NATO’s Endless Caucasian Courtship

Despite its promises, NATO isn't letting Tbilisi join the alliance. It’s time to think about Plan B.

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To fanfare, NATO inaugurated a new Joint Training and Evaluation Center (JTEC) near Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, in late August. Though a minor addition to the alliance’s vast constellation of European infrastructure, the new base is notable for being in a non-NATO state, making it a major symbol for Georgia, which has doggedly pursued NATO membership since the late 1990s. The new center is unambiguously good news for Tbilisi — but it is, at best, a consolation prize. That’s because, despite promising to admit Georgia in 2008, NATO leaders have made it clear that it can’t expect to join anytime soon. The problem is not that the country has been unable to meet the alliance’s high standards. Rather, NATO refuses to clearly elaborate what Georgia can do — if anything — to win entry.

NATO’s hesitation is an especially tough pill to swallow considering Tbilisi’s enthusiastic integration with the alliance. Not only have Georgian troops served in large numbers in Afghanistan (and continue to do so), but Tbilisi is the only non-member contributor to NATO’s new rapid response force. Georgia’s military, which has deployed alongside western soldiers in Kosovo, Iraq, and Central African Republic, is highly rated, battle-tested, and reportedly fields over 10,000 troops at NATO standards — better than many existing member states. Georgia is also increasingly democratic, if prone to fits of intense political infighting. And Tbilisi balances its unwavering Euro-Atlantic aspirations with a policy of pragmatically engaging Russia on trade and cultural exchange, seeking to avoid the kind of acrimony that contributed to the two countries’ 2008 war.

Despite these solid credentials — or, more conspiratorially, because of them — NATO has refused to establish a clear set of benchmarks Georgia could meet in order to gain entry, leaving its application in limbo. While opponents of Georgian entry often code their misgivings in technicalities (but refuse to establish what those standards are), their opposition is really prompted by concern about provoking Russian ire or inviting controversy over Article V of NATO’s establishing treaty, which would require members to come to Georgia’s aid if it were attacked. Given Georgia’s outstanding conflicts with Russia-backed separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, some member states worry that bringing in Georgia will make a NATO confrontation with Russia more likely. And skeptics claim Georgia is militarily indefensible against Russian assault.

Yet these assertions don’t stand up to scrutiny. Georgia’s defeat in its 2008 war with Russia obscured what its military got right. Despite Russian superiority on air and land, the two sides suffered roughly the same number of casualties. A Georgian special forces unit successfully held off a much larger advancing Russian force, allowing other troops to withdraw to prepare Tbilisi’s defenses. And Georgian air defenses, though outmatched, scored a number of hits against Russian air raids, including downing a Tupolev bomber.

This was after Georgia’s ill-prepared military had been caught by surprise. Today, seven years later, it is roundly described by Western officials as much more capable and better prepared to resist Russian incursions. In June, the purchase of advanced French air defense systems provided it with a significant defensive upgrade. On a recent visit to Washington, Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli describes this acquisition as a “game changer.” And if Tbilisi joined NATO today, Georgia’s military would be firmly mid-tier in size — just below the likes of Romania and Holland but above Bulgaria, Norway, and Belgium — and among the top in military size per capita.

Neither is Georgia’s dispute with Russia over the separatist-ruled territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia a legitimate reason to scuttle the prospect of NATO membership. If the alliance is concerned that these “frozen conflicts” could trigger a new war, it is always possible to write them out of Article V, essentially excluding them from NATO’s defensive obligations — at least until they are peacefully reunited with Tbilisi.

More generally, fears about admitting Georgia betray a misunderstanding over the point of collective defense. NATO was never intended to be a garrison of the strongest, beyond which the small would be left to be devoured. Instead, the alliance was a conscious collective effort to secure Europe from aggression and defend a rules-based liberal order. Georgia is undeniably European — geographically as well as by dint of its cultural heritage. Its trajectory, though not without setbacks, remains democratic. And as a democratic, frontline European state threatened by a revanchist Russia, Georgia is perfect example of the very kind of states NATO was created to protect.

On technical merit alone, Georgia deserves NATO membership. But European politics — Russia-shy and increasingly nativist — undermine Tbilisi’s bid. This is not lost on Georgian officials, who remain hopeful while acknowledging Georgia’s uphill battle against European expansion fatigue. But Tbilisi knows time is not on its side.

Western foot-dragging is making truth tellers of Georgia’s pro-Russia charlatans who have long claimed that NATO was a pipe dream. Though once banished to the political margins, such views have recently gained traction: polls show that the share of Georgians favoring the alternative Eurasian Union alliance (led by Russia) has risen from 11 percent in 2013 to 31 percent this past spring. Ahead of Georgia’s 2016 parliamentary elections, which could usher in a sizable faction of anti-western deputies, Tbilisi says it needs NATO to fulfill its promises lest its Euro-Atlantic political consensus disintegrate entirely.

“A weak NATO signal could demoralize pro-West voters, who will stay home, and pro-Russia forces will have the initiative,” said Khidasheli. “It’s not just Georgia. It’s about the entire alliance, and whether NATO is willing to maintain its credibility against Russian pressure.”

But if NATO does not deliver in 2016, Georgia needs a backup plan. Russia’s war in Ukraine may be dealing grave blows to the rules-based European order, but it has also bought Georgia some breathing room. Russia is not omnipotent, and the stress of projecting power into Ukraine — even well short of a full-scale invasion — is reportedly taking a toll on its military, making a large incursion into Georgia less likely. This presents a window of opportunity for Tbilisi and its Western partners to boost Georgia’s defenses.

To this end, Tbilisi should expand the capability and numbers of its active and reserve forces — particularly the latter. Georgia’s ability to turn out large numbers of well-equipped, well-trained troops in the event of a national emergency could deter a conflict in the first place, and force advancing Russian troops into protracted, high-casualty engagements if one did occur. Georgian politicians traditionally invoke Singapore, Israel, and Switzerland as models of small, prosperous states that thrived while surrounded by larger powers. Tbilisi could follow these examples and adopt the “total defense” doctrine — a state of full-spectrum defensive readiness and preparation — that the three states share. Doing so would telegraph a commitment to self-preservation, NATO membership or not, and certainly beats the alternative of “dying as heroes” if NATO’s refusal is final.

To further secure its position, Georgia should pursue stronger bilateral relationships outside of Euro-Atlantic structures. Efforts to cultivate stronger, durable ties with the United States in parallel to NATO are a good place to start. Granting Tbilisi the status of a “Major Non-NATO Ally” would be a powerful gesture by the United States, and it would come at virtually zero cost — the step would be mostly symbolic and compel no treaty obligations, but could help galvanize a wary Georgian public.

Tbilisi should also cultivate ties with China, which has recently taken great interest in Georgia as a key bridge in its efforts to create a Eurasia-spanning “New Silk Road” trade and energy corridor. Sapped by international sanctions and tumbling energy prices, Moscow is increasingly dependent on Beijing’s goodwill, and Tbilisi should appeal to China’s senior position as another means of deflecting Russian adventurism.

By any realistic measure, Georgia is ready for and should receive NATO membership. In the interim, however, Tbilisi should build its own momentum and take domestic and diplomatic steps to strengthen its position. This will not only better secure Georgian sovereignty, but may also make Georgia a more attractive NATO candidate. The fate of Georgia’s NATO bid may be beyond appeals or politicking. Given the West’s current dithering, though, Georgians had better make sure they’re ready to defend themselves — with or without the alliance.

In the photo, Georgian soldiers stand in formation during the inauguration ceremony of the NATO-Georgian Joint Training and Evaluation Center outside Tbilisi on August 27, 2015.

Photo credit: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images

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