12 years on, Georgian ambassador sees war with Russia as warning to Europe

Georgian Ambassador to Israel Lasha Zhvania remembers help from US Jewish community and Israel as boosting morale.

Lasha Zhvania (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lasha Zhvania
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Twelve years after his country’s war with Russia, Georgian Ambassador to Israel Lasha Zhvania described the events as a cautionary tale, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
“In 2008, we said loudly to the whole world that Georgia won’t be the only country in the region” to face Russian aggression, Zhvania said, pointing to Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine over Crimea as “threatening the security and stability of Europe.”
The 2008 Russo-Georgian War took place on August 7-12, over the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, where there were pro-Russian separatists. Amid deteriorating relations between Tbilisi’s pro-Western government and Moscow, Russia stopped its sanctions on the separatists. When South Ossetian separatists shelled Georgian villages, the Georgian Army entered the area to stop them. Russia invaded Georgia by land, sea and air, claiming that they were enforcing the peace in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops ethnically cleansed Georgians from South Ossetia, and 192,000 people were displaced by the war.
Russia has occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the war.
“If the democratic world would have sent a strong message about Russian actions, then the precedent would not have been repeated in Ukraine,” Zhvania said.
The ambassador recounted that “strong efforts” by then-president of France Nicolas Sarkozy, who negotiated the ceasefire with Russia, and the US allowed Georgia to defend its capital and get Russian troops out, but the international community failed to demilitarize the Russian-occupied areas.
Zhvania pointed to the use of cyberwarfare and hybrid warfare – spreading disinformation – as presaging future actions by Russia.
This was the first time in which cyberwarfare was used in tandem with military warfare, with Russian hackers shutting down Georgian government and news websites.
“The cyberattack was Russia flexing its muscles not only to countries in the region, but threatening the security of Europe,” he said.
Russia also used media to blame Georgia for starting the war and gain support for its actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia responded by blocking Russian television channels and access to Russian websites.
This tactic against Georgia continues, and Zhvania said that Russian media blamed an American-established laboratory in Georgia for spreading pathogen agents for military purposes that might provoke the spread of dangerous diseases, when the laboratory was, in fact, helping the government with testing for COVID-19.
“For the past 12 years, Russia has tried to re-escalate the situation every year by moving the so-called border line, sometimes a few meters, sometimes a few hundred meters,” Zhvania said.
ZHVANIA RECOUNTED the role of US Jewish organizations in advocating for Georgia during the war.
As chairman of the Georgian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee at the time, Zhvania said he contacted Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, B’nai Brith CEO Daniel Mariaschin and National Conference on Soviet Jewry Executive Director Mark Levin, who helped bring the Georgian cause to Capitol Hill and the US State Department. He mentioned Democratic candidate for president Joe Biden as one of the members of the US Congress who spoke out against Russia at that time.
Zhvania also credited Israeli Flying Aid, an organization that brings aid to areas with natural disasters or conflict zones, with providing “strong, firm humanitarian aid” in the form of 6,000 food boxes delivered in three weeks to people in zones in which the Georgian government could not provide food.
Israel Flying Aid CEO “Gal [Lusky] and her team delivered food boxes on a daily basis,” he said, adding that the boxes had messages encouraging the recipients to have a positive attitude. “The psychological support was no less important than delivering food in that dangerous situation.”
Another Israeli woman, who had worked in the Georgian embassy but had never been to the country, decided to fly in during the war to help the government liaise with international media and organizations.
In addition, Zhvania said Israeli hospitals treated 18 heavily-wounded Georgian soldiers, all of whom returned home alive.
In addition to the doctors’ care, Georgian-Israelis “provided human support on a daily basis by visiting the soldiers. One woman would go from Rambam Hospital [in Haifa] to Tel Hashomer [outside Tel Aviv] daily, visiting every soldier,” he said. “She said their moms are far away... She tried to cheer them up and speak to them in Georgian.”
“This was a true example of ‘love thy neighbor,’” the ambassador added. “It gave us hope and optimism for the future. These stories keep our nations close together, as true friends in times of trouble.”
In a current sign of close relations between the countries, Tbilisi plans to open a Georgian Cultural Center in Jerusalem, as first reported in the Post in December. Zhvania said the opening would come “soon,” but did not say a specific date.
Zhvania cited the history of his compatriots in Jerusalem, saying the first residents of the neighborhoods of Katamon and Malha were from Georgia and that Georgian monasteries, such as Holy Cross, were historically “centers of scholarship and academic work in Israel.”
“Many Israelis know Georgia from khachapurhi and khinkali, the food, but Georgian culture feeds even better,” Zhvania said.
A cultural center in Jerusalem “will serve as another strong bridge for the relationship,” he added.