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Georgians likely rank first among foreign fighters killed fighting for Ukraine

by Nate Ostiller February 2, 2024 3:52 PM 7 min read
Demonstrators march on Rustaveli Avenue towards the parliament for the Ukrainian solidarity rally to mark the anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2023, in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images)
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Two more Georgian fighters were killed in Ukraine on Feb. 1, according to the Georgian Legion, one of the more well-known units of foreign fighters operating in Ukraine.

Estimates vary, but Georgian media approximates that between 50-60 Georgian soldiers have been killed fighting for Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in 2022, making it likely the highest death toll of any foreign nationality fighting on the Ukrainian side.

In comments to The Kyiv Independent, the Georgian Legion said that at least 59 Georgian fighters had been killed since the beginning of the full-scale war, but the figure was possibly higher. The estimates of foreign fighters from other countries are also inconsistent but are lower, even when accounting for the highest figures provided.

RFE/RL's Belarusian service said in January 2024 that at least 38 Belarusian soldiers had been killed fighting on Ukraine's side, making it the closest to the likely number of Georgians killed.

The Georgian Legion has been operating in Ukraine since 2014 under the command of outspoken leader Mamuka Mamulashvili, who has an active social media presence. Mamulashvili said he first fought against Russians as a teenager alongside his father in the 1990s in the war in Abkhazia, where Russian-backed proxies and Russian soldiers battled the Georgian government.

After the outbreak of war in Ukraine's Donbas region in 2014, Mamulashvili decided to go to Ukraine and form the legion to fight Russian proxies. The unit was originally small, consisting primarily of ethnic Georgians, but has since expanded into a multi-ethnic force that Mamulashvili claimed in 2023 was the "largest foreign military formation" fighting alongside the regular Ukrainian army.

According to Mamulashvili, many of the fellow Georgians in the unit were motivated by revenge, having previously lost family members in Russian-backed wars in Georgia.

"So, for many guys, it's personal...Ukraine has given them the opportunity to avenge their fathers," he said in a 2023 interview with RBC Ukraine.

A mural in Tbilisi, Georgia, on July 31, 2023, depicting Oleksandr Matsiyevskyi, a Ukrainian prisoner of war (POW) executed by Russian soldiers on video in March 2023. (Nate Ostiller/The Kyiv Independent)

RFE/RL's Georgian service has collected the names of all Georgians confirmed to have been killed in Ukraine since 2022, along with their background and what inspired them to pick up arms and fight Russia on foreign territory. As of September 2023, 51 names are on the list, including ethnic Azeris and Armenians from Georgia, as well as Ukrainian citizens of Georgian origin.

The ages of those killed range from as young as 21 to several fighters who died in their 50s.

The Georgian population has been strongly supportive of Ukraine's fight against Russia, with many saying that they share a common enemy with Ukrainians. There was concern after the beginning of the full-scale invasion that a Russian victory in Ukraine could spell danger for Georgia.

Former Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli wrote in March 2022 that "the expected danger of a new wave of direct Russian aggression is not particularly high at present."

At the same time, he said, "There is definitely a connection between the outcome of the war in Ukraine and the future of the Georgian state."

Pro-Ukraine graffiti and murals on a Tbilisi street on Jan. 12, 2024. (Nate Ostiller/The Kyiv Independent)

The sentiment about the historical continuity of Russian aggression against its neighbors and those struggling to break free from Russian rule was repeated by many Georgians who fought and died in Ukraine.

Davit Ratiani, who was killed battling Russian troops in March 2022 in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, had previously fought in Abkhazia and the 2008 Russian war on Georgia. He reportedly told his family shortly before his death that "the history of Georgia is repeating itself in Ukraine."

When the remains of Ratiani and Gia Beriashvili, another Georgian fighter killed in Irpin, were brought back to Georgia, hundreds gathered at the Tbilisi airport to pay their respects.

Public memorials to Georgian fighters killed in Ukraine sprung up around the city, including in front of the Georgian parliament building on central Rustaveli Avenue.

A makeshift memorial for Georgian fighters killed in Ukraine in front of the Georgian parliament building on March 25, 2022. (Nate Ostiller/The Kyiv Independent)

The Georgian government, under the leadership of now-former Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and the ruling Georgian Dream party, took a different approach to the flow of Georgian fighters to Ukraine.

Georgian Dream party chair Irakli Kobakhidze, recently reported to be the incoming prime minister, warned in December 2022 that Georgian citizens who fought in Ukraine would lose their citizenship.

Following a public backlash, Georgian Dream politicians said that the statement simply referred to the laws of Georgia, which prohibit Georgian citizens from serving in foreign militaries' without the permission of the government.

The consequence of violating the law is the loss of citizenship. Many other countries, including the U.S., have similar laws in place.

Media: Ruling Georgian Dream party chair Kobakhidze to take over as Georgian PM
The news, which is expected to be formally announced later this week, came a month after Georgian Dream party founder and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said he was returning to politics as the party’s “honorary chair.”

Garibashvili later publicly offered his condolences to the families of Georgian fighters killed in Ukraine but criticized the Georgian Legion and Mamulashvili for allegedly "recruiting" Georgians.

Garibashvili insinuated that Mamulashvili was affiliated with the United National Movement (UNM), the Georgian opposition party founded by former President Mikhail Saakashvili, implying that it was UNM allegedly recruiting Georgians.

Georgia's Defense Ministry later made a similar statement criticizing UNM's supposed recruitment tactics after another Georgian was killed in Ukraine.

Georgian Dream has remained at odds with the Georgian Legion.

In one notable incident in September 2023, the Georgian State Security Service (SSG) accused the Georgian Legion, a former bodyguard of Saakashvili, and Giorgi Lortkipanidze, allegedly a deputy head of Ukraine's military intelligence, of plotting a coup against Georgian Dream.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleh Nikolenko denied the allegations, and Andrii Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukrainian military intelligence, said Lortkipanidze never worked as deputy head of the country's intelligence.

Georgian Dream has taken inconsistent positions on Russia and its full-scale war on Ukraine.

Garibashvili drew widespread criticism in May 2023 after he said that Ukraine was partially to blame for Russia's full-scale war.

Representatives from Georgian Dream did not vote for the Oct. 13, 2023, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolution that declared Russia a dictatorship.

Georgia has also refrained from joining sanctions against Russia, often citing that doing so would harm its own economic interests.

Georgian Dream tried to enact a foreign agents law in 2023, characterized by some as a "kind of a copy-paste from Russia," but withdrew it from consideration after massive street protests broke out in response.

Even as the vast majority of the Georgian population supports Ukraine and is in favor of joining the EU, the government appears to be uncomfortable with the number of Georgians fighting and dying for Ukraine.

The makeshift monument previously in front of the Georgian parliament building in the city center is no longer there, having been moved to the site of a memorial for Georgians killed in the war in Abkhazia. While the Abkhaz war memorial is manned by an honor guard and is well-maintained, it is on a street primarily used by cars and sees few pedestrian passersby.

A memorial for Georgian and Belarusian fighters killed in Ukraine off of Heroes Square, Tbilisi, Georgia, on Feb. 2, 2024. (Nate Ostiller/The Kyiv Independent)

"I would say that 100% of Georgian society is anti-Russian and anti-government. Unfortunately, we received a pro-Russian government," said Mamulashvili in July 2023.

Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova all applied for EU membership after the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The European Commission offered Georgia candidate status in November 2023, while Moldova and Ukraine were granted official recommendations to begin accession talks.

A recent report by the EU's Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF) released on Jan. 24 found that Georgia has made only limited progress in its EU-mandated reforms.

“Basically, in every area, there was a decrease (since 2022) in spite of the fact that the EU rewarded it with the candidate status,” said EaP CSF head Alexandra Sabou.

Georgia is "trending downward," according to the report's summary.

"The contradiction between Georgia’s aspirations for EU membership and its reluctance to adhere to the EU’s foreign policy consensus is glaring," the report's conclusion reads.

At the same time, the number of Georgians killed fighting in Ukraine tells a different story. Estimates of the total number of foreigners who volunteered to fight against Russia vary widely.

Despite Georgia's 3.7 million population, the number of Georgians killed fighting against Ukraine likely outstrips many other countries allied with Ukraine that have significantly higher populations.  

"To be honest, I don't see much difference between Georgia and Ukraine. The difference is that we have big mountains, a warmer climate, it's cold here (in Ukraine)," said Zakro Shubitidze, a 30-year-old Georgian fighter killed in Donetsk Oblast in September 2023.

"(Our) relatives, of course, are nervous....a little boy and a girl are waiting for me at home. But we believe that we should stop our common enemy here because if we don't do it now, our children will have to do it in the future," Shubitidze said.

Kutelia, Sikharulidze: Ending Putin’s wars – don’t forget Georgia
Aside from the capital city of Tbilisi, where 40 miles away Russian occupying troops are stationed in Georgia’s South Ossetia region, the danger of unjust peace is also felt in Batumi, the country’s tourist hotspot on the Black Sea coast. Over the horizon lies Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimea.
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