The recent decision by the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament to allow a member of Russia’s legislature, the Duma, to address their body from the Speaker’s chair in June of 2019 led to mass protests throughout the country and the Speaker resigning in disgrace. This event, coupled with additional anti-Russian protests throughout the nation, has brought tensions between Georgia and Russia to their highest point since Russia seized and occupied 20% of Georgia’s territory during a short ground war in 2008. Since then, the Duma passed a resolution in July that unanimously called for sanctioning Georgia. In a surprising move, Vladimir Putin ignored this suggestion--an unexpected rebuke to his own political party, who hold the majority of the seats in the Duma. Instead, the President said he wanted to repair the relationship with Georgia, saying he refused to punish the Georgian people due to the actions of some “scumbags.” He further added that he has “deep respect” for the Georgian people. To this day, Russia still has not imposed sanctions on Georgia. This begs the question: what is Putin’s hoped-for outcome in Georgia? And further, what is the Russian government (led by Putin) prepared to do to achieve its aims?
Vladimir Putin’s refusal to follow his own political party’s recommendation to sanction Georgia is exactly contrary to what you would expect him to do. It could be part of an effort by the Russian president to try to appease the Georgian people--albeit one that is destined to fail. In their book “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy write about Vladimir Putin’s experience as a KGB operative. Highlighting Putin’s recruitment of spies for the Soviet Union in East Germany during the 1980s, Gaddy and Hill argue that one of the defining aspects of his personality is his manipulation of intelligence assets. It is very possible that Vladimir Putin is attempting to be seen as merciful towards the Georgian people, though in a misguided manner.
Putin’s ignorance of the mass protests in Tbilisi against Russian occupation of parts of Georgia and his dismissal of a large quantity of protestors as “scumbags” demonstrates that he is severely out of touch with the reality of the situation on the ground in Georgia. Indeed, anti-Russian sentiment runs rampant in Georgia, with mass protests against Russian influence happening as recently as a couple of weeks ago. By noting that he has deep respect for the Georgian people and that he does not want to punish them, Putin could be trying to ingratiate the Georgian people to him with a false sense of benevolence, but this ignores the magnitude of the protests. It is quite possible that Putin thinks he can manipulate the Georgian public because they were his former countrymen, but he grossly overestimates the amount of attachment and nostalgia they have towards the Soviet Union.