US Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed the United States' support for Georgian membership in NATO during his visit to Tbilisi on August 1. Condemning alleged Russia’s «presence» in Georgia, the VP emphasized that the US administration is behind Georgia's aspiration to become a member of the bloc.
Mike Pence said South Ossetia was «occupied» and Russian tanks were «40 miles» from the place where he was delivering his speech. He used the term «strategic partnership», describing the bilateral relationship and pledged allegiance to the NATO 2008 Bucharest statement, which welcomed Georgia’s aspiration to join the alliance.
To strengthen the message, a day ahead Mike Pence’s arrival in Georgia on July 31, some 2,800 troops from Georgia, the United States, and six other countries, including about 1,600 US servicemen and 800 Georgian soldiers, began Noble Partner – a major military exercise on the South Caucasus nation’s soil. Troops from Britain, Germany, Turkey, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Armenia are also participating. The US sent some of its M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks, M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and Stryker infantry carrier vehicles for the drills, which will last until August 12. The Strykers are deployed to Georgia for the first time.
During the opening ceremony on July 30, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and other leaders said they saw the exercise as a step toward Georgia’s NATO membership. «That the number of military personnel and the equipment has been significantly increased [this year], speaks to the support of the United States, NATO member states and partner countries to Georgia and the regional stability», said Defense Minister Levan Izoria. This is the third time the training event is held in Georgia. Moscow has warned that the drills could destabilize the region.
Although Georgia is not a member of NATO, it does voluntarily contribute to NATO’s multinational Response Force (NRF). The nation’s servicemen have participated in NATO operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, Georgia has provided more troops on a per-capita basis than any other participant in the operation.
At the NATO Wales Summit in 2014, Georgia was one of five countries chosen for Enhanced Opportunities Partnership (EOP) status under NATO’s newly launched Partnership Interoperability Initiative (PII). The EOP effectively provides all of the privileges that alliance members receive except for the collective security umbrella enshrined in Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly Spring Session held in Tbilisi on May 26-29, 2017, agreed on expanding political and practical support to Georgia.
Georgia hosted the NATO Military Committee in early March 2017 to discuss the implementation of the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP). The package comprises support at the strategic, tactical, and operational levels and endeavors to hone Georgian armed forces’ defensive skills via joint training missions. The Joint Training and Evaluation Center (JTEC) in Krtsanisi, Georgia, established in 2015, is an element of the SNGP. Tbilisi is to build two more training sites in Vaziani and Senaki.
The «More NATO in Georgia and more Georgia in NATO» concept serves as an alternative to a Membership Action Plan (MAP). It provides all of the necessary instruments that the MAP recommends. The NATO training infrastructure in Georgia is used to provide opportunities for interaction between members and aspiring nations. Tbilisi is progressively seeking to be drawn into NATO’s Black Sea maritime initiatives. A new round of the US-sponsored «Georgia Train and Equip Program» will be launched in March 2018 with the goal of establishing at least nine NATO-standard rifle battalions.
Despite all the programs, no significant measures have been taken so far to assist in the modernization of Georgia’s military inventory. Since 2008, there has been a tacit agreement between Western countries to abstain from arms supplies to Georgia.
In December, 2016, the United States under the Obama administration and Georgia signed a framework agreement on security cooperation for 2016–2019. The agreement «will be revised and updated annually in the framework of bilateral top level consultations». It has been unclear whether Georgia would take advantage of the bilateral memorandum to buy weapons from the US on a massive scale. It was reported in May that Georgia will replace its Kalashnikov machine guns with US-produced M240 machine guns.
The Trump administration’s stance on the issue had not been made clear before the vice president’s visit to Tbilisi on July 31-August 1. Now it is widely expected that the US will start to supply Georgia with lethal arms, including portable anti-tank (Javelin) and air defense (Stinger) systems, as well as drones. At least, that’s how his remarks were construed.
Meanwhile, Lt. General Ben Hodges, commander of US ground forces in Europe, visited Georgia to open the Noble Partner exercises, with seven more US high-level military leaders to make trips to the country in August. In July 2016, Georgia and the US signed the Memorandum on Deepening the Defense and Security Partnership. The memo provided a general framework for future cooperation but needs specific follow-on accords to support concrete projects. To realize its goal, the Georgia Defense Readiness Program (GDRP) is expected to be signed «to strengthen the country's defense capabilities».
So, it has now become clear that the Trump administration considers Georgia as a privileged ally, a partner of special importance. No wonder. The geographic position enables Georgia to project influence in the Black Sea, Caspian, and Caucasus regions, where the US presence remains limited. Georgia can become a springboard for American military, as well as a main stop on the transport route to the Middle East.
The country provides the shortest transport corridor between Europe and Asia through which gas and oil are exported. Georgia is the only South Caucasian nation pursuing the goal of Euro-Atlantic integration. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan appears to have interest in NATO accession. Turkey is moving away from the West. There are many serious differences between Turkey and the United States. America needs a reliable member to compensate for the possible loss. Cooperation is moving to a new phase, with Washington pushing Tbilisi to NATO membership.
Georgia’s membership will certainly make Russia take appropriate steps to counter the NATO expansion that can entail the most serious and deepest geopolitical consequences. The tensions are already high in the region. The Noble Partner exercise adds more fuel to the fire, the same way military preparations in the Baltic Sea area do in another potential war theater. Georgia, Romania and Ukraine willingly serve as US and NATO springboards – elements of Russia’s encirclement in the south, while Georgia is on the way to become a state without NATO membership with obligations to fulfill and no commitments given to defend it in return. With tensions already running high, lethal arms supplied from the United States to Georgia would greatly aggravate the situation. It would also further deteriorate the already strained US-Russia relations. America would probably benefit from the fact that it has a reliable and faithful ally in the region. Georgia’s security would be reduced to turn the country into a target for Russian armed forces because the infrastructure and a special status make it an element of NATO expansion near Russian borders. Exercises, building military infrastructure, providing arms and advocating Georgia’s NATO membership are all provocative steps leading to an armed conflict.