Georgians take up arms against Russia in Ukraine

While many Georgians feel a personal connection to the war in Ukraine, a number put their lives on the line, traveling to Ukraine to join the Ukrainian army as it resists the Russian invasion.

At least nine Georgians have died in Ukraine since the start of the war, probably the highest death toll of any foreign contingent fighting on the Ukrainian side. Georgian volunteers include former Georgian soldiers, poets, bloggers and two former defense ministers.

Sniper and reserve officer Darejan Maisuradze said she traveled to Ukraine to take up arms even before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for international volunteers to come to the defense of Ukraine. “As soon as I heard that Kyiv was being bombed, I went to sign up and have been here ever since,” she said in a March interview with Formula TV.

For many Georgian fighters, the war in Ukraine amounts to a continuation of their ongoing struggle with Russia, against which they fought a war in 2008 and which continues to militarily support two Georgian breakaway regions, Abkhazia and Ossetia. from South.

“My father thought it was not only Ukraine’s war, but rather Georgia’s war,” said the son of a Georgian, Zaza Bitsadze, who died on April 16 in Rubizhne, eastern Ukraine.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of Georgian men and women fighting in Ukraine. The media reports numbers ranging from tens to hundreds. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry did not respond to Eurasianet’s question about the number of Georgian fighters and casualties.

“Georgian fighters can be found on all Ukrainian fronts,” journalist and volunteer fighter Alexey Bobrovnikov told Current Time TV. He said the Georgians are scattered in various brigades and regiments, fighting both in the Ukrainian regular armed forces and in international volunteer battalions. Some serve in the International Territorial Defense Legion of Ukraine, an ad hoc battalion created specifically for foreign volunteers.

There is even a Georgian National Legion, a paramilitary unit that serves as a vehicle for veteran soldiers from Georgia, as well as the United States and Europe.

Georgian National Legion / facebook

The Legion’s founder, Georgian veteran Mamuka Mamulashvili, told VOA that his group includes Americans with combat experience from US-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. On May 4, he posted a photo on his Facebook page of what he described as an American legion fighter recovering from an injury in a hospital. “Our Hero American Soldiers,” the caption read.

Despite the growing death toll, the role of Georgian volunteers in Ukraine is admired by some in Georgia, with their sacrifice seen as compensation for the government’s cautious stance towards Ukraine.

Apparently fearing the wrath of Moscow, the Georgian government initially tried to prevent volunteer fighters from traveling to Ukraine. As large crowds gather at Tbilisi airport as the bodies of deceased volunteers return to Georgia and their funerals become major public events, senior officials have kept their distance.

“I have done everything I can, from returning their remains to arranging military funeral honors, everything else is speculation,” Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said last month in response to complaints. criticism for not showing up for the funeral.

Many Georgians also believe they should do Ukrainians a favor, some of whom fought alongside Georgians in the war in Abkhazia in the early 1990s. “We owe the Ukrainians a debt and we Georgians always pay our debts,” sniper Maisuradze said.

“Ukraine was the only country that helped us back then, and many Ukrainian volunteers came to fight for the sovereignty of Georgia,” Mamulashvili said in an interview.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Georgian television has rebroadcast archival footage from the war in Abkhazia.

“Moscow is our common enemy,” a young Ukrainian fighter declared in a 1990s documentary about the Abkhazian war, in words that turned out to be prophetic: “Today they are here, tomorrow they will be in Ukraine.”

Mamulashvili also fought on the Chechen side in the 1994-1996 Russo-Chechen War, then fought against Russian troops in the 2008 Russian attack on Georgia.

When Ukraine saw its own separatist conflict erupt in 2014, Mamulashvili, who had meanwhile become president of the Georgian Mixed Martial Arts Federation, moved to Ukraine with several former Georgian soldiers to form the Georgian National Legion. .

The ranks of the legion began to swell after the new Russian invasion, as it became a destination not only for Georgian veterans but also for other foreign volunteers.

The legion has also been the source of controversy.

Mamulashvili said last month he was not going to take any Russians prisoner in what appeared to be a threat to execute them. He later clarified that he meant that the legion itself would not hold any captives and would hand them over to Ukrainian forces.

A video from early April documented a group of soldiers from the Ukrainian side executing a seriously injured Russian soldier. The video shows a Georgian among the Ukrainians, leading to suggestions that the unit involved may have come from the Georgian Legion. Mamulashvili told Georgian and international media that he did not know the fighters, including the Georgian, in the video.

Still, the Russian Investigative Committee has launched a criminal case against Mamulashvili, accusing him of violating Russian laws prohibiting the creation of informal military formations and inciting ethnic hatred. “Mamulashvili has made public statements about his intention to torture and kill Russian servicemen,” the committee said in a statement.

Ukrainian President Zelenskiy, meanwhile, presented awards to several Georgian fighters, including a married couple, Gela Beglarishvili and Rusudan Ivanishvili.

And the Ukrainian Embassy in Tbilisi thanked the Georgian fighters for their service and sacrifice.

“We are extremely grateful to you for standing by our side and helping us to protect our nation,” Ukrainian diplomat Andrii Kasianov said after the death of two Georgian soldiers.

This story was first published by Eurasianet.org.

Martin E. Berry