Parameters of U.S. Military Assistance to Georgia Emerge from Congressional Hearings

by Alexander Melikishvili

The testimonies and comments by senior U.S. diplomats and military officials during the three recently held congressional hearings flashed out the parameters of the military assistance that Washington is willing to provide to Tbilisi at this point and in the foreseeable future. On Tuesday, July 28, the Subcommittee on Europe of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs held the hearing entitled “The Reset Button Has Been Pushed: Kicking Off a New Era in U.S.-Russian Relations,” which featured two testimonies by Philip H. Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and Celeste A. Wallander, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Policy. On Thursday, July 30, the House Armed Services Committee held the hearing “The U.S. Security Relationship with Russia and its Impact on Transatlantic Security,” which, apart from Philip Gordon’s, included the testimonies of Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Alexander Vershbow and Director for Strategic Plans and Policy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vice Admiral James A. Winnefeld. Finally, on Tuesday, August 4, the Subcommittee on European Affairs of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held the hearing “Georgia: One Year After The August War,” which featured three testimonies, including those of Philip Gordon and Alexander Vershbow as well as the one by S.Ken Yamashita, Acting Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

It should be noted that the tone of the overall remarks regarding the thorny topic of the U.S. military assistance to Georgia was initially set by the National Security Adviser to the Vice President Tony Blinken, who, during the press briefing on the eve of Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Georgia and Ukraine, specifically noted that the focus of U.S. work with Georgia in the area of defense reform and defense modernization is “on doctrine, on education and on training, and preparing for Georgia’s future deployments to Afghanistan.” This was later echoed in Celeste Wallander’s remarks on July 28 during the congressional hearings, when she was asked by the Representative William Delahunt (Democrat, Massachusetts), who opposes the weapons transfers to Georgia. Wallander responded that the U.S. government “supports a responsible and robust defense cooperation program with Georgia that is focused on improving Georgia’s [military] education, training, command capabilities and building NCO [non-commissioned officers] corps.” More importantly, Wallander explained why the United States would not supply defensive weapons to Georgia at this point, when she stated:

“But Georgia is not ready for the kind of weapons acquisitions that the President [Saakashvili] floated. In the future, that’s not off the table, but certainly the United States is not in the position of believing that Georgia is ready for that kind of defense acquisition.”

Far richer in detail were the remarks by Alexander Vershbow at the senate hearing this week dedicated to the approaching one year anniversary of the August war. Vershbow, who co-chairs the Security Working Group* of the U.S.-Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission with Philip Gordon, pointed out that “the United States has not provided lethal military assistance to Georgia since last August.” According to Vershbow, the program of U.S.-Georgian defense cooperation entails a phased approach developed on the basis of the comprehensive assessment of Georgia’s defense needs carried out by the United States European Command (E.U.C.O.M.). As Vershbow explained, the E.U.C.O.M. assessment “found defense institutions, strategy, doctrine and professional military education in Georgia to be somewhat deficient.” Vershbow stated:

“As Georgia moves forward, it recognizes the need for careful and rational defense transformation plan reflecting a long-term approach and strategic patience. This has been a major theme in our defense consultations in working groups since last August and our defense assistance has reflected this reality. As I mentioned, our current focus is on institutions, doctrine, education and training and preparing for Georgia’s future deployments to Afghanistan. At the same time the United States does believe that any sovereign state has the right to legitimate territorial defense capabilities and Georgia is no exception.”

Perhaps the most revealing was the exchange during the questions-and-answers session when Republican Senator from Tennessee Jim DeMint pressed both Vershbow and Gordon to explain in more details the U.S. government’s position on providing defensive weapons to Georgia. Senator DeMint asked Vershbow if there were any policy or national security interests that were preventing the Obama administration from supporting Tbilisi’s requests for defensive weapons to which he replied:

“We have not refused any requests, but we have tried to work with the Georgians, starting in the immediate weeks after the conflict, to come up with the sensible, phased strategy for helping them to improve their defense capacities and to begin to modernize along the Euro-Atlantic lines, recognizing that there is no military solution to the problem of the separatist regions and that Georgia needs to take a long-term approach, reflecting strategic restraints, strategic patience. So we feel that the way to go, and the Georgians have accepted this based on the E.U.C.O.M. assessment to which I referred in my remarks, we should begin with the things like personnel reforms, improving their military education, professional standards of their military, helping them to rewrite their doctrine, to come up with a general defense plan, and draft a more coherent national military strategy. And this can provide a foundation for modernization of their capabilities over time. Our priority in the short-term therefore is on these professionalization and training programs. But as their capacity to absorb equipment improves based on this preparation, other forms of assistance can take place. Nothing is off the table, but we believe a phased approach is the way to go and I think we have a general understanding in the Georgian government in this regard.”

So it appears that mindful of how sensitive this topic is for the Russian government, the Obama administration decided to pursue a rather delicate balancing act, wherein on the one hand Washington is trying to maintain the “reset” momentum with Russia, but on the other it is gradually implementing the phased defense cooperation with Georgia. Based upon this information it appears that the Pentagon’s timeline with regard to Georgia is predicated on postponing the transfer of much-needed anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons as much as possible in order not to incur Moscow’s ire, which may manifest itself in the annulment of the recently signed transit agreement that is indispensable for supplying U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan with manpower and materiel across the Russian territory. However, given the reality on the ground in the Caucasus, by the time the Pentagon does finally decide to shift focus of its assistance to Georgia from military “software” to “hardware,” it maybe too late as Georgian statehood can simply collapse under the relentless military pressure and constant provocations from the separatist territories and Russia proper.

*NOTE: The U.S.-Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission was set up in accordance with the United States-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership signed on January 9, 2009.

**NOTE: According to Alexander Vershbow’s testimony on August 4, the first meeting of the Security Working Group was held on June 22 and the next round of bilateral defense consultations is planned this fall in Georgia.