Half Measures from NATO, and Georgia's Search for the Other Half

At the recently concluded UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called for Russia, the US and others to “launch pragmatic discussion free of ideology on politico-military architecture in the Euro-Atlantic, so that not only NATO and CSTO members, but all countries of the region including Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia enjoy equal and indivisible security and not have to make a false choice of either with us or against us.” This is obviously not a proposal that should or will be taken seriously by Tbilisi. In the context of Lavrov’s entire speech, these words are better interpreted as another threat of possible consequences should these three countries move any closer to NATO, than as an offer by Russia to play a meaningful and constructive role of the security architecture of the region.

Lavrov’s speech, and the implicit reminder that Russia still wants to play an outsized role in the South Caucasus, occurred as the Georgian government was sending a large delegation to the US for UNGA and associated meetings in Washington and New York. In addition to Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s speech at the UNGA and the usual battery of meetings between American and Georgian officials, two significant events occurred during this Georgian delegation to the US. One was the contretemps around Georgia offering to host training camps for Syrian rebels fighting against ISIL. The offer apparently initially came from the Defense Ministry, but others in the government almost immediately backed away from this offer. Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze’s comments on this could not have been any clearer. ”I categorically rule out any military participation or training base in Georgia. We have not discussed it and our American partners know it.” This was an awkward moment for the Georgian government, but it also revealed the increasing complexity of US-Georgia relations in the post-Crimea and, for Georgia equally importantly, post-Wales, political context.

The second set of significant events were the bilateral meetings Garibashvili, and Panjikidze had with other foreign leaders while in the US. Garibashvili met with the leaders of Turkey, Iran, Ukraine, Canada, Saudi Arabia and several others. Panjikidze met with over a dozen foreign ministers as well. These meetings are part what is expected from UNGA week in New York. With so many leaders from different countries in town, it is natural to have these bilateral meetings.

Together, however, these two events underscore the need for Georgia to craft a foreign policy that continues to hew closely to the west, particularly the US, while also beginning to pursue a more multi-vectored approach that can help bolster their national security with regards to Russia. For Georgian security, nothing would be as valuable as getting into NATO, but given how clear NATO has been on this issue, simply waiting for, and working towards, NATO is no longer a sufficient strategy for Georgia. Georgia therefore now has the very difficult task of remaining broadly speaking pro-west while at the same time pivoting away from dependency on the west for security assurances. Another way to look at this is that at the last NATO summit, Georgia got half measures and half guarantees. The challenge facing the leadership now is to find that other half.

Since the election of the Georgian Dream (GD) government, there has been much speculation about whether Georgia will remain essentially pro-west in its geopolitical orientation. Much of this is political posturing and Kremlin-baiting by domestic and political opponents of the GD, but the question, at least at first, was a legitimate one. The answer to that question, given the direction and decisions in which Georgia has moved in the last two years, seems pretty clearly to be in the affirmative, but it obscures the more, at least for Georgia, important question of whether the west is still meaningfully pro-Georgia.

NATO’s decision to again not give Georgia a MAP, the west’s what might generously be called mixed messages regarding Russian aggression in Ukraine, and a continued shift in focus away from the region suggest that Georgia would be mistaken to build a foreign policy around the notion that the west, or even just the US will become more engaged in the region over the next few years.

As the US led coalition continues to fight ISIL, the role for Georgia in that effort may become more clearly defined. It is in Georgia’s interest to support the US in this effort for a range of reasons, not least is the danger ISIL poses to the region that is a lot closer to Georgia than to the US. Nonetheless, Georgia will be in a much better position to craft the best policy for joining the fight against ISIL if it is able to develop a more multi-vectored foreign policy. Similarly, Georgia will be able a more difficult target for Russia if its foreign policy is defined by more than just hoping the Europe and North America will help. 

Georgia has, of course, supported recent American military endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Continuing to follow the US lead on these types of conflicts defines Georgia’s interests as aligned with those of the west, but it will not alleviate most of Georgia’s security concerns. In the case of ISIL, this approach would almost certainly make Georgia less safe. Georgia thus must find a way to communicate its ongoing support for the US, while not raising any more security problems for itself. Training camps for anti-ISIL fighters is probably a bridge too far in this respect.

In this context, the rise of ISIL is very significant for Georgia. On the surface it is yet another opportunity for Georgia to demonstrate its loyalty to the west and that, broadly speaking, it shares the same security concerns as NATO. However, ISIL has raised a unique threat to numerous countries in the Middle East including Turkey, Iran and most Arab states. All of these countries are now both looking for partners to combat the threat raised by ISIL, but are also trying to determine their role in any American led coalition against ISIL. This gives Georgia an opportunity to demonstrate its value not only to what in many respects is a NATO that is growing more distant, but to other important powers in the region that could be very helpful to Georgia in the future. 

Georgia’s true strategic value to the west and elsewhere has not been in it being another country that is relatively small and definitively threatened by aggression from Moscow, as it has sought to position itself during much of the last decade, but as a country that is part of a broader geopolitical web of interests. Turning this strategic relevance into a meaningful step towards national security will be extremely difficult, but critical for Georgia.

There is no easy path for Georgia to pursue a multi-vectored foreign policy. Turkey is extremely important to Georgia, the fight against ISIL and the Middle East more broadly, but is slowly moving away from the west in many regards. Iran is become an important country for strategic reasons, but continues to threaten Israel, a key Georgian ally in the region. Georgia would benefit from finding a way to cooperate with these countries without precipitating any rancor from Washington. Similarly, Georgia would like to find a way to maintain its strong alliances with both the US and Israel without becoming more of a target for Jihadist terror. This, of course, was at the core of the confusion around the training camps for Syrian fighters.

For the more than two decades since its independence, Georgia has existed in a security environment where there has been very little room for error. The presence of Russian forces on 20% of Georgia’s territory is a daily reminder of that. That basic reality is not likely to change in the next few years. The best way for Georgia to avoid making errors is to have an appropriately realistic assessment of what key allies like the US or NATO will or will not do and to plan based on that.

Last month in New York, the Russian Foreign Minister gave a bizarre speech urging Georgia to allow itself to be protected by Russia, or something like that; the Georgian government, embarrassingly got its internal signals crossed and for a few days could not effectively or clearly communicate the extent to which it will support the US led effort against ISIL; and the Georgian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister had many high level bilateral meetings. Taken together these events could amount to very little, or they could be part of a new direction in Georgian foreign policy.

The Georgia analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research and analysis for your business, government or other organization, please email lincoln@lincolnmitchell.com.