– Georgia’s first steps towards rapprochement with Euro-Atlantic structures before the Rose Revolution, 2003, during the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze.
– Tbilisi was unreservedly following common arrangements for the reforms necessary to join NATO.
– During the 2008 summit of the Alliance in Bucharest, the coalition partners decided on the future admission of Georgia to their group.
– In recent years, the suspension of the accession process has been visible, caused by the cautious approach to Russia after the Georgian-Russian war in 2008, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as in connection with the armed conflict in the Donbas and the currently exacerbated situation in Eastern Europe.
Admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is at the top of the list of priorities for successive governments in Tbilisi. Through many years of cooperation, Georgia has come significantly closer to full membership, almost exemplary fulfilling the assumptions of the so-called NATO Annual National Plan (ANP). Experts emphasize that the country is better prepared to join the ranks of NATO, compared to other candidates, at a later stage of the accession process. Nevertheless, the country remains in the third stage of integration with the North Atlantic Alliance, that is, in the phase of “intensive dialogue”. Another step awaited by Georgia is the launch of the Membership Action Plan (MAP). However, a slowdown and stagnation in the accession process have been observed for several years. The most serious problem on Tbilisi’s road to NATO is the policy of the Russian Federation.
History of partnership
Just a year after proclaiming independence in 1991, Georgia joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), which is now succeeded by the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). In 1994, Tbilisi joined the bilateral cooperation program – NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) and has actively participated in its exercises since 1996. In 2002, at the Alliance Summit in Prague, then-President Eduard Shevardnadze officially expressed Georgian desire to join NATO. Bilateral actions in this direction intensified after the Rose Revolution in 2003 and the seizure of power by Mikheil Saakashvili. During the first year of his presidency, Georgia began the process of implementing NATO defence and security standards, and the expected democratic reforms. As part of the above activities, the country was the first to launch the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP). Due to the results achieved and the “intensified dialogue” initiated in 2006 on the issue of Georgia’s membership in NATO, the coalition partners decided during the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008 on the future admission of Georgia and Ukraine to the organization.
It was a turning point for Tbilisi and bad news for Russia. After the declaration of Kosovo’s independence in February and separation from Serbia, the statement of the North Atlantic Alliance was unacceptable to Moscow. The Georgian military operation “Clean Field”, carried out in August 2008, aimed at “restoring a constitutional order” in South Ossetia, ended with a de facto invasion of Russian troops deep into Georgia. Russia’s response to the attacks on Tskhinvali – the capital of South Ossetia – was, inter alia, the bombing of the city of Gori and the Black Sea port of Poti. NATO condemned Russia’s aggressive actions against Georgia and supported Georgian territorial integrity within the borders recognized by the international community. That same year, the NATO-Georgia Commission began its work, whose task is to support and coordinate the reforms of the Georgian state as a strict candidate for a member of the Alliance. Furthermore, in 2010 the NATO Liaison Office was opened in Tbilisi, representing the organization in Georgia. At almost every occasion and subsequent NATO summits, declarations on Georgia’s future membership were reaffirmed and the progress made in the context of cooperation and reforms was approved. Research published in June 2020 by the National Democratic Institute shows that 74% of Georgians support the goal of their homeland to join NATO structures.
Elements of cooperation
One of the most important elements of Tbilisi’s cooperation with NATO is participation in the “Sea Breeze” manoeuvres. These are the annual exercises of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces and its allies in the Black Sea basin organized since 1997. The manoeuvres organized in 2021 in Ukraine and along its coast were the largest in their history.
Georgian soldiers in the years 1999-2008 took part in the mission in Kosovo. Georgia was also the most involved country – not a NATO member – in the military action International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the training and advisory mission Resolute Support in Afghanistan, in terms of the number of soldiers per capita participating in them. It also participated in the anti-terrorist program Active Endeavor in the sphere of intelligence cooperation in the Mediterranean Sea, launched after the events of September 2001.
After 2004, the aforementioned tightening of relations with NATO was visible in the macroeconomic statistics of Georgia, which increased its defence spending. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute data, at its peak in 2007, this expenditure accounted for over 9% of the country’s GDP. The economic crisis and the 2008 war with Russia reduced this indicator, but until 2017 its value did not fall below the assumed 2% of GDP.
In 2014, the so-called Substantial NATO-Georgia Package has been adopted, enabling the creation of the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Centre (JTEC) in the following year and the commencement of annual joint exercises in 2016. The purpose of this centre is to create conditions for further, in-depth modernization, strengthening Georgia’s defence sector and increasing interoperability capabilities, facilitating joint operations with coalition forces.
However, even a regular military presence, as exemplified by the visits of American or British warships to the port of Batumi, as well as their joint exercises with the Georgian Coast Guard, is not sufficient to ensure Georgia’s security from the side of the Black Sea, according to experts.
Current regional challenges
It is worth noting that the turning point in the actions of the Russian Federation towards Eastern Europe was the actual invasion into Georgia in 2008, and not – as is often assumed – the operation to take control of the Crimean Peninsula. After its annexation in 2014, the room for manoeuvre and the possibility of projecting Russian military strength in the Black Sea region increased even more. As reported by Ukrainian and American military sources, in addition to the concentration of a significant number of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, there were also reports of another blockade of access to the Sea of Azov, which connects through the Kerch Strait with the Black Sea. In 2018, there was an incident that the Russians took control of three ships of the Ukrainian Navy. In the Georgian case, after the support provided to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia gained significant access to the Abkhazian Black Sea coast, including the port of Sukhumi. After the war in 2008, the Russian Federation maintained significant military forces there, estimated at around 4,000 soldiers.
The issue of territorial integrity connects, as it were, the Georgian and Ukrainian matters. On the territory of both of these countries, there are forces of the Russian Federation supporting the separatist formations. The use by the Russians of the narrative about the “right to self-determination of nations” in the case of the Abkhazians and Ossetians, or the “defence of the Russian-speaking population” in Crimea and the Donbas, gave reasons to awaken the vigilance of the states of NATO’s Eastern Flank and the entire Alliance, to start extensive research on Russian strategic culture, as well as a hybrid and disinformation war. These are positive signals for Georgians and Ukrainians, but sensible political decisions based on long-term calculations will be of key importance.
The consistent opposition expressed by Moscow to the accession of neighbouring countries to the alliance expresses its fear of the deployment of missile systems on their territory that could pose a threat to the security of the Russian Federation, a state which is still engaged in activities against Georgia. Georgia’s joining NATO would to some extent involve an irreversible loss of influence and the possibility of putting pressure on Tbilisi. After 2003 and the Rose Revolution, the actions of Mikheil Saakashvili and his party – the United National Movement – decisively turned towards the West. There is consensus and high support in the main political discourse and among the public both for accession to the North Atlantic Alliance and for integration with the European Union. After 2012 and the takeover of power by the Georgian Dream party, this course remained unchanged. However, the deep socio-political polarization in Georgia has created favourable conditions for the increased destabilization of the state, in which Russia is trying to use every opportunity to strengthen this process. In this context, it is worth recalling the speech of a deputy to the Russian State Duma in the Georgian Parliament during the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy in 2019. Sergei Gavrilov then took the place of the chairman, which, combined with the – otherwise obvious – use of the Russian language during the speech, additionally enraged Georgian society. The event resulted in riots and another outbreak of anti-Russian sentiment. In the public space, there have again been many mutual accusations of actions in favour of Russia on the part of individual political groups.
In recent years, Georgia has focused on the modernization of the air defence system, which was manifested, among others, by commencing cooperation with the Israeli armaments sector in 2020. The obligatory lesson Georgia should learn from the conflicts with the Russian Federation is to pay more attention to cybersecurity and information security. This is because many times there have been attacks on websites, including those of public institutions. According to the British National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), Russian military intelligence stands behind the attacks on around 2,000 of them.
Currently, Turkey is striving to play a leading role in the Black Sea region countries aspiring to NATO membership. Its support is manifested, for example, through joint military exercises with Georgia and the most important ally of Ankara in the Caucasus – Azerbaijan. Another important element of this cooperation is the promotion of the Turkish arms industry, which has developed a lot in recent years. An example is the provision of the unmanned Bayraktar TB-2 drones to the Ukrainian armed forces, which were used for the first time in Donbas in October 2021. It should be emphasized, however, that the use of drones has been criticized by Germany, which – along with France – warns against actions leading to the escalation of tensions in the region. Common interests – mainly geoeconomics, such as the Nord Stream gas pipeline – make Germany reluctant to look at all issues that might annoy relations with Moscow. This is one of the main reasons that inhibit attempts to increase NATO and US support for the countries aspiring to membership, i.e., Georgia and Ukraine, and the members of the Black Sea alliance, i.e., Romania and Bulgaria. Nevertheless, during a series of visits to Georgia, Ukraine, and Romania in October, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signed a preliminary agreement with the Minister of Defence of Georgia on the continuation and strengthening of bilateral cooperation between the two countries.
The Black Sea area is very important for the United States and Turkey, and now – in the context of NATO’s strategic goals – it seems to be a key region also for the North Atlantic Alliance.
After a series of successful initiatives and fulfilled expectations of Western partners, Georgia is waiting for the final invitation to membership in NATO. However, given the permanently tense situation in eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea region, nothing is a foregone conclusion.
In early December 2021, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement to NATO and the United States, according to which Moscow expects to withdraw the promise of future permanent membership given in 2008 to Georgia and Ukraine. As noted Sergey Lavrov, “in the fundamental interest of European security, it is necessary to renounce the decision from the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest that Ukraine and Georgia will become NATO members”. Interested parties, including the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, flatly rejected this request. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that “the fundamental principle is that every nation has the right to choose its own path”. However, good intentions and words must translate into real support and concrete decisions. The credibility of the Alliance depends on it, as it is put to the test in various situations. The 2017 contract for the purchase of Russian S-400 air defence systems by Turkey or the unexpectedly accelerated American evacuation from Afghanistan leave scratches on the positive image of the Pact’s tactical capabilities and strength.
The NATO summit in Madrid – scheduled for the end of June 2022, during which the discussion on the “NATO 2030” program will be held – will show whether there is a chance for decisive decisions and steps by the allies towards Georgia and Ukraine.
Also, from the point of view of the very essence of the Alliance and its ideals, a consensus of the United States and other member states on the actual continuation of the “open door” policy and recognition of the need to apply an uncompromising approach to the accession of Georgia or Ukraine, despite Moscow’s opposition, will be necessary. The argument that the areas controlled by separatists, and in practice by Russia, officially recognized as Georgian, constitute a problem in Georgia’s accession to NATO seems to be not entirely accurate, because e.g., the British Falklands (Malvinas) or the French island of Reunion are not protected under Article 5 of the Treaty. Due to the fact that Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region – so defined by Tbilisi South Ossetia, in which Russian forces are stationed – are constantly a hotbed of dispute, proposals were made, including by former NATO Secretary General Anders F. Rassmussen, to exclude the occupied territories from the above-mentioned article. Appointed in the fall of 2021 the new NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia Javier Colomina emphasized the need to deepen relations and support for Georgia, but he firmly stated that Rassmussen’s proposal was not realistic. He also added that in Georgia it was necessary to resolve the political crisis and introduce the long-awaited reforms in the judicial system.
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