Game Plan

What to Do When Russia Invades Your Country

As Ukraine responds to a Russian stealth invasion, few countries can empathize. But the republic of Georgia has been there before, in 2008. And it’s got some advice for Kiev.

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Let’s say you are a former Soviet republic who has just seen some of its choicest territory annexed by Moscow. Few countries are in a better position to guide you through what happens next than Georgia.

At least, that’s the view of Georgia’s defense minister, Iraki Alasania. In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Beast, he said he had been in touch with his Ukrainian counterpart to offer the insights gleaned from his ministry’s study on the dos and don’ts of being invaded by Vladimir Putin’s military and stealth special operations units.

Among Georgia’s tips for Ukraine: hunt moles early; watch for “non-governmental organizations” that are really Moscow’s fronts; seek out encrypted communications from the West; and if Russia does annex more territory, keep humanitarian, economic and cultural lines of communications open without formally recognizing the transfer of turf—it could be a useful way for the government in Kiev to address some of the needs of Ukraine’s Crimean citizens.

“I am offering some lessons learned,” Alasania said. Georgia’s defense ministry recently finished a 70-page report on how to prepare the military, select counter-intelligence targets and approach the diplomacy after Russia takes sovereign territory. The hope is that the advice can help the current government in Ukraine survive the current crisis engulfing their country since Russia’s annexation last month of Crimea.

As a general rule, Alasania said it was important “to rely more on diplomatic resources” than the military. He noted that none of the militaries of the former Soviet republics could withstand a full-scale Russian invasion. But the Russian sabotage and provocation operations currently underway? Those have a chance of being countered.

While there are important distinctions, the crisis in Ukraine has important similarities to Georgia’s brief war with Russia in 2008. In the years before the 2008 war, the U.S. ambassador in Tblisi, for example, documented examples of Russian intelligence provocations, particularly in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. More recently, Western intelligence services have spotted Russian intelligence and special operations officers stoking the insurrection in eastern Ukraine.

Alasania said he already has had two lengthy conversations with Ukraine’s interim defense minister and is planning a face-to-face meeting to present his ministry’s report and offer his country’s assistance in planning for Ukraine without Crimea.

“If they survive this crisis there will be a future for all the countries in the region that border Russia,” Alasania said. "If they lose, it means that NATO loses. And those of us who aspire to be in NATO will be deadlocked under Russian sabotage for years to come.”

He said his report would offer Ukraine new insights on how to establish a counter-intelligence campaign against Russian saboteurs. “They don’t really have any kind of counter-intelligence service right now,” he said, noting that Ukraine’s security services were partners with Russia until February. While Alasania was vague, he said that there were “tell-tale signs” of Russian intelligence activity, such as the establishment of allegedly separatist non-government organizations that were most assuredly government-linked.

Alasania also stressed the importance of targeting moles within the military and security services—and targeting them early. If not, they can succeed in creating the kind of provocations that led Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to miscalculate in 2008 and launch a military confrontation that became the pretext for a full-scale Russian invasion.

Arrests of alleged spies under the former Georgian government of Saakashvili drew criticism from the government that took power in 2012 after winning parliamentary elections (Saakashvili served out his term as president until last year.) But Alasania said many of these spies did pose a threat, despite claims during the 2011 election campaign from his party that they were held on trumped-up charges.

Alasania said it was important to focus the mole hunt on the army. He said that only young, pro-Western officers should be promoted to key positions. Ukrainian officers who trained in Russia, Alasania said, should be sidelined or phased out.

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Ukraine’s military today appears to need all the help it can get. As The Daily Beast reported Tuesday, Ukraine’s current counter-insurgency campaign has largely failed and in some cases ended up targeting Ukrainian citizens and not armed separatists.

Ukraine also suffers from a lack of reliable communications for its troops in the field. The encrypted channels Ukraine would need for secure command and control for its military are penetrated by Russia, according to U.S. intelligence assessments.

Alasania said Georgia also had to rely on unencrypted cellphone communications during its brief war with Russia in 2008. This at times led to local mayors exercising command over Georgian troops outside the chain of command in the military, he said.

Alasania said that his government wanted to give Ukraine the benefit of its own diplomatic strategy for dealing with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two provinces that Russian troops continue to occupy to this day. Alasania said, for example, that Ukraine should be prepared for Russia to begin asking smaller countries to recognize Crimea as part of Russia, just as smaller countries like Nicaragua recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia rallied its allies in the West, to block a global tide of recognition from building. And it worked. Maybe it’s a tactic Ukraine may have to adopt one day, as well.