Why Georgians think Russia is militarily stronger than the United States?

Ghia Nodia, professor of politics, Ilia Chavchavadze State University.

Ghia Nodia is a professor of politics and the director of the International School of Caucasus Studies in Ilia Chavchavadze State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. He is also a founder and chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD), an independent public policy think tank in Tbilisi, Georgia.

In December, the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI) decided to ask Georgian respondents, which country was superior in terms of military power, the Russian Federation or the United States. 41 percent said Russia was stronger, 15 percent opted for parity, and only 36 percent gave preference to the American army.

Both the question and the answers were met with incredulity. By all measurable indicators, the American army is much stronger; no respectable military expert would contest that. But what was the point of testing the knowledge of military balance by average Georgians? And if they gave a wrong answer, so what? Some started second-guessing the pollsters’ true motives: Maybe, they wanted to pressure their own government to become more militarily active in the region. Laura Thornton, head of the local NDI office, ridiculed such suppositions on her Facebook page, but not all Georgians were convinced. One member of the Georgian Parliament (from the ruling Georgian Dream party) even took offence at Ms. Thornton’s suggestion that Washington’s decision-makers may not give a damn about the NDI poll. 

In fact, asking such a question was a smart idea. NDI has been tracking, for quite some time, another balance: between supporters of pro-western and pro-Russian policies in Georgia. That balance is changing: the former are still much more numerous, but the number of those in favor of the Eurasian (that is Russian) choice has been steadily growing: in the same research, the figure reached 29 percent. So how do we account for that trend? 

So far, the most popular way to explain the rising popularity of the Eurasian choice is the Russian influence, or what different analysts describe as its “soft,” “smart,” or “sharp” power. There is a point in that. In the last few years, Russia stepped up its active measures in many countries, and Georgia is no exception. Moreover, since the Georgian Dream came to power in 2012, openly or tacitly pro-Russian NGOs and media, as well as political parties, feel at much greater ease. The government even subsidizes some anti-western, as well as xenophobic and homophobic media whose message-box happens to be rather similar to that of the Russian propaganda. Some (like the opposition United National Movement) explain this by saying Bidzina Ivanishvili, the informal leader of the Georgian Dream, is an agent of Russian influence, others (the Georgian Dream supporters) claim this is because their government is a lot more democratic than ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili administration. One might also suggest that this way the government is trying to keep the support of the country’s anti-western electorate who shares its key sentiment – hatred of Saakashvili and the United National Movement. Whatever the reason, the effect is there. 

Propaganda efforts cannot explain everything, however. People can also judge for themselves. Measurable indicators or military strength are one thing; but it also counts for a lot, whether a country is prepared to use its military might to pursue its aims, and, ultimately, how effective its interventions are when it does decide to project its hard power. If one measures the effectiveness of the American army by its actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, conclusions will not be terribly encouraging. Americans did not lose; to the contrary, they swiftly and easily overwhelmed both Taliban and Saddam Hussein armies, but then, they failed to consolidate their initially impressive victories by maintaining Afghan and Iraqi governments that would be both friendly to the United States, and in effective control of their countries. As a result, Americans look bogged down, unable either to leave or to decisively win. 

Why is that? There are many reasons, but insufficient capacity of the American military is not a major one. An important factor is the restriction imposed by its own democracy. Democracies tend to avoid lengthy military engagements with large force deployments and heavy losses, fearing that their own people will punish their governments politically. Neither can they be indiscriminate in choosing their warfare methods, because their own liberal public will not tolerate atrocities committed in their names. In a much similar vein, the United States cannot install or support friendly tyrants in the wake of a successful military operation: its client governments should observe basic democratic norms. It also has to take international democratic opinion into account: while U.S. did in the end ignore the positions of the United Nations Security Council, it still had to work hard to make a convincing case that the intervention in Iraq was morally justified.

Russia has no such limitations: when making a decision to use force, it only cares about the response of the other side, which, in most cases, means the United States. And if it is not really afraid of the western reaction, it can do as it pleases: invade countries like Georgia and Ukraine, and stay in places like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea or parts of eastern Ukraine indefinitely.

This does not mean that the West is doomed to lose – not at all. But in order to prevail and stop the predatory behavior of committed spoilers like Russia, it has to be strategic, focused, and united. Which is not always easy to achieve. During the last decade or so, western policies in our region did not answer many of these criteria. 

Rank and file Georgians see that, in its neighborhood, Russia breaks the rules that the West claims to be protecting, but gets away unscathed. This makes it look stronger, even if it is not in reality. Putin succeeded in creating an impression that it is on the offensive and the West is forced to look for responses without finding robust ones. This impression is a much greater achievement than the actual territorial acquisitions of the last years. It is (sadly) part of the human nature to side with the apparent winner, and quite a few Georgians seem to display that feature as well. It is, therefore, likely that unless the trend in regional politics gets reversed, the erosion of popular support for Georgia’s pro-western policies may continue and reach new lows.