BACKGROUND: Georgia's relationship with NATO dates back to 1994 and its membership in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. Georgian troops served alongside NATO troops in the peacekeeping operation in Kosovo (KFOR) from 1999 to 2008 and has participated in NATO’s Planning and Review Process since 1999, allowing the country to establish deployable units according to NATO standards and interoperable with Allied forces. In 2004, Georgia was the first aspiring NATO member to sign an Individual Partnership Action Plan with the alliance. The following year NATO and Georgia signed a transit agreement allowing the alliance and other International Security Assistance Force nations to send supplies for their troops in Afghanistan via Georgia.
In April 2008, NATO members rejected Georgia’s request for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) during the alliance's annual summit in Bucharest despite strong U.S. support for granting MAPs to both Georgia and Ukraine. Sensing the alliance’s hesitation, on April 16 Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev authorized direct official relations between Moscow and secessionists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
On September 17, 2008 the Crimean Parliament in Simferopol defied Ukraine's pro-Western leaders and called on the Rada to follow Russia's example and recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The same month, NATO and Georgia established the NATO-Georgia Commission to oversee NATO’s assistance to Georgia following the conflict with Russia and to play a central role in supervising the process established at the Bucharest Summit. Three months later NATO Foreign Ministers agreed that Georgia should develop an Annual National Program under the auspices of the NATO-Georgia Commission to allow NATO to provide assistance for Georgia’s democratic, institutional and defense reform efforts.
Georgia has been the largest non-NATO troop contributor to Afghanistan’s NATO-led ISAF since it almost doubled its presence there to more than 1,560 soldiers in autumn 2012. Twenty-seven Georgian soldiers have died in Afghanistan since Tbilisi first sent troops there in 2004. Georgia continues to serve as a transit country for ISAF supplies and has also indicated its willingness to participate in the post-2014 follow-on mission to train and assist Afghan security forces after the NATO drawdown is complete in late 2014. Georgia also supports Operation Active Endeavor, NATO’s counter-terrorist maritime surveillance operation in the Mediterranean. In an additional gesture of support for NATO operations, Georgia has offered to participate in the NATO Response Force and is expected to contribute to the NRF in 2015.
NATO membership remains a high priority for both the Georgian government and population. In March 2013, the Georgian parliament passed a unanimous resolution reconfirming Georgia's NATO and EU aspirations. According to a June 2013 survey commissioned by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, 73 percent of those polled supported Georgian NATO membership.
IMPLICATIONS: Russia has been consistently clear about its views on Georgia joining NATO. On December 4, 2013, while attending a session of the Russia-NATO Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated his government’s explicit opposition to the further eastward expansion of NATO, remarking, "as to NATO's enlargement, regardless of Georgia, (Russia) is convinced that it constitutes an extension of the old and inertial logic of the Cold War era. Not only does it preserve the division lines that all of us have committed to dismantle, but it amounts to transposition of those lines further into the East."
On March 6, the Georgian parliament adopted a resolution condemning Russia’s interference in Crimea. The following day Russian military helicopters and drones flew into Georgian airspace in Zugdidi district, adjacent to Abkhazia, and above the suburbs of Gori, which is close to South Ossetia.
Georgia’s NATO membership now threatens to become a U.S. domestic political issue. With upcoming Congressional midterm elections, many conservative incumbents and candidates may well embrace the issue as proving that they are strong on American defense and resisting Russia. As the street clashes escalated in Kiev, U.S. House of Representatives member Eliot L. Engel (D-NY) and Michael Turner (R-OH) wrote a bipartisan letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on February 10, signed by an additional 40 U.S. Congressmen noting, “We believe the United States should continue its close partnerships with the aspirant countries of Georgia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina … and to advocate granting a (NATO) Membership Action Plan to Georgia.” The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs subsequently posted it on its website. On March 12, Republican U.S. Senator John McCain called for the faster integration of both Georgia and Moldova into NATO amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine's Crimean region.
While Georgia is hoping to receiving a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to join NATO during the alliance's September summit in Wales, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking in Brussels on February 5 with visiting Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, said only that the alliance would continue to assess nations aspiring to become NATO members and that final decisions would be made prior to the alliance's summit. In a slight concession to Garibashvili’s aspirations, Rasmussen added that Georgia made substantial progress, which would be “acknowledged and reflected appropriately at the summit.”
Russia’s annexation of Crimea has only hardened Russia’s position on Georgia joining NATO. On March 21 at the German Marshall Fund's annual Brussels Forum, Rasmussen asked Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Aleksandr Grushko, “Will you accept Georgia’s right to choose NATO membership if this is the Georgian decision and if NATO accepts? Would you accept that?” Grushko replied, “No. I was absolutely very clear; we are against. We believe that this is a huge mistake. This is my country’s position.”
Russia’s consistency stands in sharp contrast to the mixed signals coming from the Obama administration. On March 26 at a press conference at the EU-U.S. Summit in Brussels, President Obama threw cold water on Tbilisi’s hopes to join NATO in the immediate future. In response to a question about Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO Obama replied, “Well, I think that neither Ukraine or Georgia are currently on a path to NATO membership and there has not been any immediate plans for expansion of NATO’s membership. I know that Russia, at least on background, has suggested that one of the reasons they’ve been concerned about Ukraine was potential NATO membership. On the other hand, part of the reason that the Ukraine has not formally applied for NATO membership is because of its complex relationship with Russia. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon, obviously.”
The next day Garibashvili commented, “We should not have illusions, we should always assess the existing situation realistically. What President Obama said is quite sufficient and that’s reality; NATO expansion is not planned at this stage.” Commenting upon Obama’s remarks Margvelashvili diplomatically said, “I would not say it was the statement I was looking forward to and I wanted to hear.”
CONCLUSIONS: The swiftly moving events in Ukraine and Crimea are having a seismic impact on Western policies towards both Russia and the issue of NATO expansion, producing contradictory signals from Washington. On March 12, the Russian journal Kommersant quoted an undisclosed source in the State Department saying, “If Russia announces the annexation of Crimea the issue of granting Georgia a MAP can be considered virtually a foregone conclusion.” Fourteen days later Obama told a press conference that Georgia was not “currently on a path to NATO membership.” On February 26, Kerry met with Gharibashvili, after which he announced the possibility of visiting Georgia before May.
Georgia has yet again been left exposed to Russian wrath for declaring its NATO ambitions, only to have them abruptly rejected by Washington. For more than a decade, successive U.S. administrations sent positive signals to Tbilisi when Georgian support for NATO was to the U.S.’s advantage, swiftly revoking the invitation when it was no longer geopolitically convenient. It remains to be seen if this pattern will change when Kerry visits Georgia. The question in Tbilisi’s mind is whether Kerry will come with a message yet again sacrificing Georgia’s NATO aspirations to appease Putin. Russia policy has been consistent; Georgia’s NATO aspirations have been consistent: the wavering is coming from the U.S. and NATO.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. John C.K. Daly is an international correspondent for UPI and Central Asia-Caucasus Institute non-resident Fellow.
(Image Attribution: Secretary of Defense)