NATO’s Endless Caucasian Courtship

To fanfare, NATO inaugurated a new Joint Training and Evaluation Center (JTEC) near Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, in late August. Though a minor addition to the alliance’s vast constellation of European infrastructure, the new base is notable for being in a non-NATO state, making it a major symbol for Georgia, which has doggedly pursued NATO membership since the late 1990s. The new center is unambiguously good news for Tbilisi — but it is, at best, a consolation prize. That’s because, despite promising to admit Georgia in 2008, NATO leaders have made it clear that it can’t expect to join anytime soon. The problem is not that the country has been unable to meet the alliance’s high standards. Rather, NATO refuses to clearly elaborate what Georgia can do — if anything — to win entry.

NATO’s hesitation is an especially tough pill to swallow considering Tbilisi’s enthusiastic integration with the alliance. Not only have Georgian troops served in large numbers in Afghanistan (and continue to do so), but Tbilisi is the only non-member contributor to NATO’s new rapid response force. Georgia’s military, which has deployed alongside western soldiers in Kosovo, Iraq, and Central African Republic, is highly rated, battle-tested, and reportedly fields over 10,000 troops at NATO standards — better than many existing member states. Georgia is also increasingly democratic, if prone to fits of intense political infighting. And Tbilisi balances its unwavering Euro-Atlantic aspirations with a policy of pragmatically engaging Russia on trade and cultural exchange, seeking to avoid the kind of acrimony that contributed to the two countries’ 2008 war.

Despite these solid credentials — or, more conspiratorially, because of them — NATO has refused to establish a clear set of benchmarks Georgia could meet in order to gain entry, leaving its application in limbo. While opponents of Georgian entry often code their misgivings in technicalities (but refuse to establish what those standards are), their opposition is really prompted by concern about provoking Russian ire or inviting controversy over Article V of NATO’s establishing treaty, which would require members to come to Georgia’s aid if it were attacked. Given Georgia’s outstanding conflicts with Russia-backed separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, some member states worry that bringing in Georgia will make a NATO confrontation with Russia more likely. And skeptics claim Georgia is militarily indefensible against Russian assault.

Yet these assertions don’t stand up to scrutiny.Georgia’s defeat in its 2008 war with Russia obscured what its military got right. Despite Russian superiority on air and land, the two sides suffered roughly the same number of casualties. A Georgian special forces unit successfully held off a much larger advancing Russian force, allowing other troops to withdraw to prepare Tbilisi’s defenses. And Georgian air defenses, though outmatched, scored a number of hits against Russian air raids, including downing a Tupolev bomber.

This was after Georgia’s ill-prepared military had been caught by surprise. Today, seven years later, it is roundly described by Western officials as much more capable and better prepared to resist Russian incursions. In June, the purchase of advanced French air defense systems provided it with a significant defensive upgrade. On a recent visit to Washington, Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli describes this acquisition as a “game changer.” And if Tbilisi joined NATO today, Georgia’s military would be firmly mid-tier in size — just below the likes of Romania and Holland but above Bulgaria, Norway, and Belgium — and among the top in military size per capita.

Neither is Georgia’s dispute with Russia over the…

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