დავითი and Голиаф (David and Goliath)
On Wednesday, USIP hosted a talk by the Defense Minister of Georgia, Tinatin Khidasheli, entitled Seeking Security: Georgia Between Russia and ISIS. William B. Taylor, Executive Vice President, USIP, moderated. Khidasheli made a forceful argument that NATO membership or at least a path to NATO membership for Georgia would help deter Russia and maintain NATO credibility.
In his introductory remarks, Taylor noted that Georgia is a strong US ally that has demonstrated its military and diplomatic capabilities. Georgia is committed to integration with the West and NATO.
Khidasheli said Georgia proves success for a former Soviet Socialist Republic is possible without Russia in charge. This is why Russia fights everything they do. Putin is trying to recover from the weakness of the Yeltsin era. He won’t let any country in Russia’s immediate neighborhood have a say without Russia’s permission.
The European Neighborhood’s Eastern Partnership started with six countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. However, at the 2015 Riga Summit, only Georgia was fully present. This was disappointing.
Khidasheli cited two motives for her trip to DC:
- To strengthen Georgia’s partnership with the US and achieve more tangible results and military cooperation.
- To seek advice on Georgia’s path to NATO membership.
NATO needs Georgia more than Georgia needs NATO, she said, in order to maintain its mission and credibility. The Alliance has been talking for years about its commitment to partners and its open-door policy. It must prove it is still a courageous organization. Some argue that expanding NATO will force Russia to act, but after NATO made it clear in 2008 that it wasn’t expanding, Russia invaded South Ossetia. By 2009, the West viewed Russia as a partner again, but Russia’s actions in Ukraine made it clear that is not true.
As soon as the Riga summit ended in disappointment, Russia started actions in Georgia. There are daily Russian movements on the artificial border with South Ossetia. The Russians sometimes advance up to a kilometer or two. Georgia won’t be provoked and won’t allow war on its territory. The checkpoints that Russia has marked are now just .5 km from Georgia’s main East-West highway. Is Russia targeting it or trying to distract Georgia?
NATO will hold its Warsaw Summit in July 2016. Georgia will hold parliamentary elections in October 2016. A bad outcome at Warsaw won’t make Khidasheli’s voters fall in love with Russia, but it could decrease their turnout, leading to a more pro-Russian parliament. The situation in Ukraine is adding to doubts about Georgia’s integration into NATO and the EU. There are two possible outcomes of the Warsaw summit:
- NATO allows Russia a veto over new members, rejects expansion and cedes additional areas to Russian dominance.
- NATO pursues enlargement, sending a clear message to Russia that partners matter as much as members.
NATO brings peace. It is the only reason the Baltics are currently safe. The current situation won’t deter Russia. The world hasn’t been able to stop the war in Ukraine.
The dominant argument from the Kremlin now favors a strong Russia. Putin has no trouble presenting the West as the enemy. But sanctions alone against Russia won’t help and will play into Putin’s “evil West” narrative. The West needs to understand that Russia is a country where people ate rats and cats in World War 2 and still won. Western notions of hardship and happiness aren’t relevant there.
Khidasheli recognizes that a realistic outcome of the Warsaw Summit won’t be NATO membership but an intermediate step towards membership. Georgia wants a statement that it is on a membership track.
While Georgia recently acquired an air defense system from France, Khidasheli did not specify how Tbilisi plans to deter Moscow or draw red lines. Georgia will make decisions about whether to shoot down a Russian plane violating Georgian airspace based on the threat level. With respect to Russia’s creeping annexation policies, Khidasheli reiterated that Georgia won’t be provoked. Georgia will not make a decision regarding countering Russia without its partners.
Russia is trying to use soft power to influence Georgia through NGOs and the media. There are political parties that openly align with Russia, including a former parliamentary speaker.
Khidasheli also spoke briefly about the problem of ISIS recruitment in Georgia, especially in the Pankisi Gorge. This poses a great danger. Georgia has failed to pay enough attention to the problems in this region. More integration, education and targeted employment programs are needed to decrease the feelings of isolation and abandonment among locals. The government must also examine other areas of Georgia where the demographics suggest future problems and address those issues now.