In light of the Crimean crisis, NATO has begun to consider endowing the Republic of Georgia with a Membership Action Plan, or MAP, by September of this year. On the one hand, this would in many ways be a continuation of NATO’s south-eastern expansion which culminated in Albanian and Croatian membership as well as an invitation for Bosnia and Herzegovina to join. Unlike its expansion into the Balkans, however, NATO’s extension into the South Caucasus will once again bring the organization directly to Russia’s borders, to a region that is nothing less than a powder keg. If NATO is going to extend a hand of friendship to Georgia, it needs to do so cautiously and had better be prepared to back its overtures up with actions that may include military confrontation with Russia.
Ahead of the May 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rassmussen stated that he supported NATO’s membership in the alliance. Rasmussen reaffirmed his stance in December 2013 when he declared that Georgia “has moved closer to NATO” even though there is still “work to be done”. Within the NATO membership structure, France and Germany were among those most vocally opposed to Georgian membership in NATO during the Bucharest Summit of 2008. France has been willing to suspend military cooperation and cancel arms contracts with Russia over the Crimea crisis. But it still does not appear to endorse Georgian membership in the alliance outright. Germany continues to be skeptical, fearing that Georgian accession will drag the Atlantic Alliance into a confrontation with Russia.
Many blame Russian expansionist aggression in part because of NATO’s expansion. Indeed, the alliance promised not to spread to include Central and Eastern Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, which it did nevertheless. There can be little doubt, however, that NATO membership has cloaked Central and Eastern Europe in a security blanket to protect it from Russian hostility. The idea of Georgian membership in NATO has broad support among some prominent United States lawmakers. Senator John McCain has called for Georgia to join the alliance, while his colleague Marco Rubio has declared that closing the door to NATO will not stop Russian aggression. Despite this enthusiasm, however, just last week US president Barack Obama said there were no immediate plans to bring Georgia into the alliance. As disappointing as this may be for many in Georgia and abroad, President Obama’s stance is likely based on a great deal of political caution. Indeed, Georgian membership in the Alliance would most likely benefit the country’s security, but it is easier said than done, with a host of factors to consider.
Russia, of course, remains wholly and uncompromisingly opposed to Georgia’s joining NATO. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha has spoken out against the possibility of Georgia’s accession to NATO, stating that it “will not add to stability and security in the region” and that the “mechanical expansion of NATO is absolutely not the necessary path to go on”. Some analysts in Russia, such as Ivan Konovalov of the Centre for Geopolitical Studies, argue that Georgia does not meet the standards of democratic development or of well-equipped armed forces needed for accession to NATO. The seamless transfers of power in Georgia since 2012 has put paid to the first misconception, while in terms of the latter, the close military cooperation between Georgia and the United States cannot help but close the perceived gap in Georgian military capabilities. Georgia’s armed forces are around the same size as those of NATO member Albania, which joined in 2009.
Georgia has proven itself to be a very willing partner for NATO. It is, according to the French Foreign Ministry, the most important non-NATO state participating in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. It was also a member of the “Coalition of the Willing” that participated in the US-led invasion of Iraq. Indeed, because of Georgia’s support for the United States, even during the administration of Bidzina Ivanishvili (who, some feared, would turn Georgia away from the West and back toward Russia, as was later proven to be not the case at all), it supports NATO accession. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has stated that he considers the United States to be the “undisputed leader” of the Atlantic alliance and to be the “gates” through which Georgia may enter NATO.
Georgian membership in NATO would have to consider a host of other factors besides Georgia’s own bilateral relationship with Russia. Upon Armenia’s accession to the Eurasian Customs Union, there are plans to construct a rail line from Russia through Abkhazia, down to Armenia and then onward to Iran. The idea, from both a Russian as well as an Armenian perspective, is that this rail link will give these countries access to the Persian Gulf and thus boost their trade capabilities. This is an especially important point for Armenia, which is both landlocked and flanked by two hostile countries, Azerbaijan and Turkey. This can only serve to strengthen Russia’s grip on Abkhazia and further inhibit the restoration or resolution of Georgia’s full territorial integrity. The Atlantic Alliance will not allow for new members who have outstanding territorial disputes. Thus some analysts have postulated that Georgia may reconsider its position vis-à-vis its territories occupied by Russia. This, however, will do nothing to serve the cause of showing Russia that it has no right to occupy other countries’ lands and promote secessionist or breakaway areas. Furthermore, it may bring two CSTO members at direct loggerheads with a NATO member.
Georgia’s geographic location also means that should it join NATO, it would be sandwiched between CSTO states Armenia and Russia, with the only hope for geographic counterbalance coming from NATO member Turkey and neutral, but generally pro-western Azerbaijan. Georgia thus represents a nexus for this four-node web of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey beset by complex relations with each other. That status already makes Georgia vulnerable, and adding NATO into the mix changes the balance as well as increases the prospects of intervention or combat for all other member states.
NATO membership for Georgia may serve NATO’s interests insofar as it could solidify the Atlantic Alliance’s foothold in the South Caucasus. Indeed, Armenia has served a similar role of Russia and the Russia-led CSTO. NATO’s relative indifference to the South Caucasus in the 1990’s, combined with Armenia’s strategic partnership with Russia, is seen in Russia as a major part of the reason why Russia was not ejected from the South Caucasus completely. Georgia’s membership in the Atlantic Alliance may seem like the obvious solution to protect Georgia from Russia’s geopolitical aggression. Many in Georgia, however, came to question the notion that NATO membership would be beneficial for Georgia after the West’s lack of direct military involvement in the 2008 South Ossetia conflict. Thus, the real question should not be whether Georgia should join NATO, but rather, does NATO have the political will to back its members in the face of a Russian security threat?
If Georgia were to join NATO, it would not of course be the first time that NATO has directly bordered Russia or other CSTO members. Georgian accession to the alliance would, however, mean that Russia’s southern flank is bordered directly by NATO. Thus, Russia may act militarily – in a way not dissimilar to the events of August 2008 – to prevent Georgia from joining the alliance again. If NATO is truly committed to Georgian membership, then it will have to have the political will to back this up with force. If Russia were to attack Georgia before its accession (and accession is by no means a quick process) then NATO may well decide it is not worth the risk of upsetting Russia by setting itself up directly on Russia’s southern wing.
If NATO is going to accept Georgia, NATO needs to be willing to prove that it will defend the geographic integrity of its members. There is little point on NATO extending its hand to Georgia if, when push comes to shove, it is unwilling to defend the country from the very threat or situation for which membership was considered in the first place.
Tony Rinna is a contributing geopolitical analyst at the US-based Center for World Conflict and Peace. His areas of focus include Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.