Home / Articles / Georgia’s NATO Aspirations: Rhetoric and Reality
At the recent Georgian Defense and Security Conference, Western policymakers expressed strong support for Georgia’s accession to NATO, and Georgian policymakers reiterated that there was no turning back from their country’s western course. Neither of these statements is necessarily true: Georgia is not likely to be admitted to NATO in the near future and Tbilisi’s westward course is not irreversible. These facts are regrettable, since Georgia has done more than enough to qualify for Alliance membership, and since most Georgians do see themselves as belonging to the European family of nations.
The problem, of course, is Russia. Leaders of NATO countries have so far been unwilling to risk Moscow’s wrath by inviting Georgia to join the Alliance, and Russia has mounted a relentless propaganda campaign to convince Georgians that they are unwanted in Europe, and that in any case they share more common values with Russians than they do with Europeans. Breaking this stalemate – inviting Georgia into NATO without further destabilizing the region – can and should be done.
Doing so, however, will require from Western policy-makers both the courage to invite Georgia into NATO over the inevitable Russian threats and the empathy to understand and – to the extent possible — mitigate the source of Russian resistance to NATO’s further enlargement. Two of the standard and oft-repeated lines from Western leaders about NATO enlargement have been that every country has the right to choose its own alliances and that Russia sees no threat from NATO enlargement, but simply carps about such a threat for propaganda value.
The first of these statements is at best aspirational and the second is simply untrue. After all, if every country really had the right to choose its own alliances, Georgia would already be a NATO member. It has done everything NATO has asked and more; the resistance of some NATO members to admitting Georgia has nothing to do with the country’s readiness for Alliance membership and everything to do with Russia’s presumed reaction to it. As long as Russia is willing to use military force to derail the NATO aspirations of some of its neighbors, stating that every country has the right to choose its own alliances is meaningless. While these countries may have the theoretical right to do so, they do not have the actual ability. Second, Russia is willing to use military force to prevent NATO’s further enlargement for two reasons. First, it does see a threat from Georgian membership in NATO, and second, the West has made no real attempt to deter Russian use of force against Georgia. Only by understanding the nature of the threat Russia perceives from NATO can the Alliance design an effective deterrent strategy towards Russia and thereby move forward on Georgia’s application for membership.
Does NATO Threaten Russia?
Most Western policymakers dismiss Russia’s assertions that NATO’s enlargement threatens it. While it is true that nothing in NATO policy or strategy can reasonably be seen as threatening Russia, this does not mean that NATO enlargement is not threatening to Russia. This is a key distinction and one often overlooked or dismissed in NATO capitals. It is true that admitting Georgia to NATO will not appreciably change the military balance between NATO and Russia. However, Georgia’s accession to NATO would complicate Russian efforts to support its ally Armenia and – in the Russian mind, at least – potentially serve to undermine its efforts to stabilize its restive North Caucasus.
But these are minor security complications, not rising to the level of a military threat. Indeed, the threat Russia perceives from Georgia’s accession to NATO and Alliance enlargement in general is not a military one. Instead, the threat is of a political nature.
The prospect of a ring of liberal democracies with open societies around Russia is seen as threatening to the Kremlin, especially since Russia believes the West is actively promoting the overthrow and enforced democratization of regimes friendly to it. In the past the Kremlin based its legitimacy with the Russian people on its demonstrated ability to deliver economic growth, often at rates higher than the reformed economies and political systems of its former satellites. But the recent oil price crash revealed that this growth was predicated on a single commodity, not a diverse and resilient economy, and Western sanctions over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine exacerbated Russia’s economic pain.
With the basis of its legitimacy thus threatened, the Russian regime has switched to basing its legitimacy on its ability to protect Russia from the political, economic and cultural threat allegedly posed by the West. Politically, Moscow portrays the West as trying to destabilize Russia through “color revolutions” and “Maidans”; economically it alleges that West is trying to keep Russia dependent; and culturally it plays up the supposed incompatibility of Western attitudes toward homosexuality, gender roles and other social issues as a threat to traditional Orthodox Christian values.
NATO must understand this view and take it into account when making decisions. This does not mean that NATO should end enlargement because of these (largely unfounded) Russian fears. As Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has remarked, Russia will continue to have a definition of its minimal security requirements that is out of sync with what the West can deliver and with what is normal for a 21st century European state. But it also does not mean NATO should discount or minimize what are genuine Russian fears of isolation from and destabilization by Western powers. As Oliker also says, these fears are real, which will make Russia difficult to reassure and easy to escalate with.
Ignoring or discounting these fears has the potential to lead to disaster, as the 1983 Able Archer incident shows. In this incident, Soviet fears that NATO was preparing a nuclear first strike against it were uncovered by British intelligence but discounted as Soviet propaganda by the U.S. intelligence community. As a result, NATO went ahead with its annual Able Archer exercise in November of 1983. This exercise simulated a Soviet conventional attack on Europe and a NATO nuclear response, and Soviet interception of communications from the exercise caused it to put its nuclear forces on alert. Only later did the Reagan administration learn how close the Soviets were to misperceiving NATO’s intentions and starting a nuclear war. This realization was a critical component in Reagan’s reassessment of the Soviet-American relationship. Now as in 1983, failing to understand the source of Moscow’s fears can potentially lead to destabilization and miscalculation.
Should Georgia Be Accepted into NATO?
There are three main arguments against accepting Georgia into NATO: that it is not defensible militarily, that it has unresolved territorial issues that make it unsuited for Alliance membership, and that the Georgian political leadership is rash and unpredictable, making Georgia a liability to NATO. None of these arguments stand up to scrutiny. First, no NATO state bordering Russia is defensible individually. This applies to all three Baltic states and Norway now, and it applied to Norway and Turkey during the Cold War. Indeed, the entire idea behind collective defense is that states that might not be able to resist an aggressor individually can do so collectively. In order to deter aggression, NATO doesn’t have to make Georgia (or other front line states) able to prevail in a conventional military conflict against Russia. However, it does have to make NATO as an alliance able to prevail in that conflict, and it must have a potent, credible and clearly communicated threat to Russia that if it attacks a NATO state it is in a war with NATO as an alliance, not only with that state. Instead of asking whether Georgia is defensible we should be asking if NATO as an alliance can defend itself against Russia and whether adding Georgia to the Alliance will enhance or detract from NATO’s deterrence and defense capabilities. Asking if Georgia, Norway or the Baltic states are defensible individually is similar to asking if West Berlin was defensible in the Cold War. Clearly it was not, but the assurance that a Soviet attack on it would provoke a response not only from Germany but also at a minimum from the US, France and the UK – all of which had forces stationed there — served to deter Soviet aggression against Berlin even at times of exceptional tension.
A pro-NATO Poster in Tbilisi, Georgia
The next argument against Georgia’s NATO membership is that it has unresolved territorial disputes. NATO’s policy on enlargement states that countries that have “ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE principles. Resolution of such disputes would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance.” There are three main points here. First, NATO policy is often misquoted by opponents of Georgia’s NATO accession. As NATO’s policy makes clear, resolution of territorial disputes is a factor to be considered in evaluating a new member’s suitability for Alliance membership, not a pre-condition for Alliance membership.
Next, there is precedent for admitting new members with territorial disputes: when the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was admitted in 1955, about a third of German territory was under Soviet occupation and calling itself the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Not only did the FRG refuse to acknowledge the GDR in 1955, but it threatened to break off diplomatic relations with any country that did. Finally, the Georgian government has issued a unilateral non-use of force pledge with respect to its separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and it regularly reiterates this pledge.
The third argument against admitting Georgia to NATO, often only implied not stated, is that its government is unpredictable, rash, unreliable and would be a liability for NATO. This argument has its roots in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, and it misreads the start of that war as due to Georgian overconfidence, allegedly brought on by a perception that the U.S. would support it in a war with Russia. This view overlooks the long period of Russian escalation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia designed to either provoke a Georgia reaction or to gradually establish effective control over those areas in the event Georgia did not react.
While the war took place between Russia and Georgia, its larger causes were geopolitical and largely outside of Georgia’s control. First, Russia was provoked by Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008, which was seen in Moscow as a blow to Russian ally Serbia and a potential harbinger of NATO intervention elsewhere. The forcible separation of Kosovo from Serbia by NATO served as an excuse for Russia to do the same to Georgia, and Russia repeatedly made clear that it saw Kosovo as a precedent for Georgia in the spring of 2008. Next, the April 2008 NATO Bucharest summit served to both provoke Russia and to signal to it that it still enjoyed a window of opportunity to derail Georgia’s NATO accession. At that summit, NATO member states were unable to agree on how to treat the membership applications of Georgia and Ukraine. One camp led by the U.S. advocated for these countries to be formally invited into NATO and to be issued a Membership Action Plan (MAP). Another camp led by Germany resisted a formal invitation. In the end, the language in the summit communique reflected an uneasy compromise between these views. The communique reads, “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” By formally stating that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members but declining to offer them a MAP or to signal they had any special status with the Alliance, NATO left the door open for Russia to intervene militarily in these states to attempt to prevent their integration with the West.
This view of Georgia as unpredictable and therefore as a potential liability to NATO also ignores the period of Russian escalation of tensions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that occurred throughout the spring and early summer of 2008. In the end Georgia understood that Russia was determined to either provoke a showdown over Abkhazia and South Ossetia or to engage in a process of “creeping annexation” both as reaction to Kosovo and to disrupt Georgia’s movement to NATO. Georgia’s decision to launch a military operation in South Ossetia in August 2008 was an obvious mistake, but this decision was taken out of fear and not out of brashness and overconfidence.
In summary, NATO need not worry about Georgia drawing it into a war with Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. First, as already noted, Georgia has issued a non-use of force pledge, and even if it were to violate that pledge a Georgian intervention there would no more oblige NATO to defend it against a Russian attack than the U.S. intervention in Iraq obliged NATO to assist the U.S. or the UK’s war with Argentina over the Falklands obliged NATO to assist it. NATO’s Article V obliges member states to consider an attack on one as an attack on all, but does not dictate how each state should respond and does not oblige NATO members to assist each other in so-called “wars of choice.”
Finally, there are those who argue that instead of inviting new members to join NATO, the Alliance should focus on ensuring it can defend its current members, particularly the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. This is a false dichotomy: NATO can and should continue to enlarge as it strengthens its forward deterrence. First of all, a Russian attack on the Baltics is exceptionally unlikely. Rather than directly test Article V through an armed intervention in the Baltics, Russia is likely to attempt to destabilize these states through cyber-warfare, propaganda and low-level subversion. While certainly an annoyance, this type of activity is something the governments of the Baltic states have been highly effective at countering in the past. Increased NATO assistance in these domains – along the lines of the Cyber Center of Excellence in Estonia – is prudent. Also prudent are more conventional forms of deterrence such as the stationing of ground forces in the Baltics, a step that NATO may approve at the Warsaw summit.
Another reason that the Baltics are unlikely future targets of Russian intervention is that their Russian-speaking populations are not as restive as that of eastern Ukraine. As an example, my research among the Russian-speaking population of eastern Estonia, which included interviews with several political leaders, convinced me that although political grievances exist, Russian-speakers generally feel that they do have a voice in their government, especially at the local level. Furthermore, the level of economic development in eastern Estonia is significantly higher than that just across the Russian border, and economic success can act as a palliative for political grievances. As a final counter to the argument that a threat to the Baltics makes a NATO membership invitation to Georgia unwise, it is important to note that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are among the strongest supporters of inviting Georgia into the Alliance.
How to Bring Georgia into the Alliance
This paper has argued that Georgia should be invited to join NATO, but that in doing so NATO must account for Russian threat perceptions. The key question, of course, is how to do both of these at the same time. To answer this question, this paper makes two assumptions, both of which can be supported by examining Russian history. The first of these is that Russia is a rational and calculating state. In other words, Russia has usually practiced and continues to practice Realpolitik; the periods in Russian history when Russia pursued a messianic or purely ideologically-based foreign policy are few. Even in the Soviet period, when it formally espoused world revolution, Moscow more often acted on the basis of material costs and benefits than it did on the basis of furthering Marxist ideological goals. Next, Russia is more likely to be provoked by vacillation and weakness than it is by strength and resolve. Where it perceives Western inattention or indecisiveness, as it did in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015, Russia is likely to use military force to achieve its goals. However, where it perceives strength and resolve on the part of the West, Russia is far more likely to calculate that non-military instruments of power are better suited to achieving these same goals.
With these assumptions in mind, a move by NATO to admit Georgia must have the following components. First, the temporal gap between the announcement of Georgia’s acceptance into NATO and its actual accession should be as short as possible, since Russia will try to use the period before Georgia is covered by Article V to escalate tensions and possibly provoke a conflict. Next, the U.S. should consider guaranteeing Georgia’s security against external attack in this period between the announcement of Georgia’s invitation to join NATO and its actual accession into the Alliance. Third, for Georgia at least, NATO should dispense with the MAP process; it is outdated and Georgia has met all MAP requirements already. It has an imperfect but functioning democratic system of government, an open society, a market-based economy, and has already contributed far more to NATO military operations than most long-time Alliance members. As a senior U.S. military leader recently remarked, Georgia has met all NATO requirements for military interoperability and contribution to alliance combat operations, and has “nothing left to prove” to NATO. Fourth, in order to mitigate the concerns of those who are concerned that Georgia will represent a liability for NATO, the Alliance should reiterate that while it recognizes Georgia within its internationally recognized boundaries, Article V only applies to areas outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Finally, NATO must deal with Russian fears of its further enlargement. As noted, these fears revolve principally around the political threat that Moscow perceives in a group of liberal democracies on its borders and – however unfounded – the Russian perception that NATO’s true goal is the political destabilization of Russia itself. To mitigate these fears, NATO and its members should state clearly that while they believe democracy is a superior form of government, they will respect the sovereign decisions of non-members in how they politically order their societies. While Western governments should reserve the right to critique human rights violations in other states, they should pledge not to attempt to change their systems of government either by subversion or by force.
Western governments should also make clear the distinction between governmental and non-governmental activities abroad. While it may be self-evident to Westerners that human rights Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are not tools of their governments, it is widely believed in Russia that they are, and that their activities there are designed to subvert the Russian political system on the orders of their sponsors in Western capitals. The most recent U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) makes progress in this regard, recognizing that the emergence of democracy is a positive event, but one that has to occur organically instead of being imposed from outside. While the 2010 NSS listed among its objectives, “promote democracy and human rights abroad,” the 2015 version changes this objective to “support emerging democracies.” This might seem like a case of minor wordsmithing, this change is significant because it implies that imposing democracy from outside is not U.S. policy.
Conclusion: What Georgia Brings to NATO
Georgia belongs in NATO. It has met every benchmark that NATO has established and is currently more prepared for NATO than the majority of post-communist countries were at time of their admission.
Next, NATO declared eight years ago that Georgia would be a member of the Alliance. Instead of repeating empty slogans about the theoretical right of every state to choose its own alliances while allowing Russia to prevent its neighbors from exercising this right, the time has come for NATO to find the courage to invite Georgia into the Alliance and the empathy to do so while mitigating Russian concerns.
Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are critical to the geopolitical future of Europe. They are the only three states that have shown sustained interest in integrating into the Euro-Atlantic community, have taken most or all of the steps necessary to do so, are geographically positioned to join Europe and yet have to this point been excluded from NATO and the EU. They are also the only three post-Soviet states that have territory under Russian military occupation. The fate of these three states over the next decade or more will determine whether the rules-based order among democracies in the Euro-Atlantic world continues to grow or retrenches.
Inviting Georgia into the Alliance at the Warsaw NATO summit would be a key step in advancing the geopolitical prospects of these states, since it would prove that sustained effort in integrating with NATO can be rewarded even over Russia’s objections. Georgia needs a positive sign; continued rebuffs by NATO support the Russian narrative that the West does not want and will never accept Georgia. The Russian soft power onslaught in Georgia has been relentless, and to this point Georgian support for NATO membership has held steady at around 70%, but there is no guarantee that this support will be perpetual. Georgia has met the political benchmarks for NATO accession, it has undertaken reforms of its economy that make it among the most open and liberal in Europe, and its soldiers have fought and died alongside NATO forces in Afghanistan. It is time for this effort to be rewarded by an invitation to join NATO at the Warsaw summit.
Inviting Georgia to join NATO would not be a case of elevating values over security interests, or comprising NATO’s security in the name of “doing the right thing” by a reliable partner. There are also purely instrumental reasons for bringing Georgia in to NATO. In short, NATO and EU conditionality were factors in the liberalizing reforms that Georgia has undertaken in the past decade-plus. Research in political science has shown repeatedly that liberal democracies are more predictable, stable and peaceful in their relationships with other democracies. In fact, the observation that democracies do not fight each other has been called “the closest thing we have to an empirical law in the study of international relations”. However, heightened external threats are often correlated with retrenchment into more autocracy. Guaranteeing Georgia’s security by bringing it into NATO is the best way to ensure it consolidates its democratic transition. On the other hand, allowing it to succumb to Russian pressure ensures that Ukraine and Moldova will do so as well and entrenches the zone of autocracy and instability in Europe. It is this, and not the further enlargement of NATO, that is most likely to lead to a new Cold War.
The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.