This past July, US President Donald Trump made headlines for his behavior at the 2018 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels. Trump’s shocking attacks on the military coalition and his allies there overshadowed the more substantial content of the summit, which continued in spite of the strained politics. One of the key moments of the summit was Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s affirmation that the country of Georgia “will become a member of NATO”. NATO originally promised Georgia a spot in the alliance back in 2008, and the small Caucasian country has actively pursued accession ever since.
A decade on, the organization’s stated commitment to the country’s accession begs the question: why hasn’t NATO accepted Georgia’s bid? The answer, in short, is that despite Georgia’s continued efforts to meet NATO’s entry requirements, its territorial disputes with Russia preclude any real progress towards accession. If NATO is serious about its commitment to Georgia, it must tread lightly to avoid an all-out confrontation with Russia.
Georgia first began relations with NATO in 1992, less than a year after it seceded from the Soviet Union and regained independence. Talks between Georgia and NATO continued over the following years, despite several coups and the Georgian Civil War. In 2003, the Rose Revolution, a peaceful protest-driven regime shift, inaugurated the decidedly pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili as president of Georgia. The revolution marked a definitive turning point, as President Saakashvili moved quickly to bolster relations with NATO. As early as 2004, Georgian forces were sent to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force as part of an election security force in Afghanistan, the first of several NATO-led missions involving Georgia.
Georgia’s NATO aspirations, along with their intention to integrate into the European Union (EU), are part of a broader pro-European shift in the country’s foreign relations since the fall of the Soviet Union. Nestled firmly in the east of Turkey, the country is eager to shed its Russian ties and be seen as “an organic part of Europe.” In an address to the UN General Assembly last week, Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze focused heavily on both NATO and the EU, reaffirming the country’s commitment to the organizations as “a strong argument in support of [Georgia’s] European identity.” Clearly, a spot in NATO would lend credibility to this identity.
Within Georgia itself, there is overwhelming support for these policies–so overwhelming, in fact, it is likely to be a deciding factor in the upcoming presidential election. According to a 2017 poll by the National Democratic Institute, 68 percent of Georgians approve Georgian membership in NATO and 80 percent approve of integration with the EU. Those who support NATO, according to the poll, believe it will provide “greater security” and “benefit the economy.”
These hopes are not without reason. As part of NATO’s “open door” policy, any aspirant European country can join with the approval of every member country in the alliance after meeting a set of political, economic, legal, and military criteria. In 2006, NATO began Intensified Dialogue with Georgia to monitor and assist the country in meeting those standards. Since then, Georgia has actively pursued these criteria, largely due to the bilateral assistance of the United States. Over 100 million dollars of aid per year from the US has helped shore up Georgia’s national defense. Thanks to this aid, Georgia has become a top performer among all aspirant countries, playing an outsized role in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stoltenberg has even gone so far as to say that Georgia “has all the practical tools to become a member of NATO”.
Yet despite this progress, the organization has yet to issue the country a Membership Action Plan (MAP), typically seen as the final step before accession. Georgia has been left out of the MAP program in favor of other countries such as Montenegro, which joined the MAP in 2009 and became a NATO member in 2017. By not issuing such a plan, NATO is forestalling a Georgian accession. NATO’s failure to grant Georgia a MAP represents a contradiction between its stated commitment to the country’s accession and its actual policy regarding the issue.
Why, then, won’t NATO allow Georgia to join? Russia, despite not being a member of the alliance, has effectively vetoed Georgia’s bid for accession. In 2008, Russia sent its military to support Abkhazia and South Ossetia, self-declared independent republics within Georgia. These regions were at the heart of the Georgian Civil War that lasted from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. The conflict ended with the de facto secession of the two territories from Georgia. To this day, Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain breakaway territories with very little international recognition. Russia considers the territories sovereign independent states, and has even prevented the EU from sending in a Monitoring Mission aimed at normalizing relations in the region. The Russian government has maintained a strong military and political presence for over a decade, effectively thwarting attempts by Georgia to reclaim any land
To the vast majority of countries that do not recognize Abkhazia or South Ossetia, Russia’s continued military presence represents an armed occupation of Georgia. Besides exerting overt Russian influence in the South Caucasus region, the occupation also gives Russia leverage over NATO to bar Georgia from accession. According to Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, all members guarantee mutual security to each other. In other words, should there be an attack on any one NATO country, all members will be responsible for its defense. If NATO were to admit Georgia, many believe the ongoing Russian occupation would allow Georgia to invoke Article 5, effectively starting a war between Russia and every member of NATO.
The Russian government, which opposes NATO’s eastward expansion and wants Georgia to remain within its sphere of influence, has played this card effectively. In response to NATO’s confirmation of Georgia’s future spot on the alliance, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that Georgia’s accession would trigger a “terrible conflict”. He also added that any action from NATO to accept Georgia would be “an absolutely irresponsible position and a threat to peace”.
These threats are nothing new. Russia has successfully prevented NATO from admitting Georgia since the 2008 conflict; a similar situation has occurred with Ukraine after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The possibility of a military conflict with Russia has been a sufficient deterrent in dissuading NATO from taking substantial actions to ensure a Georgian accession.
NATO’s reticence on the issue is inconsistent with its stated commitments to the Georgia’s accession. Despite this contradiction, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs of the US Wess Mitchell announced this June that the U.S. would be substantially increasing its military aid to Georgia, in part to shore up the country’s defenses against Russia. At the same time, however, relations between Russia and NATO member states have been at an all-time low, especially in the wake of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and investigations into Russia’s interference in U.S. elections. With Georgia’s military presence increasing and tensions running high, NATO might have to make up its mind on the issue soon.
From an ideological point of view, NATO should stand in favor of Georgia’s accession. Not only is Russia’s occupation a violation of Georgia’s territorial sovereignty, but ignoring Georgia’s bid also contradicts the “open door” policy underpinning the alliance’s existence. With both NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili claiming that Georgia and NATO are prepared to commit to accession, it has become nearly inevitable.
Although the US defense administration may be content with bilateral agreements, Georgia’s entrance into the multilateral military alliance would offer greater opportunities for cooperation and coordination. As Stoltenberg put it on a recent visit to Washington, NATO’s expansion would give the US “better eyes and ears” than it would have otherwise. Georgia’s value to NATO thus lies in both its significant military contributions and its geopolitical importance along Russia’s southern border. That being said, the fragile international relations between Russia and Georgia merit a delicate approach. While NATO has much to offer Georgia in terms of security, admitting the small country would likely escalate the situation. That is why, if NATO decides to pursue accession, it should amend the rules of its treaty to better reflect the reality of the situation in Georgia.
One possible avenue is to amend Article 6 of the alliance’s treaty to temporarily exempt the occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the mutual security guarantee – as NATO has done in the past with Guam and Algeria. A partial Georgian accession would allow NATO to accept Georgia without simultaneously challenging Russia, enabling Georgia to restore its territorial sovereignty through diplomatic means.
While the idea of a peaceful resolution to the occupation may seem far-fetched, it is in line with the Georgian government’s commitment to resolve the issue without resorting to force. Undoubtedly, there are significant obstacles to overcome. Washington D.C., as Georgia’s primary benefactor, would have to take initiative and convince its European counterparts that Georgia would be worth the risk. Given the Trump administration’s current hostility towards NATO, however, it may be some time before the U.S. is willing to take charge on the issue.
Ultimately, with reports that Russian troops are quietly pushing into Georgian territory, there may not be enough time to hold out for a peaceful resolution. If NATO is truly committed to Georgia, it will have to get creative in order to resolve the issue. In a time where globalism and multilateralism are being questioned on an international scale, a Georgian accession has the potential to revitalize the alliance and incorporate a region eager to become a part of the European mission.