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Georgia’s former defence minister goes to war

23 March 2022
Irakli Okruashvili (second from right) in Ukraine.

A former Defence Minister of Georgia, Irakli Okruashvili is now fighting to defend Kyiv as part of Ukraine’s International Legion. Between his duties on the front, Okruashvili found time to speak with OC Media about the battle for Ukraine.

‘We must have been under intense fire for more than two days, and this time there were losses on both sides’, the 48-year-old former minister told OC Media during an interview by phone on 14 March.

Speaking of the hardest fighting he had witnessed so far, Okruashvili recalled 5–7 March, when those on the frontline around Kyiv had no sleep at all, and when relaxing for a second could have cost them their lives.

‘I will not forget those days. There was intense firing, no one had the luxury even of blinking at night because if you fell asleep — you might die.’ 

‘But if you do not fall asleep and endure it all, after 48 hours, you will start to see things; it may seem like a person coming or a light somewhere.’

‘During such hard fighting, these hallucinations intensified and at the same time, I forced myself not to confuse reality and imagination, because you can really see a person coming and confuse it with a hallucination or the other way around’.

Three Ukrainians from their unit died during the fighting during those days, while one of Okruashvili's Georgian friends was wounded. After being discharged from hospital several days later, the wounded man returned to the front to take up the fight again. 

Okruashvili said that several Russian soldiers were killed in retaliatory fire during those days. ‘We destroyed two combat vehicles,’ he said.

Irakli Okkruashvili holding a British supplied NLAW anti-tank missile.

‘But that was what we were directly involved in. Similar things happen every day and every hour on the front line’. 

When OC Media spoke with Okruashvili, the situation around Kyiv had already begun to stabilise, the Russian attempts to encircle and assault the city having been blunted by fierce resistance. He also corroborated reports of a Ukrainian counteroffensive to the north of the city. ‘The Ukrainian army has gone on the attack.’

‘The fact that Kyiv is under siege and Kyiv will fall is not true’, he said, ‘nothing like that is happening here.’

‘It was obvious that the Russians could not move even 15 meters as a result of intense fighting’.

Okruashvili was reflective of the cost Russia’s war was having on Ukrainian civilians. 

‘This morning [14 March] there was quite an intense bombardment of Kyiv for several hours, a residential building was destroyed.’

‘Life in the city continues, but it is understandable that there is a state of war and no one feels at peace because of it’, he said. 

‘Ukrainians should not be alone’

Since Russia launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, thousands of foreign volunteers have reportedly taken up the call of President Zelensky to defend the country.

‘The [International] Legion includes Americans, Poles, Dutch, Estonians, Czechs, Swedes, etc. Among them are doctors and people with military experience’, Okruashvili explained.

[Read more on OC Media: 'We have only one enemy — this is Russia': the Chechens taking up arms for Ukraine]

He said he decided to travel to Ukraine in early March, when the brutality of Russian forces became clear to him.

‘Seven friends and I travelled to Ukraine to fight. Each of us has had some kind of combat experience.’

‘[We] believe that this is our war and that the Ukrainians should not be alone.’

‘Among those coming to fight are those who need training before they start fighting; there are those who are used for auxiliary work. But my friends and I did not need any training, we just prepared our weapons and went to the frontline’, Okruashvili said.

All eight flew from Georgia to Poland on their own initiative, and did not reveal the true purpose of their trip as the Georgian Government has attempted to block Georgians from travelling to fight in Ukraine.

‘The Georgian government isn’t actually supporting Ukraine’, Okruashvili lamented.

‘[Supporting Ukraine] is our duty and should have been a continuation of a linear policy, but the Georgian government chose another way.’

Thousands of Georgians protested their government's response to the invasion of Ukraine in the weeks after war broke out. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

It is not clear how many Georgians are among the International Legion. On 18 March, it was reported that two Georgian soldiers had been killed near Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, and on 19 March, a third Georgian, Bakhva Chikobava, was reportedly killed in Mariupol.

A long and eventful career

Irakli Okruashvili has had a long political history in Georgia, and has often found himself surrounded in controversy. He was among the leaders of the 2003 Rose Revolution, in which the Government of Eduard Shevardnadze was overthrown and Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement came to power.

He served in several posts under Saakashvili: as the Minister of Internal Affairs, Defence, and, for a short time, Economic Development.

During his tenure, he was vocal in pushing for Georgia to retake control of South Ossetia, threatening to resign from government if this did not happen.

Irakli Okruashvili and Mikheil Saakashvili in 2005. Photo: Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA.

However, in 2006 he resigned from the government, going on to accuse Saakashvili of abusing his power.

He said in 2007 that the president had personally ordered him to murder Badri Patarkatsishvili, a Georgian oligarch and opposition figure. He also said Saakashvili had ordered the beating of opposition MP Valery Gelashvili in 2005 and hinted that the death of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania was not accidental.

Two days after making these statements, he was arrested at the office of his newly formed opposition party on charges of extortion, money laundering, abuse of office, and negligence.

After withdrawing his allegations and pleading guilty, the former minister was released and received political asylum in France.

‘Mistakes were made’

Since returning to Georgia in 2012, Okruashvili has remained a relatively marginal figure.

In the 2020 parliamentary elections, his party, Victorious Georgia, won just 0.2% of the vote, failing to gain any seats.

Okruashvili signing a joint opposition memorandum outside parliament in December 2020 protesting the election result. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Speaking to OC Media, Okruashvili dismissed the results, repeating claims by much of the opposition that the vote was fixed. International observers concluded that despite problems, the elections were ‘competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected’.

Okruashvili’s political past has continued to haunt him. In 2019 the Prosecutor’s Office charged him over the Buta Robakidze scandal. Robakidze, 19, was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop in 2004, when Okruashvili was Interior Minister.

Okruashvili, who has insisted on his innocence, declined to comment on the case, saying only that he would ‘answer the questions in court’.

Okruashvili did concede that there were ‘a lot of mistakes’ during his time in power.

‘The main reason for these mistakes’, he said, ‘was the limited time during which we tried to do a lot of things in the country, but speed is characterised by mistakes’.

He said he did not have plans for his political future. ‘This is a difficult question. I'll think about it when the war is over.’

For now, though, the former minister is focused on the fight for Ukraine.

‘It's our war too. Ukrainians are not just fighting for their freedom and independence here.’

‘We want to get rid of the legacy of the Soviet Empire, the spheres of Russian influence and to once and for all become a full-fledged member of the family called the European neighbourhood.’

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