The Georgian Defense
Putin's Ukrainian gambit has transformed the geopolitical chessboard in Eastern Europe. Here's how NATO should respond.
Recent developments in Ukraine have been nothing less than astonishing — and that’s just as true of seasoned observers of Eastern Europe as it is of everyone else. Russia’s bold and illegal military intervention issues a startling challenge not just to Ukrainian independence but also to the very foundations of the post-war liberal order. In such times, the West has an obligation to offer a credible and serious response to an attack on the global rules-based system. An excellent — and overdue — option would be to provide Georgia with a concrete and attainable pathway into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
As of March 11, Russian forces appear to be in full control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. In spite of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent pledge to de-escalate the situation (even as he bizarrely persisted in denying the active involvement of Russian troops in Crimea), there is little evidence that Moscow intends to relinquish its grip on sovereign foreign territory. Though Russia reportedly pulled back some of its forces that were amassing near eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin clearly remains in full saber-rattling mode even outside of Ukraine, keeping many of its neighbors on edge. As Russian fleet elements conducted live fire exercises in the Baltic Sea, Moscow deployed Russian MiG-29 fighters to its airbase near Yerevan, Armenia. Turkish F-16 fighters were scrambled when a Russian spy plane probed Turkish airspace and the Kremlin proceeded with a scheduled ICBM launch test in spite of high tensions. By most estimates, this would seem to be anything but a de-escalation, despite the Kremlin’s PR-friendly rhetoric.
Contrary to some characterizations, Russia’s military adventurism in Ukraine is an issue of genuine geostrategic importance to the West. By seizing the sovereign territory of its neighbor — unprovoked and based on the flimsiest of pretexts — Moscow has effectively launched an offensive against the very fabric of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. This system is premised on the primacy of transnational norms and supposedly guaranteed by the United States, NATO, the European Union, and other such institutions. Ukraine is not yet a member of NATO or the European Union, but it is a part of the European family, and it is entitled to both sovereignty and the right to orient its foreign policy as it sees fit.
Since the end of the Second World War, the United States and Europe have expended great resources to change the continent from a perennial international security risk — which came to a head in both world wars — into a sort of postmodern utopia, largely free from the Hobbesian interstate conflicts that continue to plague much of the rest of the world. But Russia’s intervention challenges the integrity of the European project. An aggressive Russia, willing and free to violate its neighbors’ sovereignty, would jeopardize the dream of European unity, demilitarization, and free movement. It could thrust the continent back to its historical default: fragmented, warring, and unstable.
That said, realistic policy options to address Russian aggression are scarce. Barring an unforeseen event, there is little rationale or appetite for a direct, kinetic military response. Yet even far more modest steps, such as economic sanctions or political pressure, have faced resistance within Europe. Britain, whose stiff upper lip seems to have weakened of late, refuses to countenance punitive measures that imperil the bottom line for its hedge fund managers in London. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even came out against the highly symbolic move of ejecting Russia from the G8 club of industrialized nations — despite the absurdity of its continued membership.
A common Western economic sanctions package appears unlikely, and key European states are particularly skittish about confronting Russia directly over Ukraine. This would seem to bolster the case for a proportional but more indirect Western response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. In many respects, granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a roadmap for accession into NATO, fits the bill perfectly. It is at once measured as well as proactive. Such a step would demonstrate genuine Western resolve on preserving and reinforcing the Euro-Atlantic security architecture — which have served as the pillars of the liberal international order since 1945 — without having the appearance of deliberate escalation.
The pieces for Georgian accession are already in place. In fact, Georgia’s recent progress makes it well positioned for NATO accession, independent of the Ukraine crisis. It has demonstrated its democratic credentials with a series of peaceful transfers of power. Its highly-regarded troops serve in force alongside NATO partners in Afghanistan (without national caveats). And it has made serious moves to transform its military from the conscript-dependent structure that was battered in the 2008 war with Russia into a professional, Western-style force. (In the photo above, Georgian soldiers attend a ceremony before being deployed to Afghanistan.) Just as importantly, Tbilisi has managed to moderate its relationship with Russia, enabling the restoration of limited trade and cultural exchanges that had were curtailed after the 2008 conflict. This has significantly improved the regional security situation, which only a couple of years ago seemed locked into a state of permanent hostilities with its powerful northern neighbor. As the Ukraine episode highlights, Georgia and Russia are unlikely to ever truly get along — certainly not so long as Moscow continues to occupy legal Georgian territory — but Tbilisi appears to be determined to rise above Russia’s constant provocations.
Structurally, Georgia is also ready for a MAP. Besides the Georgians’ truly outstanding contributions in Afghanistan — not to mention their recent decision to join EU peacekeeping efforts in the Central African Republic — Georgian forces are already being integrated into the 25,000-strong NATO rapid reaction force. That should be considered a testament to the high regard by which Georgian troops are held today. During its recent visit to Georgia, the NATO military committee, the highest military body in the alliance, offered both praise and support for ongoing Georgian defense reforms. And in a recent visit to the United States, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili called on the Atlantic alliance to acknowledge Georgian progress with a MAP at the upcoming NATO summit in Britain later this year. Both the administration and a bipartisan group in Congress have signaled United States’ support for a Georgian MAP.
Georgian membership makes sense. Contrary to its conventional portrayal, Georgia is in many ways already a stabilizing force in the region. In the past, Georgia’s contributions to regional stability were mostly obscured by its venomous relationship with Russia, but the gradual improvement of relations are once again revealing Georgia’s potential value as a regional linchpin. It is already rapidly integrating into a de facto trilateral alignment with Western-leaning Turkey and Azerbaijan, yet it also maintains good relations with neighboring Armenia. Georgia has dramatically improved ties with Israel as of late at the expense of its erstwhile friendship with Iran, but the country remains both an honest broker and an accessible meeting place for just about all of its neighbors.
In an honest assessment, Georgia is already a more than worthy candidate for the MAP. Any outstanding issues — additional reforms, the applicability of collective defense to the breakaway regions, and the like — are best negotiated within the framework of the MAP. The move already makes sense for NATO and it would also be an effective tool in pushing back against Russian revanchism.
Russia is often described as geostrategically "playing chess" while the West dithers over a tactical checkerboard. The analogy is as tired as it is cumbersome, but the sentiment that Moscow seems better able to exhibit strategic patience is not unwarranted. In the same vein, bringing Georgia into NATO would constitute a rare opportunity to employ an indirect but robust strategic countermove to augment the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, broadcast Western resolve at a time of declining confidence, and signal to Moscow that its aggressiveness has consequences. At the same time, it would be unlikely to stoke tensions given its indirectness and the fact that Georgian NATO membership has been promised by the alliance since its 2008 Bucharest summit.
There are certainly more direct, shorter-term measures that can and should also be adopted in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. The most worthwhile of these would likely be to target financial and real assets of corrupt officials, known money launderers, and human rights abusers in senior positions of the Russian government and regime-connected elite. The effectiveness of such sanctions might be minimized somewhat by European reluctance to participate, but they might still provide enough leverage to minimize further catastrophe. Strategically, the West can be proactive and forceful by keeping its promise to bring Georgia into NATO. It’s an idea that is both long overdue and well-calibrated to Russia’s obvious geopolitical aggression.