Georgia’s Anaklia deep-sea port project remerges as the epicenter of the latest wave of pro-Kremlin disinformation in the country
The proposal to construct a deep-water port at Anaklia on Georgia’s Black Sea coastline has once again emerged as a principal target of pro-Kremlin disinformation related to Georgia, though the efforts to gin up anti-Western sentiment around the issue had a limited impact at best.
Moscow has been using Georgia as a testing lab for its disinformation campaigns since, at least, the 2008 August war when Russia invaded Georgia, using both military and information operations — or “hybrid warfare” — against the country. Russia sees Georgia, and its close relationship with the United States in particular, as another front in its campaign to diminish Western influence in its neighboring states.
Over the past two months, the port project has attracted renewed interest from pro-Kremlin actors. This interest may be linked to two recent developments with regard to the project, both of which are of considerable concern for Russia.
First, on January 9, 2019, the Georgian Chief Prosecutor’s Office launched a criminal investigation against TBC Bank, the Georgian bank in charge of the port project, over money laundering allegations, which TBC denied. Days later, one of the pro-Russian Georgian media platforms wrote an article indicating that, as TBC Bank is a part of the Georgian-American consortium financing Anaklia project, this partnership might lead to the United States’ employment of the Anaklia port as a naval base.
Second, on January 21, 2019, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook arrived in the coastal city of Batumi and began conducting joint training exercises with the Georgian Navy. On the same day, Sputnik published an article accusing the United States and NATO of militarizing Georgia.
The narratives put forth by pro-Kremlin actors likely represent a concerted effort to turn public opinion in Georgia against the project. The DFRLab found no indication that this latest wave of the influence campaign was successful, however. The outlets and pages disseminating pro-Kremlin narratives had limited reach and impact. Furthermore, when Georgian internet users engaged with the narratives online, they often identified them as belonging to a pro-Kremlin influence operation.
The Importance of the Anaklia Port for Georgia and the Euro-Atlantic
According to the Economist, the Anaklia port will serve as the largest port on the Black Sea once constructed. By allowing the docking of large container ships, the port will bolster Georgia’s role in the East-West transit route.
The construction of the port concerns Moscow for several political and economic reasons. First, the port would compete with Russia’s Black Sea ports. Second, it would be located uncomfortably close, especially should a U.S. presence materialize, to Russian-occupied territories such as Abkhazia. Third, it would improve Georgia’s geopolitical position in the Euro-Atlantic space and beyond. In the event of Russian aggression, this last development in particular could enable Georgia’s allies to come to its aid, as large ships would have docking ability at Anaklia, enabling them to provide efficient support to the country. All three developments would dilute Russia’s influence in the Black Sea region.
Initial Wave of Disinformation on the Purpose of the Project
The construction of the Anaklia port was slated to start in 2016 but was postponed due to financing issues. In 2016, Russian state media began to disseminate disinformation that the port might eventually serve as a covert U.S. naval base at which U.S. submarines could position themselves to “allow the United States to become a hegemon in the Black Sea.”
A BuzzSumo analysis of articles containing the keywords “Anaklia port” in Russian published in the past two years suggested that Sputnik’s 2017 article, which claimed Americans could turn Anaklia port into a U.S. naval base, received the most engagement on Facebook, with a paltry 89 engagements.
The Latest Wave of Disinformation and Key Narratives on the Anaklia Port Project
The Anaklia port project resurged to the top of pro-Kremlin actors’ agendas in January 2019 as a result of two developments in Georgia. On January 9, 2019, the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation against TBC Bank, the core Georgian financier of the port project. Then on January 21, 2019, the U.S. guided-missile destroyer Donald Cook arrived on the coast of Batumi as part of a regularly scheduled deployment meant to enhance the maritime security, readiness, and naval capabilities of U.S. partners in the region.
Using Sysomos, an online tool that measures social-media engagement, the DFRLab scanned for mentions of “Anaklia port” among news outlet reporting in the Georgian language during a one-year period, from February 21, 2018 to March 20, 2019. Sysomos registered just 231 mentions of the term “Anaklia port” in Georgian across all news outlets.
Daily mentions of the term “Anaklia port” started to increase in January 2019, reaching a peak on February 18, 2019, and remaining relatively high, compared with the dearth of mentions the preceding year, throughout the first half of March 2019. Of the mentions that Sysomos flagged as originating outside of Georgia, 2.2 percent originated in the Czech Republic, and the remaining 97.8 percent were from Georgia.
The sources disseminating and amplifying anti-Western disinformation in Georgia encompass a wide range of entities, including media outlets, political parties and politicians, civic organizations, and individuals. According to a report by the Media Development Foundation, a Georgian not-for-profit promoting media literacy, one of the most prolific disseminators of anti-Western messages in Georgia is the online news agency Saqinform. The agency’s journalists and contributors have given 181 anti-Western quotes and published an additional 60 anti-Western quotes from members of public interviewed by Saqinform in 2017. The outlet is followed by TV Obieqtivi in terms of the magnitude of anti-Western content it produces; TV Obieqtivi has published 94 anti-Western messages from its contributors and 233 from its readers. These two platforms were leading providers of pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives on the Anaklia port as well.
From January 2019 to the first half of March 2019, the time period during which the Anaklia project featured heavily in the media news cycle, Saqinform and TV Obieqtivi spread three disinformation narratives: First, that the Anaklia port is intended to serve as a naval base for the United States and NATO. Second, it would serve exclusively military and political ends and, thus, will provide negligible economic benefit for Georgia. Third, the construction of the port is unacceptable to Russia, and, thus, Russia will not allow the project to succeed.
These three main narratives echo the earlier ones that the Kremlin media spread in 2016.
January 2019 saw a renewed interest among pro-Kremlin actors in Georgia’s Anaklia deep-water port project. The latest wave of disinformation echoed the narratives that the Russian media disseminated in 2016, when the construction of the port was originally slated to begin. Despite this renewed interest, the stories largely failed to gain traction with a broader audience online.
Pro-Kremlin actors in Georgia spread online disinformation with regard to the purpose of the Anaklia port project and its benefits, or lack thereof, for Georgia. The ultimate goal of the disinformation campaign likely was to influence public opinion in Georgia regarding the port project to align more closely with Russian interests. How effective was this influence campaign?
While the two Georgian news outlets — Saqinform and TV Obieqtivi — are the most prolific disseminators of anti-Western narratives in the country, their impact within the broader information environment is nonetheless limited due to low readership and a lack of high-profile contributors. As a result, audience engagement with their narratives with respect to the Anaklia project was fairly limited as well.
Eto Buziashvili is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab), based in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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