The Russian reaction to Georgia’s the Noble Partner military exercises in which Georgian troops will be participating with US and UK troops, captures the existential challenge of Georgia’s foreign policy. The Russia Foreign Ministry issued a statement summarizing their position that,
“(w)e regard this ongoing ‘exploration’ of Georgia’s territory by NATO forces as a provocative step aimed at escalating the military and political situation in the South Caucasus. To a large extent, this is encouraged by Washington’s and its allies’ open connivance at Tbilisi’s revanchist ambitions.”
This statement reveals the illogic of Russia’s attitude towards Georgia and to Georgia’s NATO aspirations. If Georgia wants to bring NATO forces onto its territory, that is Georgia’s business, unless of course NATO is forcing its way onto Georgian territory against the will of Georgia. That, of course, is not the case. More seriously, a Russian statement that Georgia is “escalating the military and political situation” is a bizarrely ahistorical notion. It is not, after all, Georgia who controls a swath of Russian territory. In fact, it is the reverse that is the case. Russia is the country has made sure that, regardless of what Georgia does, the military and geopolitical situation in the region remains escalated and, indeed, dangerous.
It should also be noted that Noble Partner is not some kind of practice run for an invasion of Russia’s flank from Georgia. Only the most paranoia addled Moscow minds could possibly believe that. Moreover, Noble Partner is not even a concerted NATO action because, as Moscow is well aware, Georgia is not part of NATO, and is unlikely to be allowed to join the alliance in the near future.
Russia’s position also makes it clear that Moscow will never, or at least as long as the current regime or one similar to it is in place, be comfortable with a Georgia that either seeks to join NATO, enjoys strong ties to powerful western countries like the US and the UK or simply wants to chart its own foreign policy course. This has been evident for a number of years, so in most respects, the Russian MFA statement is simply a reminder of this unfortunate reality for Tbilisi.
Significantly, while the Russian MFA is clearly upset about Noble Partner it is not yet apparent that they are prepared to do anything about it. The wisest approach for Moscow is to continue to make statements, but to let the operation occur without any response. The foreign policy leadership in Moscow is probably wise enough to know that while they may chafe politically at the presence of US and UK troops in Georgia, neither of those two western powers is going to do anything in Georgia to actually directly endanger or threaten Russia. Russia’s rhetorical response to Operation Noble Partner also makes it clear that the bandwidth of acceptable geopolitical behavior in which Moscow wants to see Tbilisi operate is very narrow and one that limits Georgia’s options and ability to move forward.
This is the big picture problem that Russia continues to raise for Georgia. Russia has for years meddled in Georgian domestic politics, done what it can to thwart Georgia’s hopes of joining NATO, occupied Georgian territory and lurked as an abstract bogeyman framing much of Georgia’s political life. According anybody who is surprised by Moscow’s reaction to these joint military drills in Georgia has not been paying enough attention. What is most disturbing, for Tbilisi, about this reaction is how entirely predictable they were.
These comments occurred only a few weeks after the US Ambassador to NATO indicated that NATO was unlikely to welcome Georgia anytime soon. While Ambassador Douglas Lute’s words did not bring great happiness to most Georgians, he said nothing that most thoughtful Georgians did not already know. This cycle of Georgian cooperation with the US and some other key allies, strong words from Moscow criticizing this while Georgia keeps pushing to get into NATO, but continues to get rebuked has characterized Georgian foreign policy for around a decade. In addition to the Groundhog Day feel of this that frustrates and confounds Georgia and many of its foreign friends, this is a pattern that may not be sustainable. It has, in fact, already proven to be a problem, as the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia rose, to a great extent, out of the earlier iterations of this cycle.
The seemingly eternal question this raises for Georgia is how to move forward in a context where NATO membership is a possibility, perhaps even a strong possibility, but not an immediate one, and were Russia is not going to change its attitude or approach towards Georgia. The battery of ideas regarding what Georgia should do which most frequently include continuing to show its readiness for NATO, demonstrating that Georgia can contribute to NATO, pushing back against Russian soft power in Georgia, moving forward with democratic reforms and mobilizing western allies to help the NATO effort are not wrong, but nor have they proven effective.
While this undoubtedly leads to enormous frustration within Georgia, and among many of its advocates outside the country, it does not lead fruitful policy prescriptions. Doing more of the same won’t hurt, but it won’t get Georgia to where it needs to be either. The need for NATO membership has, if anything, become more acute, as Russia has grown more, not less, ambitious for influence in its immediate region.
It is not clear how Georgia will get out of this vexing situation, but it is apparent that two of the most commonly employed strategies, fear and platitudes will not work. The former often takes the form of warning the west that failing to move quickly on NATO will push Georgia’s electorate away from its pro-western view. There are two problems with this tactic. First, the pro-western views of the Georgia people have proven to be impressively resilient even in the face of Georgia's less than easy road to NATO. Second, few western policy makers are swayed by this argument. Western support for Georgia, in reality, is based largely on the Georgian people’s desire to be part of the west, politically, militarily, culturally and economically. If that were to change, many in the west would be considerably less interested in working to keep a Georgia that was wavering on its commitment, in the western fold.
The latter strategy, which seems to entail repeating platitudes and hoping for the best, can help Georgian leaders feel better in the short term, but are not likely to have much of an impact. The argument for why Georgia should be in NATO is well understood, although not universally supported in NATO. Simply repeating the argument while drawing attention to Moscow’s latest excesses is a tactic that will shore up morale temporarily but will not do much else to help Georgia.
Finding new approaches to this conundrum requires energy, creativity, a willingness to take risks and a few breaks. That is a difficult combination to achieve in any political environment, but the looming election, tendency for political parties to wantonly accuse others of being pro-Russia and ongoing economic problems in Georgia as well as the potential for a major political upheaval, even crisis in the country most important to Georgia’s NATO hopes and defense against Russia, make this even more difficult.
Georgia needs a foreign policy that builds on its occasionally impressive accomplishments over the last decade or so, but that gets away from a singular approach that, at best, depends upon a timeframe for NATO membership that is too long to meet Georgia’s security needs, but that also might never work. This kind of creative policy making is never easy. Nor does it usually occur in any one isolated policy arena. A new foreign policy that resolves the puzzle that NATO membership is not imminent, but that Russia is not going away and the security concerns raised by Russia are real, will not emerge in the context of Georgia’s current economic conditions and, more significantly, current and recent political discourse. The solutions Georgia so desperately needs will be holistic and will likely cause disruption across the political spectrum in Georgia. Creating an environment where that can happen is one of the most important big picture things that can be done for Georgia today and in the near future.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.