Montenegro’s recent accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) sent an important political message to Russia’s post-Soviet neighbours: NATO’s door remains open to new members no matter the security environment. This signal will likely propel many post-Soviet countries to revitalize their relationships with the Alliance. In particular, this will trigger the reinvigoration of discussions over Georgia’s almost two decades-long bid for NATO membership. Although the recent NATO enlargement in Balkans has undoubtedly endangered hopes for Georgia, it is, however, unlikely to affect the pace and quality of discussions on the latter’s NATO membership perspective. Yet Georgia’s aspirations have invariably been on the agenda of the Euro-Atlantic security strategy planning even since the Russo-Georgian conflict for breakaway South Ossetia, erupted in August, 2008.
Since 2002, close strategic cooperation with the United States and a determined pursuit of NATO membership have comprised the key pillars of Georgia’s security policy. With Alliance membership constituting a top priority, Tbilisi’s NATO aspirations have become a critical instrument in its foreign policy decision-making. Notably, these aspirations serve as a framework for Tbilisi’s regional relationships: Georgia has cultivated good neighbourly relations with Alliance member Turkey and NATO partners Armenia and Azerbaijan. Conversely, Russia’s vocal antagonism toward NATO enlargement has contributed to Georgia’s hostile relations with its large neighbour to the north.
Georgia’s threat perception is laid out clearly in two strategic documents: the National Security Concept and the Strategic Defense Review 2017-2020. These documents articulate that Russia’s destructive posture vis-à-vis Georgia’s ceded regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the prospect of a Russian military incursion constitute the country’s chief security threats. While the Georgian government invests in its deterrence and defense capabilities to protect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the size of Tbilisi’s defense budget ($310 million in 2017, including a $32.5 million loan for arms procurement), does not allow for substantial acquisition of new equipment and advanced weapon systems. The need to restructure personnel also will likely slow the modernization and professionalization of Georgian land forces.
Georgia’s Evolving Role in NATO’s Black Sea Security Architecture
Sharing key interests and core values with its Western counterparts, Georgia spares no effort in becoming a full-fledged member of the West’s political and security institutions. Not only has Georgia made remarkable advancements in its integration with the European Union, but Tbilisi also enjoys sustained support from and comprehensive integration with NATO. At the NATO Wales Summit in 2014, Georgia was one of five countries chosen for Enhanced Opportunities Partnership (EOP) status under NATO’s newly launched Partnership Interoperability Initiative (PII). This effort, intended to deepen NATO’s connections with its valued partners, outlines tailor-made enhanced cooperation opportunities for each selected country. For Georgia, the agreement stipulates the extended presence of NATO military specialists on its soil along with regular political consultations and information sharing with the Alliance. It allows Georgia to host Alliance-sponsored military training facilities and to participate in multi-purpose combat missions by contributing to the NATO Response Force (NRF).
The EOP effectively provides all of the privileges that Alliance members receive except for the collective security umbrella enshrined in Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty. Thus, while Georgia has yet to become a full-fledged member of the Alliance, it is nonetheless increasingly considered an important element of NATO’s strategic planning and security concept for its south-eastern European flank. Accordingly, at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Spring Session held in Tbilisi on May 26-29, 2017, Alliance officials clearly articulated that since security in the South Caucasus is crucial for the Euro-Atlantic community, political and practical support to Georgia must be expanded.
Prior to this session, Georgia similarly hosted the NATO Military Committee in early March 2017 to discuss the implementation of the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP). An initiative endorsed at the 2014 Wales Summit, the SNGP entails a set of measures designed to bolster Georgia’s defense capabilities by developing closer security cooperation with members of the Alliance. It comprises support at the strategic, tactical, and operational levels and endeavours to hone Georgian armed forces’ defensive skills via joint training missions, such as the annual “Agile Spirit” military drills. Much of this cooperation takes place under the guise of the Joint Training and Evaluation Center (JTEC) in Krtsanisi, Georgia, an element of the SNGP established in 2015. Tbilisi is further set to build additional infrastructure to be utilized as assets for the Alliance in line with training sites in Vaziani and Senaki. In particular, the establishment of the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) akin to the same-purpose center operating at the U.S. base in Hohenfels, Germany, was announced in early April. The U.S.-Georgia JMRC will be located at the Vaziani facilities and will be up and running by mid-2018.
The sustained involvement of NATO countries in assisting the reform of Georgia’s armed forces has culminated in the “More NATO in Georgia and more Georgia in NATO” concept, articulated by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the JTEC inauguration. This concept represents somewhat of an alternative to a Membership Action Plan (MAP)— discussion of which was notably absent during Stoltenberg’s visit to Georgia—insomuch as it provides all of the necessary instruments that the MAP recommends, but avoids a clear strain between NATO members and Russia that the extension of the MAP would entail.
Circumventing concerns about Russian backlash, the implementation of NATO reform programs through the “More NATO in Georgia” concept has received robust support within the Alliance. To date, this approach seems the most fool-proof option for underpinning Georgia’s institutional resilience by implementing all the required reforms to conform to NATO criteria. The measures derived from the “More NATO in Georgia” approach have boosted Georgia’s defense and deterrence capabilities; however, it has not mitigated the security challenge presented by Russia’s assertiveness.
With regard to the NATO Response Force initiative, since joining in September 2015, Georgia has carried out the Operational Capability Concept Evaluation and Feedback Programme (OCC E&F) that enables troops to be trained and fielded under NRF command. By successfully completing intensive exercises simulated on a mock battlefield, the “Alpha” Company of the 12th Light Infantry Battalion, the 4th Mechanized Brigade, and the “Charlie” Company of the 12th Infantry Battalion, 1st Infantry Brigade received 2nd-level qualification to be used in NATO rapid operations for three years. As such, these units, comprised of Georgian personnel, are now at NATO’s disposal and can be deployed to reinforce vulnerable Alliance flanks when needed.
However, above all, Georgia’s progress is exemplified in the evolution of the NATO-Georgia bilateral relationship into a new multilateral format. The NATO-Georgia structure has transformed into an important stage for providing other Alliance partners with sustained access to NATO facilities and training opportunities located within Georgia. By becoming a hub for NATO’s deepening practical collaboration with partners, Georgia has developed into an important platform for the Alliance in the Black Sea region.
During its visit to Georgia in late March 2017, the NATO Military Committee highly praised Georgia’s progress in security sector reforms via the 15 current SNGP projects. The committee’s comments clearly illustrated NATO’s perception of the SNGP as an essential investment in Georgia’s security. After all, Georgia’s enhanced security in recent years can largely be attributed to the almost regular presence of Allied troops in the country for bilateral or multilateral drills. Thus, pleased with Georgia’s progress to date and aware that the development of Georgia’s infrastructure is inextricably linked to NATO’s Black Sea power projection, the NATO Military Committee announced its intent to increase the number of SNGP projects to 20 by the end of 2018.
Just days prior to the NATO meeting, the Georgian Defense Ministry announced plans for the “Noble Partner-2017” multinational drills that were launched on July 30 and lasting roughly two weeks. These U.S. army-led drills were conducted under NATO’s auspices, and besides American and Georgian troops, combined forces from other NATO ally and partner countries including Armenia, Germany, Slovenia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. In this context, even though another Georgia’s neighbour, Azerbaijan, had been initially listed to attend the multinational exercises, it later nevertheless revoked involvement presumably not to be engaged in common partnering activities with its adversary – Armenia. As to the Noble Partner-2017 objectives, the foremost task of it was to support the training, evaluation and eventual certification of Georgia’s second light infantry company’s contribution to the NATO Response Force discussed above.
Against the backdrop of running NATO-backed events in Georgia, Tbilisi is progressively adapting to the evolving security environment in the wider region, seeking to be drawn into Alliance’s Black Sea maritime initiatives. Since the 2014 Wales Summit, Georgia has emerged as a key participant in NATO’s dialogue about increasing its presence in the Black Sea. Specifically, Georgia is working with the Alliance to discuss strategies for reinforcing NATO’s maritime capabilities in line with the 2016 Tailored Forward Presence initiative in Romania and Bulgaria.
In February 2017, negotiations between Georgian Defense Minister Levan Izoria and Brussels paved the way for Georgia’s concrete participation in NATO’s Black Sea initiatives. These negotiations allegedly further granted Romania a “supervisor” role in overseeing Georgia’s involvement. Possibly as a result of Georgian-Romanian consultations, the Alliance has accepted Georgia’s proposal to renovate its Poti seaport to make it accessible to NATO vessels. Georgian Chief of General Staff Major General Vladimir Chachibaia discussed this issue specifically in a news conference on March 2. Speaking of NATO’s potential support for strengthening Georgia’s and Ukraine’s naval capabilities, the Brigadier-General emphasized the strategic importance of establishing infrastructure capable of serving NATO vessels given the restrictions outlined in the Montreux Convention of 1936. This initiative, in conjunction with Ukraine’s plan to purchase warships from NATO states, will enhance the strategic value of the Alliance’s partners in the Black Sea. Commending Georgia as one of the Alliance’s most valued partners, during a visit to Tbilisi in May 2017, NATO’s Deputy Secretary-General Rose Gottemoeller underscored Georgia’s critical role in helping the Alliance “form a deep understanding of the security situation in the Black Sea region.”
Reaffirming America’s Stake
In regard to Georgia’s military cooperation with the United States, on April 11, Minister Izoria reported that a new round of the U.S.-sponsored “Georgia Train and Equip Program” will be launched in March 2018 with the goal of establishing at least nine NATO-standard rifle battalions. In addition to increased military-to-military cooperation, the political-economic relationship between the United States and Georgia is also deepening.
The historical step forward in conceptualizing of U.S.-Georgia strategic alignment has been marked by signing in January 2009 the Charter of Strategic Partnership in the wake of Russo-Georgian conflict. Setting to emphasise that “democratic Georgia contributes to the security and prosperity of a Europe whole, free and at peace”, this agreement made provisions for legitimate American deployment to enhance Georgia’s resilience for effective thwarting of potential external territorial encroachments. By imposing this landmark Charter, the George W. Bush administration then documented its resolute intention to “defeat the security threats” Georgia continue to face through expanding the scope of defense and security cooperation. It inherently gave legal platform for fostering various joint military drills such as Agile Spirit or Noble Partner, though both are widely perceived as insufficient in enabling Georgia to cope with enduring insecurity.
As of today, despite of President Trump’s somewhat isolationistic rhetoric, it is becoming clear that the U.S.-Georgia alignment is undergoing significant development in first year of his presidency. To substantiate, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s visit to Washington, D.C., this past May resulted in President Trump signing a legislative act that recognizes Georgia’s breakaway regions as occupied by Russia. Moreover, President Trump’s uncertain stance on future support for Georgia’s integration with NATO has finally been dispelled during the reciprocal visit of Vice President Mike Pence to Georgia on July 30. Affirming the United States’ firm commitment to Georgia, the vice-president unambiguously stressed that “the United States of America strongly condemns Russia’s occupation on Georgia’s soil”, making it clear that “America stands with Georgia”. In this connection, Pence evidently denounced Russia’s aggression asserting that the Trump administration broadly supports Georgia’s NATO membership aspirations.
The vice-president’s stance in Georgia suggests the Trump administration’s return to tough rhetoric on Russia on Georgia’s behalf. The messages delivered by the vice-president in unequivocal manner elicits a certain assumption that the renewed political environment in Washington D.C. makes Tbilisi’s prospects of gaining a Major Non-NATO Ally status much more achievable compared to Georgia’s long-standing NATO’s MAP bid.
The month of August 2017 was marked not only by the visit of top American officials to Georgia. While the Noble Partner-2017 drills were gaining momentum, Tbilisi also hosted high-ranking U.S. military officials including U.S. Army chief of staff General Mike Milley and the Commander of 7th Army Training Command Brigadier-General Tony Aguto. This demonstrates the Trump administration’s determined stance to step up strategic co-operation with Tbilisi also through alternative options. In this light, it can be reasonable to suggest that Georgia may now be counting more on attaining the status of America’s Major Non-NATO Ally rather than expecting progress in its NATO membership path. Overall, Vice-President Pence’s visit can definitely be characterized as historical for Georgia.
For this reason, Tbilisi is seeking to demonstrate to the Trump administration that Georgia is not the troublemaker country that it was perceived to be in the aftermath of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Rather, as the U.S. recalibrates its foreign policy priorities, Georgia has supported U.S. interests in the Black Sea region through its partnership with NATO. While membership in the Alliance remains a distant prospect for Georgia, the “More NATO in Georgia” approach integrates the aspirant country into NATO’s orbit without granting official status.
Rhetoric versus Tangible Support
Considering mounting tensions between Russia and the West, Washington’s historically vocal support for Georgia’s NATO bid has only exacerbated Georgia’s security environment. As Russia asserts itself more aggressively in its Near Abroad, any improper or untimely voice backing Georgia’s NATO accession appears risky and, in some sense, provocative. Given that NATO has expanded exercises in Georgia in response to Russia’s increased presence in the Black Sea, such rhetoric makes Russia uncomfortable about Georgia’s NATO prospects. On the other hand, despite the substantial efforts by NATO and the United States in Georgia’s security so far, and amid the escalating of tensions between NATO and Russia, the menace of Russia’s potential intervention in Georgia has not nullified. On the contrary, in some respects, Moscow’s capabilities in hybrid warfare methods and in cyber and propaganda makes Georgia even more vulnerable as it was in 2008.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that NATO should retract its political support for Georgia nor abandon Georgia’s membership prospects. On the contrary, the United States should stand firm in its commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty and use its weight in international forums to protect the country’s territorial integrity from Russian aggression. Losing Georgia as an Eastern European democracy and the West’s sole strategic pillar in the South Caucasus would severely impair the United States’ standing in the region and buttress Russia’s strategic advantage.
Additionally, authoritarian backsliding in Georgia would advance Moscow’s goal of discrediting liberal Euro-Atlantic values and causing discord within the transatlantic community.
Ultimately, the United States must redefine its approach vis-à-vis Georgia. Specifically, it should adopt the approach that Russia uses to reward its allies in the region, namely supplying technical assistance and state-of-the-art military equipment at non-market prices. Unlike Russia’s allies – Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan – who receive low-cost, up-to-date arms from Moscow, Georgia cannot afford to replace its obsolete Soviet equipment, so key NATO members should consider selling discounted defense equipment to Georgia.
Georgia is currently in the process of applying for a costly military loan from France to purchase a Vertical Launch MICA short-range, ground-based air defense system. This loan will place a substantial burden on the country’s relatively modest defense budget. Deals of this sort should be supported by the comprehensive implementation of the U.S.-Georgia 2009 Charter on Strategic Partnership and U.S.-Georgia 2016 framework agreement on security cooperation. Moreover, the Memorandum on Deepening the Defense and Security Partnership signed by then-secretary of state John Kerry and Prime Minister Kvirikashvili in July 2016 creates a legal basis for providing substantial aid, including a wide-range of advanced arms, to boost Georgia’s security. Material and technical support under these preferential terms will enable NATO to aid Georgian security in the event of conflict reescalation with Russia and further instill the Georgian population with pride in being a valued U.S. and NATO partner in the South Caucasus region.
At this critical juncture in Black Sea security dynamics, the United States and NATO must bear in mind that rhetoric alone without assistance and firm institutional commitment to Georgia’s security is futile. Rather, it provokes adversaries and further endangers the West’s valued partners in the region. Instead, NATO should continue to build up its strategic partners, enhancing both troop operability and aiding the acquisition of modern military equipment. By adopting tactics similar to those of Russia in order to shape special relationships with Georgia, and even Ukraine, NATO can diminish the nervousness of its partners. Unlike empty words, these meaningful forms of reassurance will demonstrate to NATO’s Black Sea partners the tangible benefit of standing with the Alliance.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was originally published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on July 11, 2017.
Image: Georgian and U.S. troops in joint military exercise outside Tbilisi in May 2017. Photo credit: AFP