Georgia & NATO – why there is no ‘Plan B’
It’s no secret that Georgia covets NATO membership. Joining the alliance has been a goal of successive governments since at least 2002, when president Shevardnadze, in a dramatic role reversal from his earlier days as a soviet foreign minister, declared openly that Georgia would seek to become a NATO member. Since then, the country has made real progress in tackling democratic and defence reforms. Yet despite these tangible gains, political goodwill in some European capitals simply hasn’t materialised, and membership doesn’t appear to be on the horizon anytime soon. This has Tbilisi concerned, and for good reason.
Putin’s adventurism in eastern Ukraine and the Kremlin’s constant provocations along South Ossetia’s administrative boundary line have elevated fears of Russian revanchism, adding a sense of urgency to resolving Georgia’s membership question once and for all. But it’s not the possibility of renewed Russian aggression that has some outside observers and local establishment figures worried, so much as the threat from ‘within.’ They’re concerned that if Georgia doesn’t receive a positive response at the upcoming NATO Summit in 2016, pro-western parties will be badly bruised in the elections held shortly after. Potentially derailing the country’s western course or even reversing some of the democratising gains made to date. Disregarding for a moment the contradictory, if not outright hypocritical, and anti-democratic undertones that this line of reasoning entails, these fears have led to some exaggerated assertions as to what ought to be done.
In a recent Foreign Policy article, longtime Georgia watcher, Michael Cecire, argues that it’s time for Tbilisi ‘to think about Plan B’. According to Cecire, in lieu of membership, Georgia ought to pursue a policy of deterrence – pointing to Israel, Switzerland and Singapore as examples for Georgian decision-makers to model a new defence strategy around. Failing to recognise of course that Israel is armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and has been a major benefactor of American military aid for the last several decades; or that Switzerland has historically benefitted from a balance of power system that needed a neutral arbitrator and financier to operate, and has, regardless, been ideally situated in the middle of a mostly peaceful Europe for much of the last century.
Despite these obvious differences, Cecire persists, and further claims that Georgia’s decisive defeat in 2008 was because the military was simply ‘ill-prepared’ and ‘caught by surprise.’ A better equipped and trained army, with a larger reserve force, and a newly acquired air defence system, could in his words, “deter a conflict in the first place.”
Much of this is nonsense, and besides the point.
It’s nonsense, because it is impossible for Georgia to field a credible deterrent to a nuclear-armed aggressor that happens to be spending lavishly on the largest military build-up and rearmament program since the end of the cold war. And while it’s true that deterrence is not simply a numbers game, in this case, the figures speak for themselves. The Kremlin is spending an estimated $60 billion per year on its military, more than 4x Georgia’s annual economic output. It’s combined active duty and reserve forces exceed 3.25 million, which is almost the equivalent of the entire population of their southern neighbour. Indeed, the argument that Georgia could pose a deterrent threat to Russia belies the logic of bandwagoning under Euro-Atlantic hegemony, which is the driving force behind Georgia’s NATO ambitions in the first place.
This is why Georgia’s defence minister, Tina Khidasheli, grimly pointed out earlier this month that if Russia were to invade, and the West didn’t intervene on Georgia’s behalf, “We will die as heroes, that’s all we can do about it.” A significant Georgian military build-up that an ultimately ineffectual policy of deterrence would entail could escalate an already fragile situation and lead to renewed conflict. This would be disastrous for Georgia no matter how many new weapons systems they buy and should be avoided at all costs (Besides, the last thing that the region needs is another arms race).
There is no plan B
Much of this is besides the point, however, because for Georgia’s current political establishment, there is no ‘Plan B.’ It’s NATO or bust. Pursuing NATO membership and partaking in international peace-keeping and combat missions is the only realistic way for Georgia’s armed forces to re-equip and modernize without provoking the bear. But this isn’t just about Russian ‘hard power.’ Most of them have staked their entire political careers on Georgia’s western-orientation and integration into Euro-Atlantic political and economic spheres. NATO has played a major role in facilitating that process, but in doing so, the alliance has become something of an albatross for Georgia’s political elite. On the one hand, NATO provides helpful guidance for those interested in modeling their political and economic system after their European counterparts. On the other, eventual membership is, perhaps wrongly, viewed as a safeguard against returning to the ‘old ways’ of doing business and has become a capstone for a generation of western-minded politicians.
Here’s where we come to the elephant in the room.
When people say that Georgia needs to secure a MAP before the upcoming elections to prevent pro-Russian opposition parties from coming to power, what they really are doing is doubting the very democratic institutions that have been constructed over the last two decades. There may be few limits to the amount of political and economic support that the West is willing to give to their most successful post-Soviet project – but European leaders, acting with their own security interests in mind, will not be blackmailed into adopting a new member into the alliance based on the political fortunes of their partners in Tbilisi. And if these fortunes were to change and the public suddenly reversed its support for NATO membership after more than a decade of failing to secure a bid (highly unlikely in any event) who are we to say that they would be wrong?
Putin’s intervention in eastern Ukraine made it clear to them that there are limits to the amount of integration that the Kremlin will tolerate in its former soviet satellites. But Georgia is no Ukraine. There is no large Russian minority that Putin can claim to intervene on behalf of, and most of the territories that have sizable ethnic minorities are already occupied by Russian soldiers. At best, Moscow can hope for a political shake-up of the status quo by sewing the seeds of internal discontent, while it continues to prod inch-by-inch at the borders. Fears of such a shakeup can either reaffirm Georgia’s commitment to democracy building or itself be one cause of its regression.
What’s needed now isn’t a potentially dangerous transition to an infeasible strategic doctrine of deterrence. It’s recognition that the achievements that Georgia has made over the last several years in routing corruption and strengthening democratic institutions should stand on their own merit and worthy of staking your political career on. Their greatest test may be coming, but rather than understand this as a national security threat, it ought to be taken as a barometer of progress.