Although Russia looms large in the Republic of Georgia, the small country strives to be like the United States in many ways, says William & Mary Government Professor Dan Maliniak.
It showed in its eagerness to assist the U.S. in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq following the Sept. 11 attacks, despite not being a member of NATO.
Georgia’s enthusiasm to help the U.S. and its desire to join NATO and the European Union compelled Maliniak to explore these motivations even more. The best way to do this, Maliniak thought, was to form a research team that included some student veterans to interview Georgian military personnel and government officials in person.
“I was really interested in talking to the Georgians who actually went to Iraq and Afghanistan and ask them why they went,” Maliniak said.
“I had heard policymakers over the years talking about Georgia’s involvement in these conflicts as being one of the reasons why we as Americans need to remember the Republic of Georgia, because of what they did to help us.”
With the help of Chuck Williamson ’21, M.B.A. ’23, a former Army scouting and reconnaissance specialist, Maliniak recruited a group of research assistants to accompany him to Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, over the summer. The group also included Air Force veteran Maia Earl ’22, Daniella Marx ’24, Abby Stern ’24, Aliia Woodworth ’23 and Katrine Westgaard ’23.
Having veterans Williamson and Earl involved was critical to the field research, said Maliniak, who received some funding for the trip from W&M’s Whole of Government Center of Excellence, the Charles Center, the Global Research Institute and the Reves Center for International Studies.
“I was very keen to get at least some student veterans,” Maliniak said. “Part of that was because I’m not a veteran. I’m not a member of a military family, and so there are all these terms that get thrown around that frankly I don’t understand. Every time an interviewee mentioned a battalion or a brigade, I needed Chuck to remind me which one was bigger.
“Secondly, there are lots of experiences and parts of this culture that I don’t understand, and there is value to having somebody in an interview who shares that experience.”
The first findings of the group, focusing on summarizing the interviews with Georgian military personnel, were recently published on the Whole of Government Center of Excellence website. Earl, Woodworth and Stern have also published blog posts highlighting their experiences in Georgia as participants in GRI’s Summer Fellows Program.
A common language
Maliniak and the student researchers spent weeks in Tbilisi interviewing active-duty military personnel and veterans, as well as ministers of foreign affairs, ministers of defense, deputy defense ministers, heads of foreign intelligence, parliamentarians and ambassadors.
They learned much from these formal interviews, as well as in social settings. Maliniak said the famous hospitality of the Georgian people meant that they were invited to dinners and other get-togethers, including a going-away party for the Turkish ambassador to Georgia where they also met the ambassadors from Hungary and Azerbaijan.
“When you see what these students’ Rolodexes look like now, it’s just incredible,” Maliniak said.
Some members of the W&M research team were fluent in Russian, which helped when English wasn’t an option, while others used Google Translate to help communicate with their interview subjects.
For Williamson and Earl, neither of whom are fluent in Russian or Georgian, the common language of their military experiences was how they built solidarity with their research subjects.
“If you talk to anyone who’s been affiliated with the military for any length of time, it’s like learning a second language,” said Williamson, who served from 2014 to 2017. “Everything is an acronym. Everything has an abbreviation. Phrases and things we say don’t translate too well in civilian speak.”
Williamson bonded with the Georgian soldiers over talk of military rations. They joked about the green Mermite containers that are seen at every Army food line in the field.
During one interview between Earl, Woodworth, Marx and a group of veterans, one of the subjects was explaining his work with U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and he repeated “Alpha 10” a couple of times before Earl finally realized what he was saying.
He was talking about working with a unit of Air Force aircraft called A-10 Warthogs.
“All of a sudden, it clicked for me. ‘Oh, an A-10 unit,’” said Earl, who graduated in August with a degree in Middle Eastern studies. “The group of veterans responded in chorus, ‘Yes, yes, that’s it.’ If I wasn’t in the room, that would have gone over everybody’s head.
“It was only a small detail, but at the same time, not only did we understand more – that he was attached to an A-10 unit in Iraq – but more importantly, I think that little interaction established more rapport. It helped make the whole conversation more flowing and a little more at ease.”
Having military vets as part of the team was invaluable, Westgaard said.
“I don’t know what that sort of life is like where you’re putting your life on the line, and you’re doing that in service of others in your country,” Westgaard said. “And I think that understanding makes for a deeper conversation and more trust between the interviewee and the interviewers.”
The researchers found the Georgians to be very much in favor of the United States, NATO and the European Union.
“The Georgian people want democracy. They want to align themselves with the west,” said Earl, who served eight years in the Air Force and one year in the reserves before enrolling at W&M. “NATO membership has eluded them, but even if they’re not actual members of NATO, they’re not deterred. They want to cooperate and integrate with western countries and NATO countries.”
Woodworth, a Russian and post-Soviet studies major, said many of the group’s findings were new or hadn’t been documented.
“Every single person we talked to mentioned NATO and how much they want to get into NATO and the EU and how important that is for the nation and for national security reasons,” said Woodworth, who lived in Georgia briefly as a child while her father was stationed there for a UN peacekeeping mission.
The Georgians’ enthusiasm for the United States was unmistakable, borderline patriotic even.
“I felt like I walked away more of a patriot than I came in as,” said Stern, a government major. “But what was most surprising to me was not even their level of patriotism but how they looked at America as being this ideal, this perfect place that presented so many opportunities.”
Earl said hearing the Georgians speak so highly of the United States was a “profound experience.”
“One of the reasons it’s been life-changing or eye-opening for me is seeing my own identity from a different angle,” Earl said. “In the States, it’s easy to be caught up in this mindset of self-criticism and being very critical of our own society and government. There’s a lot of negativity about our own society, so coming here, all of a sudden you feel good because people are like, ‘Oh, you’re from America? Welcome.’
“And then talking to military and hearing how much they revere the U.S. military, it’s humbling. I feel humbled, and I feel proud at the same time.”
While becoming a democracy and joining NATO are strong motivators behind Georgia’s eagerness to help the United States, defending its territory is high on that list as well, Stern said.
The region has been affected greatly by Russia’s war on the Ukraine.
“People know that if Ukraine falls, they know it in their bones that Georgia is next, so like that’s another piece of what is going on, especially as you’re talking to people in the military community. They’re obviously thinking about this,” Maliniak said.
The Georgian military was a strong partner to the United States during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“When we talked to American service members, it was clear that they felt the Georgians were valuable to have in combat, and Georgians were proud that the Americans on the ground valued their contribution,” Maliniak said.
Georgian soldiers trained at bases throughout the United States, including many in Virginia, as part of the International Military Education & Training (IMET) program. They saw themselves as a part of the “western family,” Maliniak said.
This trickled down to their uniforms and boots, which were modeled after those of their U.S. counterparts. “They look like us,” Earl said.
“One soldier said, ‘We want to be part of the European and western family, and we saw a family member needed help. When your family member needs help, you help, and that’s why we were there,’” Maliniak said.
Upon first learning that the William & Mary students were from the United States, the Georgian soldiers were much more willing to let down their guards and open up about their experiences.
One Georgian officer invited the students to his home for a meal with his family.
“Retelling the story makes me want to cry,” Earl said. “He said that in Afghanistan we were like one family. He said, ‘We had Americans in front of us, behind us and overhead. We had air support. We knew they had our back, and we had theirs. The Americans trusted us, too.’ They were proud of their service because they showed how brave they are.”
Maliniak hopes this is the start of an ongoing relationship with these new contacts in Georgia. Upon returning from the trip, the students convinced Maliniak to form a research lab called the International and Political Affairs of the Caucasus (IPAC) lab.
Moreover, some of the student researchers spent time in Georgia interning at a think tank called the Georgian Strategic Analysis Center, where they helped write grant proposals for future projects, and some are still working with the GSAC as academic affiliates.
“This is an opportunity for students in the future to work at a think tank in Georgia that is sort of on the Euro-Atlantic integration side of things, doing work on Russian myths and disinformation, trying to promote peace building operations,” Maliniak said. “It’s super interesting stuff.”
Editor’s note: Democracy is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.
Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist