Main Image Credit A Georgian Defense Forces soldier pictured during an August War memorial ceremony at Vaziani Military Base, Georgia, 2018. Courtesy of Barney Low/Alamy Stock Photo
If the US wants to counter Russian hybrid threats and uphold stability in the South Caucasus, it must put Georgia back on the international agenda.
Despite Russia’s ongoing aggression on Georgian soil, its use of hybrid tools and the militarisation of occupied regions, the case of Georgia is slowly slipping off the international agenda. During the Bucharest NATO Summit 13 years ago, Georgia was promised eventual accession to the Alliance. As of today, Tbilisi’s prospects for joining NATO are still uncertain with no existing timeline, while Russia is proactively pursuing its goal of undermining Georgia’s territorial integrity and weakening its pro-Western aspirations.
At the 2021 NATO Summit it was once again reiterated that Georgia will become a member of the Alliance and that the Membership Action Plan (MAP) would be an integral part of this process. Since the August War of 2008, Georgia has undergone a series of successful military reforms and maintained an exemplary partnership with NATO. Except for marginalised political groups – which include ultra-nationalist and pro-Russian parties – there is a universal consensus in Tbilisi on seeking NATO membership. Despite political turbulence at home, this consensus has been reflected in the consistency and scope of the partnership with NATO. The Georgian Defence Forces have just completed a 17-year deployment in Afghanistan, serving firstly in the International Security Assistance Force mission, followed by the Resolute Support Mission. With 860 servicemen, Georgia was the largest per capita non-NATO member contributor to the mission. Tbilisi has thus proved to be a reliable partner for NATO and an example of democracy-building in the region.
The Need to Act
The Western reluctance in 2008 to grant Georgia a MAP paved the way for Moscow to establish its own red lines by responding to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations with military might. Despite the dire consequences of the five-day war, the lack of Western response and later attempts to ‘reset’ relations with Moscow were interpreted by Russia as a sign of weakness, giving Moscow the confidence to annex Crimea in 2014. Given the lessons of the past, US President Joe Biden is well aware that a ‘reset’ policy will not work, because Moscow is unwilling to change its behaviour and cannot be trusted to keep to agreements.
During the highly anticipated first meeting between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the US president drew some red lines in US–Russia relations and stressed his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Unlike Ukraine, Georgia was not mentioned once, and it hardly features in high-level discussions. Nor have any clear red lines been drawn when it comes to Russia’s creeping occupation and violation of human rights in Georgian territories.
Following former President Donald Trump’s inconsistent policy towards Russia and the use of Ukraine as a bargaining chip during his election campaign in 2020, Biden has reaffirmed US support for its allies. The current US administration has opted for a tougher stance with regards to Russia’s ongoing aggression against Kyiv, including the recent provocative Russian mobilisation along the Ukrainian border. As Georgia and Ukraine share a myriad of common challenges and threats, it is critical that the West keeps both on the international agenda and holds Russia accountable for its malign activities against its Western-oriented neighbours.
US Interests at Stake
The so-called Second Nagorno-Karabakh War has altered the balance of interests in the South Caucasus. By reasserting its dominance and deploying ‘peacekeeping troops’, Russia has put US interests under threat. The lack of US leadership under Trump has paved the way for new initiatives, such as the creation of a six-country cooperation platform. The idea was put forward by Ankara and envisages Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey and Iran cooperating within a single framework.
Unsurprisingly, the initiative was immediately met with strong scepticism in Tbilisi, given that the format would involve having to cooperate with Moscow. During the recent meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, hopes of increased regional cooperation through the proposed platform were once again expressed. Although deepening regional cooperation – particularly with strategic partners such as Turkey and Azerbaijan – remains a key priority for Tbilisi, Georgia’s hypothetical participation in the format would directly undermine the US’s regional presence and its interests.
US–Georgia cooperation in the South Caucasus has already shown important results in terms of facilitating dialogue between Azerbaijan and Armenia, including brokering a deal which resulted in the release of 15 Armenian prisoners of war in exchange for Armenian maps showing the location of almost 100,000 landmines. Earlier, in October 2020, Georgia stood ready to facilitate the conflict resolution process, offering to hold talks between the two sides in Tbilisi. Georgia has thus proved that it can play the role of mediator in a regional conflict and make a positive contribution towards de-escalating tensions by maintaining close diplomatic relations with both sides. Given the increased Russian presence in Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia’s enhanced regional role as demonstrated in its push for a peaceful resolution to the conflict increases its strategic importance for the US and NATO.
Since the Bucharest Summit of 2008, the security environment in the Black Sea and the South Caucasus has dramatically changed. Russia’s hybrid warfare capabilities have primarily targeted democratic values and pro-Western aspirations. New types of threats and challenges, such as Russia’s ‘borderisation’ policy, require fresh solutions to ensure effective deterrence.
In 2016, the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, stated that ‘Georgia has all the practical tools to become a NATO member’. Yet the lack of clarity on Georgia’s accession to NATO, as well as the country’s limited presence on the international agenda, ultimately gives Russia the opportunity to spread disinformation and undermine the NATO–Georgia partnership, while instilling fear into the population. Locally oriented Russian propaganda, spread by Kremlin sympathisers in Georgia, usually focuses on an alleged requirement for Georgia to cede Russian-occupied territories in exchange for NATO membership. Meanwhile, propaganda directed at the West includes the suggestion that Georgia’s accession to NATO would provoke a war with Russia.
The Way Ahead
In fact, Georgia’s accession to NATO is the only realistic solution to bring stability not just to Tbilisi but to the whole South Caucasus region, by serving as a powerful deterrent against Russian adventurism. With its energy and transportation infrastructure, the South Caucasus remains an important region for Washington. Having already seen its role as a dominant player in the region weakened, the US cannot afford to lose more time and needs to reassert its leadership in the South Caucasus and the Black Sea region, where Russia is becoming increasingly consistent in its use of hybrid tools.
Putting Georgia back on the international agenda would send a clear message to the Kremlin. This can only be achieved by Georgia and the US working in concert, with Tbilisi remaining on the democratic path and cooperating closely with its allies, and Washington defending its interests in the South Caucasus and the Black Sea region.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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