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US base in Georgia – A scarecrow in Russia’s backyard?

Akhalkalaki is a town in southern Georgia with a history of foreign military presence. Its proximity to Syria could potentially make it a valuable US base.

November 4, 2019 - Beka Chedia - Articles and Commentary

US and Georgian soldiers gather for a visit from US Vice President Mike Pence, at Tbilisi International Airport during the multinational exercise Noble Partner in August 2017. Photo: Sgt. Shiloh Capers (cc) flickr.com

A personal opinion published on Twitter at the end of October by Luke Coffey, an American analyst from The Heritage Foundation, excited the Georgian public and political elite. He proposed to place the American military contingent leaving Syria in the small Georgian town of Akhalkalaki, and in the case of danger from ISIS, use this military base against them in Syria.

Akhalkalaki is a town located in southern Georgia near the border with Turkey and Armenia. Its population is around 44,000 people. The closest Armenian city is Gyumri, which hosts the only legal Russian military base in the South Caucasus. In Akhalkalaki there is no appropriate infrastructure for an effective functioning of such a base. For example, there is no landing strip for the transfer of military personnel. However, in Soviet times, Akhalkalaki was considered a military town which hosted the Soviet motorised rifle division, with a strength of approximately 7,000-8,000 military personnel. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 62nd Russian military base was stationed there with about 1,500-2,000 personnel.

The Russian military base in Akhalkalaki has a near 200-year history. Prior to Soviet times, the Russian Imperial army used it as well. The Russian military left Akhalkalaki in 2007. After that, empty buildings were either privatised or seized by the local population, which is made up of ethnic Armenians who have more sentiments towards relations with Russia. At the former base (more precisely, what remains of it), a small military training centre still functions today under the auspices of the Georgian ministry of defence.

When, until 2019, analysts (both Georgian and foreign) theoretically considered the issue of a possible establishment of an American military base in Georgia, they mainly were looking at locations like Vaziani, near the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Vaziani is also a former Soviet military base and today is one of the main military bases for Georgia. The Vaziani base is used for joint training with the United States and NATO. This base has its own airstrip (which does not function) and its infrastructure is more suitable for the possible deployment of the US military. Hence the deployment of a US military base in Akhalkalaki would look unreal and very strange.

Despite the impracticality of such an initiative, Georgian society was delighted by the proposal. Local analysts speculated on the positive and negative consequences of establishing an American military presences. The political elite remains divided into two camps: the pro-western opposition (this is the main part of the country’s political elite) welcomes a US military base.The opinion of the pro-Russian political grouping is clear: The main pro-Russian political force (which has parliamentary mandates) is “The Alliance of Patriots of Georgia”, which enjoys support of the ruling party Georgian Dream party, and from time to time holds anti-western protests and requires the declaration of military neutrality and refusal to join NATO. On September 15th 2019, the Alliance of Patriots organised the first (but very small) anti-American protest in the history of Georgia in front of the US Embassy.

What about the official Georgian authorities? They reacted reluctantly to the idea proposed by Coffey. The leaders of the ruling party in the Georgian media stated that this initiative does not come from the US government and this is only the opinion of one analyst, so there is no point in discussing it. It is clear that the Georgian authorities do not want to annoy Russia with speculation about the possible deployment of the American military in Georgia.

Yet, the idea of ​​deploying the American military in Georgia is highly supported among Georgians. Many believe that in the absence of a real prospect of joining NATO, the United States is the only ally that can protect it from Russia. Bilateral co-operation with the United States in the field of security and the possible deployment of US military bases in Georgia is considered the most desirable scenario for ensuring security. Even the leaders of the national liberation movement at the end of the 1980s, during the struggle against the USSR, called for an American military base in Georgia, but this idea seemed like a fantasy back then.

Military co-operation between Georgia and the United States began during the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze. After the terrorist attack of September 11th 2001, the United States launched a large-scale programme of military co-operation with Georgia. This co-operation deepened under President Mikhail Saakashvili. The idea of ​​deploying US military bases in Georgia began circulating then and Georgian leadership had supported this idea with great enthusiasm. But it remained on the level of analytical discussion.

After 2012 the Georgian Dream coalition, which many consider to be more pro-Russian, came to power in Georgia and have shown little interest in the possible establishment of a US military base in Georgia. On May 1st 2019, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, in an interview with the Georgian edition of Voice of America, spoke out against the idea. She stated that it would be undesirable for the country. Curiously, no one was really debating the idea at that time and many wondered why the president made such a preventive statement.

There is no doubt that Russia fears the deployment of American military bases near its border, especially on the territory of the former Soviet Republics, which it considers as its own backyard. But obviously there is no chance of this happening, at least not in the current geopolitical environment.

Beka Chedia is a Tbilisi-based researcher and an associate professor of Political Science.

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