Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 1, 2017, Volume 14, Issue 11
On January 26, Viktor Dolidze, Georgia’s state minister on European and Euro-Atlantic integration, declared that his country will “probably” not participate in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) upcoming May summit at the new Headquarters, in Brussels (iPress.ge, January 26). Dolidze’s vague clarification raised eyebrows among those in Georgia’s opposition who support Georgian membership in NATO. “This is not an expansion summit. […] It is a small-scale, getting-to-know-you, a so-called Trump-NATO summit,” the Minister claimed, while asserting that Georgia will still be a topic discussed by the Alliance. If Georgia does in fact sit out the summit, it would represent a significant decrease in the level of its involvement in top NATO meetings. Georgia took an active part in the 2016 Warsaw Summit by virtue of the NATO-Georgia Commission, despite the fact that the session did not deliberate NATO enlargement.
The opposition party United National Movement’s Nika Rurua decried the potential move as “open hostility toward the country’s and nation’s fundamental interests” (Tzona.org, January 27). Rurua also stressed that Georgia is missing a vital opportunity to establish a working relationship with the new United States administration under President Donald Trump. The opposition party Free Democrats called on Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili to convene a Security Council meeting in order to secure Georgia’s place at the summit. The Council’s secretary, Vano Machavariani, concurred that “Georgia is very importantly involved in European, specifically, Black Sea security” and needs to be “actively represented in the agenda [of the summit]” (Resonancedaily.com, January 28). He further suggested that President Margvelashvili intends to visit Brussels regardless of the ruling party Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia’s (GDDG) consent. But the functional role Margvelashvili holds is marginal relative to that of other members of the executive branch: his executive powers are limited by the Georgian constitution. Moreover, his political influence on the government diminished since he separated from GDDG in early 2014.
GDDG’s silent retreat from attending the NATO summit comes at a time when Russia continues to flex its military muscle in the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Other areas of the South Caucasus bordering Georgia are also a matter of increasing concern for Tbilisi. On January 25, 1,500 Russian “peacekeeping” personnel deployed near Tskhinvali began exercises at the “Dzartseni” outpost (Accent.com, January 25). The troops practiced attacks with advanced unmanned aircraft, using other materiel and fire weapons. On January 20, 100 “anti-terror” troops and 10 units of assets stationed at the Russian Southern Military District base in Abkhazia conducted training to counter “illegal armed formations” (Apsnypress.info, January 20). On January 26, the de facto Ministry of Defense of Abkhazia carried out a radio communications exercise with organs of military command (Apsnypress.info, January 26). In addition, for the second time within a month, 600 Russian military scouts commenced exercises at the Kamkhut training center near Gyumri, Armenia, close to Georgia’s southern border (Vestnik Kavkaza, January 24).
Former Georgian minister of defense David Tevzadze recently emphasized the dangers stemming from Russia’s intensified coordination of its outreach between the military bases in annexed Crimea, occupied South Ossetia and in Armenia (see EDM, December 12, 2106).
In a conversation with the author, Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer, pointing to Russia’s recent weapons sales to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, underscored the current high risk of reigniting the Karabakh conflict (Author’s interview, December 14, 2016). On January 27, Armenia’s Minister of Defense Vigen Sargsyan confirmed that part of the weapons acquired by means of a new $200 million loan from the Russian Federation have already been transported to Armenia (Aysor.am, January 27). In April 2016, Russia supplied Azerbaijan, whose military is already substantially better armed, with TOS-1 multiple-rocket-launcher systems, which effectively outweigh the relatively limited impact of the Russian Iskander missiles that were delivered to Armenia last year (Moscow-baku.ru, November 27, 2016). Felgenhauer stressed that Russia’s involvement in a rekindled war over Karabakh would be inevitable. By implication, this would cause Russia to increase pressure on Georgia to provide a transportation corridor for its assets. This could lead to the deployment of Russian troops in Georgia.
Felgenhauer’s assessment resonates with recent statements by other Russian security experts. Alexei Fenenko believes that with Trump in the White House, the situation in the region could worsen. Pointing to alleged US oil and natural gas interests, Fenenko claims that “instead of supporting Ukraine, we can get from the new administration efforts to break through to Central Asia, as was the case under the younger [George W.] Bush, and attempts to strengthen positions in the South Caucasus, including activating Georgian and Karabakh directions” (Vestnik Kavkaza, January 25). Such assertions appear to preventively justify Russia’s possible military action in the South Caucasus.
Georgian military expert Irakli Aladashvili underlines that it is in Georgia’s utmost interest to participate, by way of more active cooperation with NATO, in “protecting the strategic balance in the Black Sea basin—which is a very serious topic, as today this balance is being disrupted.” (Resonancedaily.com, January 28). Aladashvili refers to Russia’s “significant strengthening of its fleet in the Black Sea, and its military potential in the annexed Crimea and occupied Abkhazia.” Citing these Russian threats, Aladashvili warns that “It is very important that Georgia participate in all activities that bring it closer to NATO, Europe, and especially in those that concern cooperation within the Black Sea basin framework.” And yet, Georgia is also sitting out NATO’s February 1–10, Sea Shield drills, in which eight countries and 2,800 personnel participate (Qha.com.ua, February 1).
Despite growing threats from Russia’s ongoing multi-focal military build-up in the region, Georgia’s ruling party seems to belittle the fact that it will be absent from the NATO deliberations in Brussels. The new US administration appears to be seeking to reestablish a balance of power with Russia as well as gain its cooperation in fighting terrorism and the so-called Islamic State (IS) (Geonews.ge, January 28). In this environment, it should still be possible for Tbilisi to reaffirm its commitment to NATO as well as deepen its military partnership with Washington. For example, Georgia could offer the US its support in the fight against the IS and initiate a higher level of military cooperation in Georgia than was pursued under the Barack Obama administration. However, despite Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s avowals after Trump’s inauguration that Georgia “was and remains” America’s “reliable and staunch ally” (Civil Georgia, January 24), this notable reluctance to interact directly with NATO and the US point to the contrary. Thus far, GDDG has not publicly voiced any intention to seek meetings with the Trump administration to specifically discuss the increase of the US troop presence in Georgia or about engaging directly in new counter-terrorism efforts.