On May 19, an airplane landed at the airport of the Georgian capital capable of permanently damaging the relations between Ukraine and Georgia.
First of all, this plane arrived from Moscow's Vnukovo airport – the first direct flight between Russia and Georgia in almost four years. Even more importantly, it's about the aircraft.
Air connections between these countries have been suspended several times. However, unlike all previous cases, this time the ban lifting occurred in a completely different reality.
The full-scale war of Russia against Ukraine and the anti-Russian sanctions affected aviation: all EU member countries have closed their airspace to Russian airlines.
Most EU candidate countries have officially or unofficially followed the example. There are only two exceptions: Türkiye, only a nominal EU candidate (negotiations with Türkiye are frozen and the West has no desire to resume them), and Serbia, which does not want to follow the common EU foreign policy position (and therefore has no progress in membership negotiations).
However, even Serbia has only saved a small number of flights to Russia. Belgrade planned to strengthen air connections with sanctioned Moscow and profit from it. It backed down though after the EU's compelling warnings about consequences for Serbia.
Considering this, Tbilisi's decision to resume flights looks like a challenge or even a slap to the European Union. After all, the Georgian government did not change its decision despite the EU's calls to refrain from such rapprochement with Moscow. Not even the fact that the United States is already hinting at possible sanctions against Georgian companies had an effect.
It is indicative that Tbilisi is seriously considering being sanctioned for resuming flights with Russia. It is not a coincidence that the servicing of Russian planes at Tbilisi airport will be handled by a company established just 20 days before Russia's announcement to open the sky with Georgia (or is it just a coincidence?).
Ukraine has also not remained aside.
"In 2008, Russian planes already flew to Georgia to bomb the civilian population. Now they plan to bomb the European future of Georgians," said Oleh Nikolenko, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.
However, the problem is much more serious than just resuming flights with an aggressor.
Initially, the Georgian authorities, to justify their move towards Russia, claimed that only those Russian companies that are not under international sanctions would be granted flight permits.
"All of a sudden" this promise turned out to be false.
"Azimuth" is the first Russian airline to operate a flight to Tbilisi. It was sanctioned by Kyiv on October 19, 2022. The sanction decision does not specify the reason for the punishment but it is obvious: "Azimuth" operates flights to Crimea occupied by Russia.
Flight permission to Georgia was granted later to another Russian airline that flies to Crimea and is under Ukrainian sanctions – Red Wings.
No sanctions from the EU and the US only means that these companies have not yet fallen under their "radars."
This detail makes us look at Tbilisi's decision in a new light.
Although Georgia did not join the Western sanctions imposed after February 24, 2022, it has always declared its support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Just like Ukraine does not recognise self-proclaimed Abkhazia and South Ossetia, considering them as Russian-occupied territories of Georgia.
Moreover, in 2014, Georgia joined the "Crimean" package of sanctions against Russia by the European Union.
The Georgian authorities had used this fact as a kind of "indulgence" for a long time. Supposedly, Tbilisi actually supports sanctions but cannot afford to join the more powerful sanction packages of recent years.
It turns out now that Tbilisi's assurances of respect for Ukraine's territorial integrity are also worth nothing. They are ready to allow flights by an airline operating in occupied Crimea if necessary.
This is a crucial moment for Ukraine because, since the annexation of Crimea, Kyiv has been building relations with other countries primarily through the prism of recognition or non-recognition of this annexation.
Obviously, it requires a response from the Ukrainian government.
What will it be? Will it sanction Georgian officials? Or Georgian airlines (Georgian Airways will continue flying to Russia from the Georgian side)?
Will there also be "deferred punishment," such as the suspension of air communication between Ukraine and Georgia after the war?
Only one thing is clear. Ukraine's relations with Georgia were considered strategic until today. Our countries have always been perceived as natural allies despite all the difficulties in recent years. It has never been questioned.
It is impossible to consider a country a strategic partner that does not respect our territorial integrity.
The current Georgian government has destroyed the strategic relationship with Ukraine, allowing a plane of a Russian airline in Tbilisi, which is still effectively involved in the programme of "legalising" the annexation of Ukrainian Crimea."
Publications in the "Expert Opinion" are not editorial articles and solely reflect the authors' point of view.