Public Diplomacy or Information Warfare? Russia’s Strategic Communication in Georgia

Abstract: Through its promotion and dissemination of disinformation, Russia’s practice of public diplomacy forms a close nexus with information warfare. While Russia no doubt seeks to win the hearts and minds of foreign state publics, its strategic aim in doing so is not to build sincere two-way cultural bridges but rather to subvert the target state’s political system by undermining the credibility and authority of state institutions and independent media. Through this manipulation, Russia’s ultimate aim is to generate bottom-up political movements that advocate for a realignment of the target state’s policies with the Russian national interest.

Problem statement: How does Russia exercise its public diplomacy to manipulate the Georgian public, and what can members of Georgian civil society, independent media, and the political opposition do to counter its deleterious effects on the democratic system?

So what?: Russia’s subversive public diplomacy poses a dire threat to Georgian democracy and risks undermining the state’s progress toward achieving greater integration with the West through its recent attainment of EU candidate status.

Call it Propaganda?

The threshold between public diplomacy and more overt forms of political mass manipulation of foreign state publics has never been decidedly clear. Edmund Gullion, the U.S. diplomat and a dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy who was at the forefront of the formulation of public diplomacy in the U.S., once remarked that “I would have liked to call it ‘propaganda.’ It seemed the nearest thing in the pure interpretation of the word to what we were doing. But ‘propaganda’ has always had a pejorative connotation in this country.”[1] Similarly, Richard Holbrooke, when speaking of the perhaps nominal difference between public diplomacy and other more manipulative forms of communication, wrote that one could “[c]all it public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare, or – if you really want to be blunt – propaganda.”[2]

Since its inception as a distinct form of diplomacy, crafters and practitioners alike have been well aware of the ways that states might blur the lines between public diplomacy and outright subversion. Yet, while many states have dissolved this boundary, few have done so as prodigiously as Russia, where public diplomacy is conducted in close accordance with the principles of information warfare. This intersection of public diplomacy and information warfare is most prominent in Russia’s interaction with post-Soviet states. Of these, its outreach to Georgia is a salient case meriting investigation.

Indeed, Russian public diplomacy poses a serious and direct threat to Georgia’s democracy. While public diplomacy is generally understood in the West as a state’s efforts to win the hearts and minds of foreign state publics to advance its national interest, Russian public diplomacy endeavours to undermine the credibility and authority of state institutions and independent media while mobilising anti-Western sentiments among the target state’s public. Russia effects these aims chiefly through propagating high-volume, multichannel disinformation, which is rapid, continuous, and repetitive in nature while lacking consistency and commitment to objective reality.[3] Russian public diplomacy, then, is effectively an extension of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy insofar as it seeks to degrade the target state’s political cohesion.[4] Disrupting the public’s ability to ascertain an accurate view of ongoing domestic, regional, and international political and economic developments directly impedes its ability to make well-informed choices in political processes. Such disruption renders individuals among the public easier targets for future Russian manipulation as well as overt machinations that seek to effect systematic political change in the target state, including those that utilise coercion and political violence.

Russian public diplomacy poses a serious and direct threat to Georgia’s democracy.

Given the deleterious effects of Russian public diplomacy on the stability of the Georgian state and society, members of Georgian civil society, independent media, and the political opposition must undertake substantial efforts to counter Russian influence over the Georgian public.
Assessing Georgia’s Vulnerability

While Russia conducts vigorous and concerted public diplomacy operations targeting virtually every member of the international community, Tbilisi, despite its adverse relationship with Moscow since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, is nevertheless particularly susceptible to the influence of such operations due to the increased economic and social bilateral ties that have emerged since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.[5] Despite moves by many European states to enact sanctions against Russia following the invasion, Georgian Prime Minister (PM) Irakli Garibashvili ruled out his country’s participation in them, arguing that suspending the approximately $1 billion in annual trade that Georgia generates with Russia would have little impact on the Russian economy but would “damage the interests” of Georgians while “destroying” the Georgian economy.[6]

Indeed, since the invasion, relations between Georgia and Russia have improved. Russia’s search for alternative trade in light of Western sanctions has led it to soften its stance against Georgia under the belief that greater engagement with Tbilisi will help undermine Georgia’s EU candidate status. Meanwhile, Tbilisi has come to prize its increased influence over Moscow as a safeguard against Russian hostility.[7] Such warming relations are evinced by Moscow’s May 2023 abolishment of visa requirements for Georgians and the restoration of direct flights between the two states.[8] Additionally, notwithstanding the adverse effects of the invasion on global trade, Georgian exports to Russia in 2022 increased by 6.8 per cent to $652 million, while imports rose by an impressive 79 per cent to $1.8 billion — the highest in sixteen years.[9]

Russia’s search for alternative trade in light of Western sanctions has led it to soften its stance against Georgia under the belief that greater engagement with Tbilisi will help undermine Georgia’s EU candidate status.

As the Georgian and Russian economies become more deeply interconnected, the thaw in relations between the two states stands to render Georgians more susceptible to Russian public diplomacy efforts. This heightened susceptibility poses a stark threat to Georgia’s democracy, particularly in the lead-up to the October 2024 parliamentary elections. Over the past year (2023), the pro-Russian Georgian Dream party, under the aegis of business oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and PM Garibashvili (and later, former party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze), has amplified its rhetoric against Western influence in Georgia by propagating conspiracy theories stoking fears of Western intervention in Georgian politics. On October 02, 2023, for instance, the State Security Service of Georgia (SSSG) announced that it had detained three Serbian citizens who arrived in Georgia at the invitation of the East-West Management Institute, reportedly funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to train protestors “to orchestrate destabilisation and civil unrest in the country” in “a scenario similar to the ‘Euromaidan’ protests held in Ukraine in 2014.”[10]

Building off earlier claims that a large group of Georgians were conducting exercises along the Polish-Ukrainian border in preparation for instigating a coup in Tbilisi, the SSSG then accused USAID of being directly implicated in the supposed plot, further alleging that Giorgi Lortkipanidze, deputy head of Ukraine’s military counterintelligence, was coordinating the operation.[11] Following the SSSG’s announcement, Sputnik’s Georgia service then ran a series of articles promoting this conspiracy theory, adding that the U.S. sought to open up a “second front” against Russia in Georgia and drag it into the Russo-Ukrainian War.[12] The conspiracy theory has provided additional propaganda material for pro-Russian Georgian groups such as Alt-Info, whose “anti-Maidan” movement, an extensive social media campaign conducted across TikTok, Telegram, YouTube, and Facebook, has garnered over 51,000 followers and 1.5 million views on its TikTok channels alone.[13]
Looking Westward: A Shift in Political Will?

For Georgia to begin taking action to counter Russian disinformation, there must first be the political will to do so. This necessarily implies a shift toward the West in Georgian politics. While the United National Movement (UNM), under the guidance of Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, has expressed much interest in strengthening ties with the West, Georgian Dream officials have actively undermined the political opposition’s efforts. Indeed, in September 2023, Georgian Dream officials attempted to impeach President Zourabichvili, alleging that her meetings with various EU officials to promote Georgia’s aspirations for EU candidate status were made against the will of the government and violated the Georgian constitution.[14] While such weaponisation of the law for political purposes is alarming, Georgian Dream officials failed to obtain the two-thirds majority of votes in parliament needed for impeachment.[15] The failure of this impeachment attempt, when coupled with Georgian Dream officials’ decision to abandon the party’s controversial foreign agents bill after widespread protests against it, suggests that pro-Western Georgians can effectively stave off further attempts by Georgian Dream officials to move Georgia under Russia’s wing.[16]

While the United National Movement has expressed much interest in strengthening ties with the West, Georgian Dream officials have actively undermined the political opposition’s efforts.

However, pro-Western Georgians will need to envision more proactive ways to shift Georgia toward the West. This is especially the case since, following the end of President Zourabichvili’s term later this year, the presidency will no longer be determined by popular vote but rather by an electoral college, which is likely to favour Georgian Dream’s preferences.[17] Despite this challenge, one way to help integrate Georgia into the West is through the development of the Middle Corridor.

Formally known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), the Middle Corridor is a network of roadways, railways, and sea routes that run through Central Asia and the South Caucasus to Türkiye, linking Chinese and European markets. Although long envisioned as an alternative to the Northern Corridor that crosses Russia, the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has spurred investors to implement the much-needed infrastructural and technical developments to render the Middle Corridor a viable and cost-effective alternative. In March 2022, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Türkiye signed a quadrilateral statement to work toward bolstering logistics services, establishing compatible cargo rates, and introducing a common IT system.[18] Then, in June 2023, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan signed an agreement establishing a joint logistics company to help unify tariffs and regulate cargo standards.[19] Building off this momentum, the Fourth Tbilisi Silk Road Forum was held in October 2023, bringing together approximately 2,000 participants to discuss ways to further develop the Middle Corridor.[20]

Georgia stands to play an important role in the development of the Middle Corridor. In addition to its two Black Sea Ports Poti and Batumi, which handled 11.3m and 4.5m tonnes of cargo in 2022, respectively, Georgia has since revived its plans to construct a deeper port capable of handling larger vessels at Anaklia.[21] This Black Sea access and central location in the South Caucasus enable Georgia to easily capitalise on the interregional trade that passes through it via the Middle Corridor. Such an opportunity, however, comes with several challenges. Russian military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a short distance away from the crucial roadways and railways passing through Georgia, and Russia’s decision to build a naval base in Abkhazia puts it within close range of Georgian ports.[22] There is also the risk that Georgian Dream officials will use Georgia’s strategic importance as a vital section of the Middle Corridor as blackmail against EU officials to tolerate democratic backsliding in the country.[23]

Russian military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a short distance away from the crucial roadways and railways passing through Georgia, and Russia’s decision to build a naval base in Abkhazia puts it within close range of Georgian ports.

Despite these risks, Western assistance has been forthcoming in developing the Middle Corridor. In November 2022, the EU signed a joint declaration with the Central Asian states to mobilise funds for the development of the Middle Corridor as part of the EU’s Global Gateway project.[24] Similarly, in March 2024, the U.S. inaugurated the B5+1 process, spearheaded by the Centre for Private International Enterprise (CIPE), to promote U.S. businesses’ investment in Central Asia.[25] If the EU and U.S. can develop similar initiatives for the South Caucasus, it would do much to help build deeper economic ties with Georgia. Diversification of the Georgian economy will help render it less dependent on Russia, thus creating a more favourable environment for generating pro-Western political will that can effectively counter Russian disinformation.
Recommended Countermeasures

Given the close nexus between Russia’s public diplomacy initiatives and its information warfare operations, taking steps to counter these campaigns is imperative to ensure that Georgia remains a pluralistic political system where its citizens can make well-informed decisions that help preserve rather than undermine the integrity of Georgian democracy. In this regard, Georgia can glean useful insights on best practices to counter Russia’s information operations by examining the strategies employed by other European states with extensive experience. The Czech Republic, for instance, has skillfully integrated think tanks and universities into its efforts to counter Russian disinformation by educating both the general public and policymakers in digital and media literacy.[26] Similarly, Estonia has successfully resisted certain Russian disinformation campaigns. The Estonian Defence League (Kaitseliit), a volunteer force within the Ministry of Defence, works closely with Debunk.eu and the Lithuania-based internet activist group “Baltic Elves” to help identify Russian trolls, report bots, and survey message boards.[27]

More broadly, when it comes to countering disinformation online, two tactics that are frequently suggested are fact-checking and labelling. Both of these tactics, and fact-checking in particular, however, require substantially more time and expertise than it takes to spread disinformation.[28] Labelling media content also risks inducing the implied truth and implied falsity effects, in which viewers perceive non-labelled content as being, respectively, either more or less credible than labelled content.[29] Local journalism has also been touted as a potential remedy, and while it may help spur greater civic engagement, it is often costly and requires long-term government or philanthropic support, something that is likely to be difficult to achieve in Georgia.[30] As such, the following are comparatively low-cost recommendations that Georgian civil society organisations, independent media, and political opposition members can support to counter Russian disinformation.

Labelling media content also risks inducing the implied truth and implied falsity effects, in which viewers perceive non-labelled content as being, respectively, either more or less credible than labelled content.

Prime the Public with the Truth. Research has indicated that the very act of resisting persuasive messages further inculcates preexisting beliefs about them.[31] While refuting disinformation can be useful, proactively educating the Georgian public with truthful accounts of salient topics likely to be exploited by Russian and pro-Russian media is likely to prove more effective: it is easier to form an initial opinion than to alter a preexisting one.
Promote Education in Media and Digital Literacy. In addition to developing centres at think tanks and universities devoted to the study of media and strategic communication, educational outreach can also encompass teaching critical thinking skills and digital literacy at the secondary level and beyond. This can include raising awareness of the methods that Russian influencers – both state and non-state – are likely to employ in targeting the Georgian public, as well as the types of emotional and social appeals that they seek to capitalise on. Such programs might educate the Georgian public how to (a) verify source authenticity and reliability, (b) triangulate the veracity of claims using multiple sources, (c) identify propaganda, and (d) report suspicious social media activity that could indicate the use of bots or trolls.[32] Importantly, however, such media and digital literacy initiatives should seek to empower members of the public to responsibly and critically engage with media content rather than grow overly sceptical and distrustful of all media institutions.[33] Although media and digital literacy require first “training the trainers,” such initiatives can be widely implemented at a grassroots level, for instance, through public libraries, civil society organisations, and independent media.[34]
Redirect. Given the risk involved in refuting false information that aligns with preexisting beliefs, lest doing so further reinforce those beliefs, Georgian political opposition members and independent media might benefit from pivoting the dialogue to a more constructive orientation that emphasises messages that promote Georgian interests rather than refuting those that counter them.[35] By refusing to fight on Russia’s terms (to adopt the language of asymmetric warfare), Georgian political opposition members and independent media can leverage such redirection to render Russian talking points irrelevant and static deadends. Additionally, a secondary component of this approach is to craft values-based narratives that emphasise shared community principles with a call to action that spurs constructive behaviour.[36]
Utilise Community Partnerships. A further way to counter disinformation is through the creation of strong communities united by a common respect for truth, transparency, and diligence. Civil society organisations should engage in outreach initiatives with the community members that they serve not only to help educate them in media and digital literacy, but also to emphasise the shared values that unite the community and the way that disinformation threatens these values and communal cohesion. Civil society leaders should seek to empathetically engage with community members and listen to their concerns with a nonjudgmental attitude, using common values and connections as a starting point for addressing disinformation.[37] By focusing on common values and a genuine concern for the well-being of both individuals and the community, civil society leaders can help craft stronger and more resilient communities whose actions reinforce critical thinking and the pursuit of reliable and truthful information.

Extended Hybrid Warfare

Russian public diplomacy seeks to exploit preexisting divisions within a target state’s public by promoting and disseminating disinformation that undermines both the credibility and authority of state institutions and independent media. As such, Russian public diplomacy exhibits a close relation to information warfare and can be understood as an extension of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy. The Georgian public, owing to the closer economic ties that the state has developed with Russia since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the continued prominence of the pro-Russian Georgian Dream party, is highly susceptible to Russian public diplomacy initiatives.

Russian public diplomacy exhibits a close relation to information warfare and can be understood as an extension of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy.

Consequently, members of Georgian civil society, independent media, and political opposition must undertake earnest efforts to counter this influence. Georgia will benefit from looking to other European states with extensive experience in countering Russian disinformation. In more broad and strategic terms, however, the following recommendations are advised: (1) prime the public with the truth, (2) promote education in media and digital literacy, (3) redirect Russian disinformation and form alternative narratives, and (4) utilise community partnerships and outreach to emphasise common values. Undertaking these recommendations will help protect the Georgian public against subversion and ensure that Georgian democracy exists in a political environment conducive to well-informed discourse and debate.

[1] Nicholas J. Cull, Public Diplomacy: Foundation for Global Engagement in the Digital Age (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2019), 23.

[2] Richard Holbrooke, “Get the Word Out,” The Washington Post, October 27, 2001, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2001/10/28/get-the-message-out/b298b3c9-45b8-45e2-9ec7-20503dd38802/.

[3] Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016), 2, https://www.rand.org/ pubs/perspectives/PE198.html.

[4] Robert Seely, “Defining Contemporary Russian Warfare: Beyond the Hybrid Headline,” The RUSI Journal 162 no. 1 (2017): 52, https://doi.org/doi:10.1080/03071847.2017.1301634; Alexander Lanoszka, “Russian Hybrid Warfare and Extended Deterrence in Eastern Europe,” International Affairs 92, no. 1 (2016): 178, https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2346.12509.

[5] Ralph S. Clem, Erik S. Herron, and Ani Tepnadze, “Russian Anti-Western Disinformation, Media Consumption and Public Opinion in Georgia,” Europe-Asia Studies 75, no. 9 (2023): 1537, https://doi.org/10. 1080/09668136.2023.2220997.

[6] “‘Where Is the Logic?’: Georgia Will Not Sanction Russia, Says PM,” Al Jazeera, May 24, 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/24/where-is-the-logic-georgia-will-not-sanction-russia-says-pm.

[7] Emil Avdaliani, “Playing With Fire: Georgia’s Cautious Rapprochement With Russia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 21, 2023, https://carnegieendowment.org/politika/90246.

[8] Vladimir Solovyov, “What’s Behind Russia’s Overture to Georgia?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 17, 2023, https://carnegieendowment.org/politika/89780.

[9] Avdaliani, “Playing With Fire.”

[10] Digital Forensic Research Lab, “In Europe and the South Caucasus, the Kremlin Leans on Energy Blackmail and Scare Tactics,” Atlantic Council, February 29, 2024, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/kremlin-info-ops-in-europe-and-the-caucasus/.

[11] Giorgi Menabde, “Georgian Dream Officials Fear a ‘Revolutionary Scenario’ in Georgia,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 20, no. 162 (2023), https://jamestown.org/program/georgian-dream-officials-fear-a-revolutionary- scenario-in-georgia/.

[12] Eto Buziashvili, “Russian and Azerbaijani pro-government outlets exploit Georgian USAID narratives,” Digital Forensic Research Lab, December 07, 2023, https://dfrlab.org/2023/12/07/russian-and-azerbaijani-pro-government-outlets-exploit-georgian-usaid-narratives.

[13] Sopo Gelava, “Pro-Kremlin campaign pushes ‘Anti-Maidan’ movement in Georgia,” Digital Forensic Research Lab, February 08, 2024, https://dfrlab.org/2024/02/08/pro-kremlin-campaign-promotes-anti-maidan-movement-in-georgia.

[14] Lisa O’Carroll, “Georgia’s Ruling Party Seeks to Impeach President over EU Visits,” The Guardian, September 01, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/sep/01/georgia-ruling-party-impeach-president-salome-zourabichvili-eu-visits.

[15] Felix Light, “Georgia’s Pro-EU President Avoids Impeachment after Break with Government,” Reuters, October 18, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/georgias-pro-eu-president-avoids-impeachment-after-break-with-government-2023-10-18/.

[16] Sophiko Megrelidze, “Georgia Drops Foreign Agents Law after Massive Protests,” Associated Press, March 10, 2023, https://apnews.com/article/georgia-foreign-agents-law-protests-parliament-1ab288cb3a3ccf330830ce7cae5603e2.

[17] “New Constitution Enters into Force,” Civil Georgia, December 17, 2018, https://civil.ge/archives/271293.

[18] Mahammad Mammadov, “Implications of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine for the Emergence of the Middle Corridor as a Viable Route for East-West Trade.” Georgian Institute of Politics Policy Brief, no. 44: 5, http.s://gip.ge/publication-post/ implications-of-russias-invasion-of-ukraine-for-the-emergence-of-the-middle-corridor-as-a-viable-route-for-east-west-trade/.

[19] Meray Ozat and Haley Nelson, “The Middle Corridor: The Beginning of the End for Russia’s Northern Corridor?” Caspian Policy Center, June 30, 2023, https://www.caspianpolicy.org/research/energy-and-economy-program-eep/the-middle-corridor-the-beginning-of-the-end-for-russias-northern-corridor.

[20] “Greater Consensus on Improving the Middle Corridor.” International Institute for Strategic Studies Strategic Comments 29, no. 39 (December 2023): 2, https://www.iiss.org/globalassets/media-library—content–migration/files/publications/strategic-comments-delta/2023/12/29-39-greater-consensus-on-improving-the-middle-corridor-2.pdf.

[21] Idem.

[22] Ibid., 3.

[23] Nina Gabritchidze, “How the Middle Corridor Is Shaping Georgia’s Relations with the West,” Eurasianet, May 03, 2023, https://eurasianet.org/how-the-middle-corridor-is-shaping-georgias-relations-with-the-west.

[24] “Joint Declaration: EU-Central Asia Connectivity Conference: Global Gateway.” European Union External Action, November 18, 2022, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/joint-declaration-eu-central-asia-connectivity-conference-global-gateway_en.

[25] “United States Launches Initiative to Foster Central Asian Connectivity.” Eurasianet, March 14, 2024, https://eurasianet.org/united-states-launches-initiative-to-foster-central-asian-connectivity.

[26] Joseph Robbins, “Countering Russian Disinformation,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 23, 2020, https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/countering-russian-disinformation.

[27] Robbins, “Countering”; Kim Sengupta, “Meet the Elves, Lithuania’s Digital Citizen Army Confronting Russian Trolls,” Independent, July 17, 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/lithuania-elves-russia-election-tampering-online-cyber-crime-hackers-kremlin-a9008931.html.

[28] Jon Bateman and Dean Jackson, Countering Disinformation Effectively: An Evidence-Based Policy Guide (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2024), 33, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Carnegie_Countering_Disinformation_Effectively.pdf.

[29] Ibid., 39.

[30] Ibid., 20-22.

[31] Paul and Matthews, The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood,” 10.

[32] Miriam Matthews et al., Understanding and Defending Against Russia’s Malign and Subversive Information Efforts in Europe (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2021), 83-85, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR3100/RR3160/RAND_RR3160.pdf.

[33] Bateman and Jackson, Countering Disinformation Effectively, 27-28.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Paul and Matthews, The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood,” 10.

[36] Sophia Marjanovic and Lindsey Berger, “Countering Disinformation in Your Community,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 4, https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2022-04/Countering-Disinformation-in-Your-Community-Resource-Guide.pdf.

[37] Ibid., 2-3.

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