NATO Helped Georgia Counter Russian Trolls. Then the Strategy Backfired

As a previously successful communications initiative falls into disarray, the Black Sea country’s drift away from the West seems inexorable

NATO Helped Georgia Counter Russian Trolls. Then the Strategy Backfired
Demonstrators face police officers in front of the Georgian Parliament in Tbilisi in April 2024. (Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP via Getty Images)

Georgia, which has spent the last three decades distancing itself from Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is on the brink of losing Western support, potentially throwing the Black Sea country back into the power dynamics of yesteryear and allowing Russia to reassert its role in the region.

A landmark NATO project, set up almost a decade ago to bolster Georgia’s resilience to Russian hybrid warfare, has now been shut down, the U.K.’s Foreign Office has confirmed. The move comes 10 months after Meta, the parent company of Facebook, removed dozens of its accounts used by a Georgian government division of that initiative to target state critics and push anti-Western propaganda about Russia’s war in Ukraine.

It is a pivotal time for Georgia, whose long embrace of the West is now taking a step back. Relations with the United States and Europe have sharply deteriorated amid a rapid slide into authoritarianism in a country once held up, in the words of former U.S. President George W. Bush, as a “beacon of liberty” in the South Caucasus.

The NATO-backed strategic communications initiative was established by London in 2015, a year after Moscow illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and some seven years after a brief war between Georgia and Russia. Set up under that project and situated in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Georgian government’s Department of Strategic Communications, or StratComs, has received significant assistance from the United States and the U.K. over the years in the form of funded training and technical resources, as part of wider efforts to combat Moscow’s influence costing tens of millions of dollars. On Friday, the U.K.’s Foreign Office quietly announced that the initiative had concluded in March. “We are currently considering our position on future Strategic Communication collaboration with Georgia,” wrote Tariq Ahmad, a member of the House of Lords, in response to a question from a fellow member.

The decision comes as the capital Tbilisi is rocked by huge, monthslong protests over the government’s signing of a controversial Kremlin-style “foreign agent law” that imposes harsh restrictions on media and rights groups who receive foreign funding, making it much harder for them to continue operating. It is widely seen as a toolkit for any autocratic regime, with versions already in place in Belarus, Hungary and Egypt. Most of the protesters are young and were born in an independent Georgia. Terrified by the looming shadow of the Kremlin, they see their future with Europe.

The failure of this communications project, however, shows that their hopes are growing more distant.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has defied warnings from the European Union about the law, which would kill the country’s EU aspirations. Polls regularly show that 80% of the population want to join the EU and NATO — most of them driven by fear of Russia, whose military occupies one-fifth of Georgia’s territory.

The United States has threatened to cut aid to Georgia and impose sanctions on officials over the bill, prompting Moscow to accuse Washington of blackmailing Georgia. According to news reports this week, several EU countries are following suit, and are also pushing for the end of visa-free travel across the bloc for its citizens. “If Georgia is financially cut off from the West, it will isolate Georgia and help Russia swallow us politically, maybe even physically,” said Marika Mikiashvili, a foreign affairs specialist with the opposition Droa party. She said this would amount to a “complete financial and political disaster.”

The new law on transparency and foreign influence, a carbon copy of one that Russia drew up in 2012, is expected to be signed into force next week. Any organizations that receive at least 20% of their funding from abroad must register as “serving the interests of a foreign power.” Demonstrators in near-nightly protests in Tbilisi, many chanting “No to the Russian law!” and waving EU flags, have been met with horrific violence by riot police, who have sprayed them with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Some protesters have been snatched by the police and beaten, while others have fled the country.

Drawing on insider testimony, Freedom of Information Act requests and publicly available data, New Lines has pieced together how Western partners provided support to StratComs despite being aware the unit had been using fake social media profiles to launch Russian-style attacks on opponents and spread anti-Western propaganda since at least 2021, and likely going back to 2019. In December last year, the U.K. embassy in Tbilisi hired a former member of the Georgian government unit to their own team, raising more questions about how seriously this yearslong abuse of resources was being taken by donor governments until recently.

Against a backdrop of protest and political uncertainty, the backfiring of this Western policy reveals how few options may exist to combat growing Russian influence, more than two years into Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine — a war that shows no signs of abating.

In 2014, NATO recognized the threat of hybrid warfare for the first time when the fusion of conventional and unconventional military tools became apparent as Russia-backed troops took over Crimea. The Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP), agreed at that year’s summit in Wales, included a framework to support the implementation of a “strategic communications program” within the Georgian Ministry of Defense.

StratComs, set up the next year, was initially structured to include an officer from every NATO member country, each pitching in to aid public dissemination of clear and easily understandable information on the details and benefits of Georgia’s cooperation with the alliance. Georgia, which shares its northern border with Russia, has long eyed membership in the alliance, even sending troops to fight — and die — in Afghanistan in support of the NATO-led war.

“It was a brilliant idea,” said Tinatin Khidasheli, who was then Georgia’s minister of defense and now chairs the Tbilisi-based think tank Civic Idea.

“In fact, it still would be a brilliant idea, if it [had been] executed properly,” she told New Lines.

But four years later, in 2019, there were problems. Instead of countering Russian disinformation, the Georgian government seemed to be doing the opposite. Georgian civil society actors like the Media Development Foundation and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), linked fake accounts on Facebook expressing pro-government sympathies back to the government itself. It appeared that the country’s leadership could be using fake accounts to give the appearance of support for its policies. At the end of that year, Meta took down a network of trolls tied to Georgian Dream that were posing as news organizations and political parties.

By any measure, 2019 was a turbulent year for Georgian Dream. Following mass demonstrations over the construction of a power plant in the country’s northeast, the visit of Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov to the Georgian Parliament is regarded by many as the first major episode in Georgian Dream’s perceived ongoing drift toward the Kremlin. Both incidents met not only with a violent police response, but also a flurry of troll activity targeting government critics. This use of online trolls to harass those critical of the government was straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook.

By 2021, ISFED had linked Facebook pages spreading “discrediting messages regarding other parties and opposition figures” to Beka Mtchedlishvili, who was made a deputy head of StratComs that year.

Last summer, Mtchedlishvili himself was linked to violence against a prominent opposition journalist, who was beaten up when he went to the supermarket in Tbilisi. “They clearly wanted to give me a black eye,” Misha Mshvildadze told New Lines, “so that everyone would see me looking bashed up on my broadcast at the end of the week.”

He described how the blows came from behind — three in quick succession — and were made with careful precision to land above his cheekbones. An investigation by his channel FormulaTV alleged that the beating was staged by the intelligence services while pretending to be members of the country’s largely conservative public attacking the anchor for his support of LGBTQ+ rights and perceived disrespect of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

“There was no doubt in my mind they’d been through a number of rehearsals,” he said of the verbal barrage that came with the beating. “I’ve managed a lot of castings in my time — I know bad acting when I see it, when someone is speaking their own words, and when they’re speaking from a script.”

In the immediate aftermath of the June 27 attack, Mshvildadze was also targeted by a torrent of hate speech online, with one comment suggesting he might be thankful his assailants did not remove his head. Much of this was propagated by the trolls ubiquitous across Georgian social media. But by reviewing now-deleted social media posts from the time, New Lines has established how some of the most vitriolic abuse after the attack came from more powerful corridors, namely Mtchedlishvili, who wrote in public Facebook posts that he would “fuck” Mshvildadze’s mother and that the journalist served as a “prostitute” to opposition parties. Mtchedlishvili did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Lewd name-calling and physical violence are not uncommon among members of the Georgian government — brawls have even broken out in Parliament itself — but the direct link to the Western-funded StratComs department has long rung alarm bells for its partners.

“We’ve gone along for years telling ourselves things are fine in Georgia, when we’ve known that really, they’re just not,” said Bob Hamilton, a retired U.S. colonel who also served as a civilian adviser to the Georgian Ministry of Defense from 2020 to 2022. “I’ve been in government for long enough to know how this all operates. Just doing more of what you did last year, it’s routine — the problem is the consequences of that approach can be disastrous,” he explained during a phone interview from Pennsylvania. “‘Asleep at the wheel’ is one way of putting it.”

In May of last year, Meta shut down 80 accounts, 26 pages and nine groups on Facebook, and an additional two Instagram accounts associated with StratComs for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” — in other words, for trolling. At the start of this year, a new person was appointed to head StratComs: Misha Peikrishvili, who is the former news chief of state-aligned Imedi TV, which is widely seen by critics as the ruling party’s mouthpiece.

A person with first-hand knowledge of the U.K.’s efforts under the NATO-Georgia package, who spoke to New Lines on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said that “of course [they] knew there was abuse of resources going on,” adding that embassy staff were fully aware they “weren’t using taxpayer’s money wisely.” Despite reports by local nongovernmental organizations and Meta’s move to remove the fake accounts, a spokesperson for the U.K.’s Foreign Office denied any knowledge. “At no stage during our support for the Georgian government’s Department of Strategic Communications was [the] British Embassy Tbilisi aware of any evidence they were behind online inauthentic behavior,” they said in emailed comments. The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Khidasheli described how, at the beginning, NATO and EU officials would always ask the Georgians why they needed the Black Sea country as a member. “So we told the StratComs team, ‘OK, we need those narratives. We need very clear, very straightforward, short but strategic messages saying that this — one, two, three, four, five — is why you need Georgia.’ That was how it started,” she said in an interview in Tbilisi.

The initiative was successful, and was swiftly expanded to create units in four of Georgia’s agencies — the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the State Ministry of Euro-Atlantic Integration and the Prime Minister’s Office. In its heyday, StratComs hosted senior military officials from across Europe and designed classes on battling disinformation, often specifically focusing on the threat from Russia.

Khidasheli eventually left the government in 2016, partly in protest over its lack of action on a scandal that saw sex tapes used by anonymous blackmailers against her fellow female MPs. But she has closely followed the initiative’s subsequent development. Several years later, when Georgia was embroiled in the pro-democracy protests of 2019, her successor Levan Izoria transferred the division to the Prime Minister’s Office. “And there, you have the root of what the problem now is,” Khidasheli explained. Then, newly appointed Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia merged StratComs with the government’s public relations department. “By making PR a subdivision of StratComs you’re basically saying that, officially, they’re going to be exactly the same thing,” she said.

When contacted by New Lines, a representative from StratComs declined to comment on the number of people who worked for the division. But a U.S. embassy factsheet reports that between 2017 and 2021, over 250 people had been trained, including 57 from the Prime Minister’s Office and various ministries.

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the government in Georgia has displayed growing disdain for its historic partners. Georgian Dream blames the U.S., the EU and the opposition for wanting to drag Georgia into the conflict, amplifying its message through state-run television and social media channels, as well as fake news websites. Bidzina Ivanisvhili, the party’s oligarch founder and eminence grise, who made his billions in Russia’s metal and banking sectors following the Soviet collapse, exerts overwhelming control over public life. Ivanishvili, whose estimated wealth is around one-third of the country’s gross domestic product, has ties to the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which makes it little surprise that he has slammed the U.S. and the EU as members of a “global war party.”

The attack against Mshvildadze was swiftly condemned by Georgian civil society and other opposition media outlets. Pulling CCTV from businesses around the supermarket where he was attacked, journalists at FormulaTV were able to piece together how the assailants had not acted alone, instead working with a large team who used three vehicles for drop-offs and pickups as the attack unfolded. Georgia’s State Security Service subsequently confirmed that one of the men who had watched the attack, Giorgi Mumladze, was one of their employees, but said he had been on a separate assignment in the area. By that time the attack had been claimed by a construction worker called Nikoloz Gugeshashvili. Georgian civil society actors say he was used by the government to cover up its involvement, and he was eventually handed six months in jail for the assault.

Mtchedlishvili posted a Facebook update saying Mshvildadze had tried to “create a parallel reality” by claiming the assault had been politically motivated. An anonymous account, one of many spewing abuse in Mshviladze’s direction, chipped in below, “Fuck your mother’s breast that you sucked on.”

Georgian officials have also taken aim at Western diplomatic staff with personal attacks, even recently suggesting the U.S. was trying to finance a coup in the country. Former U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan, who left last year, was often depicted as a puppet master, orchestrating opposition to the government, prompting the State Department to accuse some officials of reneging on their commitment to move closer to Europe.

For Ian Kelly, who served as Washington’s ambassador between 2015 and 2018, there may also have been diplomatic reasons for the West to not take concrete action on the mounting allegations against StratComs. “It’s a government that, since 2019, has shown every sign of turning toward Moscow,” he explained in an interview from Washington, “and there’s been a reluctance about the risk of pushing Georgia even further along that path by imposing costs for their behavior.”

Both Kelly and Hamilton believe the moment has come for measures to be brought against those responsible for the trajectory StratComs has taken in recent years. “We’re at a point where I just can’t see how the government can possibly be meeting the conditions attached to foreign aid,” Hamilton said. “It’s time to freeze that assistance, and to start sanctioning the officials who’ve been involved in misusing it.”

What was notable about the latest Meta takedown was how the accounts had not only targeted government critics, but also pushed anti-Western propaganda about the war in Ukraine. In a September 2023 report analyzing the profiles’ activity, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab noted a multitude of posts accusing the U.S. and the EU of wanting to drag Georgia into the conflict by opening a “second front” along the boundary lines with its own occupied territories and amplifying Kremlin narratives to suggest that Georgia risked becoming a “vassal” to its historic partners.

The shift toward Russia has not been purely rhetorical. Georgia has refused to join sanctions against the Kremlin over the war in Ukraine, allowing for a quintupling of trade with Russian companies between 2022 and 2023, while also pushing a series of authoritarian draft laws decried as contrary to the list of requirements set out by the EU as conditions for membership. Lately, these legislative efforts have reached fever pitch, as the government charges ahead with its second bid to pass its law on “foreign agents,” condemned as an attempt to suppress criticism from independent media and NGOs. The huge resulting protests in Tbilisi and other major cities have been even bigger than those that eventually saw the law’s first iteration sheepishly withdrawn last year, as indeed has the international outcry over the level of police violence against demonstrators.

Moscow has regarded these developments with glee. Both Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and propagandist Margarita Simonyan have defended the reintroduction of the “foreign agent” bill, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov previously praising Georgia for not becoming “another irritant” amid the ongoing conflict. One of the party’s top PR consultants, Lasha Natslishvili, was outed last year by Georgian investigative outlet Studio Monitor for seemingly trying to help a Russian record label skirt international sanctions. Tourism has also boomed, quite apart from the massive influx of Russian nationals who moved to Georgia following the invasion’s launch, after direct flights between Moscow and Tbilisi resumed last year for the first time since 2019.

Despite repeated requests via various channels since the beginning of this year for the exact level of expenditure on StratComs efforts, U.K. and U.S. authorities did not provide figures.

According to figures obtained from the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi, however, the State Department has spent, over the last decade, almost $10 million on strengthening independent journalism and improving media literacy among the public, with one program specifically called “Countering Russian Propaganda.” Meanwhile, USAID, the U.S. international aid and development agency, said in emailed comments that it paid out a further $9.5 million for an Information Integrity Program to “create solutions to reduce vulnerability to disinformation.”

A similar request submitted to EU authorities showed the bloc has either already paid out or otherwise earmarked some $55 million for initiatives that included efforts to bolster public resilience to disinformation and support independent press in Georgia. This in addition to the country also having benefited from an estimated further $113 million invested in region-wide projects featuring comparable priority areas, such as countering hybrid threats and funding NGOs working in the information space.

For Mshvildadze, the journalist who was assaulted in the street last year, such efforts could have all been for nothing. “More and more, we’re seeing the Russian style of things take hold here,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen, but if things continue in this way, someone’s going to get killed.”

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