving force behind anti-EU and anti-Western sentiments. A full account of the demographic divisions at play here perhaps merits a report of its own, but the thrust is that these often draw upon deep-seated resentments that are themselves a postcolonial legacy of waves of persecution that washed back and forth over what was then Bessarabia during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“These are fault lines that have existed for a long time,” according to William H. Hill, former head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Mission to Moldova. “Historic issues have mixed together in a strange way but, since independence in 1992, a roughly 50-50 split has gone between the pro-Romanian center right and the pro-Moscow center left.”

The opening ceremony at the 2023 European Weightlifting Championships in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, held in April, was notable not for a proud parade of international colors but for the moment a man from the crowd set the Azerbaijani flag on fire on live television.

Historically, Moscow has acted as a mediator between Yerevan and Baku in their decadeslong territorial dispute concerning Nagorno-Karabakh. Since November 2020, Russian peacekeeping forces have been deployed in the disputed region, an ethnically Armenian mountain enclave within Azeri borders. But with Russian hands full executing Putin’s illegal invasion, the war in Ukraine has shifted the regional dynamic such that the Kremlin’s credibility as a security guarantor between these warring South Caucasian nations appears to have dwindled to vanishing point. In late September, a lightning attack by Azerbaijan toppled Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-proclaimed government, ending 30 years of independence and prompting a mass exodus across the border and into Armenia.

“Right now, they say Azerbaijan is like a young, unmarried woman with a very good family,” explains Olesya Vartanyan, a senior South Caucasus analyst with Crisis Group. “Azerbaijan is in a very good position. And it’s not like anyone came and helped — they built this, they did it themselves with the enormous resources that they have.”

Over the past 20 months, the Ilham Aliyev regime has been emboldened by its increasing strategic importance to both the EU, as an alternative to energy dependence on Moscow, and to Russia, as a gateway to trade with Iran, the Middle East and India. Lucrative gas deals have been signed with Brussels and an agreement has been reached between Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to construct a new railroad connecting the two sanctioned countries via Azerbaijan. Such developments have also seen Baku grow ever more bullish in its stance toward the intricate territorial disputes underlying the conflict with Armenia.

“The Ukrainian war dramatically changed the ability of Russia to influence, to project its power,” says Farid Shafiyev, a former Azeri diplomat and chair of the Center of Analysis of International Relations, a government-funded think tank in Baku. “Before the war, we were a wounded nation, humiliated, with [internally displaced persons] and refugees. But we are gradually restoring administrative control over our own territory, we’re becoming more assertive.”

This sharpening of political outlook has also been keenly reflected in Azeri public sentiment and across the country’s highly restrictive media landscape, as space for civic criticism of Russia has continued to grow. A February survey found that more than 80% of young people believe Moscow is a threat to national security, while “many outlets have started calling the peacekeepers an ‘occupying power,’” according to Zaur Shiriyev, another Crisis Group analyst.

Azerbaijan’s one-day seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh was preluded by a more than 10-month closure of the Lachin Corridor, a key transport route connecting the mountainous enclave with Armenia proper. For weeks on end, the electricity kept going out, people were unable to find medicine in pharmacies and ambulances were unable to respond to emergencies due to gas shortages.

“I smile to make myself strong, but it is only a mask. Sometimes, I think about how someday, we will break,” Nanar Yeremyan, a 34-year-old teacher who previously lived in the regional capital of Stepanakert, said portentously in August.

Over almost two weeks at the end of September, lines of traffic more than 60 miles long wound along the Lachin Corridor, ferrying some 100,000 refugees. Having had but a matter of hours to prepare, many arrived with only a backpack, without documents or even shoes, let alone warm clothes or any assurances of accommodation that might have equipped them for the harsh winter ahead.

“Everything I owned is back in our village,” Artur Petrosyan, a 47-year-old farmer from Nagorno-Karabakh’s Shushi district, explained from a park bench in Goris, an Armenian town on the border with Azerbaijan and the first stop for the vast majority fleeing last month. “I have a hard time understanding what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling. It’s like this is all temporary, like I’m only here for a while and that soon I will get to go back. But their flag is already up over Stepanakert, they’ll already be marauding our homes.”

A total lack of meaningful response from the Kremlin to such provocations has met with fury in Yerevan, not least given that Russia remains, technically, a formal military ally. In March, a deputy of Armenia’s ruling Civil Contract party said Putin should be detained on the ICC’s arrest warrant if he enters the country. Having long abstained from international decisions on the invasion, Yerevan finally voted to adopt a United Nations resolution in May including language recognizing “aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine,” not long after inviting the EU to establish a monitoring mission along the border with Azerbaijan. “Armenia is currently trying to diversify its foreign policy — we’re trying to mitigate dependence and reliance on Russia,” says Tigran Grigoryan, head of the Regional Centre for Democracy and Security, a Yerevan-based think tank. “Armenia understands that Russian support isn’t working, they understand the need to find alternatives for security elsewhere.”

It’s telling that the most productive talks on pursuing a resolution to the 30-year conflict have lately been held not in Moscow but in Brussels and Washington. There has also not been as pronounced an outpouring of popular support for Ukraine as in Georgia or Moldova. In fact, all of the humanitarian efforts and demonstrations in Armenia have been organized by Ukrainian refugees or Russian emigres like Giorgi Zhamgarian, who moved from Russia to Armenia shortly after the invasion. He is now the founder of a pro-Ukrainian art and handicrafts collective, Biserka Acronym.

“Being ethnically Armenian myself, I seem to confuse people here by talking about this problem a lot,” he explains. “A great part of the Armenian people think Ukrainian problems are Ukrainian problems. They say they have their own to worry about, and I spend a lot of time trying to explain that they’re the next stop for Russian imperialism.”

This isn’t to say there isn’t sympathy for those suffering across the Black Sea, only that there’s a general frustration with the myopic view much of the international community has assumed of the conflict to date. As Elodie Gavrilof-Deringorossian, a French-Armenian doctoral student who attended many of the initial rallies in support of Ukraine, puts it: “It’s really good that eyes are on Ukraine. It’s just that we, especially for the past year, have kind of been collateral damage to what has happened there. The eyes of the world need to be here too, if they’re going to understand the bigger picture of what’s going on right now.”

There are few who believe the ripples from Moscow’s “blitzkrieg” invasion of Ukraine will quietly peter out in this corner of the former Soviet Union or that Russian dreams of neo-imperial glory will permit any lasting calm to settle upon waters so long tormented by proxy conflicts, disinformation operations and soft-power campaigns.

“No matter how things play out, we will all face an angry, vengeful, isolated Putin,” says Richard Giragosian, director at the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan. “A Russian crackdown, from Moldova to the South Caucasus and on, even through Central Asia, is coming. There is another storm on the horizon.”

Editor’s note: This article was published in the Fall 2023 issue of New Lines’ print edition. It has been updated to reflect the offensive by Azerbaijan in September that forced the population of Nagorno-Karabakh to flee.

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