NATO’s Noble Partner 2018 exercise kicked off in Georgia on Aug. 1 and will last until Aug. 15. More than 3,000 military personnel from 13 member and partner countries are taking part in this training event held near Russia’s borders. A total of 140 units of military hardware are involved. Moscow views these activities as a clear provocation. The exercise is obviously a signal of NATO’s strong support for Georgia’s membership in the alliance. Noble Partner is adding more fuel to the fire, as tensions are already running high in the Black Sea region. Russia is concerned about Georgia’s aggressive and provocative policy.
On Aug. 6, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that Georgia’s NATO membership could trigger a “horrible conflict.” That statement was made in an interview with the Russian daily Kommersant on the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the Russian-Georgian war. Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously warned the alliance about the move, emphasizing that it would lead to unspecified consequences. This brings to mind the events that took place exactly ten years ago.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 8, 2008, heavy fighting erupted in and around Tskhinvali, the capital, which spread to other parts of South Ossetia. Georgia violated a 1992 peace agreement and opened fire on Russian peacekeepers. The attack caused significant destruction and civilian casualties. In response to Georgia’s aggression, Russian forces crossed the border on Aug. 8 to free South Ossetia from the invading force and to rescue its own soldiers.
The ensuing EU investigation confirmed that it was Georgia that started the war. The fact-finding mission led by the Swiss diplomat, Heidi Tagliavini, included more than 20 political, military, human-rights, and international-law experts, who produced over 1,000 pages of analysis, documentation, and witness statements indicating that the war was sparked as a result of Georgian troops attacking South Ossetia and Russian peacekeepers at the orders of Georgia’s then president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
The report claims that the war started "with a massive Georgian artillery attack." The document states plainly that "there was no ongoing armed attack by Russia before the start of the Georgian operation … Georgian claims of a large-scale presence of Russian armed forces in South Ossetia prior to the Georgian offensive could not be substantiated … It could also not be verified that Russia was on the verge of such a major attack."
The Russian troops did not advance into Tbilisi, although they could have done so easily, as the Georgian army was on the run. The Russian response was proportionally appropriate for Moscow’s goal of preventing a larger war and putting an end to the bloodshed and human suffering. A peacekeeping mission was the only way to do it. The conflict was mediated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and a ceasefire agreement was reached on Aug. 12. Russia recognized Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence from Georgia on Aug. 26.
Nine months of hard work led the EU mission to the conclusion that it was Georgia that started the war. But an information war has been waged since then with the intention of painting Russia as the aggressor or the nation that “provoked the events.”
Shortly after the “brief war,” NATO agreed to the admission of Georgia, which shares a border with Russia. If Georgia joins the alliance, NATO will be involved in the territorial dispute involving the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. According to NATO’s principles of enlargement, a country with unsettled territorial conflicts cannot join the alliance. The recent summit of the bloc demonstrated its readiness to turn a blind eye to this violation of its own rules. During the July 11-12 summit, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to eventually admitting Georgia. The US strongly supports its bid. Just six days before the event, United States Permanent Representative to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison made a special statement emphasizing the US support for Georgia’s aspirations to join the bloc.
It is generally accepted within NATO that because Georgia holds the status of a privileged partner, it does not even need a membership action plan (MAP) like other aspirants. The proponents of Georgia’s “fast track” accession say the country’s participation in the Annual National Plan and the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP) is enough to grant membership. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg believes that, "Georgia has all the practical tools to become a member." The NATO Parliamentary Assembly (PA) has reaffirmed its unwavering support for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. After all, the Georgian forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were the largest non-NATO contingents, dwarfing those of most NATO members.
The United States sees this nation as a useful ally located in a strategically important region. The US and NATO plan to increase their military presence in Afghanistan. Georgia could play a crucial role in supplying their forces, if shipments were transported by land from the Georgian port of Poti on the Black Sea to Baku, then crossing the Caspian Sea to Aktau, Kazakhstan, before being moved by land again across Uzbekistan into Afghanistan. Georgia is the link between energy fields in the Caspian Sea and markets in Turkey and Europe, thus bypassing Russia. It also provides the shortest transport route between Europe and Asia for exporting gas and oil. A US armed conflict with Iran is a possibility. It takes only few hours to fly to any destination in the Middle East from Georgia.
Tbilisi is mulling over an expedited NATO membership strategy. A fast-track approach has been recently proposed by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank. Its proposal states that Georgia could be granted membership by temporarily excluding the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from NATO's Article 5 security guarantee. Article 6 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which defines specific territories within a given nation, could be amended to include South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Officially, the membership will be presented as a temporary measure that will last until the “internationally recognized territory is re-established by peaceful and diplomatic means.”
From Moscow’s point of view, the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are allied independent states with a Russian military presence on their soil. Russia is committed to their defense in the event of an attack. If a full-fledged member of NATO believes those republics are actually part of its own national territory, a conflict is likely. Holding exercises, building military infrastructure, providing arms, and advocating for Georgia’s NATO membership are all provocative steps that can easily spark such a clash. The Russian government has warned about the consequences. PM Dmitry Medvedev has defined the red line that must not be crossed. He has also declared that Russia is ready to normalize the relationship and revive economic ties. Tbilisi must make its choice.