The father’s revenge

“It’s not revenge. It’s... It's when you have to deal with global evil,” says Archil Khoperia, a volunteer fighter with the Georgian Legion, a regiment formed almost a decade ago to fight Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Archil Khoperia at his yard in Western Georgia.

The tall, stately gray-haired man in his late 50s is one of almost 3,000 Georgians who joined ranks with Ukrainians in the bloodiest war of the 21st century on the European continent. More than 30 Georgians have been killed in action or died from wounds. 

Archil Khoperia lost his only son Jabba in combat in Ukraine in the fall of 2022 after being seriously wounded at frontline near Kherson.

Archil Khoperia and his son Jabba with the group of fighters.

His father stayed home for forty days – the mourning period, according to Georgian tradition. Then he bought a ticket to Warsaw, Poland, and from there crossed the border with Ukraine.”

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“What’s your purpose here? a border guard asked Khoperia.

“My son is fighting here,” he responded, showing the officer a picture of Jabba and border guard let him cross.

The now 57-year-old fighter had been a leader of one of the assault battalions in Georgia: Mhedrioni, a volunteer regiment that took part in a failed attempt to liberate the Georgian province of Abkhazia, occupied by the Russians and their proxies in the early 1990s.

As the first full-scale war in which the Russian Federation government tried to take over a former republics of the USSR, the First Abkhazian War, from 1992 to 1993, saw a number of ethnicities, including Abkhazians, Russians and Chechens fighting to break away from the newly independent Georgia.

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A small group of Ukrainians also came there in 1992 to fight for Georgia against Russia.

“I remember one night, it was like the tropics when it rained heavily,” Khoperia recalls. “A group of Ukrainians showed an example of discipline. They sat at the back of the truck, waiting for the order from their commander. Nobody moved under this heavy downpour until their officer told them to.”

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Khoperia remembers Russian war crimes in Abkhazia, which were very similar to those the Ukrainians have been subjected to in Bucha or Izyum.

“There was a Georgian nurse, whose body we found after a Russian assault. She was crucified. Literally. Her body nailed to the wood,” Khoperia says.

The war of 1992-93 took the lives of about 10,000 people, displacing nearly 250,000. Georgia lost that war, with Abkhazia becoming a “breakaway republic” under Russian control, as well as an enclave for drugs, counterfeit tobacco, and other contraband.

Six years later, in September 1999, just a month after Boris Yeltsin named Putin his successor Russia started a covert operation in the Southern Caucasus, which would be a prelude to another big war.

In September 1999, Russia unilaterally lifted the ban on crossing the Abkhazian section of the Russian-Georgian border by men of conscription age and continued actively issuing Russian passports to the local population.

According to Andrey Illarioniov, an insider in the Putin administration, within a few years, 56 percent of the inhabitants in another Russian-controlled enclave within Georgia, Southern Ossetia, would hold Russian passports.

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Russia would employ the same methods years later in the Ukrainian Donbas after 2014. According to the Russian news agency TASS, as of late summer 2019, the Russian Interior Ministry had accepted over 60,000 applications for Russian citizenship from Ukrainian citizens living in occupied lands of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic.

It was a repeat of the Russian tsarist strategy of russifying in its colonies, this time with Vladimir Putin leading the revanchist efforts.

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 A forgotten war rekindled

For the Southern Caucasus, the war of 1992-1993 was a global war involving fighters from Russian-controlled Chechnya and Circassia, as well as volunteers from Armenia fighting on the Russian side.

“There were even fighters from Syria joining ranks with the Russian forces on my land,” Khoperia told Kyiv Post.

The presence of Syrian fighters on the Russian side, which Khoperia witnessed during his time as a battalion commander in Georgia, was indicative of the growing ties between the two autocracies: Russia and Syria.

In 2008 another Russian invasion of Georgia resulted in the formal annexation of two Georgian provinces — Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia. Russia finally recognized them as “sovereign states” under an Russian protectorate.

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In August 2017, nine years after the second Russo-Georgian war, the Russian-controlled Georgian province of Abkhazia welcomed Bashar al-Assad’s governmental officials.

“The Syrian authorities have demonstrated their interest in trade and economic cooperation with the Republic of Abkhazia... together with our Abkhazian colleagues, we will be able to develop and implement a concept aimed at developing socio-economic and trade relations with Abkhazia,” the Abkhazian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

A year later, in July 2018, Reuters reported that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with Anatoly Bibilov the leader of South Ossetia, another Russian-backed Georgian region.

 At about the same time, the Syrian regime and the enclaves of Georgia under Russian control received the air-defense systems from Moscow: S-300 surface-to-air missile systems which the Russians are now using in Ukraine to destroy civil infrastructure.

The same weapons were reportedly shipped to Syria and Russian-controlled parts of Georgia five years ago.

Last week Assad’s forces attacked Syrian territories heavily affected by the earthquake. The town of Marea, 35 kilometers north of Aleppo, faced fierce bombardment by Syrian government forces.

“Yesterday, he [Assad] bombed Marea, which was an area affected by the earthquake, in what was a callous and heinous attack and opportunism for him to try to attack and destroy the moderate opposition,” Alica Kearns, conservative British MP, said on Feb. 7.

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Kearns could not confirm to Kyiv Post the origins of the weapons used by the Assad regime. Yet Soviet and Russian weaponry is a core of Assad’s military power, with most of the Syrian air force and rocket launching systems produced in the former USSR and Russia.

Khoperia, on the other hand, has no qualms about pointing the finger.

“We lost two wars against the empire,” he tells Kyiv Post just a few hours before leaving for the front line in Ukraine. “There’s going be a dividing line, a border between freedom and unfreedom. We are in the midst of the fight. It’s a  civilizational fight, and I just want to be on the side of the border, where there is at least relative freedom.”

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