Fight or flight: Tbilisi and Kyiv caught in another round of tensions
This time, the two countries are rowing over the provision of arms and the possible resumption of air travel between Russia and Georgia.
Tbilisi and Kyiv have found themselves in yet another round of tensions, fuelled by a controversy on the possible resumption of air travel between Georgia and Russia, and Georgia's fierce denial of Kyiv's requests for military aid.
The two countries' diplomats paid visits to their hosts' foreign ministries on January 25, after a Ukrainian diplomat's remarks over the possible evacuation of Ukrainian citizens infuriated the Georgian authorities.
The remarks followed Tbilisi's recent controversial embrace of the idea of resuming air travel with Russia, which had been unilaterally halted by Moscow in 2019. On January 24, Andrii Kasianov, Ukrainian chargé d'affaires in Tbilisi, was cited by Ukraine's Evropeyskaya Pravda website as saying that the lifting of the flight ban and a further influx of Russians into Georgia would entail safety risks for Ukrainian refugees residing here. This, Kasianov said, might prompt the need to evacuate Ukrainians from Georgia.
The diplomat's comments met a harsh response in Tbilisi, with the Georgian Foreign Ministry summoning Kasianov for explanations the next day.
Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, on January 24 called Kasianov's remark "shameful and speculative," arguing that the wartime influx of Russians has not created any security risks, "including for the security of Ukrainians living in Georgia."
Georgia is currently sheltering around 25,000 Ukrainian refugees. That is about a third to a quarter of the number of Russian emigres who have also arrived in Georgia since the start of the war fleeing the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent, the effects of sanctions, and mobilization.
Kasianov's remark was the first time that the safety of Ukrainian citizens had been brought up in this context.
On the same day when Kasianov was summoned for explanations, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry also reported that Deputy Foreign Minister Yevhen Perebyinis had met with Georgian Ambassador to Ukraine Giorgi Zakarashvili.
According to the report, Perebyinis thanked Georgia for the aid it provided, including to Ukrainian refugees. But the diplomat also expressed concerns over the possible resumption of flights between Georgia and Russia, and in turn received assurances, the report said, "that Georgia has no intention to renew flights" with Moscow.
Kyiv also expressed hope that Tbilisi would join the EU's sanctions against Russia, and "change its position and join those partners who provide Ukraine with weapons and military equipment."
The latest controversy arose this month, when Kasianov asserted that dozens of requests to supply arms to Kyiv went unanswered by Tbilisi. Specifically, Ukraine asked for the return of Buk antiaircraft systems Kasianov said it transferred to Tbilisi during the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, and for Javelin anti-tank systems provided to Georgia by the U.S. According to Kasianov, Washington had promised to replenish these Javelins with more modern equipment if Georgia handed them over to Ukraine.
Kyiv's requests to Tbilisi are clearly but a small component in its drive to secure as many weapons as possible to fight back Russia's invasion. But they are a significant point of contention in the two traditional allies' increasingly troubled ties.
Ukraine has been frustrated with Tbilisi's cautious moves vis-à-vis Moscow, which include its lukewarm rhetorical support for Ukraine's homeland defense and refusal to join international sanctions against Russia. The discontent culminated in October when Kyiv sanctioned close associates of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire widely seen as Georgia's informal ruler.
Tbilisi, in turn, has been unhappy with Kyiv's support for Georgian opposition, some of whose members have even held jobs in the Ukrainian government. Also, seizing on earlier sporadic calls from Kyiv officials for Georgia to open additional fronts against Russia to retake its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's ruling party developed a wider conspiracy theory where it repeatedly attributed criticism from Kyiv, the West, or local opponents to a vast international scheme to drag Georgia into war with Russia.
The Georgian authorities have been claiming they still supported Ukraine by providing humanitarian aid, backing pro-Ukraine resolutions in international fora, aligning with international financial sanctions, and carrying out export controls to prevent Russia from using Georgian territory for sanctions evasion.
But a clear line has been drawn when it comes to providing military aid to Ukraine, in the obvious fear of not provoking Moscow.
"Our state has put it explicitly from the beginning that we are going to support Ukraine in everything except for providing arms," Nikoloz Samkharadze, head of the parliament's foreign relations committee, said earlier this month.
He further argued that it would not be logical for a country that is itself vulnerable to Russian aggression to give away weapons, though he said it was "understandable" that Kyiv would seek military help from all quarters.
But Samkharadze's party colleagues were not as understanding of Kyiv's plight, doubling down on claims that Ukraine was trying to drag Georgia into the war with Russia – an accusation that Kyiv denies.
Ukrainian officials "have sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly made calls about the second front," Kobakhidze said on January 26.
"Of course, providing any arms to Ukraine would mean direct involvement in the military conflict, which we cannot allow."
Tbilisi also asserted that it acquired the Buk systems through a "multimillion purchase" in 2007 rather than during the 2008 war.
The Georgian authorities have repeatedly taken credit for acting in the national interest to maintain peace amid the war, at times using controversial rhetoric that critics see as hinting at the responsibility of Ukraine – and the West – in triggering the Russian invasion.
And Tbilisi has also gone to lengths to avoid anything that would slightly imply any military links with Kyiv.
This included obstructing a flight that was to carry Georgian volunteers to the frontline in the first weeks of the war, and later suggesting the volunteers had been tricked by the Georgian opposition to fight for Ukraine. Ruling party members also raised the prospect of Georgians serving in another nation's army losing their citizenship.
Kasianov "would have needed to evacuate Ukrainians from Georgia if we'd sent Buks to Ukraine," Kobakhidze commented, referring to both of the latest controversies with Kyiv.
But in contrast, on January 20, Georgian Defense Minister Juansher Burchuladze went to attend the high-level meeting of the U.S.-led Contact Group in Ramstein, Germany. The main focus of the meeting was providing military aid for Ukraine against Russian aggression.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.
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